During a business trip last year, we made an unplanned stop at the National Archives in Atlanta. I’m somewhat obsessed with the life of Charles Ponzi. Ponzi’s life has been shrouded in misinformation since his spectacular financial bubble burst in Boston, 1920.
A decade before his incarceration for mail fraud, Ponzi had done time in the Atlanta Federal Pen for trafficking illegal immigrants into the US. He tells this story in Chapter 5 of his memoirs. During his stay, Ponzi (a.k.a. #3113) formed a close friendship with a young man name Thomas E. Larson (#2938.)
It would seem “longing to live beyond one’s means” was a trait the two men had in common.
This letter is particularly noteworthy for Ponzi’s historians (all 5 of us) because it first corroborates heavily Chapter 7 of Ponzi’s memoirs. But even more notably, it precedes by only a few months the most audacious action of Charles Ponzi’s entire life, namely his heroic donation of over 100 sq/inches of his own skin to help save the life of a burn victim.
So without further ado, here’s the letter:
Blocton, Ala - 18-9-12
Dear old Tom:
I don’t know whether you are in or out, but I take a chance and write you [home?] as my earnest wish is that my letter may find you there.
I wrote to Bray several times [Presumably G.L. Bray, Guard & Acting Correspondence Clerk of Atlanta Fed. Pen, whose “Inspected” stamp notably adorns the letter itself] so that you might always [po-sted] about my doings, but failing to get any reply I had to quit.
Did he ever communicate you my letters? If so, you must have seen by them that I have been struggling some; the way of the transgressor is hard, very hard indeed.
It is about over, thanks my master Wallingford - it my expression puzzling you? I will explain - Reading those get-rich-quick schemes, I learned something about stocks, bonds, corporations, etc, but I always studied the right side of it, not the crooked.
I saw that there is a chance in this world for an intelligent man without means (that’s me, you know) to acquire a capital by promoting enterprises of public usefulness and I set about to do it.
You remember how I left Altanta for Birmingham, how I remained there, how I got along by acting as interpreter, selling real estate, insurance, etc. I tackled almost everything and managed to make a decent living. Then I started out for the mining camps with the view of doing some business with my countrymen. Luck thing that I had some money, otherwise I wouldn’t have earned to buy a postage stamp.
This mining camp was Blocton, Ala. (When I saw that no business could be done, I studied something else. I saw there were about 200 houses, owned by miners and old settlers, and a very scarce water supply, awful mountain roads, kerosene lamps, pestilential water closets, and so on.
A man was necessary in that community to raise the mankind above the brute, and so I took the charge on my shoulders.
I started to explain the benefits of proper water works, good roads and electric light, and everybody supported my suggestions. Then I set down some figures and found that 3000 dollars would have been sufficient to build a water and electric plant.
In order to obtain good roads from the county, I got the residents to incorporate, so that now we have a community with a mayor, a justice of peace, a constable, etc. It is a fact that the benefits so far consist in taxes from which those people had been exempted for the past, but they hope in the future, and hope is a great thing! -
(Dead fly swatted into Page 3 of Ponzi’s letter)
My purpose in getting them to incorporate was of obtaining a hold over them. The town officials are all Americans and whatever I say goes. For instance, when I proposed the water plant, I had them grant me the right-of-way through public roads and alleys, and to exempt me from taxes. Then they passed an ordinance compelling every owner of a business dwelling, cottage, etc., to pay my $.75 per month for fire protection and to instal [sic] sanitary water closets at their own expenses.
After the ordinance was passed, I set to find the capital and the Americans subscribed all the $3000 – but I gave them some security – I told them to deposit the amount in the local bank to my credit, with the agreement that I should not have the power of drawing any money until the plant was completed.
The amount would simply be there to guarantee my purchases and the building of the works.
After the plant would be completed, the banks would pay the contractors, builders and companies for furnishing the materials, and the subscribers would be given a first mortgage on the plant.
The mortgage would bear 8% interest and be redeemed in monthly payments of $50 each.
My income from the water plant would be of about $150 a month and about as much for electric light. My expenses are about $1.50 a day of gasoline to run a 10 H.P. engine, and the balance goes to pay my wages for running the engine, occasional repairs might cost a few dollars per month, but I may book on $150 clear per month.
The plant is not completed yet, but will be in about two weeks, so that I may safely say that the future will not prove too hard for me.
When I get through with Blocton, I have a proposition of the same kind for Centerville, Ala, a bigger place and the plan will cost there $10000 dollars and give income of $400 per month.
Now, what you think of your uncle [Mumi?] Isn’t going some? That’s too bad that I have not got a capital of my own, as I would then become a millionaire in a few years. From my personal experience, I may tell you that it pays more to sell water in a dry county like this one, than to monkey with immigration officials.
Now you have a full count of myself, but I expect the same from you.
I have not written yet to Francis X Butler, but I am going to some day: in the mean while, you could write him about my exploits.
Did you hear about Colonel Wilson’s death? Poor old man, I feel sorry for him.
Let me hear from you soon – pardon me if I write you in pencil, but it takes less to [illegible] it, and a business man like me is always in a hurry.
With my kindest regards, believe me.
Also of note, Ponzi mentions two other prisoners. Both were convicted in the same criminal episode (New York Times, May 30, 1911)
of swindling stockholders of an early radio play. Col. Wilson was the ringleader of “United Wireless Telegraph Co. of America” and Francis X Butler was it’s corporate counsel. Apparently, bribery attempts were made to hang the jury, especially on Butler’s behalf. These jokers clearly came to play. Also of note, Colonel Wilson’s death of uraemic poisoning occurred in the Penitentiary itself. (New York Times, August 27, 1912)
[Special thanks to Jud Harris who volunteered to dig through files with me and found this particular letter…]