Bernie Madoff and Augustus Melmotte


In The Way We Live Now, Trollope gives us a crooked financier by the name of Augustus Melmotte who is for awhile the toast of London--until his finagling comes crashing down and, at last out of options, he takes his own life.

I thought of Melmotte when I read about Bernie Madoff's preposterous sentence of 150 years. God knows I have no intention of defending Madoff, whose crimes really are hideous. I was the guy who unearthed the ZZZZ Best Ponzi scheme perpetrated by Barry Minkow, which at the time was considered enormous but which, even at its peak, wouldn't have paid the interest on the Madoff caper for a month. So if you are running a financial fraud, do not look in this direction for succor or sympathy

But 150 years is absurd. Killers routinely get off with less, and in this case there was no need to pile it on in order to ward off parole (Reuters has a little story about the 100 year club here) because as I understand it, there is no parole nowadays in a federal case of this kind.

All that said, it was clear from the outset that Madoff would spend the rest of his life in prison. What surprised me as much as the sentence was the fact that, unlike Augustus Melmotte, he didn't commit suicide.

In retrospect I'm surprised he didn't do it right when the jig was up--or even just before. Certainly he had reasonable grounds--I daresay more than most of the 32,000 suicides in this country annually. He'd had a good run for 71 years, his life was basically over, and he might have shuffled off the stage before all the trouble. Why not end it all while the going was good? It's strange that some of his investors have done so yet he hasn't. I wonder if he considered it? I'm not advocating it of course, any more than I would advocate a ridiculous prison term--or for that matter, the death penalty.

If I had to venture a guess, it would be that he believed doing himself in might leave his family more exposed to possible prosecution. Madoff has consistently contended that he acted alone. Perhaps he felt he could make the case better in person than in a suicide note.

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Daniel Akst

Dan Akst is a journalist, essayist and novelist who wrote three books. His novel, The Webster Chronicle, is based on the lives of Cotton and Increase Mather. More

Dan Akst is a journalist, novelist and essayist whose work has appeared frequently in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Wilson Quarterly, and many other publications.
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