Empire of Deception


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The Incredible Story of a Master Swindler Who Seduced a City and Captivated the Nation

The larger-than-life exploits and make-believe world of 1920s Chicago con man extraordinaire Leo Koretz – and his escape to a new life in Canada. A riveting tale of greed, glamour and one of the greatest swindles in history.

>>> New! Empire is a Globe and Mail Top 100 Book of Year, a National Post Best Book of the Year, a CBC Books choice for holiday gift-giving and CNBC Power Lunch host Brian Sullivan’s pick as one of the top 5 books of 2015. 

>>> Empire is the Chicago Writers Association’s 2015 Non-fiction Book of the Year and a finalist for one of Canada’s top awards for non-fiction – the 2015 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize

The latest reviews:

Intoxicating and impressively researched, Jobb’s immorality tale provides a sobering post-Madoff reminder that those who think everything is theirs for the taking are destined to be taken.”The New York Times Book Review

comprehensively researched and enthralling … high-stakes drama of the first order … unmasking [a] master swindler and revealing the author as an equally masterful storyteller.”The Washington Post

Reading Empire of Deception was like getting on the storied Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island … holding your breath throughout its peaks and valleys, then getting out of the car, flushed and shaken, only wanting to ride it all over again … [a] thrilling, too-wild-for-fiction tale.”The Globe and Mail

Not since Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City has an author so eloquently captured the shadowy character of the city … masterful.” BookPage

“Fans of Erik Larson will love Jobb’s latest true crime masterpiece.”Library Journal (starred review of audiobook edition)

“a fun read …. a well-paced, well-detailed piece of historical nonfiction about a man who bilked millions from “investors,” ala Bernie Madoff …. excellent pacing, and you’ll marvel at the sheer chutzpah (and skill) of Leo Koretz.” – An Amazon.com Best Business Book of 2015

“fast-paced narrative … an absorbing tale of astonishing duplicity.”Maclean’s

“a laugh-out-loud page-turner, full of gullibility and twists and turns … a jaw-dropping, rollicking good read.” – Booklist

>>> More reviews  >>> What readers & booksellers are saying

The New York Times declared Leo Koretz “the most resourceful confidence man in the United States.”  

HE RAN ONE OF THE LONGEST, most elaborate and most successful swindles in history. For almost twenty years a charming, smooth-talking Chicago lawyer enticed hundreds of people to invest as much as $30 million (upwards of $400 million today), most of it in phantom timberland and oil wells in Panama. His Bayano River Syndicate, he claimed, controlled millions of acres near the Canal Zone, including oilfields that produced a torrent of crude and earned investors an astounding sixty percent return. John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil conglomerate, he assured his grateful investors, was desperate to buy into the Bayano windfall.

His name? Leo Koretz, the Bernie Madoff of the 1920s, a con man extraordinaire posing as a financial genius. The New York Times considered him “the most resourceful confidence man in the United States.” The Chicago Daily Tribune agreed, describing him as “the most boldfaced swindler” of his time. And when his scheme collapsed in 1923, under the weight of his own dazzling success in reeling in the suckers, he almost made a clean getaway to a life of luxury in Canada.

>> Order the U.S. edition (Algonquin Books) from Amazon.com (click here for a “sneak peek” inside) and Barnes & Noble. Listen to an excerpt from the audiobook from HighBridge Audio.

>> Order the Canadian (HarperCollins) edition (Empire of Deception: From Chicago to Nova Scotia – The Incredible Story of a Master Swindler Who Seduced a City and Captivated the Nation) from Amazon.ca and Chapters.Indigo.ca

>> Order the large print edition from Thorndike Press

>>> A Vanity Fair “Hot Type” pick and an Indie Next pick for June 
>>> An Amazon.com Business Book of the Year 2015 and a Best Book for May 
>>> A Toronto Star / Metro Canada / Pittsburgh Tribune-Review / Raleigh News & Observer / NPR Utah recommended summer read
>>> A Chapters/Indigo/Coles and BookNet Canada Indie bestseller
>>> A Huffington Post Canada audiobook pick for fall

LEO’S METHOD WAS simple: Promise high returns and, when the money rolled in, use some to pay fat dividends to keep the stockholders happy while skimming off the rest. It’s the template Madoff used to rake in billions of dollars, a financial sleight of hand known as a Ponzi scheme. Charles Ponzi, a contemporary of Leo’s, used it to fleece unsuspecting immigrants, promising huge profits from the resale of postal-reply coupons. But Leo mastered the scam long before Ponzi stole a dime and it took his imagination, bravado, and charisma to keep it running for almost two decades.

People camped out on Leo’s doorstep and begged him to take their money. The lucky few he allowed to invest plowed their fat Bayano profits into more worthless stock. Nothing could shake their faith in the man they hailed as “The New Rockefeller,” not even the exposure of Ponzi’s fraud in 1920. Investors simply gave him a new nickname: “Our Ponzi.”


A cartoonist’s take on the Bayano oil swindle(Chicago Daily News)

LEO LIVED WELL thanks to his gullible victims, splurging on a mansion overlooking Lake Michigan, Rolls-Royce limousines, suites at the finest hotels in Chicago and New York, and a cache of bootlegged booze. He was a family man with a wife and two children, but his personal life was as phony as his professional one – a web of lies and trysts with a succession of mistresses. “I don’t see why these women won’t leave me alone,” he once complained in jest, knowing full well the answer was the charm and money he used to win their affections.

His house of cards came crashing down in 1923 when a group of investors boarded a steamer and headed to Panama, eager to tour their lucrative holdings. Leo saw them off, then scraped together as much cash as he could. By the time the delegation discovered the truth – their bonanza was a swath of worthless jungle and swamp – Leo had disappeared. When the news broke, Leo and his sensational Bayano fraud – the swindle of the century, some called it – made headlines across North America and beyond. His wife and close-knit family were devastated. Many of his investors swallowed their losses in silence, too embarrassed to admit how thoroughly they had been duped.

More reviews:

★ “This lively, entertaining, and depressingly relevant history of a man and his con reads like a novel and will be enjoyed by fans of popular history as well as true crime.” – Library Journal (starred review)

“Empire of Deception adds Leo Koretz to Chicago’s rogues’ gallery of the 1920sgreat researcha masterpiece of narrative set-up and vivid language.” – Chicago Tribune

“lively and captivating … a story that seems to be as American as it can get, and it’s told well.”Christian Science Monitor

“riveting … fascinating …. Long before Bernie Madoff, and even before Charles Ponzi, Leo Koretz perfected what came to be known as the Ponzi scheme.” – Columbus Dispatch

ENTER CHICAGO STATE’S attorney Robert Crowe, a man whose ascent in the ruthless world of Chicago politics paralleled Leo’s rise to financial stardom. Crowe, one of the most powerful Republicans in the city, was making headlines as a crusader against gangland crime. By 1922 the mayor’s office, and perhaps even the governorship, seemed within his ambitious grasp. But corruption pervaded politics and justice in Chicago, and Crowe the crime-fighter enlisted crooks and thugs to intimidate his political opponents and win elections. Crowe and Leo had begun their legal careers together, and when the Bayano wizard’s swindle was exposed it was Crowe who launched an international manhunt to bring his former colleague to justice.

Leo, meanwhile, hid out in New York City for several months before making his way to Nova Scotia, on Canada’s Atlantic Coast. He grew a beard to mask his identity, adopted the alias Lou Keyte, and posed as a retired financier-turned-literary critic. He became a regular at hotels and dance halls in the provincial capital, Halifax, and joined the exclusive Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron. He converted a secluded hunting lodge into a posh estate where he entertained like a real-life Great Gatsby and attracted a new circle of friends and female admirers. He even bragged he was a close friend of bestselling author Zane Grey, who spent part of the summer of 1924 fishing for tuna off Nova Scotia.

Chicago police and federal agents spent almost a year of chasing anonymous tips and false leads. It began to look as if Leo Koretz, master of the Ponzi scheme, might be a master escape artist as well.

Inside Detective magazine’s 1938 cover story on “lover boy” Leo Koretz

EMPIRE OF DECEPTION is the first book to chronicle the exploits of one of the slickest con men in history. Itcaptures the intrigue and drama of Leo’s stranger-than-fiction story while recreating an era when it seemed as if everyone was entitled to easy riches. The dot-com bubble and the stock market meltdown of 2008 are reminders those heady times were not so different from our own. The book establishes Leo Koretz, not Charles Ponzi, as the first to master the pay-dividends-from-capital investment scam. It dissects how con men and stock swindles operate. And it brings to life a time and place when anything – even vast oilfields in faraway Panama – seemed possible.

Leo’s brazen fraud is a compelling story that combines drama and dark humor. It is a cautionary tale that will resonate with readers who are curious about how con men such as Bernie Madoff operate and how they prey on the trust of others. It is a rollicking tale of greed and gullibility, lies and betrayal and grandeur and delusion that could have been ripped from today’s headlines. It is a story played out against a Jazz Age backdrop that reaches from the tough streets of Chicago to the remote jungles of Panama, from the glitter of Manhattan’s finest hotels to the backwoods of Nova Scotia.

The incredible-but-true saga of Leo Koretz and his spectacular oil swindle exposes the pitfalls, then and now, of too much trust, too much greed and too little common sense.

Available now from New York’s Algonquin Books, HarperCollins Canada and HighBridge Audiobooks

>> Check out the latest news on nominations and awards and recent interviews and media coverage of Empire of Deception

>> Read my feature articles based on Empire of Deception, published in the Toronto Star, National Post, The Walrus (web exclusive) and other major publications.

>> Advance praise for Empire
Read pre-publication reviews from bestselling authors Michael Korda, Karen Abbott, Jonathan Eig, Gary Krist, Douglas Perry, Neal ThompsonMichael Lesy and Marq de Villiers

35 Responses to “Empire of Deception”

  1. Phyllis Harvey says:

    What a fantasic read! I could not put it down once I got started. The scrutinization of this scandal is remarkable. An amazing story told only by one of the best investigative crime writers in Canada.

  2. Terry Valeriote says:

    I just finished the book and wanted to pass along my appreciation of it. It was a great read, very well written and very enjoyable. Thank you.

    Terry Valeriote

  3. Barbara A Collins says:

    Thank you so much for writing this book. Spellbinding for me as my great uncle, Joseph O. Kostner was alderman of the 23rd ward at the time …. I understand City Hall was closed the day of his funeral and Dion O’Banion was one of the pallbearers. Kind of says it all …. The family never talked about it but you and the internet have opened the door to our Chicago History. Thanks again.

  4. Karen Franklin says:

    Congratulations on being short-listed for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for your book, Empire of Deception!

  5. Lorelei Greene says:

    I am amazed by the story, even though I already knew the legend. I am fascinated, though, to read of all the details.

  6. Patricia Cochrane says:

    I just finished the book and was enthralled from beginning to end. It read more like fiction than non . . . unbelievable. I was especially interested as I grew up in Liverpool and had heard bits of the story for years. My mother grew up in South Brookfield, and she and her older sister, as teen-agers were invited to one of his parties at Pinehurst. However, they were not allowed to go! I had always understood Koretz had been caught because of a dry cleaning tag. I have walked back many times to the site of Pinehurst, and vaguely remember it with the turret, which I believe had been removed some years later. Have seen it in all its states of decline.

    Thanks for a great read. It would make a fantastic movie!

  7. Matt Selby says:

    Just got the book last night. Finished it this afternoon. Amazingly well written. You live it as it’s happening. I don’t write reviews but this is special. Every bit as good as Devil in White City which I read the day it came out. Congratulations.

  8. William Koretz says:

    Just finished Empire of Deception and am quite impressed by the amount and accuracy of factual information in the book. I didn’t know much about him and was both amazed and sad to read the story.

  9. Alan May says:

    I just received my copy from Amazon and can’t wait to get into it.

  10. Carolyn Wickware says:

    This sounds like a riveting tale, superbly written and filled with intrigue. I will be ordering my copy soon!

  11. Nancy Rose says:

    This is one story that I am eagerly awaiting to read! I just pre-ordered my copy and it will arrive just in time for summer vacation. I fear I may have to hide this one from my husband if I want to read it first. From the moment I met you, Dean, and you started telling me about the story, I knew this was a book I want to read, before it hits the big screen (it certainly sounds like it has everything it needs to make an exciting movie!)

  12. Monica Graham says:

    I read an advance copy. I could not put it down. Extensive research, skilful story-telling, and a fascinating and little-known subject – at least until now! A great yarn, well told. I enjoyed it immensely.

  13. Heather Hiltz van-Schalkwyk says:

    My grandfather, Francis J. Hiltz, was involved in the story of Leo Koretz. My mother’s account of that involvement and other anecdotes have provided great amusement over the years. My family is very excited to have the full story revealed in Dean Jobb’s new book, Empire of Deception.

  14. Jeffrey Simpson says:

    Another excellent story from one of the country’s top investigative journalists. Guaranteed to be great stuff!

  15. Tyler LeBlanc says:

    Echoing the words of the recent Kirkus review, I look forward to once again to being the recipient of Dean Jobb’s incredible research and storytelling abilities. Can’t wait!

  16. Lisa Taylor says:

    I just pre-ordered Empire of Deception from ChaptersIndigo — it looks like an amazing read. I also expect that this is a book that can be judged by its spectacular cover.

  17. Alan May says:

    Leo was my ex-wife’s great-great-great uncle, and the story of Leo’s exploits is only spoken of in hushed-tones and shame among family members. I’ve always felt it was a great story to be told, but not unlike the Madoff family of today, they carry the shame of his name as a secret family burden. I know much of the story, but I’m anxious to fill in the blanks by reading Empire of Deception. This story could give Wolf of Wall Street a run for the money.

  18. When I saw that Dean was writing the story of Leo Koretz I could not have been more excited. Having recently read Devil in the White City, I cannot wait to read more of the intriguing world of Chicago at the beginning of the 1900s. Dean’s writing is sure to bring this story alive and I am looking forward to seeing how Koretz’s plots and cons unfold. Going to get my hands on a copy as quickly as possible.

  19. Susan Aliphat says:

    Dean Jobb doesn’t just bring history alive, he breathes life into the act of writing history. He speaks to students about the joy and excitement of discovering historical details, quirks and connections, and weaving them together to create a full and engaging story of the past. Thanks for today’s presentations to Park View High School students in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, and I look forward to reading Empire of Deception when it comes out!

  20. This looks absolutely fabulous! I am very much looking forward to reading it.

  21. Robin MacDonald says:

    Empire of Deception looks like it will be an intriguing story, as it seems to have all the ingredients that make for a gripping read — deception, lies, mystery, scandal, and even a touch of romance, if Leo Koretz’s claims are to be believed! I am a fan of Dean’s writing and this book seems sure to deliver a fascinating, yet cautionary tale that will surely hit home in our modern world of scammers and fraudulent people. I can’t wait to read the story of this consummate master-swindler!

  22. Trevor Howlett says:

    Cannot wait to read this! I love an old fashioned con-man tale and Dean is a really engaging writer. The depth of this story is incredible, it’s hard to believe this could actually happen. Should be a great read!

  23. Andrei Dezsi says:

    Sounds like a riveting tale! I’m looking forward to reading this, as I hope many others are as well, lest we repeat the mistakes of the past. It is truly eye opening to think how long things like this, on such a scale, have been going on.
    I’m going to ignore the temptation to google what happened to him in the end! I’m sure Dean will do a better job of telling it!

  24. Corbett Hancey says:

    Amazing to think that this guy got away with this for so long (two decades?!) and even after Charles Ponzi’s crimes came to light. Looking forward to getting the full story on how he was able to pull it off for so long and then still able to live a life of luxury under an assumed name afterwards.

  25. Angela M Schneider says:

    The citizens of the State of Illinois appear to have a fascination with crooks. We have had and still have a lot of them. Look to our former governors. Now, I am looking forward to the publication of Dean Jobb’s new book of Leo Koretz, “Empire of Deception.” I am curious to read how Leo Koretz lived so well in Illinois and then in Nova Scotia. Did he really “get away with the crime”? Dean Jobb’s new book may not be a “whodunit?” but rather a book of “how did he do it?”

    Angela Schneider

  26. Mary Goodman says:

    I am anxiously awaiting the publication of “Empire of Deception.” My husband is a member of the Koretz family and we are aware of the years of meticulous research Mr. Jobb has done while writing this book. Can’t wait to read it!

    • Lorelei Greene says:

      I am curious how your husband is related to the Koretz family, as I am a relative as well. This book is amazing and I always knew of the scandal but am fascinated to read the entire story.

  27. Audrey Bennett (nee Douglas) says:

    This will be a great read, especially for those of us who have connections in the community on Nova Scotia’s South Shore.

  28. Blair Douglas says:

    This will be an interesting book to read and an important part of our history properly researched and told. I am looking forward to it.

  29. Kathryn Smith says:

    I have read many of your books. I am anxious to know when “Empire of Deception” will be available. Looking forward to a great read!

  30. Greg MacNeill says:

    It seems Wall Street has not changed an iota. Or at least the financial wolves are wearing the same sheep’s clothing; a fashion apparently set in the 20’s. This coming book sounds like a great read and looking forward to the completed work.

  31. Katharine Mott says:

    I can’t wait for this book to be published … such a great present for at least five friends! Hope it is on the bookstands soon.

  32. Judy Shedden says:

    This story sounds like a wonderful tale of wealth and naivety; a perfect combination for a talented con-man. What a great storyline for a movie!

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