An interview with author Dean Jobb – CWA’s 2015 Book of the Year Award Winner for Non-Fiction, Traditionally Published
By Christina Rodriguez
Every Chicagoan knows the stories of corrupt early twentieth century Chicago. In the era of gangsters like Al Capone, you had every scam, swindle, scheme you could dream of with men who made you quiver all your money away.
Dean Jobb wrote about “the greatest con man you’ve never heard of,” running a phony oil empire with money that the Chicago’s elite of the 1920’s nearly threw at him. Who was this man and what led to his downfall? Empire of Deception talks about this man and one of the most successful and brazen frauds in history with a lesson. Said the New York Times: “Jobb’s immorality tale provides a sobering post-Madoff reminder that those who think everything is theirs for the taking are destined to be taken.”
Empire of Deception: The Incredible Story of a Master Swindler Who Seduced a City and Captivated the Nation was published in May 2015 from Algonquin Books in the U.S., HarperCollins Canada and HighBridge Audiobooks.
In addition to winning the Chicago Writers Association 2015 Book of the Year award for non-fiction, traditionally published, Jobb is a finalist for the 2015 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Award for Nonfiction. Empire of Deception is a Globe and Mail Top 100 Book of Year, a National Post Best Book of the Year, a CBC Books choice for holiday gift-giving and CNBC Power Lunch host Brian Sullivan’s pick as one of the top 5 books of 2015.
Jobb will travel all the way from his home in Nova Scotia to read from his award-winning book during CWA’s 5th annual awards presentation this Saturday, Jan. 23, 7 pm, at the Book Cellar in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood. All are invited to attend. The event is free and open to the public.
Before packing his bags, Jobb shared with us the story behind his award-winning book, Empire of Deception.
In one sentence, what is Empire of Deception about?
A master con man, Leo Koretz, hoodwinked the elite of 1920’s Chicago with tall tales of oil riches in Panama – and almost got away with it.
Give a general overview of your work.
I often describe Koretz as “the greatest con man you’ve never heard of.” Empire of Deception is the first book to tell the story of this Bernie Madoff of the 1920s and one of the most successful and brazen frauds in history. Koretz ran his swindles for almost two decades, pioneered the Ponzi scheme and stole as much as $400 million, in today’s terms. He was so successful that investors begged him to take their money. Not even the exposure of Charles Ponzi’s notorious scam in 1920, which gave the rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul investment fraud its name, aroused their suspicions. Koretz’s grateful investors nicknamed their financial guru “Our Ponzi,” never suspecting the joke was really on them.
How does Chicago influence your writing or writing life?
This is a story of gullibility and financial hijinks told against the backdrop of the brash, corrupt Chicago of the early twentieth century. There have been many spectacular frauds throughout history, but Koretz’s scheme was so audacious that it’s unlikely it could have been conceived and perpetuated anywhere else.
Novelist Henry Blake Fuller once described Chicago as “the only great city in the world to which all its citizens have come for the one common, avowed object of making money.” Koretz arrived in Chicago with ambition and imagination to spare, tapped into the get-rich-quick mentality of a time and place, and made his fortune – albeit an illegal one.
Empire of Deception is also the story of political corruption in 1920s Chicago. Cook County State’s Attorney Robert Crowe, who led the manhunt after Koretz absconded in 1923, was building a powerful political machine while the swindler was building his phony oil empire. But Crowe’s underworld ties and inability to crack down on Al Capone and other gangsters ultimately ended his political career.
Tell us about the events that led to you writing Empire of Deception?
Koretz fled to Canada under an assumed name, with enough stolen money to allow him to enjoy the high life in Nova Scotia, not far from where I live. And that’s how I discovered his story – I was researching another subject when I happened upon a reference to a newspaper account of his arrest in Halifax.
How long was the writing process for Empire of Deception? What kind of research did you have to do?
The research and writing took several years, as I worked around other projects and teaching commitments. Extensive coverage of the swindle in Chicago’s half-dozen daily newspapers, plus court files and other archival sources in Chicago and Nova Scotia, provided the rich detail I needed to bring to life Koretz, his scam and his times.
Tales from the pit: Do you have any lessons or anecdotes to share about the publishing process or industry that you learned while publishing Empire of Deception?
Never give up. I completed much of the research for Empire of Deception without a publishing contract. I knew it was an incredible story that would appeal to a wide audience – and I was confident I would find a publisher who also saw the potential.
Dean Jobb is an award-winning author and investigative journalist who lives in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. He is an associate professor in the School of Journalism of University of King’s College in Halifax.
Jobb is the author of six books: Empire of Deception: The Incredible Story of a Master Swindler Who Seduced a City and Captivated the Nation (Algonquin Books 2015) The Cajuns: A People’s Story of Exile and Triumph (John Wiley & Sons 2005) also simultaneously released in Canada as The Acadians: A People’s Story of Exile and Triumph; Calculated Risk: Greed, Politics and the Westray Tragedy (Nimbus Publishing, 1994); three collections of true-crime stories: Shades of Justice: Seven Nova Scotia Murder Cases (Nimbus 1988), Crime Wave: Con-Men, Rogues and Scoundrels from Nova Scotia’s Past (Pottersfield 1991), Bluenose Justice: True Tales of Mischief, Mayhem and Murder (Pottersfield 1993). Dean also has written/co-authored two comprehensive reference guides for journalism, Media Law for Canadian Journalists (Emond Montgomery Publications) and Digging Deeper: A Canadian Reporter’s Research Guide (Oxford University Press).
To find out more about Empire of Deception and Dean Jobb’s other books, head to his website here.