Historical True Crime 

GRIFTERS AMONG US

They called them confidence men, swindlers, bunco artists or bilks, those crooks who knew how to separate the gullible from their money in a seemingly endless variety of ways. Anyone who reads the news today knows that their brethren are still at work among us.

The scheme could be ridiculously simple and still reap a harvest, as in the case of a man in Portland who put up a sign advertising a lecture on the gold mines of Pikes Peak. He wore a false moustache and kept his hat pulled low over his eyes as he collected quarters at the door of an empty store building. When he had a full house, he simply ran away with the money. Needless to say there was no lecture.

The people of Boise Valley were often visited by sharpers of one kind or another: "Two cunning rascals" worked "the old sick pal trick" on a generous and unsuspecting farmer in 1893, collecting money for an absent friend who would die without food and medical attention if not helped at once.

In 1894, lightning rod salesmen, reportedly from Indiana, got an aged farmer to sign a contract for $12.50 to install the iron rods on his barn. When the job was finished they presented a bill for $215. The old man protested but was shown the fine print in the contract making him "liable for extras" that might come up. They bullied him into writing the $215 check, but fortunately his son was able to stop payment on it and frustrate the villains.

Perhaps the greatest faker to visit the valley in the 1890s was Melbourne the Rain Maker. In September 1891, when it was announced that this "wizard" would produce rain using secret magical powers that only he possessed, hundreds of curious people rushed to Nampa to see the miracle performed. He promised to produce rain within three days.

A Statesman reporter noted that Nampa was filling up with people, thanks in part to half-fare tickets offered by the Union Pacific. After watching the celebrity, amid admirers in a local saloon, the reporter observed, "Melbourne took as naturally to a mixed cocktail of whisky and gin as a sick kitten to a hot brick." Further, whether he succeeded "in calling up clouds, cyclones, cataclysms, hurricanes and thunderbolts or not, there will doubtless be a vast amount of irrigating in Nampa." ("Irrigating" was a popular synonym for drinking at the time, going back to the earliest days of irrigation agriculture in southern Idaho).

On the great day when the rainmaker was to do his stuff, crowds in Boise watched the sky over Nampa until dark and there was general discussion of Melbourne's chances to produce. A large dark cloud in the west was a hopeful sign, but next day the Statesman said that "the rain king" had "folded his tent like the Arab and silently stolen away."

It is unclear how a charlatan like Melbourne profited from his unsuccessful effort, but the railroad, merchants and saloon keepers of Nampa certainly did.

In a rambling explanation of his failure, Melbourne later stretched his credibility by claiming to be 300-years-old. There may have been a few who believed even that.

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