Suckers and Swindlers in American History

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Project Background

American capitalism has always created opportunities for charlatans. Fascination with technological breakthroughs, appreciation for new approaches to finance and new modes of organizing commercial activity, an enthusiastic sales culture tolerant of exaggeration have all given flim-flammers room to operate. As a result, for more than two centuries, American consumers and investors have faced dilemmas about whom to trust, while policy-makers have confronted complicated trade-offs between facilitating entrepreneurial activity and curbing marketplace deception. All of which is to say that the history of business fraud in America is filled with compelling stories – about con artists and victims of rip-offs; about deceit perpetrated by flight-by-night firms and large corporations; about journalistic exposes, campaigns by NGOs, and regulatory innovation; about the challenges of drawing the often fuzzy line between illicit lies and acceptable puffery and truth-stretching.

This Story+ team will work on an historical website linked to the publication of a recent book, Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff. Among potential mini-projects: telling the stories of fraud-related images (cartoons, advertisements, photographs, and other primary documents); crafting capsule biographies of especially intriguing perpetrators of business fraud; finding ways to convey the changing nature of fraud-related slang; creating a chronology of major fraud scandals; showing how different constituencies try to shape the narrative and wider meanings associated with a specific fraud scandal; and tracing the efforts since the early twentieth-century to quantify fraud costs.

Project Objectives

  • Completing research necessary for a set of mini-projects described above;
  • Translation of those research findings into short, engaging narratives (or well-designed chronologies) for pages on the website, with the goal of achieving sufficient quality that those stories go up on the website

About the Sponsoring Organization/Faculty

The sponsor for this project is Duke History professor Edward Balleisen, the author of Fraud. Balleisen is developing the website in partnership with Duke Libraries. This endeavor reflects a growing trend to amplify more traditional forms of scholarship with companion digital resources and analysis.

Skills Required

  • Excellent writing skills
  • Coursework across some mix of the social sciences (history, political science, economics, public policy, psychology, cultural anthropology)
  • Research background in primary sources a plus
  • Experience in website design a plus