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Beer, Thomas (22 November 1888?–18 April 1940), writer, was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, the son of William Collins Beer, a corporate attorney and lobbyist, and Martha Ann Alice Baldwin. Though born in western Iowa, Thomas Beer spent most of his childhood in Yonkers, New York, with summers in Nantucket and on his grandfather’s farm in Bucyrus, Ohio. Wealth and position from his father’s Wall Street business gave Beer a distinct sense of social superiority, which he manifested in personal relations and cultural criticisms. Despising the bourgeoisie, the working-class masses, and the chic lifestyles of the Jazz Age, Beer projected an image of extreme conservatism and tesselated sophistication. At Yale, class of 1911, he was class poet, lifelong friend of the actor Monty Wooley, editor of the literary review, and contributor of twenty stories, essays, and poems. After college he spent five years as a dilatory student in the Columbia law school and as clerk in his father’s law firm, but when his father died at his professional nadir in 1916, Beer turned to letters. His first important short story—“The Brothers”—was published a few months later in the ...

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Dexter, Andrew, Jr. (28 March 1779–02 November 1837), attorney, financier, real estate speculator, and swindler, was the eldest child of Andrew Dexter, a Boston dry goods merchant, and Mary Newton. He was born in Brookfield, Massachusetts, where his parents had fled during the British siege of Boston, and grew up in Providence, Rhode Island. Dexter graduated from Rhode Island College (later Brown University) in 1798. His salutatory address expressed the heady combination of reverence for the leaders of the Revolution, anxiety about the future, and soaring ambition that marked the Revolutionary generation....

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Eaton, Amos (17 May 1776–10 May 1842), geologist, botanist, and educational reformer, was born in Chatham, New York, the son of Azubah Hurd and Abel Eaton, farmers. In 1790 Eaton went to Duanesburgh, New York, to live with a relative, Russell Beebe, who taught him land surveying. A blacksmith by trade, Beebe helped Eaton manufacture his own surveying instruments. From 1791 to 1795, Eaton studied the classics under private tutors in Chatham and nearby Hillsdale. He entered Williams College in 1795 and graduated in 1799. Also in 1799, Eaton began to study law in Spencertown, New York, and married Polly Thomas. They had one child before Polly died in 1802. The earliest hint of Eaton’s promise as an educator was realized with the publication of his surveying manual, ...

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Edwards, Monroe (1808–27 January 1847), slave trader, swindler, and forger, was born in Danville, Kentucky. He was said to have been the son of Major Amos Edwards; his mother’s name is not known. Details of his family background are obscure, but he was connected to the notable Kentucky Edwards family that produced, among others, a U.S. senator and a chief justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court....

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Billie Sol Estes. Tempera, ink, and pencil on board, 1962, by Boris Chaliapin. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Time magazine.

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Estes, Billie Sol (20 January 1925–14 May 2013), business entrepreneur, was born in Gray County, Texas, the second of six children of Lillian Coffman and John Levi Estes, struggling farmers. His parents raised their children in the fundamentalist Church of Christ. Young Billie attended local public schools near Clyde, Texas, and as a teenager wrote to President ...

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Griswold, Rufus Wilmot (13 February 1815–27 August 1857), editor and anthologist, was born on a farm in Benson, Vermont, the son of Rufus Griswold, a tanner and farmer, and Deborah Wass. Griswold’s early career consisted of a series of editorial and printing jobs for small-town papers in Vermont and New York. When ...

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Hiss, Alger (11 November 1904–15 November 1996), government official convicted of giving false testimony about Soviet espionage, was born in Baltimore, Maryland. His father, Charles Alger Hiss, a dry-goods importer, killed himself when Alger was two. His mother, Mary Lavinia Hughes Hiss, raised Alger and four siblings with the support of her husband's family. Hiss attended Baltimore public schools and Powder Point Academy in Massachusetts. He graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 1926 with an exemplary record. Similar success at Harvard Law School led to his selection in 1929 as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice ...

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Lay, Ken (15 April 1942–05 July 2006), businessman, was born Kenneth Lee Lay in Tyrone, Missouri, the son of Omer Lay, a feed store owner, traveling agricultural equipment salesman, and lay Baptist pastor, and Ruth Reese Lay. After his father’s store failed, the family was reduced to poverty, sometimes staying with relatives on a farm, and Ken did not live in a house with indoor plumbing until he was eleven years old. He helped support his parents by delivering newspapers, mowing lawns, and baling hay for neighboring farmers....

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Gaston B. Means Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-109386).

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Means, Gaston Bullock (11 July 1879–12 December 1938), spy, swindler, and detective, was born in Blackwelder’s Spring, North Carolina, the son of William Gaston Means, an attorney, and Corallie Bullock. Means grew up in Concord, North Carolina, in a family that had lost most of its considerable wealth during the Civil War. He left the University of North Carolina in 1900, early in his third year, and served for two years as the superintendent of the elementary schools in Stanly County, adjacent to Concord. In 1902 he took a job as a salesman for the Cannon textile mills, living in New York City and traveling widely....

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Mickley, Joseph Jacob (24 March 1799–15 February 1878), numismatist, was born in Catasauqua, Northall Township, Northampton County, Pennsylvania, the son of John Jacob Mickley and Eva Catherine Schrieber, farmers. At seventeen Mickley moved to Philadelphia, where he finished an apprenticeship in making pianos and in 1822 began a musical-instrument-making business. He developed a fine reputation for repair and restoration of stringed instruments. In 1831 the Franklin Institute awarded him a prize for his skill in manufacturing pianos. Mickley was married twice, first to Cordelia Hopfeldt and then to Diana Blummer, and had six children (dates and number of children for each marriage are unknown)....

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Musica, Philip Mariano Fausto (12 May 1884–16 December 1938), swindler, alias William Johnson and Frank Donald Coster, was born in New York City, the son of Antonio Musica, a barber, and Assunta Mauro, both recent immigrants from Naples, Italy. Musica attended public schools on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where he was reportedly a good student with a somewhat depressive nature. After one or two years of attending high school, he left to help his father operate a modest grocery store....

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Ponzi, Charles (03 March 1882–17 January 1949), financial scam artist, was born Carlo Pietro Giovanni Guglielmo Tebaldo Ponzi in Lugo, Italy, the son of Oreste Ponzi, a postman, and Imelda (maiden name unknown) Ponzi. His parents relocated to Rome shortly after his birth, and Ponzi spent his early years in Parma, where he attended both public and private schools. He entered the University of Rome, but his dissolute living led him to withdraw prior to graduation....