In 1920, fewer than twenty years after Ponzi came to the United States with little money and unable to speak English, his wealth seemed to make him the embodiment of the immigrant’s dream. Instead of creating wealth, however, Ponzi became a master of a type of elaborate swindle that became known as a “Ponzi scheme.”
Charles Ponzi identified with stories of his family’s past glory. Having a taste for the good life and a disdain for the type of work available to him in Italy, he immigrated to the United States to seek his fortune. After gambling away his money en route to Boston in 1903, Ponzi quickly found that the streets were not paved with gold, and he was forced to take the types of jobs he spurned in Italy. In search of easy money, Ponzi moved and switched jobs frequently, finding himself in trouble with the law in both the United States and Canada.
By December, 1919, Ponzi was back in Boston, a married man about to embark on a venture that would make him both rich and infamous. His seemingly plausible investment scheme attracted investors by offering a high return. Within seven months, he had collected nearly $10 million. In August, 1920, it was discovered that Ponzi was actually paying the high returns with the money of new investors. With that, his pursuit of the immigrant’s dream came to an end. After serving over a decade in state and federal prisons for his crimes, Ponzi was deported to Italy. He later died in the charity ward of a Brazilian hospital.
Dunn, Donald. Ponzi: The Incredible True Story of the King of Financial Cons. New York: Broadway Books, 2004. Zuckoff, Mitchell. Ponzi’s Scheme: The True Story of a Financial Legend. New York: Random House, 2005.