William Thompson (confidence man)

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For other people named William Thompson, see William Thompson (disambiguation).

William Thompson was an American criminal and con artist whose deceptions caused the term "confidence man" to be coined.

Operating in New York City in the late 1840s, a genteelly-dressed Thompson would approach an upper-class mark, pretending they knew each other, and begin a brief conversation. After initially gaining the mark's trust, Thompson would ask "Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?" Upon taking the watch (or, occasionally, money), Thompson would depart, never returning the watch.[1]

Thompson was arrested and brought to trial in 1849, in a case that made newspaper headlines across the country. The New York Herald, recalling his explicit appeals to the victim's "confidence," dubbed him the "confidence man." Per the Oxford English Dictionary, the first known use of the term was printed in The New Orleans Picayune.

The Thompson case was a major inspiration and source for Herman Melville's 1857 novel The Confidence-Man.


  1. ^ Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women, p 6 ISBN 0-300-02835-0

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