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Listings for Baker from the 1935 Chicago telephone book.Public Domain

Daniel Panneton is the manager of the Online Hate Research & Education Project at the Sarah & Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre.

In his 1956 work The Professional Thief, the pseudonymous former criminal Chic Conwell describes how estate fraud convinces “suckers” that they are either heirs to or potential investors in unclaimed fortunes, often with a gripping story. Once endemic to Canadian and American society, estate fraud is less of a concern than it once was, but enough Canadians still fall for the scam that the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre lists it as an ongoing concern, and the Better Business Bureau describes the advance-fee collection that’s integral to estate fraud as the riskiest scam in the country in 2020. Understanding what makes estate fraud work has interest beyond simple financial security awareness, as understanding its motivating passions can provide insight into our increasingly suspicious, conspiratorially charged milieu. To illustrate how a heady blend of conspiratorial thinking and misinformation can trick otherwise intelligent adults into acting foolishly, we can look to a particularly successful historical example of the con: the Baker Estate Fraud.

Despite being routinely disproven by the press and authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries, various groups of scammers were able to bilk thousands of Canadian and American Baker “heirs” out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Details vary, but accounts generally agree that a Major Jacob Baker, veteran of the American Revolution, died wealthy, childless and intestate. His land in Philadelphia had been leased to the municipality for 99 years, and some versions included holdings outside the city that were collecting income in a bank account and quietly earning interest. As luck would have it, the municipality’s lease ran out in the early 1890s, and it was now up to Baker heirs across North America to band together and claim a fortune reputedly worth about US$300,000,000.

The story was, of course, nonsense. There was no plot of land, no bank account. There hadn’t even been a Major Baker in George Washington’s Continental Army. Uncomfortable details notwithstanding, thousands across Canada and the U.S. organized into “heirs associations” to try to get their hands on the fortune. Associations would typically organize events to attract new due-paying members, then pool the funds to hire either credulous or unscrupulous lawyers and genealogists to press their claims. Some organizations required proof of lineage; others allowed outsiders to buy into the scheme. At the meetings, attendees were constantly assured that their claims were close to being proven and that association leaders just needed a little extra help for a final push. Attempts to gather the mythical fortune in the 1890s went nowhere, yet the rumour popped up again in Ontario in 1908, 1911 and 1916, with new and old claimants making new attempts at a fortune now enshrined in family legend.

The con saw a particularly successful run under William Baker, who took over the Ontario Baker Heirs Association in the 1910s and quickly became a key node in an international network of genealogical swindlers. As with many people in estate frauds, it’s not clear how he initially became involved – some eventual con leaders began as dupes themselves. What’s clear is that Baker and his wife lived comfortably on the income they pulled in from the heirs association, eventually purchasing two desirable farm lots in Vaughan and staying in ritzy hotels while in Toronto. Baker travelled to Philadelphia several times on the association’s collective dime, claiming that he was meeting with a “syndicate” involving a shadowy “Mr. Rice,” who was pressing their claim in “a battle of wits with these big men in Philadelphia.” Over the better course of a decade, Baker and his wife collected and shared with associates hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In 1928 Parliament passed the Security Frauds Prevention Act, which according to Ontario Attorney-General William Herbert Price was “to control such organizations as the Baker heirs or any other heirs.” Baker’s offices were raided that year, doctored records were recovered, and he was subsequently found guilty of violating the new law. At trial it was revealed that, in addition to the Baker Heirs Association, he also oversaw at least five other heir associations: the Drake-Watson-Springer Association, the Aleka-Webber-James-Bogardus-Edwards Association, the California Ruttan Heirs Association of California, the International Page Heirs and the Fisher Heirs Association of Holland. The chairman of the Pennsylvania Securities Commission wrote that the Bakers were in fact acting on behalf of a Philadelphia lawyer named Aaron Seligsohn, whom he described as the “brains and the actual head” of various Baker organizations. Baker was sentenced to one year in prison but was released early on account of his age and the non-violent nature of his crimes. After his release, he attempted to restart his heir associations but did not replicate the success of the previous decade.

Misinformation, be it falsified genealogy or facts about COVID-19, has a stabilizing function, offering tangible narratives that can be clung to. François Weil points out in Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America that genealogical fraud was used by many to reinforce and affirm otherwise weak identities. Similar factors help explain why people are falling into the meta-conspiracy theories surrounding QAnon – at a time of social fragmentation and alienation, membership in either the Ontario Baker Heirs Association or identifying as a Q “digital soldier” can provide individuals with a founding myth and a set of aspirational beliefs.

Although misinformation provides the illusion of stability, it’s remarkably fluid. Fact and history have the unfortunate characteristic of being bound by truth, but scams like the Baker fraud demonstrate how those peddling misinformation are free to remix and adapt “facts” to their current context. Studies show that misinformation and falsehoods travel farther and faster than verifiable facts, as the truth is often less than spectacular. As a result, the spectacle of targeted misinformation survives and even escapes debunking attempts. In Kingston, the Baker story received a United Empire Loyalist revision, with potential heirs being told about the estate of one William Baker who had actually fled the American Revolution, leaving behind valuable land in New York.

The Baker fraud was prevalent during periods of enormous upheaval and inequality, providing both solid ground and a sense of hope. The entire fraud was built around a conspiratorial narrative and sustained with misinformation. Such a foundation made attempts like the Baker fraud impervious to debunking, as they activate deeply held beliefs and desires rather than encouraging critical thought. Attempts by officials to prevent swindles only drew suspicion and hostility, because it wasn’t just factuality being called into question but an entire sense of identity and purpose during times of uncertainty and alienation. In many ways it wasn’t just the fortune that drove individuals – it was the promise of community and unity while fighting a gross conspiratorial injustice.

Misinformation, when articulated through a conspiratorial framework, is a recipe for the intoxicating resentment that draws individuals into troubling circles. The Baker fraud provided the “heirs” with identifiable enemies: meddling police officers, swindling banks, untrustworthy politicians. Press coverage of heirs association meetings often commented on how attendees were united in a sense of outrage at being denied their birthright, a shared resentment that transcended class and gender – alderman and future mayor of Toronto W.W. Hiltz got caught up in the scheme in 1916, while newspaper reports describe a number of meeting attendees who paid their last dollar to get in and an unusual number of women taking part. Much like modern hoaxes and conspiracy theories such as QAnon, inheritance hoaxes provided many roads into the fold. Different elements would have appealed to different claimants, but once a member of an heirs association, their own motivations would meld into a reductive, resentful mix.

People are not as immune to cons, hoaxes or conspiracies as we’d like to think. Although few today fall for inheritance scams, many more are falling prey to conspiracy theories and targeted misinformation. We all think conspiratorially about certain things and are susceptible to the appealing functions of conspiracy, namely convenient truths, community, stability and purpose. How might these dynamics manifest in your own life? In Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories, psychologist Rob Brotherton argues that conspiracy theories “resonate with some of our brain’s built-in biases and shortcuts, and tap into some of our deepest desires, fears, and assumptions about the world and the people in it,” concluding that “we have innately suspicious minds.” Patterns of conspiratorial thinking within the Baker fraud, including resentment, group think and the lure of easy answers, continue to find manifestations today.

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