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Many Guelphites victimized by early 20th century conman

Efforts to scam the trusting and gullible aren't new, but it used to be done face-to-face, we hear in this edition of Then and Now

John J. Daly of Guelph claimed to have a system that was guaranteed to make you a lot of money – if you were willing to invest in it and give it a chance. That, at least, is what he told the police and a magistrate way back in 1907.

We are all familiar with at least some of the many scams con artists pull to try to relieve the trusting and the gullible of their money. They try to sucker people over the phone and through social media.

There’s the Nigerian prince who will make you rich if you help him smuggle his fortune in gold out of Africa. There is the caller who says your [son, grandson, nephew] is in jail and needs money right away for bail. Whenever a natural disaster strikes some part of the world, phony charities pop up, hoping to siphon off some of the cash kind-hearted people donate to relief funds. During theCOVID 19 pandemic, hucksters spread false anti-vaccine information online while peddling quack remedies.

I personally once had a phone call from someone who told me I’d just won a trip for two to Disney World, though I had not entered any contest. All I had to do to claim the big prize, the caller said enthusiastically, was tell him my credit card number.

At the time of this writing, an article in Guelph Today tells readers about a warning from Guelph police concerning a phishing scam targeting people’s bank accounts.

John J. Daly didn’t have the miracle of the internet at his fingertips. He had to get out there into the community to work his con face-to-face with his marks. According to newspaper reports, he tried to sell his system in Toronto and Guelph.

According to the Guelph Mercury of September 26, 1907, Daly was “SURROUNDED BY DEEP MYSTERY … He Has a System to Dazzle Farmers but Refuses to Explain it to the Authorities --- A Romantic Figure with Tweed Suit and Vandyke Beard.”

Daly appeared to be middle-aged, but no one knew for sure where he came from; maybe England, maybe the United States. One fact that was known for certain was that he had served a term in the Central Prison in Toronto, “for attempted fraud in a real estate deal.”

Daly tried to appeal that conviction, explaining that sometimes men of business were a little short of money. In his case, he’d argued – to no avail – that he just needed time for his system to work. He said that imprisoning him would be “a sample of the grossest injustice.”

Shortly after his release, he’d been arrested again in Toronto and then told to get out of town.

According to an article in the Toronto Globe, he’d gone to Guelph, where he had a daughter he hadn’t seen in years.

In Daly’s wake in Toronto and Guelph lay a string of boarding house operators to whom he owed rent. Again, he protested that if he were just given time to “work out his system,” his debts would all be paid.

A Toronto police Inspector of Detectives named Duncan, quoted in the Mercury, spoke at length about the mysterious Mr. Daly.

“It seems to me that we have been hearing about Daly since 1876,” he said. “(Recently) we began to receive complaints from people about his attempts to secure money from them for the purpose of promoting a so-called business system. This he would never explain to us. He did on one occasion state that it was a system whereby agriculturists could coin money. He showed us letters from many prominent people, members of Parliament and the like, endorsing the system. In fact, he had advertising pamphlets with him bearing the pictures of these people.”

Newspapers said those pamphlets were advertisements for “Men with capital.”

The detective continued:

“Over in the United States, I understand, he also had trouble with his system. He intimated on one occasion that politicians tried to ruin him, and that they had concocted a plan whereby he was thrown into an asylum, but was released after a short while.

“Daly is a puzzle,” Inspector Duncan said. “He has what he calls his ‘system,’ and while he is insistent about its value, he declines to reveal it, fearing, as he states, that others will benefit by it. Two or three months prior to his recent arrest, I warned him that complaints had been made. I advised him to get into no more trouble, but the next we heard of him there were board bills unpaid and he was arrested for vagrancy … We also have information to the effect that he tried to obtain money from the immigrants at the Union Station, his proposition being to sell them land, when he had no land to sell, and requiring the unsuspecting newcomers to pay him certain sums in advance.”

In Guelph, Daly was reported to have “promoted a scheme among the farmers whereby he undertook to sell farm property at good prices.” He distributed illustrated booklets that outlined his propositions. Farmers who signed agreements with him and made down payments soon discovered that the titles they thought they’d purchased were bogus.

The resulting lawsuits were what the Mercury called, “as pretty a tangle as ever got into the law courts.”

While all this was going on, the Mercury warned readers of another swindle; this one coming by mail. Several gentlemen in Guelph had received letters from “Mr. Leonard B. Drummond, barrister,” of New York, telling them of a windfall. A person of the letter recipient’s name had died in New York City, leaving said recipient shares in railway stocks worth $800 (about $26,000 today). All the lucky man had to do to collect was send Mr. Drummond $5 to cover legal expenses. Letters just like the ones received in Guelph had been delivered to residents in many other Canadian communities, including Toronto, Aurora, Windsor and London.

Meanwhile, John J. Daly was on his way to another stay in the Central Prison, protesting that he had brought untold benefit to local agriculture. He considered himself a martyr.