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Getting swindled and cheated in old-time Phoenix

As a man who is now entering his "golden years", and spends a lot of time on the internet, I'm becoming increasingly aware of the constant attempts to swindle, and cheat me. Every day my email inbox is crowded with junk mail, which promises all kinds of things that I know can't possibly be true. And then there's the outright asking me to send money to someone who apparently is a prince in some country I've never heard of. The list goes on and on, and it makes me sad to think that there are people out there who apparently think nothing of cheating, lying, stealing, and swindling. And of course since I'm a time-traveler I thought about how it was done in old-time Phoenix.

Let's go back to a time with very few of the regulations that we take for granted nowadays. No Securities Exchange Commission (SEC), no laws protecting investors, no restrictions on what could be promised in advertising. It was pretty darned easy to be cheated and swindled in those days!

My first thoughts go to shares of a mine that doesn't actually exist. Or maybe an oil well. Or some desert land. It really doesn't matter what it would be, because the only thing that I would see would be a piece of paper. Of course, there were actual mines, and projects, and land that would have been a great investment at the turn of the century, but they were also sold as shares, which are pieces of paper.

Taking people's money, and giving them nothing in return, is a dangerous profession. In old-time Phoenix it had to be done face-to-face, and when the "mark" (the name for a person who is swindled) finds out they've been cheated, it's wise for the con man (short for confidence man) to be as far away as possible. The recourse for being cheated was much more limited in those days, and it tended to be dealt with in a violent way. That is, to put it bluntly, these people could be shot.

The solution for honest citizens, then and now, was to deal with people in the community who were trusted. Of course, that's not an absolute guarantee, but reputations are still the very best thing to have if you want to be trusted. Phoenix has had a lot of trustworthy people, including Dwight Heard, who sold land. There were also trusted names in the Christy family, including the mayor Lloyd, his brother Shirley, and their father William, the cashier at Valley National Bank.

There's a fine line between a con man and someone who can be trusted. In old-time Phoenix, as today, it was important to know who to trust, and reputation meant everything.

Image at the top of this post: The Arizona Canal in 1896. It was privately funded by William Murphy's company. The land around it, which is now metropolitan Phoenix, would have been a good investment.

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