Berkshire boondoggles: Natural history of a confidence man

The young screenwriter let it be known to his Berkshire hosts that he was interested in settling in the Berkshires, and he looked at a number of large estates with a real estate broker. The one that struck his fancy was Wheatleigh, the upscale hostelry. His name was Thilo Rethmann. In fact, however, he was wanted in Germany on 57 counts of fraud, and had fled California after swindling his landlady out of $40,000.

Editor’s Note: When former Berkshire Eagle publisher Martin Langeveld read Carole Owen’s column on Berkshire boondoggles, he hastened to send us the following essay about a first-rate Berkshire swindler. The essay had been written for the Monday Evening Club of Pittsfield in April, 2007. This version has been updated, with the boondoggler’s most recent capers.

In the summer of 1982, a young man arrived in Berkshire County [Massachusetts] from California and began a lengthy sojourn as a guest of one of our quiet local celebrities. He was a native of Germany, but while in California, he had done quite well for himself as a screenwriter, and had gotten a start in the movie production field. He had written the script for a film to be called “Taipei,”and found financing for it.

Film Director John Huston.
Film Director John Huston.

John Huston and Poncho Kohner were to co-produce the film; Charles Bronson was signed for the starring role. Our young guest had come to find some peace and quiet, and to work on his next script, a film called “Project Mankind.”

As his hostess and her friends soon learned, the young visitor’s family back in Germany was wealthy, and he was about to come into an inheritance of several million dollars. After a few months, he let it be known that he was interested in settling in the Berkshires, and he looked at a number of large estates with a real estate broker. The one that struck his fancy was Wheatleigh, the upscale hostelry [in Lenox], then being leased by Mr. and Mrs. Linfield Simon. The Simons had an option to buy the place for $500,000, and our young screenwriter offered them $2 million. They hadn’t planned on flipping the place, but accepted, amazed at their good fortune. The preparation of contracts began, and dragged on for some time, but meanwhile the Simons began shopping for another home.

Wheatleigh Hotel in Lenox
Wheatleigh Hotel in Lenox

By this time, it was December. Our visitor made the rounds of holiday parties in fashionable circles, impressing everyone. He dropped by for a drink at the Fitzpatricks [owners of the Red Lion Inn and Country Curtains in Stockbridge]; afterward Jack said that his guest didn’t brag about his past accomplishments, and all in all he found him to be an “attractive young fellow.” Stockbridge musician Ed Flower ran into the new Berkshire luminary at various gatherings and gushed, “The charm beamed on to me.” When the young man’s hostess found herself stranded at JFK airport after returning from a tour of Europe because her connecting flight to Albany had been cancelled, he gallantly chartered a small plane and flew down from Pittsfield to pick her up, along with her friend, [author] William Shirer, who also admired the younger writer. The Rev. Carl Stevens of Bible Speaks had him as a guest on his radio show, where he professed to be a born-again Christian and discussed the spiritual climate of Hollywood. He engaged a Berkshire Community College professor, Jurgen Thomas, to assist him in the development of his screenplay. He asked his real estate agent to look into the purchase of properties abutting Wheatleigh.

The Red Lion Inn
The Red Lion Inn

Meanwhile, the young man visited Henry Williams, the president of the Berkshire Bank – the original one — whom he had met at the Fitzpatricks’ Christmas soiree, to ask about bridge financing so that he could acquire Wheatleigh before his own funds would become available. Henry took down the particulars and said he’d get back to the young man, shortly. Something didn’t seem quite right to Henry, and he decided to order a background check. “Finally we came up with a tilt,” is how he described it later.

The screenwriter’s name was Thilo Rethmann. As it turned out, he been convicted in Germany on 57 counts of fraud, mainly writing bad checks for things like a sports car, cameras and other goods. He skipped probation and came to the U.S. In California, he met Blake Champion, the son of dancer Marge

Charles Bronson was supposedly to star in Rethmann's film.
Charles Bronson was supposedly to star in Rethmann’s film.

Champion of Stockbridge, and also, apparently, Val Bronson, son of Charles Bronson, and Carroll O’Connor’s son Hugh. Along with two accomplices, he swindled his landlady out of $40,000 with the story of the movie to be produced by John Huston. When his friends were arrested, he called the police to say he was coming to turn himself in, but instead he came to Massachusetts and looked up his friend Blake. As a long-term houseguest, he began to borrow money, mentioning the trust fund, from Marge Champion’s secretary, Helen Goff. Helen was flattered by the attention and by Rethmann’s promise to employ her at Wheatleigh. She wrote larger and larger checks to cover Rethmann’s expenses, including funds drawn from her employer’s household account, eventually totaling $20,000.

Our man Rethmann was, of course, what has long been known as a confidence man, a resonant tradition in American history.

The term itself originates in a story published in The New York Herald on July 8, 1849, called “Arrest of the Confidence Man”, which describes the arrest of one William Thompson. I quote: “For the last few months a man has been traveling about the city, known as the “Confidence Man,” that is, he would go up to a perfect stranger in the street, and being a man of genteel appearance, would easily command an interview. Upon this interview he would say after some little conversation, “have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until to-morrow;” the stranger at this novel request, supposing him to be some old acquaintance not at that moment recollected, allows him to take the watch, thus placing “confidence” in the honesty of the stranger, who walks off laughing and the other supposing it to be a joke allows him so to do. In this way many have been duped.” The story goes on to mention that Mr. Thompson was a graduate of the college at Sing Sing, and he would no doubt shortly return to his studies there.

The neologism confidence man caught on, and by 1855, when Wilson was again released from prison, it was fully part of the lexicon. Wilson headed north to try his luck in Albany, where the Albany Evening Journal reported on April 28, under the title “The Original Confidence Man in Town – A Short Chapter on Misplaced Confidence,” that he was up to his old tricks (quoting):

“He called into a jewelry store on Broadway and said to the proprietor, ‘How do you do, Mr. Myers?’ Receiving no reply, he added “Don’t you know me?” to which Mr. Myers replied that he did not. “My name is Samuel Willis. You are mistaken, for I have met you three or four times.” . . . “I guess you are a Mason,” – to which Myers replied that he was – when Willis asked him if he would not give a brother a shilling if he needed it. By some shrewd management, Myers was induced to give him six or seven dollars.”

the-confidence-manThe new story made the rounds, and the Evening Journal followed up with “A brief history of the Original Confidence Man,” which included an identification by a New York detective: “Here is No. 1, the Original Confidence Man. I arrested him the first time in New York, and afterward in New Orleans.” This line was enough to inspire Herman Melville to pen the last novel he published during his lifetime, The Confidence Man, which came out in 1857. The real No. 1, original Confidence Man, was of course Satan tempting Eve in the Garden of Evil – Melville drew heavily on Milton’s Satan. And the reference to New Orleans suggested to Melville his setting – a Mississippi riverboat as a ship of fools.

A confidence man can be defined as one who swindles another by persuading his victim first to place confidence in him, and then induces the victim to part with goods or money while still trusting the swindler. It is the manipulation of a sucker by non-violent methods. The thief, as we have seen in the case of Mr. Rethmann, must be an excellent actor skilled in improvisation. In Melville’s novel, the protagonist is engaged in a continual masquerade, deceiving a series of fellow passengers during the course of a single day, April 1st – shifting shape all the while like Milton’s Satan. The book’s cons are an encyclopedia of the cons being perpetrated on trusting citizens around the country: a deaf-mute who pleads for donations by means of a slate quoting St. Paul on charity; a black man without legs begging for coins; a merchant with a story of hard times; a representative of the Seminole Widow and Orphan Society operating a bogus charity scam; a man selling stock in a non-existent firm, the Black Rapids Mining Company; a purveyor of a patent medicine called Omni-Balsamic Reinvigorator; a procurer of young boys into indentured labor; and a cosmopolitan named Frank Goodman, who simply wishes his fellow passengers to place their trust and confidence in all of humanity. The real mark of Melville’s confidence game, however, is the reader, who is constantly pulled in one direction and another, never sure where Melville is taking him, and discovering, each time a truth seems to be presented, that it is in fact another mask in the masquerade. The novel, itself – perhaps every novel – is a con of the reader who places his trust in the author hoping to be rewarded.

While Melville’s novel received little notice on publication, sold poorly and received virtually no critical attention until a century later, the confidence man motif became a standard in American literature, and later film – and the confidence scheme would return again and again to lighten the wallets of Americans in real life – not surprisingly, because in some ways, the qualities that made a good 19th Century American confidence man – gumption, originality, smoothness, entrepreneurship – were the qualities that won the West and built America. Moreover, antebellum American society provided a rich substrate for the con game – teeming, growing cities, easy anonymity, confusion, portable wealth in the form of paper money. New York police in the 1860s estimated that one out of every 10 criminals was a con man.

The professional con men of the era developed a repertoire with colorful names such as the gold brick, the green-goods scam, the sick engineer, the glim-dropper, the fiddle game, the two red aces, the badger game, the match box, the pigeon drop, the Iron Hat, the Puff Racket, the Tat, the Silver Fox Fur—and its variant, the Cat-and-Rat Farm.

Wheatleigh, the restaurant and hotel that Thilo Rethmann attempted to buy
Wheatleigh, the restaurant and hotel that Thilo Rethmann attempted to buy

For a con to be successful, it is usually necessary for the victim to be something less than honest. In the words of one professional confidence man, “If there was no larceny in a man, and if he were not trying to get something for nothing and rob a fellow man, it would be impossible to beat him at any real con racket.” And another: “A confidence game will fail absolutely unless the sucker has got larceny in his soul.” In the tale of Thilo Rethmann, the owners of the option on Wheatleigh were lured by the prospect of quadrupling their money in a single transaction; the various lawyers, realtors and engineers involved in the deal all saw a windfall payday ahead as well; and the prospect of a lucrative job running Rethmann’s household motivated Helen Goff to dip into Mrs. Champion’s checkbook.

The typical 19th Century and early 20th century con could be elegantly simple. Take for example the glim-dropper, which requires several accomplices, one of whom must be a one-eyed man. He goes into a store and makes believe he has lost his glass eye. Everyone looks around, but the eye can’t be found. He declares that he will pay a thousand-dollar reward for the return of his eye, leaving contact information. The next day, an accomplice enters the store and pretends to find the eye. The storekeeper, thinking of the reward, offers to take it and return it to its owner. The finder insists he will return it himself, and demands the owner’s address. Thinking he will lose all chance of the reward, the storekeeper offers a hundred dollars for the eye. The finder bargains him up to $250, and departs. The one-eyed man, of course, cannot be found and does not return.

Similarly, in the fiddle game, one confederate, shabbily dressed, eats a nice meal in a restaurant, finds himself without cash when the check arrives, and leaves a violin as collateral for payment owed. Later, his accomplice comes in, notices the fiddle, declares it to be a rare and valuable instrument, and offers a large sum for it. The restaurant owner then buys the instrument from the first man upon his return, thinking he has an offer on the table from man No. 2, who, of course, never returns.

And the best-known scam of the information age, the Nigerian oil scam, is really a version of an age-old trick called the Spanish prisoner, which dates from the 16th Century. The con man, accompanied by a beautiful young lady, approached British nobles with the story that a fellow noble, the lady’s father, has been imprisoned in Spain. A letter from the prisoner, smuggled back to England, is shown as evidence, but the prisoner’s identity is concealed, allegedly to prevent the Spanish from realizing they have a valuable prisoner. If the noble would pay the ransom, the letter promised, the jailed father would issue a rich reward upon his release, and perhaps even offer the daughter’s hand in marriage. Money in hand, the con man and his lady friend would disappear, never to return.

While there is some amusement in this kind of scheme, in truth, we have more appreciation for the elaborate con jobs pulled off in movies like the Sting and in novels like Tom Sawyer. We require our confidence artists to do some serious work for their money.

A good con man must be a good actor, a good salesman, have good manners and a good appearance. He must also have a yen for the good things in life, but be too lazy to work for them, and he must have a sizeable ego and be able to think on his feet and live by his wits. And, a genuine con man is a habitual liar, addicted to pursuing one con after another, motivated by the challenge of pulling off another one. One con man described it to an interviewer like this: “Half of being a con man is the challenge. When I score, I get more kick out of that than anything. To score is the biggest kick of my whole life.” But of course a con man also needs to have his end game planned out, which is where Rethmann’s plans unraveled. A protracted scam like Rethmann’s usually requires multiple players to be in on the game, to collaborate by lending credence to one another. But Rethmann, who did learn a few things in the course of getting himself arrested for much smaller scams, in the end could not fool all the people all the time all by himself, and so it was the uncorruptable banker, Henry Williams, who smelled a rat and exposed the scam.

After being arrested for his larceny of Helen Goff’s money – he was never charged in connection with the Wheatleigh caper — Rethmann continued to maintain that funds would imminently arrive from his German trust fund, that his mother would pay his lawyers. Several sets of lawyers accepted this story and then saw through it, before Rethmann ended up with a public defender. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 18 months in the Berkshire House of Correction. While he was serving that sentence, Berkshire Eagle reporter Stephen Fay, who had covered the affair from beginning to end, got a collect call from one Tony Valano, another guest of the sheriff. It was a credit check. In a jailhouse poker game, Rethmann had ended up owing Valano $10,000, and Rethmann had told Tony to call Fay, who, he had assured Valano, would vouch for him.

Finally Rethmann wrote Fay a 26-page letter from his cell, explaining that he had been framed by the FBI, Secret Service and CIA as a victim of a top-secret government plot, launched by President Nixon in 1969 to prevent the fulfillment of events foretold in the scriptures. The story of the trust fund, he wrote, was something he told in order to conceal the fact that his movie ventures were actually being bankrolled by an Arab sheik named Al-Fassi, whom he had met in Paris in the course of delivering Ferrari sports cars.

The simplest explanations for what motivates con men may be the best. Clifford Irving was the perpetrator of a fraudulent autobiography of Howard Hughes some decades ago. More recently, he cashed in again by writing a book about this affair, called The Hoax, now made into a movie starring Richard Gere. About the first book, Irving told the interviewer: “It wasn’t about the money. I wasn’t broke. I did it for the adventure.” He added that he was just “a forty-year-old guy who loves adventure and doesn’t think too clearly about what he is doing.” Except for the age difference, that probably describes our larcenous Berkshire visitor pretty accurately.

But at this point in the tale of Thilo, unfortunately, we lose track of our talented young screenwriter, because he had served enough of his Berkshire sentence and was whisked away to face his California charges, and thereafter, the U. S. Immigration Service. Stephen Fay never heard from him again, and Google comes up dry, but I somehow doubt that Wheatleigh was the last mansion he schemed to acquire. But in any case, as long as there are victims who think they may get something for nothing, there will be con artists willing to pull the wool over their eyes.

Epilogue: A few subsequent events in the life of Thilo Rethmann turned up after the original delivery and publication of this paper. About 10 years after the events related above, apparently after dealing with his issues in California and with the Immigration service, in 1994 Rethmann — now using the name Thilo Timothy Newman — was arrested in Nashville, Tennessee on six counts of passing forged prescriptions for the pain killer Percocet. He pled guilty in February, 1995 and was sentenced to two years of probation on the condition that he serve 60 days in jail and obtain full-time employment. He then appealed the jail term and the employment requirement, on the grounds that he was a self-employed. Amazingly, he was able to convince a three-judge panel of the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals that he was a screen writer, using many of the same claims that he had previously used to dupe his friends in California and the Berkshires, right down to the title “Project Mankind.”

The prosecutor and the original trial judge had not fallen for Rethmann/Newman’s stories, As the appeals court decision lays out:

The remainder of the testimony at the hearing [after covering Rethmann’s drug dependence] focused on Appellant’s occupation. He testified that he had gone to the Munich University Film School in Germany for a master’s degree in cinematography and finished film school at UCLA. Appellant told the court that he was a screenwriter and the president of a holding corporation for a film company. He referred to a screenplay he had written called “Project Mankind” and stated he was currently negotiating with Stephen Spielberg to direct the production of the screenplay. On cross-examination, Appellant admitted that no producer had yet agreed to back his screenplay.

The only witness besides Appellant was William Halbert, a friend and business partner of Appellant. Mr. Halbert corroborated Appellant’s testimony about the business they shared and about the screenplay “Project Mankind.” He was optimistic about the future of the business and contradicted the State’s attorney when he suggested that Appellant was currently experiencing some financial problems.

The trial court seemed to share in the State’s concern that Appellant’s business was not legitimate. The trial Judge made the statement that “you can dream about hitting the lottery or making a movie, and you can dream on; but I think it’s time to get a job.” The trial Judge added that he “want[s Appellant] to have a job. . . . If it’s at the carwash or at the Krystal, . . . he needs to put in eight hours a day, forty hours a week awhile, if he’s going to be put on probation.” In response to the court’s skepticism, Appellant introduced a copy of his 1993 tax return showing an adjusted gross income of $106,136 as well as bank statements indicating that an average of $13,000 was deposited in his account each month from July of 1994 through February of 1995, the time the hearing was held.

At the close of the hearing, the trial Judge made it clear that he did not believe much of Appellant’s testimony.

In rejecting the trial judge’s findings and overturning the jail term and the employment requirements, the presiding judge wrote:

“We also reject any requirement that Appellant obtain full-time salaried employment other than the apparently legitimate business in which he is already engaged. The Appellant asserts in his brief, and we agree, that the trial court ‘seemed to indicate some disenchantment with the music or video concept in general.’ Referring to some of Appellant’s testimony, the trial Judge expressed his opinion that ‘having offices in the . . . third biggest studio in the country and being a major player in the world and all this we’ve been hearing . . . . that’s the kind of stuff that these Music City people defraud people with everyday.’ As stated above, all of the evidence presented at the hearing indicated that Appellant is a successful self-employed business person. We think it unreasonable to require Appellant to leave his successful business in order to secure a job at, as the trial court suggested, the carwash or a fast food restaurant. Furthermore, as this was not a crime born out of Appellant’s need for money, but rather a medical condition, we fail to see the relationship between Appellant’s rehabilitation and his occupation.”

After this, Rethmann’s trail truly goes cold. After this story was first posted on the Monday Evening Club blog, one commenter wrote:

When I was in high school, I dated the son of Thilo’s neighbor and witnessed much of this first-hand. Unfortunately, I had no clue what was really going on at the time. The last I heard from Alex (the neighbor’s son) was that Thilo committed suicide.

Another wrote:

He ruined my husband’s life in Nashville — stole millions of dollars from banks, medical equipment companies and the like — I never liked Thilo and found out through the FBI that he was, indeed, a scoundrel — He and my husband at the time were inseparable, taking painkillers and trying to figure out ways to scam people — Of course, Thilo told everyone that he wrote the script for “Alien” and many other movies — he brought his script of “Project Mankind” around everywhere to show people that he was legit – He wore makeup, lied about his age and told people that he was dating Ashley Judd — He was the truest form of a sociopath that I have ever known – I divorced Bill [possibly William Halbert, mentioned above by the judge] and wound up with the FBI at my door looking for Bill and Thilo — Thilo was due to show up in court, and fled the country (supposedly) to Germany — He and my husband figured up a crazy plot to fake his death, so Bill  would not have to stand trial in Nashville — I have since moved on, but I still talk to the FBI from time to time — As my mother put it when she met him “He is the Devil.”

Somewhere along the way, Rethmann, or an associate, managed to get himself (as Thilo Timothy Newman) listed in various movie databases as one of the screenwriters on the movie “Alien,” a “fact” that still survives in spinoffs of those databases, apparently by inserting his “Newman” alias as a fake alias for Ronald Shusett, an actual writer on “Alien.” In fact, Shusett’s page on Wikipedia still lists Thilo T. Newman as an alias. A 1997 Google Groups post, possibly by Rethmann himself, turns the tables by suggesting that Ronald Shusett was actually a pen name for Thilo T. Newman.

Finally, “Tim,” developer of the movie “Project Mankind,” turns up again in 2003 in a book called “I Heard the Sounds of Silence: Are we related?” by Livia Schneider, indicating that Rethmann died of a drug overdose. The book is apparently a family memoir; Livia is actually Olivia Schneider Newman, of Nashville, a holocaust survivor. Tim was her son; he had persuaded her to move from Germany to Nashville, but in the end he went back to Hamburg. In her book, she writes, “Pretending was something he was always good at. Make believe was his middle name…” Thilo and/or Timothy Newman, it appears, was Rethmann’s real name. At the time, Livia appears not to have been aware of Tim’s exploits as Thilo Rethmann.

Still, the feds believe that Rethmann/Newman may still be alive. I received a call a few years ago, after originally posting this story on the Monday Evening Club blog, from a Homeland Security Department agent who was keeping an eye out for Rethmann, inquiring whether I knew anything further.