Railey Jane Savage found herself immersed in the hustle and bustle, violence, and faith of the Gilded Age fraud scene while writing her new book, “A Century of Swindles: Ponzi Schemes, Con Men and Fraudsters.” The book captures the creative ways fraudsters took advantage of people during an era of economic growth and political corruption.
Back in 2019 when Lyons Press asked for her next book idea, Savage wasn’t sure what story she wanted to tell. She had many thoughts but was lacking the motivation to write any of them. At the time, she was really struggling with her clinical depression, something she’s happily open about.
“One way to destigmatize various taboos about mental illness is to talk about these things,” Savage said. “This is me, using my words to claim my space in the world.”
Seeking motivation, Savage reverted back to one of her favorite coping strategies — giving herself the space to relax by watching movies.
“While lying in bed one day, trying not to be so sad, I revisited one of my go-to movies, ‘Paper Moon,’” she said. “It’s a film that documents tricks and cons, as well as a bit of ingenuity. I couldn’t help but wonder why I kept coming back to it, but the central reason was an interest in people using their skills in nefarious ways.”
Suddenly, Savage had the premise of her story. She turned to her research and quickly found that it would be no easy task. There was an endless amount of information and she knew that narrowing down the stories would be difficult. But she was up for the challenge.
She started by choosing a time period to focus on. She says that she wanted to avoid the digital age because writing about present-day scheming would run the risk of lawsuits. She eventually settled on covering the American con scene between the 1850s and 1950s because her research revealed that this history was largely lost.
“When researching something that hasn’t been written about at length, you have to do a lot of the research before you start writing,” Savage said. “You’re never really sure where the story’s going to go or whether or not there’s enough for a story unless you put in the work ahead of time.”
Savage primarily used online newspaper databases to gather material for her book. She found herself falling down endless rabbit holes, thinking she found the perfect story to include until a small detail of another caught her eye, encouraging her to extend her research further.
“There’s more knowledge out there than you’d expect,” she said. “However, a lot of the newspapers available online have literally just been scanned, which means that they’re often hard to read. It felt archeological to embark on, which ended up being quite entertaining.”
A lot of Savage’s time was dedicated to transcribing old newspaper fonts. She says, though tedious, the process was rewarding because it gave a more complete picture of an unknown history.
“I was so enamored by what these people did and how other people reacted to them, and yet, they were lost to time,” Savage said. “Instead of dwelling on why these stories were lost, I wanted to present them anew. I really took the time to study their history and become well-versed on their stories.”
At the end of her research, the list of cons that Savage had compiled was twice as long as what she could include. She says that she wanted to represent groups of con artists of all kinds, including the conscious ones, the mentally ill, men, and women, but she had her work cut out for her.
Staying motivated for a project as large as “A Century of Swindles” wasn’t that difficult for Savage, who finds joy in the fact that she never got tired of the content. But the importance of sharing these stories with the world never got lost on her.
“Because there are a number of chapters that touch on concepts and practices that are still at work today, it felt relevant to write with intent,” Savage said. “All of the connections that could potentially be made to contemporary culture were so obvious to me, which made it feel that much weightier to keep going.”
When she eventually started narrowing down her list of cons, she focused in on what was available to her.
“If there wasn’t enough research or artifacts present to really capture a story, I wasn’t going to write a chapter that didn’t have an end,” she said.
She also eliminated many of the stories that were graphic or violent in nature. The grave-robbing and decapitation behind the story of Dr. Blood were some of the only gruesome themes that she included, she says, solely because of the allure of his schemes.
Savage wrote and structured “A Century of Swindles” in a way that she believed would resonate with readers. She hopes that her engagement with the material and her characters keeps readers moving through the book and connected to the content.
Above all else, she wants readers to finish the book having fully grasped her main thesis: If something feels too good to be true, it probably is.
“If you engage with someone who is offering something that makes you skeptical, but your response is how much will I get? You’ve already lost,” Savage said. “You’ve already engaged in a way that gives the scammer credibility. This means that victims end up giving away things that were not for sale in the first place.”
Savage says that she feels as though many Americans have yet to learn this lesson. She encourages readers to challenge this flaw by being critical in their thought, analysis and self-assessment.
Savage comes from a long line of writers in the Ithaca area and feels proud to have debuted “A Century of Swindles” here. While she currently resides in Ludlowville, New York, she cherishes having access to Ithaca’s artistic community.
“It’s at once dynamic and organic to be a writer around here,” Savage said. “You get to learn about other people’s work and there are many different venues to show your stuff. I think that’s a real opportunity because if you go to a larger city, the stakes might feel higher. Here it seems supportive in a way that I have found to be unique.”
Referring to herself as a writer is still new for Savage, but she’s eager to explore what that identity means to her. She says that she started carrying index cards around because one evocative thought or idea can spark the premise for an entire novel and that motivates her to always anticipate inspiration.
“Take ‘A Century of Swindles’ for example,” she said. “It all started because I couldn’t shake myself of the word ‘con.’”
“A Century of Swindles: Ponzi Schemes, Con Men and Fraudsters” is available on Amazon, in Buffalo Street Books, in the local Barnes and Noble, and in satellite libraries around Tompkins County.
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