CHAPTER XV

MR. PONZI'S LIFE BECOMES ONE NIGHTMARE OF POLICE AND POSTAL INSPECTORS

The first salesman missed his vocation in life when he became a storekeeper. He should have been a missionary. He certainly could spread the gospel! His activities cannot be measured by his success. They can, by their effect. Within a week, his propaganda had reached the keen ears of one of Boston's guardians. And I was honored by the official call of one of its representatives.

He was a bespectacled gentleman. Of that indefinite age between senility and dotage. Such as might be expected from such an ancient institution. That's Boston all over, bless its heart! Within a radius of half a mile from the Custom House Tower, you can run across more mummies at large than you find walled in King Tut's Tomb.

My caller wasted no precious moments in idle conversation. He came right to the point. He said that the institution he represented was very much disturbed. Over the discovery that I was offering a 40 or 50 per cent return in 90 days to my investors. The illustrious remains of the Pilgrim forefathers, he stated, were getting restless in their graves. I believe he said "graves." Maybe, it was "gravies." At any rate, it was natural for them to get restless. Like the old 4% foggies in State Street.

I flashed my most disarming smile on the old gent. And set about to show him that the world, after all, had made some progress in three centuries. I exhibited to his gaze an international reply coupon. Explained to him what it was. He inspected closely. For any picture of General Lee or "Stonewall" Jackson. He found none. And heaved a heavy sigh of relief. He was satisfied that the coupon, at least, was not a piece of confederate wall paper.

When I told him the coupon was a product of the Universal Postal Union, he was puzzled. He did not know whether the Postal Union was a merger of the Postal Telegraph and of the Western Union. Or just a member of the American Federation of Labor. I came to his rescue. And told him all about the International Postal Congress of Rome in 1907. He was still a little skeptical. Until I opened up the United States Official Postal Guide at page 37. Then he stood up and saluted. As he would at the strains of the Star Spangled Banner.

Once he was convinced "beyond a reasonable doubt" that my wares were guaranteed by the Great Seal of the United States (or, was it that of Great Britain that impressed him most?), it was an easy matter to acquaint him with the delightful mysteries of foreign exchange. His beaming countenance followed me all the way up into the realms of seven figures. Until he almost sprouted wings. Gazing at a universe of eternal sunshine!

The institution he represented never disturbed my peace of mind since. In fact, I believe I became later an "honorary" member thereof. Upon the payment of a $200 admission fee. It's always an honor to be touched by them for the price of a membership. But where that institution's investigations stopped, others started.

In no time, I had a speaking acquaintance with every police and postal inspector in Boston. At the height of my career, there were more inspectors working for me than for the city, and cops too. I had so many of them around, that my office looked like police headquarters at roll call.

In fact, if headquarters were not moved earlier from Pemberton Square to Berkeley Street, I have a suspicion it was on my account. The new location would never do. Both Commissioner Curtis and Superintendent Crowley knew they couldn't even get quorum up there. It was too far from School Street. They probably felt that the logical thing to do was to move the sign from Pemberton Square down to School Street and plank it over my office. It would have been cheaper.

It must not be assumed from what I say that I actually invited advances from the police. I am not that kind of person. The advances were forced upon me. But I was too polite to turn them down. To resent them. I just flirted back, so to speak. Like the man who flirts with death. Because he knows he can't duck it.

In fact, one afternoon, as I was leaning backwards in my swivel chair, with my feet propped against the radiator, the phone rang. I reached over for the instrument and was greeted by a familiar voice.

"Charlie," it said. "There is a warrant out for your arrest." Just like that!

Whatever else it said, did not and does not matter. That one sentence was enough to bring my feet down from the radiator. A threat of arrest is always a shock. A man may look at himself in the mirror in the morning. And discover that he has developed small pox over night. He may take that philosophically. But let the same man know that he is about to be arrested and his first impulse will be to chase around in circles. Looking for a hiding place.

That tip over the phone actually disturbed me. There was a perfectly good supper at home in danger of going to waste. And I didn't even know what the bill-of-fare at the Charles Street Jail called for. For a moment I was on the verge of calling up Sheriff Kelliher and asking him. Tell him to keep it sort of warm. But other thoughts came to mind. Was I going to sit in my office and wait for the warrant to be served, or what? No. I decided I would not wait.

I put on my hat and coat and walked over to Pemberton Square. To Police Headquarters. I inquired about the "warrant." And was directed to the basement. I was not surprised. I had been in department stores before. And knew my geography. Probably, I thought, they were running a bargain sale in warrants. And I might get one marked down.

Below, I walked over to the warrant "counter." Perhaps, it was a desk. The "saleslady" in charge was … a cop. For a wonder, he was almost polite. He asked me what I wanted.

"I have come for a warrant," I told him.

"All right," he said. "Let's hear the complaint. Who is the party you want to have arrested?"

"I don't want to have anybody arrested," I started to explain.

"Then, what in hell do you want?" he asked working up a temper.

"A warrant that you are supposed to have against me," I stated.

"Do you mean to say that you have come to accept service of it?" he inquired with astonishment. "That you want to surrender?"

"Well, something like that," I admitted. "What's the use of putting you to a lot of trouble looking for me when it's just as easy for me to come over here?"

"I don't know what it's all about," he confessed, "but you certainly deserve to be commended for your attitude. Let's see, what is your name?"

"Charles Ponzi," I replied.

"How do you spell the last name?" he asked.

"P-o-n-z-i," I spelled for him.

He scanned through a big book, the blotter, until he came to the proper entry. Then he informed me that there was no warrant.

"We have been asked to look you up," he said, "and your coming here, of your own free will, is a point in your favor. Do you mind hanging around until I locate the inspector who has charge of the case?"

"No; go ahead," I said good naturedly. Knowing there was no warrant, I felt good natured.

Within a few minutes, I was introduced to an inspector. With him was one Joseph Merenda. I forgot in what capacity the latter was there. Probably, as an interpreter. But he was not needed. He, the inspector, and myself walked over to a desk and sat down. It developed that the police department had heard of the 50 per cent racket. And were interested. They would be.

The inspector was rather uncertain in his knowledge of postal matters. And of foreign exchange. To him too it had to be explained that the Universal Postal Union was not a "Local." Like the Hod Carriers'. And that the coupons were not clippings from Liberty Bonds. But I found him positively prejudiced against foreign exchange. Just because it was "foreign". He couldn't get through his noodle why it had not been included in the exclusion clauses of the immigration laws. Ten or more years later, I couldn't get it through my noodle either. In some instance, on which the ink isn't dry yet.

All together, the inspector was well impressed by the general outline of my plan. He pronounced it legitimate (subject to further corroboration by the postal authorities.) On many points it appeared to him as clear as mud. But on all of the others he did not understand, he was thoroughly in accord with me.

In the meanwhile, since New Year's day, my salesman had become scarcer that Orangemen at a St. Patrick's Day parade in South Boston. He didn't come near me. He hadn't sent me any investors. He hadn't even called me up.

Now, I know that he was ducking. And why. After causing a few friends to invest, he felt it might be wise to keep out of sight until the payments materialized. If they didn't he would have a better start. I can't blame him for wanting to be a few lengths ahead, in the event of a race.

In fact, I was not entirely at ease myself. I had given the money to buy coupons to a friend5 who was working on board a transatlantic liner. I did not fear any act of dishonesty on his part. But I was afraid something might happen to him. He could have taken sick. He might have jumped overboard. Or met with an accident. That would have been just "two" bad. Yes: he and I.

With the lapsing of each day, my suspense grew keener. Until I was greeted by his unheralded appearance around the first week in February. The story he told me was gratifying. The coupons were obtainable everywhere. Even the smallest post office carried a reasonable supply. With sufficient notice they could be procured in larger quantities. Official co-operation could be had. Through the wise distribution of small gratuities. What music could have been sweeter to my ears?

With enthusiasm, I set about to effect my first payments. I got as much thrill out of each note redeemed, as a high school girl gets out of her first kiss. It didn't matter that each of my investors drew his money out. I knew they would either come back, or send their friends. Did they? Of course, they did. They began to show up within a week or two. And up to the last of the month, they left exactly $5,290 for another spin of the wheel. I spun it for them.