Today's paper includes a news story from Salina, Kansas, about a couple who were scammed out of $45,000 by a couple of confidence men. These swindlers convinced the couple that a treasure trove of gold coins was buried under their shop. Using a "treasure detector" that beeped loudly near buried gold, they convinced the couple to let them dig under the floor at the back of their shop. The men then pretended to discover a metal box dated 1878 which contained documents describing a treasure of gold coins buried a few feet below where the box was (supposedly) found. In order to avoid a magic curse, the couple had to build an altar and say the rosary for nine days. As part of the process for avoiding the curse, the swindlers put $25,000 of their own money on the altar and the couple put $45,000 in cash on the altar. Needless to say, the two swindlers soon made off with all of the cash.
This scam is very similar to the old "buried treasure" scam that was run in upstate New York by Joseph Smith and his Pa. The Smiths were well-know swindlers back in the 1820s. As part of the scam, the swindlers would find a hidden treasure using a "peer stone"--usually a piece of quartz crystal or glass. The swindler claimed to "see" the treasure through his magic stone, and he offered to help the land-owner (usually a wealthy farmer) to find the treasure and dig it up--for a large fee. Usually, after the farm hands would dig for several hours (or days) the swindler would announce that the treasure had been magically transported by pirate ghosts or Indian spirits to some other hidden location. The swindler/seer then left with his fee.
The Church of the Mormon has long claimed that Joseph Smith was not a scam artist, but recently-discovered court documents prove otherwise. The Chenango County Office Building in Norwich, New York, has documents from 1826 that prove good old Joe Smith was accused of running just such a scam. Later Joe gave up running these kind of petty swindles and went into the big time religion racket. The magical "peer stones" he used in running the scam were, until recently, on display in Salt Lake City. It was these same magic stones that Joe used to "read" the hieroglyphs written on the gold and silver plates given to him by the angel Moroni.
For those of you not familiar with Mormon history, Joseph Smith claimed to have found gold and silver plates buried in the earth, with the help of an angel. Joe translated the writing on the plates--using his magic seer stones--and produced his "translation" of the writing, now known as the Book of the Mormon. No one ever saw the plates, though Joe was clever enough to get some gullible followers to go into an empty room and feel the plates through a burlap bag. These followers then signed affidavits stating that they had handled the gold plates. Of course, for all they knew the objects in the bag could have been steel hubcaps (if hubcaps existed in 1830)! Other followers were told to simply spiritually "visualize" the gold plates through prayer. All of their affidavits are reprinted at the beginning of the Book of the Mormon.
The act of putting cash from the swindlers and the victims in a common bag (which the victims hold) is also a very, very old confidence game. The swindler in Salina, Kansas, seem to have combined the two cons into an effective game.