The best books about con artists and imposters

Timothy J. Shannon Author Of Indian Captive, Indian King: Peter Williamson in America and Britain
By Timothy J. Shannon

The Books I Picked & Why

The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade

By Herman Melville

Book cover of The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade

Why 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.


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The Return of Martin Guerre

By Natalie Zemon Davis

Book cover of The Return of Martin Guerre

Why 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.


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

By Alfred F. Young

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

Why 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.


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Joe Gould's Teeth

By Jill Lepore

Book cover of Joe Gould's Teeth

Why 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.


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The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin

By Gordon S. Wood

Book cover of The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin

Why 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.


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