How George Santos, Anna Delvey, and Other Grifter Greats Became a Popular Obsession

On July 8, 1849, James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald introduced readers to William Thompson, a man of “genteel appearance”—and, apparently, endless charisma—who had been arrested for relieving strangers of their watches. “Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?” Thompson would ask his marks after striking up a conversation and beguiling them with his charm. So it was that a mass-market, 19th-century broadsheet coined the term “confidence man,” which the Herald began to employ rather liberally in its pages. (And which you might have noticed more recently in the title of Maggie Haberman’s aptly named Donald Trump biography.) As a Herald editorial subsequently proclaimed of Thompson, “He is a cheat, a humbug, a delusion, a sham, a mockery!”

Those words could just as easily describe George Santos, the fictional-résumé maestro, alleged Burberry scarf thief/dying-dog swindler, and all-around preternatural fabulist who lied his way into the halls of Congress last November, only to be exposed as a brazen scammer. In a headline-making moment at Tuesday’s State of the Union, the freshman representative from Queens was met with disgust during a run-in with Mitt Romney. “You don’t belong here,” Romney reportedly barked, no doubt speaking on behalf of a large swath of America’s electorate.  

Santos stands out as one of the most epic frauds the press has contended with. At the same time, his story is just the latest in a prolific oeuvre of grifter exposés that have lit up the media over the past few years. Scandalous yarns like these have captivated news consumers for as long as there’s been news to consume, as that age-old Herald article can attest. But in the era of web virality, they’ve taken on a life of their own, paying lucrative dividends for the outlets that usher them into the world.

From the Hipster Grifter and the Tinder Swindler, to Dirty John and the Worst Roommate Ever, to Billy McFarland, Elizabeth Holmes, Anna Delvey, and more infamous names than we can list in this post, con artist narratives have become sizzling-hot IP, drawing massive audiences and elbowing their way into the book-deal-streaming-series-podcast pipeline. In this latest installment of Inside the Hive, Maggie Coughlan and Joe Pompeo examine the recent history of the grifter genre, breaking down how these blockbusters operate in the business of news and Hollywood.

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