The best books about con artists and imposters

Who am I?

I am a professor at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where I teach Early American, Native American, and British history. My books include Indians and Colonists at the Crossroads of Empire: The Albany Congress of 1754 and Iroquois Diplomacy on the Early American Frontier. As a historian, I've long been fascinated by stories of imposters, charlatans, and con artists. I like fictional and factual picaresque tales about people set adrift in strange lands and I have a soft spot for unreliable narrators. Historians are a skeptical breed, so slippery characters like those featured in the books listed here represent a welcome challenge: can you trust them as far as you can throw them? 


I wrote...

Indian Captive, Indian King: Peter Williamson in America and Britain

By Timothy J. Shannon,

Book cover of Indian Captive, Indian King: Peter Williamson in America and Britain

What is my book about?

Peter Williamson was the most famous colonial American you have never heard of. He claimed that he was kidnapped from Aberdeen, Scotland in 1743 and sold into indentured servitude in Pennsylvania, where he lived as a laborer, Indian captive, and soldier for thirteen years. After returning to Britain, he made his living by peddling a narrative of his American adventures and performing his story in taverns and coffeehouses while dressed as an Indian. After finally making it back to Aberdeen, he ended up embroiled in two lawsuits to prove his identity and exact vengeance from the merchants who had kidnapped him.

Indian Captive, Indian King uses archival sources on both sides of the Atlantic to untangle the truth from fiction in Williamson’s remarkable life story. It won the 2019 Frank Watson Book Prize for best book in Scottish history.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade

Timothy J. Shannon Why did I love this book?

Herman Melville is a lot like black jelly beans: you either love him or you hate him. I fall into the former camp, and his genius is evident in this book, the last novel he published during his lifetime. Set on a steamboat traveling the Mississippi River, it uses a series of vignettes to tell the stories of its passengers as they encounter the mysterious titular character. Everyone is on the make, and no one seems to be truthful about who they are and what they do. The Confidence-Man holds up a mirror to Melville’s America, and it looks a lot like our own.

By Herman Melville,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Confidence-Man as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On April Fool's Day in 1856, a shape-shifting grifter boards a Mississippi riverboat to expose the pretenses, hypocrisies, and self-delusions of his fellow passengers. The con artist assumes numerous identities — a disabled beggar, a charity fundraiser, a successful businessman, an urbane gentleman — to win over his not-entirely-innocent dupes. The central character's shifting identities, as fluid as the river itself, reflect broader aspects of human identity even as his impudent hoaxes form a meditation on illusion and trust.
This comic allegory addresses themes of sincerity, character, and morality in its challenge to the optimism and materialism of mid-19th-century America.…


Book cover of The Return of Martin Guerre

Timothy J. Shannon Why did I love this book?

This account of a marital deception in sixteenth-century France has always fascinated me: how could a wife not know that the man claiming to be her husband was a stranger? Martin Guerre was an unhappily married peasant who went off to war to escape family and small-town life.  When he returned a few years later, he was a changed man...literally. Natalie Zemon Davis reconstructs the story of Arnaud du Tilh, an imposter who took Guerre’s place until neighbors grew suspicious and fatal consequences ensued.

By Natalie Zemon Davis,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Return of Martin Guerre as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The clever peasant Arnaud du Tilh had almost persuaded the learned judges at the Parlement of Toulouse when, on a summer's day in 1560, a man swaggered into the court on a wooden leg, denounced Arnaud, and reestablished his claim to the identity, property, and wife of Martin Guerre. The astonishing case captured the imagination of the continent. Told and retold over the centuries, the story of Martin Guerre became a legend, still remembered in the Pyrenean village where the impostor was executed more than 400 years ago.

Now a noted historian, who served as consultant for a new French…


Book cover of Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier

Timothy J. Shannon Why did I love this book?

Mulan meets the American Revolution in this biography of Deborah Sampson, a Massachusetts woman who used a male alias to enlist in the Continental Army, serving undetected until a wound revealed her secret. Alfred Young uncovers the early modern tradition of gender impersonation, used by plebian women to escape difficult home lives and travel about the wider world, and explains how Sampson continued to capitalize on her military service long after she left the army.

By Alfred F. Young,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Masquerade as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Masquerade, Alfred F. Young scrapes through layers of fiction and myth to uncover the story of Deborah Sampson, a Massachusetts woman who passed as a man and fought as a soldier for seventeen months toward the end of the American Revolution.

Deborah Sampson was not the only woman to pose as a male and fight in the war, but she was certainly one of the most successful and celebrated. She managed to fight in combat and earn the respect of her officers and peers, and in later years she toured the country lecturing about her experiences and was partially…


Book cover of Joe Gould's Teeth

Timothy J. Shannon Why did I love this book?

Joe Gould first came to the world’s attention when Joseph Mitchell published two articles about him in the New Yorker in the mid-twentieth century. A self-described bohemian, he was an eccentric denizen of Greenwich Village who claimed to be writing “The Oral History of Our Time,” a massive, revolutionary book that Gould said would be read by generations yet to come. Or, was he really just a heavy drinking raconteur who ingratiated himself among some of the leading artists, poets, and writers of his day? Jill Lepore pushes Gould’s story beyond Mitchell’s original version, finding darker truths behind it.

By Jill Lepore,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Joe Gould's Teeth as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From New Yorker staff writer and Harvard historian Jill Lepore, the dark, spellbinding tale of her restless search for the missing longest book ever written, a century-old manuscript called “The Oral History of Our Time.”

Joe Gould’s Teeth is a Poe-like tale of detection, madness, and invention. Digging through archives all over the country, Lepore unearthed evidence that “The Oral History of Our Time” did in fact once exist. Relying on letters, scraps, and Gould’s own diaries and notebooks—including volumes of his lost manuscript—Lepore argues that Joe Gould’s real secret had to do with sex and the color line, with…


Book cover of The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin

Timothy J. Shannon Why did I love this book?

It may seem unfair to group Benjamin Franklin among con artists and impersonators, but he certainly had a talent for self-invention. Most biographies of Franklin take it as a given that he was the “first American,” who set the mold for what we call the American dream. In this highly readable and comparatively brief biography of the great man, Wood breaks from that tradition and tells the story of a provincial striver whose many public personas were motivated by a desire to fit in among aristocratic Europeans. If you think you know what made Franklin tick, this biography will make you think again.

By Gordon S. Wood,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"I cannot remember ever reading a work of history and biography that is quite so fluent, so perfectly composed and balanced . . ." -The New York Sun

"Exceptionally rich perspective on one of the most accomplished, complex, and unpredictable Americans of his own time or any other." -The Washington Post Book World

From the most respected chronicler of the early days of the Republic-and winner of both the Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes-comes a landmark work that rescues Benjamin Franklin from a mythology that has blinded generations of Americans to the man he really was and makes sense of aspects…


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A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France

By Janet Hulstrand,

Book cover of A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France

Janet Hulstrand Author Of A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France

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Who am I?

Author Reader Editor Francophile Minnesotan Once and forever Brooklynite

Janet's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

This memoir chronicles the lives of three generations of women with a passion for reading, writing, and travel. The story begins in 1992 in an unfinished attic in Brooklyn as the author reads a notebook written by her grandmother nearly 100 years earlier. This sets her on a 30-year search to find her grandmother’s journals and uncover the hidden interior lives of her mother and grandmother.

Her adventures take her to a variety of locations, from a small town in Iowa to New York, Washington, London, and Paris—and finally to a little village in France, where she is finally able to write the book that will tell her own story, intertwined with the stories of her mother and grandmother.

A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France

By Janet Hulstrand,

What is this book about?

This story, about three generations of women with a passion for reading, writing, and travel, begins in 1992, in an unfinished attic in Brooklyn, as a young writer reads journals written by her grandmother as a schoolgirl nearly 100 years earlier. This sets her on a 30-year quest to uncover the hidden lives and unfulfilled dreams of her mother and grandmother. In this coming-of-middle-age memoir, the author comes to realize that the passion for travel and for literature that has fueled her life's journey is a gift that was passed down to her by the very role models she was…


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