(Roughly) Daily

“It’s morally wrong to allow a sucker to keep his money”*…

Rachel Browne with the telling story of how a Montreal copywriter swindled victims out of $200 million by pretending to be a legendary psychic…

Patrice Runner was sixteen years old, in ­Montreal in the 1980s, when he came across a series of advertisements in magazines and newspapers that enchanted him. It was the language of the ads, the spare use of words and the emotionality of simple phrases, that drew him in. Some ads offered new products and gadgets, like microscopes and wristwatches; some ­offered services or guides on weight loss, memory improvement, and speed reading. Others advertised something less tangible and more alluring—the promise of great riches or a future foretold.

“The wisest man I ever knew,” one particularly memorable ad read, “told me something I never forgot: ‘Most people are too busy earning a living to make any money.’” The ad, which began appearing in newspapers across North America in 1973, was written by self-help author Joe Karbo, who vowed to share his secret—no education, capital, luck, talent, youth, or experience required—to fabulous wealth. All he asked was for people to mail in $10 and they’d receive his book and his secret. “What does it require? ­Belief.” The ad was titled “The Lazy Man’s Way to Riches,” and it helped sell nearly 3 million copies of Karbo’s book.

This power of provocative copywriting enthralled Runner, who, in time, turned an adolescent fascination into a career and a multi-million-dollar business. Now fifty-seven, Runner spent most of his life at the helm of several prolific mail-order businesses primarily based out of Montreal. Through ads in print media and unsolicited direct mail, he sold self-help guides, weight-loss schemes, and, most infamously, the services of a world-famous psychic named Maria Duval. “If you’ve got a special bottle of bubbly that you’ve been saving for celebrating great news, then now’s the time to open it,” read one nine-page letter that his business mailed to thousands of people. Under a headshot of Duval, it noted she had “more than 40 years of accurate and verifiable predictions.” The letter promised “sweeping changes and improvements in your life” in “exactly 27 days.” The recipients were urged to reply and enclose a cheque or money order for $50 to receive a “mysterious talisman with the power to attract LUCK and MONEY” as well as a “Guide to My New Life” that included winning lottery numbers.

More than a million people in Canada and the United States were captivated enough to mail money in exchange for various psychic services. Some people, though, eventually began to question whether they were truly corresponding with a legendary psychic and felt they had been cheated. In 2020, after being pursued by law enforcement for years, Runner was arrested in Spain and extradited to the US on eighteen counts, including mail fraud, wire fraud, and conspiracy to commit money laundering, for orchestrating one of the biggest mail-order scams in North American history…

Read on: “The Greatest Scam Ever Written,” from @rp_browne in @thewalrus.

* W. C. Fields


As we tread carefully, we might spare a thought for Meyer Harris “Mickey” Cohen; he died on this date in 1976. After a career as a boxer, Cohen joined the mob, moving around the country and rising through the ranks until he was a close associate of Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel in Los Angeles. In 1950, Cohen was investigated along with many other underworld figures by a U.S. Senate committee known as the Kefauver Commission. As a result, Cohen was convicted of tax evasion in June 1951, and sentenced four years in prison.

On his release in 1955, Cohen became an international celebrity. He ran floral shops, paint stores, nightclubs, casinos, gas stations, a men’s haberdashery– he even drove an ice cream van on San Vicente Boulevard in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles. In 1957, TIME magazine wrote a brief article about Cohen’s meeting with Christian evangelist Billy Graham. Cohen said: “I am very high on the Christian way of life. Billy came up, and before we had food he said—What do you call it, that thing they say before food? Grace? Yeah, grace. Then we talked a lot about Christianity and stuff.” Allegedly when Cohen did not change his lifestyle, he was confronted by Christian acquaintances. His response: “Christian football players, Christian cowboys, Christian politicians; why not a Christian gangster?”

In 1961, Cohen was again convicted of tax evasion and sent to Alcatraz. He was the only prisoner ever bailed out of Alcatraz– his bond signed by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. After his appeals failed, Cohen was sent to a federal prison in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1972, Cohen was released from the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, where he had spoken out against prison abuse. He had been misdiagnosed with an ulcer, which turned out to be stomach cancer. After undergoing surgery, he continued touring the United States and made television appearances, once with Ramsey Clark.

Cohen’s 1961 mugshot (source)
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