Another Wicked Swindle

Nellie Bly

The New York World/March 31, 1889

Nellie Bly Exposes A Fraud In Worthless Washing Machines.

A Miserable Trick to Induce Poor People to Send Their Money with the Promise of Big Rewards—Brazen Effrontery of the Swindlers—Letters from Poor Women Who Have Been Made Victims.

Swindlers and swindled! Divide the population of America into two parts and you have two classes—the swindlers and the swindled, and the census of one will equal that of the other every time. Every day I get a letter from victims telling of new forms of swindles. A woman bought a set of teeth and they poisoned her mouth, and wanted to know if I would avenge her. A man bought a suit warranted all wool, and the daylight proved it all cotton. Another bought a pair of trousers, and the first breath of air made them shrink above his shoe tops. A woman paid to have her hair bleached golden, and it bleached red. A man paid $6.25 for a ton of coal which only measured half a ton. Women pay for lessons in embroidery, scarf making, crayon work, needle work and are never taught. Canvassers pay for books they can never sell. People buy eggs at fifty cents a dozen which are not exactly what they are represented to be.

Nor are these victims half so numerous as those who pay good money to guess the number of beans in a quart measure, or to guess the number of links in a chain, or to pay $2—merely as a guarantee of good faith—for the loan of $200, which they are to receive the following week, or to give $5, and in a few days be advanced several hundreds of dollars with which so establish a business, or to pay $20 and learn the future and make a fortune. Of course they never get the money they expect in return for these investments. All these swindlers live on the fat of the land, while the swindled have to flail about and bewail their stupidity. By some means the swindlers keep just outside the clutches of the law.

Two of the most desirable things in a woman’s life are to lesson compulsory labor and to dress well. Imagine then what an effect it would have on any woman who read an advertisement in which it was said that for $1 a washing machine could be bought that could do the family wash without assistance in thirty minutes, and to every woman sending $1 for a wonderful washes, the machine would be given a thirty-dollar black silk dress. Well, there in such an advertisement, and there are hundreds of women who have believed in it and who have lost their money for the washer. Here is the advertisement as it was published in a number of weekly and monthly journals which have a circulation in country towns:



We will send as a FREE GIFT, a full suit of clothes for a gentleman, or a dress pattern of black silk for a lady (value $30—take your choice), to every one who will send for one of our wonderful Automatic Familly Washing Machines (see description, &c, below), show it to their friends and help me in future sales. We can afford to pay all such well, hence this offer of a useful and practical present. We believe we can effect sales and secure agents at a much less cost this way than by expensive advertising, though we will try it anyway. IT IS A GRAND CHANCE TO SECURE A SILK DRESS OR SUIT OF CLOTHES FREE (CHEST, WAIST AND LEG MEASURES WILL DO.)



I have heard of this swindle for some time, but one day I received the two letters following and having nothing else to do I decided to see what the business was like:

“You are so kind in exposing frauds, to protect poor persons, will you kindly give the accompanying your attention. A girl in my employ answered the enclosed advertisement, expecting to receive the dress, imagining  that she would help sell the machines among her friends. She sent the dollar as called for, and received a trumpery affair of cloth for handkerchiefs and small pieces. If necessary I will send you the money if you will make the investigation.”

One of The Swindled Victims

A girl who wanted a silk dress more then she did the washer wrote this pathentic and phonetic letter:

“they adviarts if any on wood by ther washing machines and tell thr frends about it that the would send silk dress with it. I sent for it and she only sent a little machine it is of now youse so the only Put it in the Paper for a frode and I are only a living out Girl I told them to send she machin and the silk dress and I wood tall all my frends they put it in all the country Papers.


I asked a friend to allow me to use her name and address and then I wrote to the firm in a manner I thought would be usual among their patrons.

“I read your advertisement where you send a dress of black silk free to anyone who sends you $1 for a washing machine. Inclosed find $1 for machine and dress.”

This letter I registered at Station E. and it was returned to me signed by H.C. Smith, Treasurer New York Laundry Works. The following day I received a package which on opening I found to contain the marvelous washer. It is needless to add that there was no silk dress nor even a scrap of silk, but inclosed was a printed wrapper, an explanation of their fraudulent advertisement. The washer was tested and proved to be a perfectly useless, and instead of doing a family wash in thirty minutes I don’t believe it would do a wash in thirty years.

I afterwards wrote to the firm about the silk dress which they had forgotten to send, but they did not waste postage in replying. As they would not answer my letters I decided to visit them. I went to Day street, and after considerable hunting about I learned from a letter carrier that the firm I wanted was in a corner building on the second floor above a saloon. The entrance to their office was at a different number entirely to that over which they advertised. I followed a man up the dirty stairs and he kindly showed me No. 9, the office where the New York Laundry Works carry on their business.

It was a strange place for a business office. The room was not large and was decidedly dirty. There was a stove, and several desks strewed with papers and letters. The floor was very dirty and had never known a carpet. It was almost covered with torn envelopes, which some lazy person had been too careless to put into a waste basket. I thought as I looked at the pile of loose paper what an easy place it would be to set on fire. By the table nearest the door sat a young girl inclosing hundreds of the washer pamphlets in envelopes and preparing them for the mails. Four sample machines stood on the table beside her.

The Impudent Swindlers

There was only one window in the room, and near to it sat two men smoking and playing cards. They had their hats set on the back of their heads and seemed entirely occupied with the game.

The young girl at the table looked up at me when I entered, and so did the men, but no one spoke. The girl looked as if she was afraid, and the men looked as if they did not want to have their game interrupted. At last, when I made a movement to go in to them, one came up and, standing before me, waited for me to explain my business.

“I want to see the proprietor of the New York Laundry Works,” I said.

“I am the proprietor,” he said.

“Well, you advertise a silk dress and washing machine for $1, and you do not live up to your advertisement,” I began by the way of an introduction.

“We do not advertise any such thing,” he said shortly.

“But you do,” I insisted. “I read your advertisement, and my servant sent for a machine and dress, and you only sent the machine, which is absolutely useless.”

“Well, I can’t help it if you thought you would get a thirty-dollar silk dress for a dollar.” he said impudently. “No one with sense would think such a thing.”

“But your advertisement says so.”

“No, it doesn’t. You read it again and you’ll see we don’t intend to send any silk dress,” he said.

“Then your advertisement is a fraud, and you are practicing a fraud on the people by publishing it.”

“You can get your lawyer and try to prove it,” he said with a sneer. “Our advertisement is rather flowery, but we keep within the letter of the law.” Getting a copy of the advertisement reproduced above be handed it to me.

“Now, I defy you to show me where we say we will give a silk dress free.”

“Well, the first line reads, ‘Free, a black silk dress.’”—

“Yes, but we don’t say we’ll give it free,” he said slyly.

“Well, here it says ‘Don’t delay if you wish to secure one of these presents. Goods will be sent same day as order is received.’”—

“That means the washing-machine. We can’t help it if people think ‘goods’ refers to the silk dress.”

Admitting The Fraud

“You know that is your motive and you are swindling poor people out of their money just in this way.”

“Well, we can’t help what you think, and if there is fraud in it try to get your lawyer to prove it. I can show you thousands of testimonials where people say the machine is a success.”

“Very well, tell me one woman in New York and I will be glad to call upon her.”

He hesitated, his face flushed and his eyes moved about uneasily.

“There is no one just in New York I can give you, but there are thousands in Pennsylvania and Connecticut and Massachusetts. Come over here and I will show you some testimonials.”

I followed him in to a desk. An expressman came in and left again, and another man, evidently one of the firm, came in and sat down at a desk. All the occupants of the room seemed interested, but no one ventured a word. He took down some dozen badly written letters, which told about selling machines to their friends, but not one about getting the reward of a silk dress or a suit of clothes.

“These letters only go to prove what I said, that you swindle poor and ignorant people.”

“No we don’t, we have rich people buy from us.”

“Bosh! What would rich people want with a washing-machine, even if a marvel? And the ones who sell such articles by the means employed are not honest.”

“You wouldn’t call the new Postmaster General dishonest, would you? Well, John Wannemaker sells hundreds of these machines over his counter in Philadelphia.”

“Will you give me some names of people who have found this washer a success?”

The man wrote these two names on a piece of paper and gave them to me.

“You see I did not know that you were coming, and did not manufacture those testimonials for your benefit,” he said with a grin.

“No, but you doubtless expect some of your victims to call, so that does not prove anything.” I replied. “I think in this business you are making a wrong use of the mails.”

“Well, we can’t help what you think. But prove it if you can,” he said defiantly, as I left the office.

There are hundreds of such firms existing.

(Source: Undercover Reporting,