Two Centuries of Policing Swindles and Humbugs

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Since the 1860s, when P.T. Barnum, the self-described Prince of Humbug, practiced his art, much has changed in the way that commercial deception is policed. Yet, humbug remains an important tool for some modern American capitalists. Indeed, the American marketplace has never been nor will ever be entirely cleansed of fraud, as Edward Balleisen reports in his exciting new book Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff. Fraud chronicles the history of business fraud and its regulation over the past two hundred years, beginning in the early nineteenth century. Unlike previous works that focus on particular fraudsters or incidents of fraud, Balleisen casts a wide net that draws in examples from many corners of the world of commerce, including from the sale of securities, lightning rods, and other home improvement services, appliances, and medicine. An array of "capsule stories" illustrate the many varieties of business fraud and range of antifraud policing efforts over the past two centuries, as well as the similarities in approaches to fighting fraud across different domains of business within each era. Although this method does not yield "clean plotlines" or deep explorations of central figures and events, it serves Balleisen's purpose well, which is to find the enduring patterns and "key inflection points" in the fight against business fraud, in addition to explaining the value of this history for present-day policymaking. Without lingering for long on the question of how we define "fraud," Balleisen provides historians and policymakers with a rich history of the machinery designed to stop and prevent it.

Publication Citation

Anne Fleming. "Two Centuries of Policing Swindles and Humbugs." Reviews in American History 46, no. 2 (2018): 217.