The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

American history is full of conmen and great innovation. That’s not a coincidence.

The line between a dreamer who does the impossible and a scam artist is often thin.

Disgraced financier Bernie Madoff leaves U.S. District Court in Manhattan after a bail hearing on Jan. 5, 2009. (Kathy Willens/AP)

When Bernie Madoff died April 14, it was front-page news — and a reminder of the outsize role that conmen play in American society.

Yet the tale of a long-forgotten Madoff precursor reveals that Americans’ susceptibility to audacious fraudsters isn’t all bad. In fact, it’s closely related to our country’s history of innovation and ingenuity.

On Sept. 2, 1909, the New York Herald announced that explorer Frederick Cook had reached the North Pole. Cook’s achievement was a global sensation, but Americans especially rejoiced. Bars started serving the Cook cocktail (gin, maraschino, lemon juice, plenty of ice). President William Howard Taft wired his congratulations. Children sent Cook letters asking whether he’d seen Santa Claus.

But then allies of Cook’s archrival Robert Peary revealed that Cook had almost certainly lied about his feat. They discovered that he had fabricated prior headline-grabbing accomplishments as well, including the first ascent of Denali, North America’s highest peak. “He will count forever among the greatest impostors of the world,” the New York Times asserted. Cook was left to crow about his dubious achievements from the vaudeville stage, a sad pantomime of glory.

Seeking a second act, he remade himself as an oilman. Trading on his notoriety, he built a $300 million business (in 1920s dollars) selling shares in a bundle of oil concerns that turned out to be worthless. In 1923, he was sentenced to 14 years in Leavenworth for fraud.

Cook’s deceit fits in the inglorious tradition of Madoff, whose promises likewise were too good to be true. His combination of showmanship and salesmanship echoed P.T. Barnum and prefigured Donald Trump. He was, in a word, the quintessential American flimflam man.

But Cook was also the embodiment of the American Dream, and his bold fantasies can easily be seen as a variant of the gumption that built Hollywood and Silicon Valley, that sent a man to the moon and formed the first trillion-dollar company. In fact, Cook’s remarkable life story illustrates how American ingenuity lies on the razor’s edge between optimism and delusion, between imagination and deceit.

The son of German immigrants, Cook was raised in poverty and learned to hustle in the streets of Brooklyn. By his late teens, he had built a milk-delivery empire from scratch and earned enough to pay his way through medical school.

He was hired as a surgeon on an Arctic expedition, and later toured up and down the Eastern Seaboard in the early 1890s, delighting audiences with semi-staged lectures about his polar travels. (His tour manager was J.B. Pond, whose clients included such larger-than-life characters as Barnum, Mark Twain and the half-American Winston Churchill.) Cook had convinced the father of two Inuit children to let them spend a few months in the United States with him, to take part in his stage show. Though his Inuit wards seem to have been as enamored by his charisma as everyone else, the fact remains that his polar presentations were as exploitative as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows.

Amid the exploratory frenzy of the late-19th century, when Western powers scrambled to stake out and claim swaths of land, Cook dreamed of leading his own expedition to Antarctica, which remained all but blank at the bottom of world maps. His goal wasn’t conquest — there were no Indigenous Antarctic people to conquer — but glory.

Yet despite teasing the prospect of an Antarctic gold rush, he couldn’t raise the money. Out of desperation, he joined a scrappy Belgian scientific expedition bound for the southernmost continent, helmed by a commandant named Adrien de Gerlache. In early 1898, hoping to reach a high southern latitude, de Gerlache steered his ship, the Belgica, into the thickening sea ice of the Bellingshausen Sea. This maneuver left the vessel imprisoned in the pack ice for more than a year. Ravaged by cold, darkness and stultifying monotony, the men saw their bodies and minds break down.

Cook was the most popular man aboard, a genuine hero. His brilliant interventions revealed the beneficial side of his overflowing imagination. Faced with rampant scurvy, Cook urged his shipmates to abandon canned food and bottled lime juice for fresh penguin and seal meat. Nothing in his medical training suggested that this tactic would work. But Cook figured that if an all-meat diet was good for the Inuit in the Arctic, it should be good for the Belgica’s men. His hunch proved correct, and the expeditioners retreated from the brink of death.

As his shipmates fell prey to depression and illness during the months-long Antarctic night, Cook took tender care of them. “When anyone was sick, he was at his bedside to comfort him; when any was disheartened, he was there to encourage and inspire,” wrote the ship’s first mate, Roald Amundsen, who would go on to become perhaps the greatest polar explorer of all time. “Cook’s ingenuity and enterprise were boundless.”

Cook became a sun-worshipper. Inspired by his (mis) understanding of Inuit metaphysics, he believed that light was as essential to human well-being as food and water. Since he couldn’t bring the icebound Belgica to the light, he attempted to bring light to the Belgica. He ordered the most severely affected men to disrobe and stand for an hour in the bright glow of a blazing coal fire. Cook’s “baking treatment,” as he called it, is the first known instance of light therapy, regularly used today to treat seasonal affective disorder and other forms of depression.

The sun came and went, and the Belgica was still stuck fast. Certain that his shipmates would not survive a second winter in the ice, Cook proposed an escape plan worthy of Houdini (with whom he’d once shared a stage). His fellow officers laughed at the notion that 17 exhausted men could break a ship out of a mile-wide floe of ice more than three feet thick. But Cook threw himself into it, digging trenches to allow the sun to reach the bottom layer of ice. The plan failed, but Cook’s persistence motivated his shipmates to put their minds together and methodically saw their way out of the ice. The herculean effort was a triumph of human labor, born of a harebrained flight of fancy.

Cook’s heroics aboard the Belgica cast the deceptions of his later years in a different light. At heart, he was a dreamer — his defense during his fraud trial was that he was guilty only of optimism — and exactly the sort of creative thinker responsible for many major achievements in American history.

Sometimes his dreaming and scheming did great good, and in other cases it flopped. Cook’s story reveals how, when it comes to big ideas, there’s a fine line between deception and faking it till you make it, and sometimes only the outcome can determine whether someone is a genius or a fraud. Throughout his life, Cook vacillated between the two.

Generation after generation, Americans have been taken in by outlandish promises. The very idea of the United States was a great gamble, and we remain drawn to slim odds. This tendency makes us easy marks — like the victims of Cook’s oil racket or Madoff’s multibillion-dollar swindle. But Cook didn’t just take advantage of our delusional optimism. On the Antarctic pack, he embodied it.

Every once in a while, the impossible dream is realized. The promise is kept. And when that happens, as it did aboard the Belgica when all hope seemed lost, the result is nothing short of magic.