The story goes this way; P.T.Barnum’s exhibit was so successful that people crowded in and didn’t leave. Unfortunately, this left many folks stuck at the ingress, the entrance, waiting to see the exhibition. The answer was a prominent and colorful sign with an arrow pointing to a curtained doorway. It read in bold letters – This way to the EGRESS!
Even the dullest customers were eager to see the famous EGRESS and promptly passed through the door, only to find themselves on the New York City alleyway behind Barnum’s exhibit. Old P.T did well with this being it allowed more paying customers to pile in. Which perhaps led Barnum to coin the most famous line he is credited with about a sucker being born every moment.
Barnum was undoubtedly the main hero of our not-quite friend John the conman. He’d talk glowingly about Ponzi as the financial prophet of future cons. Still, Barnum not only succeeded as a conman but ended up as a pillar of the community -a member of the Connecticut State Legislature, Mayor of a city, and benefactor of humankind. John took this as proof that not all that starts wifty winds up bad. ” not all ill winds blow nobody good. Some wind up doing well.” And that, after all, was what our con artist associate aimed for ” doing well while doing good.” somehow, he never caught the irony inherent in that bit of wit.
After many petty cons schemes, including classics like the pigeon drop, selling fake gold bars, and the like. He started looking for something at least quasi-legal ( meaning unregulated) and lucrative. Over supper one night, he declared that nutritional supplements were just the thing.
There was weak government oversight, almost no one checking on claims, and millions believed that the next nutritional supplement would add that glow of youth everyone sought. The key was to find something cheap, chemically inert, and capable of being put into a standard gelatin capsule.
So that evening, we all sat around, taking this as a joke, and made wild suggestion after wild suggestion. All were shot down for reasons practical or chemical. Until I belched, and then said, “that’s it – air. You don’t even have to fill the capsule, just package them and advertise them as say” at that point, I belched again, ” Volcanic air. it has special healing characteristics!”
Everyone sat up, looked at me, and said, ” too stupid.” Everyone except John. John smiled and insisted it was sheer genius, cheap, safe, and potentially lucrative.
The next day he went to a printer and had boxes made up for “Geniune Air of Vesuvius. The micro-elemental aid in balancing your body’s biochemistry.”
Offering to buy several cases of beer, John once again gathered his “brain trust” to dream up the copy for the brochure. Somewhere into the third case, we had hammered out several paragraphs on how modern urban life deprived the body’s chemical balance of essential microelements essential to longevity, sexual prowess, and mental acuity. The air of Vesuvius was gathered at the source in Italy and other volcanic locations. Volcanic air had been long acknowledged as the source of these vital microelements needed by the body. Now you could gain the health secrets of the ancients without risk in a tiny daily pill.
So that was the beginning. John did well while doing no actual harm. He contributed a share of his profits to charitable causes in his hometown and ran for office.
Every year a check rolls in. My share of the royalties for “Genuine Air of Vesuvius.” I should feel guilty about profiting from selling hot air, or even decry my own lack of ethics , but after all, it’s only fake hot air.