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Quirk of history

The conman who hoodwinked Hitler

Freeman Bernstein: “folk-hero status”

The trouble with all those gripping stories about scam artists, says Tobias Carroll in InsideHook, is that there are always victims who end up “losing jobs, money or some combination of the two”. But what about a scam that targeted someone who everyone hates – “like, say, Adolf Hitler”? As Walter Shapiro recounts in his book Hustling Hitler, that’s exactly what Freeman Bernstein managed to do in the 1930s, in a racket you can enjoy “without a shred of guilt”.

By the time he ripped off the Führer, Bernstein’s varied careers had already included “vaudeville agent, boxing manager, card sharp, horse-race fixer (he was banned from tracks on three continents), and jewel smuggler”. The ruling fascists in Germany and Italy were struggling with a nickel shortage, so Bernstein told the Nazis he’d ship over 200 tons of it for $2m. What he and his associates sent over was, in the end, more like 20lb of nickel “and a whole lot of scrap metal”. By the time the Nazis realised they’d been scammed, Bernstein was living in Los Angeles having achieved “folk-hero status” for his work. The governor of California refused to extradite him to stand trial for fraud – according to the front page of LA’s Herald and Express newspaper, “Adolf Hitler Got Just Exactly What He Paid For!”