MEET MR. PONZI, THE CHAMPION GET-RICH-QUICK WALLINGFORD OF AMERICA
Ponzi is the guy who put the crease in Croesus," wrote Neal O'Hara for the Boston Traveler toward the end of July, 1920. "He is the guy that ran up millions from a two-cent stamp. If five-spots were snowflakes, Ponzi would be a three day blizzard."
MR. PONZI LANDS IN BOSTON WITH $2.50 TO ADD A $15,000,000.00 CHAPTER TO THE HISTORY OF STATE STREET FINANCE.
November 15, 1903, was a Sunday. A Fall day typical of the New England shores, with a fine, steady drizzle blown in by an icy East wind over miles and miles of ocean. One of those exasperating days on which only the sacred cod-fish of Massachusetts would defy the elements along Tremont Street and around the Boston Common without a diving suit on.
MR. PONZI BOBS UP IN MONTREAL WITH ONE DOLLAR AND BUYS A PECK OF TROUBLE
To have landed in America without money was not half as bad as having landed without the least knowledge of its language. I could not fill an office job because I did not speak or understand a word of English. What I knew of other languages did not help. Likewise, my general education was useless. As a student and a man of frail physique, I was not cut out for manual labor. Still, I had to live. And in order to earn a living I had to work at something.
MR. PONZI FALLS FROM THE FRYING-PAN INTO THE FIRE AND WONDERS WHAT IT IS ALL ABOUT
At the beginning, there was an awful fuss over Zarossi's flight. Some of the depositors were real ugly. They made things generally unpleasant all around. They threatened Zarossi's family. Even my own life. But things cooled down after a while. They always do. If they didn't, there would be more bank executives hanging from tree limbs, than running around in Rolls Royces or smoking dollar cigars behind mahogany desks. And that ”God forbid!” would be one form of bank insurance that would bring home the bacon without "ifs" and "buts".
BY ADDING TWO AND TWO TOGETHER, MR. PONZI DEVELOPS AN ANALYTIC MIND AND ARRIVES AT THE INEVITABLE HOUR
The St. Vincent de Paul Penitentiary was no kindergarten. It was a prison where a man did time every minute of the day. It was a gaol. A replica of the Old Bailey. Of the Bastille. Of the Chateau d'If of Count of Monte Cristo fame.
UNCLE SAM, IN THE PERSON OF AN IMMIGRATION INSPECTOR, PLAYS A DIRTY TRICK ON MR. PONZI
Back in Montreal the same evening, I stayed with friends. I couldn't go back to the Windsor Hotel on five dollars. Hardly anywhere, in fact, because the money had to last me until I landed a job. But I couldn't stay in the street either. So, I accepted the hospitality which was tendered to me by those kind hearts, figuring that in a couple of days or so I would be able to find work.
MR. PONZI SWAPS A 2' x 4' COUNTY JAIL FOR UNCLE SAM'S $10,000,000 BIG-HOUSE
On the way South, we travelled by Pullman, had our meals in the dining-car, and lounged about in our seats like tourists. In Washington, we had lunch at a pretentious restaurant near the station. Then we took a walk through the Capitol grounds. We would have gone inside, but were afraid to embarrass some of the boys.
"PAGE MR. INSULL!" ON THE PONZI POWER, LIGHT & WATER COMPANY OF BLOCTON, ALA.
My meeting in Peachtree Street with the two Secret Service men convinced me that Atlanta, as the gag goes, was "no place for a minister's son." As a matter of fact, like the rest of Georgia, it was no place for anybody except a native "cracker." The Ku Klux Klan was very active. The streets of Marietta were still splattered with the blood of Leo Frank.
MR. PONZI'S MEDICAL CAREER IN MOBILE IS ABRUPTLY CUT SHORT BY A UNIVERSITY PRESIDENT
It was around the Spring or Summer of 1914 that I made my appearance in Mobile, Ala. I had come from Pensacola on the coast-wise steamer Tarpon. Not as a passenger. Only as a painter. On a contract job to paint the deck structure.
MR. PONZI PULLS A FAST ONE ON THE NEW ORLEANS CITIZENRY AND DUCKS NONE TOO SOON
From Mobile I went to New Orleans just in time to witness the terrible hurricane of September 1915. "Witness" is no word. I was right in the midst of it! Everything was flying but the birds! Store-signs, shingles, tiles, tree-limbs, galvanized iron-roofs! In Esplanade Avenue the trees were bending like blades of grass! I never saw the like of it before or since. It remained the worst storm in the history of the city until Huey Long struck New Orleans. His antics made it look like a breeze in comparison. As a political twister, Huey couldn't be beaten on this side of hell by either man or elements!
FROM THE COPIOUS CROP OF AMERICAN BLOSSOMS MR. PONZI PICKS HIMSELF AN EXQUISITE ROSE OF THE AMERICAN BEAUTY VARIETY AS HIS LIFE'S EMBLEM
In Wichita Falls, Texas, I got my first training as a foreign correspondent and salesman. The company I was working for manufactured auto-trucks. Shipped them everywhere. Had agents or users in almost every country in the world. Except, of course, Germany and her allies.
SCHOOL STREET, BOSTON, SCENE OF THE EXPLOSION THAT WAS HEARD AROUND THE WORLD
"The shot that was heard around the world," was fired on the bridge between Lexington and Concord. Some shot! I hope to tell it was some shot! If the bullet had gone all the way around the world with the sound, the man who fired that shot would've been killed backwards by his own bullet. That's going some. Even for a Lucky Strike radio sketch. "Vas you dere, Charlie?" No, baron. I must admit I wasn't there. And nowhere near it.
MR. PONZI PROMOTES "THE TRADER'S GUIDE" WITH A 3,000,000 CIRCULATION RIGHT OFF THE BAT
When I rented the School Street office, it was my intention to become a commission agent for domestic and foreign firms. A sort of foreign department, especially for those who could not afford to maintain one of their own. And I can say that I possessed the qualifications to give satisfaction. But I had no connections. Either in the United States or abroad. So I set about to make them. Through the medium of circulars. Only to realize that between the cost of overheads, stationery and postage, they stood me from five cents for the domestic to eight cents each for the foreign circulars. Entirely too much money. At that rate, my limited resources would have faded away to nothing before I had obtained any appreciable returns.
MR. PONZI FINALLY DISCOVERS AN UNTRODDEN PATH TO FABULOUS WEALTH AND TAKES IT
The "racket" of international reply coupons actually fell in my lap like a ripe apple. I did not have to shake the tree to get it. I just reached over, where it had fallen, and took it. It looked good. Luscious. I examined it for flaws. Found none. I had to bite. I wouldn't have been human if I didn't.
MR. PONZI ORGANIZES THE SECURITIES EXCHANGE COMPANY ON THE PATTERN OF A ONE-MAN-BAND
The organization of the Securities Exchange Company was a very simple matter. In those days, there were no blue-sky laws to contend with. Not in Massachusetts, at any rate. Because the socalled Securities Act was not enacted until 1921. Which, by the way, insofar as I was concerned, was like locking the stable after the horse had been stolen.
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.
MR. PONZI DISPROVES THE THEORY THAT THERE CANNOT BE A PROFIT WITHOUT A CORRESPONDING LOSS
My receipts had reached $1,000 per day mark. My friend was on his way back to Europe. And everything was going along smoothly. When somebody threw a monkey-wrench in the works.
The trouble started down the North End. I had given a couple of coupons to an Italian prospect. And told him to experiment with them at the post-office. They were United States coupons. He took them to the sub-station at the corner of Hanover and North Bennett Streets. Presented them for exchange. The man in charge refused to accept them. The Italian came back to me convinced that I was trying to gyp him.
MR. PONZI OPINES THAT, IF GAMBLING IS A SIN, HE'D BETTER HAVE THE CHURCH ON HIS SIDE
The average man is never satisfied with what he has. He does not realize when he is well off. If he has a shirt, he wants two. If he is single, he wants a wife. If he is married, he wants a harem. (I hope wifey does not read this). He is always reaching for the moon and stepping off into space. Just like I did.
MR. PONZI TAKES IT INTO HIS HEAD TO CLEAN UP A FEW BANKS WITHOUT DUTCH CLEANSER
Years ago, and even now, the surest way to get my Nannie was to slight what I call my dignity. I am not stuck up. Never was I welcome familiarity. Of the right kind. But when somebody tries to put on airs and make me feel like thirty cents. I am off on a rampage.
MR. PONZI GOES SHOPPING AND BUYS A MILLION DOLLARS WORTH OF SUNDAY PARCELS
To buy a bank is no trivial incident. Even a comparatively small bank. Like the Hanover Trust Company. A man, after he getsto the point where he owns a bank, calls it a day and quits. If he is an average man. Of course, topnotchers don't quit. They never do. But you wouldn't call them average men. They are out of the ordinary. Professional, in their line. They gobble up banks faster than a turkey does mush. And their gizzards never feel congested.
MR. PONZI, HEADING FOR THE ROCKS, MANAGES TO STEER CLEAR OF THEM FOR A WHILE
The Polish deal fell through, as he could not deliver the goods, and I was left high and dry; with no coupons and no profits in sight, and no way of meeting my notes, except by the time-honored custom of robbing Peter to pay Paul. I was a case of either sink or swim, and I admit that I didn't want to sink. Not just yet, in any event, as I figured that as long as there was life there was hope, and I hoped.
LADIES STOP "RUNS" WITH LUX, BUT MR. PONZI STOPS ONE WITH A MILLION DOLLARS
Things were happening fast and thick in my office. I didn't have a minute to myself from 9 A.M. till 5 P.M. And life was one surprise after another. Some pleasant, some unpleasant, but most of them amusing, because I have a sense of humor and still have. I have lost everything, but that.
One morning, as I was going through my mail, a caller was announcedâ€”a member of the Massachusetts Senate. I had him come in.
MR. PONZI, PEEVED AT THE "MONEY LENDERS," DECLARES WAR ON THEM AND BEGINS HOSTILITIES
The "run" had resulted in a bit of publicity. But that hadn't hurt me a bit. With the general public. Just the opposite. It had served to swell my daily receipts.In financial circles, however, the publicity stirred up some jealousy. You know how it is. Bankers hate competition. They fear it. Especially the kind of competition I was responsible for. The best they could offer to their depositors was about 4% a year. While I was not only offering, but actually paying, my investors 50% in 45 days. Or, 400% a year.
MR. PONZI OFFERS UNCLE SAM $200,000,000 FOR HIS SHIPPING BOARD FLEET
I had not seen the postal inspectors for some time. I had not heard from them. And was wondering whether they had met with an accident. As I had often hoped for. Or, given up the investigation as a bad job. But no such luck. They had been digging up dirt.
MR. PONZI IS FIFTEEN MILLION BUCKS AHEAD OF GAME BUT DOES NOT QUIT
My mind was made up to buy the Shipping Board fleet. Failing that, I was determined to buy up banks, right and left. In either event, I needed all the money I could lay my hands on. Receipts of $1,000,000 a day were not enough. They were like a drop in the bucket. I needed more. And the only way to get it, was to go after it by opening more offices.
THE BATTLE ROYAL IS ON, WITH THE ODDS IN FAVOR OF MR. PONZI
The international reply coupon I had set out to sell was sold And how! There was no doubt as to that. Not only was it sold but I had got a fairly good price for it too. Fifteen million bucks for a six-cent item are not to be sneezed at anywhere. Not even in New England where the average dollar is trained from infancy to breed faster than a guinea pig. However, my day's work was not over yet. Not by a long shot. Because I had to see to it that the coupon might stay sold. And the indications were that it wouldn't.
OH, BOY! WHAT A FIGHT! THE FUR IS STILL FLYING AND YOU CAN'T TELL WHICH IS WHICH!
The next day brought new excitement in the form of a petition for an injunction filed by an attorney, for one of my investors who held one of my notes for $500. Neither he nor his claim had a leg to stand on, between the two.
A COUPLE OF WINDJAMMERS SETTLE MR. PONZI'S GOOSE AND HE GOES DOWN FOR THE COUNT OF TEN
Toward the end of the first week of the run, my payments had dwindled down to a few thousand dollars per day. My investors had made up their mind to hold their notes until maturity. And earn their 50%. The editor of one of the Boston papers was at his wits' end. For the first time in his life, he had found himself up against a surprise. A "banker" who could weather a run. And he did not know what to make of it.