Empire of Deception – Coming soon

Leo Koretz

EMPIRE OF DECEPTION: A Master Swindler in an Age of Excess

>>>> The incredible true story of Leo Koretz, the con man who charmed 1920s Chicago. A riveting tale of greed, glamour and one of greatest swindles in history – with a Canadian connection

My new book. Coming in May 2015 from Algonquin Books, a division of New York’s Workman Publishing, and HarperCollins Canada

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. To Pulitzer Prize-winning author W.A. Swanberg, one of the few writers to chronicle his exploits, Leo was “the swindler of the century,” winning his victims’ trust through “a personal magnetism that was well-nigh hypnotic.” 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 Nova Scotia, on Canada’s east coast.

Bayano River Syndicate stock certificate

His method was simple: Promise high returns and, when the money rolls in, use some to pay fat dividends to keep the stockholders happy while skimming off the rest. He robbed Peter to pay Paul, creating a giant pyramid that could only be sustained with a fresh supply of investors’ dollars. It’s the template for the scam 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 in 1920 to fleece unsuspecting immigrants, promising huge profits from the resale of postal-reply coupons.

If not for the fact Ponzi’s short-lived fraud was exposed first, the financial press and Wall Street regulators might be warning today’s investors to beware of Koretz schemes. Leo mastered the investment scam long before Ponzi stole a dime and it took his imagination, bravado, and charm to keep it running for almost two decades. He whipped his investors into a frenzy. People camped out on his doorstep and begged him to take their money. Leo was so slick and so convincing, nothing could shake their faith in the man they hailed as “The New Rockefeller,” not even the exposure of Ponzi’s fraud in the midst of his own. Investors simply gave Leo a new nickname: “Our Ponzi.”

Pinehurst Lodge near Caledonia, Nova Scotia, Koretz's Canadian hideaway

Leo lived well on the backs of his Bayano investors, splurging on a twenty-room mansion overlooking Lake Michigan, two Rolls-Royce limousines, suites at the finest hotels in Chicago and New York, a cache of bootlegged booze, and a string 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 December 1923, when a group of eager investors boarded a steamer and headed to Panama to tour their lucrative holdings. Leo saw them off, then scraped together as much cash as he could. By the time the investors discovered the truth – their bonanza was a swath of worthless jungle and swamp – Leo had abandoned his wife and children and disappeared.

After laying low for a few months in New York City, he made his way east to Nova Scotia. 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 on the province’s South Shore, north of Liverpool, into a posh estate and soon attracted a new circle of friends, including the young women whose company he preferred. He bragged that bestselling author Zane Grey, who headed north to fish for tuna off Nova Scotia during the summer of 1924, would be among his many guests.

Meanwhile, back in Chicago, police and federal agents mounted a worldwide search for the missing swindler. After 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.

EMPIRE OF DECEPTION: A Master Swindler in an Age of Excess is the first book to chronicle the exploits of one of the slickest con men in history. It captures 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, the stock market meltdown of 2008 and the Eurozone crisis 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.

Inside Detective magazine from 1938, with cover story on "lover boy" Leo Koretz

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.

Read the announcements in the Canadian book trade magazine Quill & Quire and the “Bits & Bytes” section of BooksBeat, published by the American Society of Authors and Writers (the book’s original working title was Prince of Fraud).

In addition to the comments and feedback below, check out the Facebook page of the Queens County Historical Society in Liverpool, Nova Scotia.

13 Responses to “Empire of Deception – Coming soon”

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

  2. 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!

  3. 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!

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

  6. 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

  7. 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!

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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!

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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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