The first reviews of The Strange Career of William Ellis have begun to appear. One early review, which appeared in Kirkus, a journal for librarians, was enthusiastic, terming the book “a remarkable historical detective story.” However, the anonymous reviewer also saw fit to conclude that “Ellis was surely a kind of confidence man.”
The question of whether Ellis was a “con man” is one that I am asked far more than I ever expected. The term confidence man arose in mid-nineteenth century New York. A grifter named Samuel Thompson used to ask new acquaintances if they had enough confidence in him to lend him their watch or some cash. Those trusting souls who did have confidence in Thompson rarely saw their watches or money ever again, leading newspaper reporters to dub Thompson a “confidence man.” The term stuck and has become a synonym for a cheat or swindler.
To be sure, Ellis was, like Thompson, an artist in gaining the confidence of those around him. And the Wall Street milieu in which Ellis spent much of his days was never noted for its highly developed ethics. As one official put it after an investigation of Ellis in the early 1900s, “I suppose he has the average morality or lack of morality in financial transactions on the street.”
But to reduce Ellis to a “con man” distorts his history in several respects. Not only is there no evidence that Ellis ever engaged in any illegal undertakings, he used his charisma towards quite different ends than did Thompson. Ellis sought to gain the confidence of his companions not to cheat them but to further his racial masquerades in a hostile white world. Wall Street was a virtually all-white environment during the Gilded Age–indeed, Ellis was arguably the first African American on the street (his only possible rival for the title being Jeremiah Hamilton, who rose to prominence when Wall Street was still in its formative stages). To survive in this climate, he had to learn how to manipulate the prejudices and stereotypes of those around him. To call this a con, with all its associated implications of illegality, overlooks the far greater crime of white supremacy, which is what drove Ellis to reinvent himself in the first place. Is it a con to try to trick those who would otherwise deny Ellis his full measure of humanity?