By Michael Jacobs / mjacobs@atljewishtimes.com

"Empire of Deception" by Dean Jobb

“Empire of Deception” by Dean Jobb

Unless you’re an expert on 1920s America, you probably don’t know the name Leo Koretz. But for good or bad, he ranks with Bernie Madoff at the top of the ranks of Jewish swindlers in American history.

Koretz perfected the Ponzi scheme before Ponzi began his swindle, and he kept the scam going after Ponzi rose and fell in 1920. A lawyer who got his financial start by selling forged mortgages, Koretz moved on to real estate scams involving rice farmland in Arkansas before hitting the mother lode with Panama, which captured the American imagination in the early years of the canal era.

His investors, who included all of his family members, believed so completely in Koretz that they jokingly called him “Our Ponzi” while celebrating the triple-digit returns he was earning them.

He was the toast of Chicago until his scam and his womanizing were revealed in 1923 when he sent some colleagues to Panama to visit the nonexistent oil wells on which his empire rested. In the end he spent little more than a month in prison before dying from diabetes (unless, as some claimed, he faked his own death).

Dean Jobb brings Koretz and the Chicago of the early 1920s to life in “Empire of Deception.” Jobb, a journalist based in Nova Scotia, was drawn to the story when he learned about Koretz’s final great scam. After fleeing Chicago with hundreds of thousands of dollars, he made his way to Nova Scotia under a false identity and bought a hunting lodge, where he lived like Gatsby for most of a year until being exposed.

Jobb expertly mixes newspaper research with witness interviews to weave a rollicking narrative. His secondary focus on Robert Crowe, a Chicago politician who started with Koretz at the same law firm in 1901 and prosecuted Koretz in 1924, brings Koretz’s life into sharper relief. Jobb also works in such infamous Chicago characters as Al Capone and Leopold and Loeb.

The result is a memorable, fast-moving work of history.

 

Empire of Deception

By Dean Jobb

$27.95, Algonquin Books, out now