When the Con Man Comes to Town

ColSellersReprinted from the Carmel Pine Cone, July 12, 2013

By every measure, Colonel Beriah Sellers would not be considered the embodiment of wealth and prosperity that marked the heady era of American growth known as The Gilded Age.

If anything, Sellers represented a certain breed of tinhorn chisellers that had spread across the country to separate good men from their savings with can’t-miss schemes guaranteed to turn motivated investors with a little cash—and even less guile—into the next Andrew Carnegie.

They worked out of hotel lobbies and saloons in crossroad villages and cities, chomping cigars they rarely paid for and fondling broken pocket watches while they trolled for travelers too damned eager to strike it rich out West.

The Colonel Sellers types were garrulous, they skillfully disguised the patches that held together threadbare business attire, and they spoke of the next big thing with an authority that inspired confidence among the gaping rustics and the anxious rubes they would eventually dupe.

They were forever engaged in the promotion of commercial enterprises with great promise. They radiated agreeable contentment, as befits all men of prosperity. They had made a profitable study of the psychology of good and naïve men capable of submitting to the promise of certain enrichment, and they plied their knowledge to further the art of swindle.

The gullible rubes were flattered when smart men like Colonel Sellers took them into their confidence. They felt like privileged insiders when allowed into the realm of certain success. They nodded conspiratorially when the financial men described huge tracts of ore-rich lands, presently untapped, that awaited only the capital of savvy investors who knew a sure-fire thing when they heard it.

The rustics were edified by the articulate and dapper charlatans who moved with “certain vulgar swagger” and who spoke with “insolence of money.”

The best of them maintained “friendly” relationships with the local politicians and newspapermen, because the politicians might be helpful in a pinch. And it never hurt when a politician or an editor might come forward to endorse their big schemes.

Colonel Sellers stirred up the locals with his big ideas. He inspired the movers and shakers of the little one-horse towns that their community would soon prosper, just as soon as his project took root. The yokels were promised jobs and security. It was all a win-win.

In the end, Sellers’ can’t-miss schemes disappeared just as quickly as the rubes’ investments. The big project invariably fell victim to uncontrollable circumstance, to ornery government bureaucrats or to simple bad luck. But that ‘s just the way it goes sometimes for a speculator.

Beriah Sellers was the fictitious creation of Mark Twain’s imagination, the fast-talking protagonist in Twain’s “The Gilded Age.” Twain’s 1873 novel skewered the corruption and greed that abounded during Reconstruction.

Sellers was a fictional character, but almost everyone in the United States who read the book could readily identify the Beriah Sellers they had known in their own lives. Some had been victimized, others narrowly escaped the hoodwink. The once-hopeful citizens of dozens of one-horse towns had seen the Sellers types come and go.

Monterey County still enjoys the occasional visit from the Sellers types. They thunder into town with their big ideas, luring in the rubes and the politicians with their impressive sales pitches. They throw money at starving local public relations specialists to drum up support and to manipulate the process, they make earnest promises to a local charity or two, and they stir up the natives with pledges of low-cost homes and/or new jobs.

We’ve seen them come. We’ve seen them go.

Whenever I consider Monterey Downs, the dimwit project to build a racetrack at Fort Ord, Colonel Beriah Sellers inevitably comes to mind.

And I would hope Monterey County voters remember him when they are asked to pass judgment on Monterey Downs at the ballot box later this year.


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