Editor’s note: Laura Bien’s most recent “In the Archives” column highlighted a 19th century scam involving oats. That column briefly mentioned a lightning rod scam. In this month’s column Bien provides a bit more background on lightning rod swindles.
Scams and swindles proliferated in the late 19th century, despite a sometimes idealized modern-day view of the period. “Work at home” offers targeted housewives in an era with very few opportunities for women to gain respectable work outside of the home. The candidate had to purchase a sample embroidery kit or small artwork, complete it, and return it to the company. Invariably, the finished work was never acceptable – because the companies made their money not in farming out work to home-based workers, but in selling samples.
Patent medicines were rife. Food adulteration was common. Fake doctors took trains from town to town, offering miraculous cures. Promissory-note shenanigans took place.
One little-known yet strange swindle, which affected Washtenaw County farmers, the state as a whole, and elsewhere, involved no more than a simple metal stick – a lightning rod.