The Devils of American Finance - Past and Present
1792: America's First Financial Scam Artist
William Duer was America’s first major financial scam artist. A merchant who supplied
George Washington with war supplies, he became assistant secretary of the Treasury, but left
government to speculate, mostly in the stock of America's first banks. He prospered, largely (it
seems) on the basis of inside information.
Friend Alexander Hamilton wrote of Duer: "'There must be a line of separation between
honest Men & knaves, between respectable Stockholders and dealers in the funds, and mere
In 1792, a credit crunch hit. Duer, highly leveraged to get the biggest bang for his bucks, found
creditors calling. He couldn't pay, helping trigger a panic. Duer was saved from a frenzied mob
shouting, “We will have Mr. Duer, he has gotten our money!” only by being locked up in jail. He
would spend the rest of his life in debtor’s prison.