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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Fake Inventors Swindled Investors

Long before unsolicited emails offered shares in fictitious Nigerian fortunes, equally brazen scams were perpetrated on the Wisconsin frontier. Con men known as "patent right sharpers" would demonstrate useful products, sell shares to naive investors, and then hightail it out of town before the victims discovered the fraud.

One such swindle happened in 19th-c. Fond du Lac and involved a fanning mill. These machines were designed to separate wheat from chaff after a grain harvest. While a circus was visiting Fond du Lac, a "sharper" demonstrated his half-size version of such a device, supposedly downsized for portability. It worked wonderfully. "He mixed wheat, oats and all sorts of stuff," A. T. Glaze recalled, "and ran them through his mill, separating each into different drawers." After he'd sold half the rights to the invention and departed, local investors built full-scale prototypes and discovered they would not work.

Another con man demonstrated his formula for fire-proof paint, a valuable commodity in an era when wood buildings frequently burned. "The schemer painted dry shingles with his paint," the same author wrote, "and they refused to burn when put into the fire." Several local men invested in the formula and set up a factory to produce the paint. But the result was "hardly better than whitewash." They later found that the sharper had left them a different recipe than the product they'd seen, one composed from ingredients "altogether too expensive to be practical." Like the first swindler, he was long gone with their money by the time the truth was discovered.

Of course, Wisconsin was home to many legitimate inventions, too. You'll find them listed in the online Dictionary of Wisconsin History. You can also view dozens of pictures of obscure inventions at Wisconsin Historical Images and read about others in our collection of Local History and Biography Articles.
:: Posted in Curiosities on September 9, 2010

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