The French confidence man who took credit for what one nineteenth-century paper called “the most gigantic swindle of our time.”
It’s 1879. The courtroom in Santiago is full. The tables and benches and sidelines hold a defendant, his accomplice, the lawyers for all sides, the justice of the Chilean Supreme Court, and onlookers. The trial had dragged on for two years. The defendant was incarcerated all the while at the nearby Des Hotel Ingles. This autumn afternoon was the end of a very long journey.Up to that point in life, the accused had “engaged the most elegant suite of rooms in the most fashionable hotels,” charming investors with his “large, eloquent eyes.” Having spent the prior decade crisscrossing half the globe from Europe to North America to South America, he was the man papers from the United States to New Zealand called “foremost in the ranks of the world’s swindlers,” the man who they said had “the black heart of a conscienceless scoundrel,” the one the New York Times devoted ten long paragraphs to in his obituary six years later as the “king of swindlers.” He was the Chevalier Alfred Paraf.Paraf was a Frenchman. He was born on June 10, 1844, in the Alsace region near the Rhine. He’s not part of historical memory anymore, though the image of his deceptive capacity was a stock reference in stories about swindlers for decades. He had, such sources say, a big personality and a winning smile. He had, they said, “the suave address of a gentleman.” And of course, yes, he had a wax-tipped moustache. One paper described him as a man with “the form and features of an Apollo” to match “the polished manners of a citizen of the world.” Another called him “handsome, polished, well educated, known for his keen intelligence and ready wit.” In an age of confidence men—con men—a Brooklyn daily said of Paraf that he stood “above and beyond his fellows, who, compared with him, were mere bunglers in operations which he had reduced to an exact science and of which he was the greatest…exponent.” From Alsace to Scotland to New York to Rhode Island to San Francisco to Nevada to Chile, Paraf made his name as “handsome, refined, clever, brilliant, extravagant, immoral and audacious.”His swindle? His crime? His unconscionable deed?Fake butter. Oleomargarine. The scourge of dairy natures.
Paraf was an adulterator. He made artificial versions of natural things and sought to pass them off as equivalent. Adulteration is the term long used to describe the contamination, deception, or false substitution of one product for another. New chemical additives for processing, preserving, and cheapening an entire range of foods; new ways to dilute milk, cheese and other dairy items; new processes for refining or creating alternatives for sugar; cheap substitutes for the grains of bread and other baked goods; thrifty uses of meatpacking by-products, with the fats and oils of cattle and hogs ending up quite far from stockyards; new supply chains that called into question the identity of the tea, coffee, spices, and liquors coming from afar.Oleomargarine was a purported adulterant of butter. In the century to come, many would think of it as a cheap substitute for butter. Margarine’s evolution in public consciousness is so great that, rather than concealing the deception, by the later twentieth-century marketers took it as a point of pride that consumers could be tricked—they couldn’t believe it’s not butter. Yet in the decades after its invention in 1869, it would be cast instead as “the most gigantic swindle of our time.” The charges against it were serious and severe. “The Cow Superseded,” said the San Francisco Chronicle. “That atrocious insult to modern civilization,” if we follow the Washington Post. It was puzzling and complicated because it was about far more than fake butter.Here we are then, at the dawn of the age of manufactured food. Here we are, in the midst of a century of mobility, invention, expansion, and industrial development. Confidence men, charlatans, and swindlers were at the time—and forever after—the fodder for untold numbers of cautionary tales in a changing world. Swindlers, to be sure, did not alone spawn adulteration, as there were any number of reasons why the claims about a product might differ from the reality: accidents, spoilage, natural decay, storage issues, simply losing track of ingredients. But the same questions of trust and confidence that framed the world of the charlatan set the stage where concerns and fears over deceptive or contaminated foods played out. Though Paraf was a member of an age-old class of huckster, his particular swindle was very much of its time....MORE