Victorian Trolling: How Con Artists Spammed in a Time Before Email

The main difference between 21st-century scams and those of centuries past is one of delivery method.
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Wikimedia Commons/Benjamin Breen

In May of 1978, a computer tech named Carl Gartley typed the following message into the flickering, black-and-green screen of an early computer terminal. The company he worked for, Digital Equipment Corporation, was eager to publicize its new computers to the users of Arpanet, the network that would grow into the Internet. The recipients of the email were a catalog of the digital elite (at places like UCLA, PARC, and the Rand Corporation) who possessed the mainframe computers and access privileges necessary to be on the web in the late 1970s.

The message itself was not exactly a model of the writer’s art, but it got its point across:

DIGITAL WILL BE GIVING A PRODUCT PRESENTATION OF THE NEWEST MEMBERS OF THE DECSYSTEM-20 FAMILY; THE DECSYSTEM-2020, 2020T, 2060, AND 2060T.  THE DECSYSTEM-20 FAMILY OF COMPUTERS HAS EVOLVED FROM THE TENEX OPERATING SYSTEM AND THE DECSYSTEM-10 <PDP-10> COMPUTER ARCHITECTURE…

WE INVITE YOU TO COME SEE THE 2020 AND HEAR ABOUT THE DECSYSTEM-20 FAMILY AT THE TWO PRODUCT PRESENTATIONS WE WILL BE GIVING IN CALIFORNIA THIS MONTH.

The early email users who received the message were appalled and confused in a way that seems quaint today. “This was a flagrant violation of the use of Arpanet," huffed one, with these famous last words: "Appropriate action is being taken to preclude its occurrence again.”

Arpanet, it's worth remembering, was a U.S. government property at the time, “not intended for public distribution although not ‘top secret’ either,” as another response to the DEC spam put it. One devil's advocate arguing for a freer use of the email medium made what may be the earliest reference to Internet dating: “Would a dating service for people on the net be 'frowned upon' [by Arpanet administrators]? I hope not.” (The author of this prescient email happened to be legendary programmer and free software advocate Richard Stallman.)

On the whole, though, unsolicited emailers were pariahs in the early days of the Internet. They offered a first glimpse of a future in which digital gatekeepers selected by government agencies and elite universities got swamped by a horde of anonymous jerks and tacky advertisements. These early debates about the form and function of electronic messages heralded the public, uncontrolled, and uncensored Internet we know today. 

The history of trolling over long distances, however, stretches back at least to the Victorian era.

Robert Whitaker, a historian of international crime and policing, studies fraudulent letters from the 19th and early 20th centuries that were part of an international con known as the Spanish Prisoner Scheme. “In this confidence trick,” he explains,

the criminal contacts the victim offering a large sum of money in return for a small advance of funds that the criminal—posing as a distressed yet reputable person—cannot provide because of some impediment (usually imprisonment or illness)… The successful prisoner is one that can combine a too-good-to-be-true offer with a compelling narrative that the victim can, literally, buy into.

As Whitaker notes, schemes like this strike us as modern inventions, the provenance of Nigerian email scammers and shady characters on Craigslist trying to get you to wire them money.  Yet the human desire for lucre—and the unscrupulousness methods we often employ in its pursuit—knows few limitations, geographic or historic. As Whitaker desribes, the main difference between our 21st-century cons and those of the Victorian period is one of delivery method.

Whitaker has uncovered documents from 1905 supposedly written by a distressed Spaniard named Luis Ramos and Jean Richard, a prison chaplain. Addressed to a London shopkeeper named Paul Webb, these letters are straight out of the email scam playbook: Ramos claims to have “property valuable to £37.000” deposited “in a sure English Bank,” and he’ll give Webb a cut if the Englishman agrees to send Ramos a small amount of money to bail his 14-year-old daughter out of prison.

Supposed prison chaplain Jean Richard’s documents in support of Luis Ramos (National Archives, U.K.)

This early scam letter is also very much of its time, though: Whitaker shrewdly observes that it resembles a Dickensian novel, complete with an imprisoned child who “seeks a new guardian to share a large inheritance amidst the backdrop of continental political intrigue.”

These 19th-century letters also have an imperial context that links them not only with the Dickensian novel, but with the Nigerian email scams of today. A striking number of these early letters hailed from Spanish-speaking countries, lending an aura of exotic corruption to their narratives. In his book Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet, NYU media professor Finn Brunton uncovered a 1910 New York Times account that described Havana as a common point of origin for Spanish Prisoner letters in the preceding decades, “but it is not used now, probably because communication with it is so frequent and easy.”

Indeed, the 1910 article cited by Brunton is almost uncanny in the way that it matches contemporary Nigerian scam emails: 

The letter is written... as fairly well-educated foreigners speak English, with a word mispelled here and there, and an occasional foreign idiom. The writer is always in jail because of some political offense. He always has some large sum of money hid. 

As Brunton writes, both the Spanish Prisoner and Nigerian scams rely upon the vagueness of tropical spaces in the Western imagination, as well as their reputation for “political chaos” and untapped riches. Post-colonial prejudices, in both the declining British Empire of the 1910s and the declining American hegemony of the 2010s, might be regarded as a necessary precondition for scams like the Spanish Prioner letter.

Yet the rise of mail fraud and proto-spam owed most to technological change. Following 1897, when the directory Who's Who began including the mailing addresses and biographies of prominent Anglo-Americans, it became easier for unscrupulous capitalists to identity potential marks. "The pomposity and vanity of the British elite listed in Who's Who," Whitaker notes, “could place them in harm's way.”

The New Haven Telephone Directory of 1878, the first phonebook (Wikimedia Commons)

In short, the globalization of personal data via compendia like Who's Who and the earliest phone books gave rise to a new form of confidence game: Hucksters no longer had to fool their marks in person. They could now exploit global networks of communication to trawl for gullible souls in countries they might never visit—and they could even identify individuals whose biographies hinted at a vein of narcissism or greed that could be profitably mined. And people would fall for it, then as today, because, Whitaker writes, not only are we "always looking for easy money, but we are perhaps even more eager for a good emotion."

 


A version of this essay originally appeared at The Appendix.Thumbnail image for appendixlogobig.jpg

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Benjamin Breen is a PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. He is executive editor of The Appendixa journal of experimental and narrative history, and is writing a book about the history of drugs in the 17th and 18th centuries.

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