The tale of an early-20th-century con man who swindled millions through horse racing, mining claims, and penny stocks.
Thornton (Not by a Long Shot: A Season at a Hard Luck Horse Track, 2007) tells the story of the most notorious grifter you probably never heard of. Born Jacob Simon Herzig to Austrian immigrants in Manhattan’s Jewish ghetto, he was more interested in betting on horse races than a legitimate life path. After Herzig stole from his family’s fur business for the second time, he was incarcerated in Elmira Reformatory. While imprisoned, he endured a range of tortuous treatments and came out a new person with a new name. Taking a surname from a fellow prisoner and older newspaperman-turned-forger, Herzig became George Graham Rice. Along with adopting the former newspaperman’s last name, he also took up the habit of displaying a certain journalistic flair. Specifically, Rice would use newsletters as a means to market his dubious promises and products. After a venture in the business of predicting winners at the horse track, Rice moved west and began to sell shares in mining claims of questionable worth. When that scheme hit a dead end, he returned to New York and became involved in the emerging business of selling penny stocks. On Wall Street, his reputation was exemplified by the various names the public gave him, including “jackal.” While jumping between coasts, Rice was also in and out of various prisons. Throughout his career, he straddled the line between legitimate and illegitimate business and befriended pivotal figures in both worlds—e.g., Teddy Roosevelt’s son and the infamous racketeer Arnold Rothstein. As such, his story is an interesting tour through the early years of Wall Street and the often blurry lines between legal and illegal business practices.
A good read for anyone interested in confidence men and the history of Wall Street.