This brief article from the “Police Intelligence” section of the New York Herald describes the arrest of William Thompson, whose brazen deceptions ushered the term “confidence man” into the American vocabulary. Historian Karen Halttunen notes that New York City in the antebellum decades was a growing urban society marked by anonymity, confusion, and an increase in movable wealth (such as paper currency). These conditions made possible all manner of frauds, forgeries, and “confidence” schemes like that pioneered by Thompson. According to Haltunnen, police estimated that during the 1860s one out of ten professional criminals in New York was a confidence man.
Arrest of the Confidence Man.—For the last few months a man has been traveling about the city, known as the “Confidence Man,” that is, he would go up to a perfect stranger in the street, and being a man of genteel appearance, would easily command an interview. Upon this interview he would say after some little conversation, “have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until to-morrow;” the stranger at this novel request, supposing him to be some old acquaintance not at that moment recollected, allows him to take the watch, thus placing “confidence” in the honesty of the stranger, who walks off laughing and the other supposing it to be a joke allows him so to do. In this way many have been duped, and the last that we recollect was a Mr. Thomas McDonald, of No. 276 Madison street, who, on the 12th of May last, was met by this “Confidence Man” in William Street, who, in the manner as above described, took from him a gold lever watch valued at $110; and yesterday, singularly enough, Mr. McDonald was passing along Liberty street, when who should he meet but the “Confidence Man” who had stolen his watch. Officer Swayse, of the Third Ward, being near at hand, took the accused into custody on the charge made by Mr. McDonald. The accused at first refused to go with the officer; but after finding the officer determined to take him, he walked along for a short distance, when he showed desperate fight, and it was not until the officer had tied his hands together that he was able to convey him to the police office. On the prisoner being taken before Justice McGrath, he was recognized as an old offender by the name of Wm. Thompson, and is said to be a graduate of the college at Sing Sing. The magistrate committed him to prison for a further hearing. It will be well for all those persons who have been defrauded by the “Confidence Man” to call at the police court Tombs and take a view of him.
Source: New-York Herald, July 8, 1849