Home » Episodes » Episode 76 – Montgomery, AL & Boston, MA (Ponzi Schemes & Viola Liuzzo)

This week on Horrible History, Emily heads to Montgomery, Alabama to tell the story of baaadddd bitttchhh Viola Luizzo, an American civil rights activist killed by the KKK in March 1965. Then, Rachel tells the story of Charles Ponzi, an Italian swindler and con artist whose name is where we get the term “Ponzi Scheme.”

Story 1 – Viola Liuzzo

Let me set the stage a bit. The United States was not a great place to live for anyone that wasn’t a white man. In the South especially, Black people endured horrific indignities thanks to Jim Crow laws that legalized segregation across in the region.

This “separate, but equal” approach legalized specific restaurants, water fountains, schools, restrooms, and public transportation where African-Americans were allowed. Thus, Black Americans were not welcomed in numerous neighborhoods, public gathering places, and religious or social organizations across the South. This legalized segregation led to inferior living and educational conditions for African-Americans. While white students enjoyed high-quality school buildings with new supplies, black students frequently attended poorly maintained schools with minimal books and resources. Even when they were allowed to intermingle on venues such as public transportation, blacks were forced to sit or stand in the back of the bus even if there were seats available in the white section.

And that is not even the half of it. People like Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to organize non-violent protests, sit-ins, boycotts, and protest marches. But, the KKK and other racists were not happy about the progress being made. The 1960s saw the most serious and widespread series of race riots in the history of the United States. 

On March 7, 1965, the civil rights movement in Alabama took an especially violent turn as 600 peaceful demonstrators participated in the Selma to Montgomery march to protest the killing of Black civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson by a white police officer and to encourage legislation to enforce the 15th amendment. This day was known as Bloody Sunday and  state troopers and men from the county attacked the unarmed marchers with billy clubs and tear gas after they passed over the county line.

At this point, MLK was planning a 5 day, peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery for March 20 – 25. But, the horrible garbage human Governor Wallace (who famously said “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” during his inaugural speech), was trying to block the protest. So, Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson introduced voting rights legislation in an address to a joint session of Congress. In what became a famous speech, he identified the clash in Selma as a turning point in U.S. history akin to the Battles of Lexington and Concord in the American Revolution. 

On March 17, after several days of testimony, Judge Johnson ruled in favor of the protestors. Under the terms of the ruling, an unlimited number of people would be permitted to begin and finish the march (which was required to be completed in five days), but only 300 marchers were to be allowed to cover the 22-mile (35-km) two-lane portion of U.S. Highway 80 that passed through Lowndes county.

Now that I have set that stage, let’s rewind a tiny bit. Because I want to tell you about one particular person today. A particular person that was involved in all of the things I just walked through… and her name was Viola Liuzzo. And because it does matter to this story – Viola was a white woman.

Viola was born in Pennsylvania on April 11, 1925, she was raised in poverty in Georgia and Tennessee during the Great Depression, where she witnessed segregation first-hand. As a child in Chattanooga, Liuzzo despised how cruelly she and her sister Rose Mary were treated as poor kids living in one-room shacks — yet she couldn’t help noticing black kids were treated even worse.

Viola Liuzzo was a restless person. She married at 16 but had it annulled the next day. She married again and had two daughters, Penny and Mary. Seven years later she was divorced again. In 1950, she married Anthony Liuzzo Sr., a Teamsters leader. They had three children, Anthony Jr., Thomas and Sally.

Over many years her children have spoken about the type of woman that Viola was. Here are a few of those anecdotes.

“If Mom saw a wrong . . . she took action,” said Penny. She went on to say that when a neighbor’s house burned down one Christmas eve, her mother pounded on the door of a toy store owner’s home, insisting he open his shop so she could buy presents for the displaced family.

Penny also talked about a time when a baby her mother was carrying was born stillborn — sadly, the Catholic church refused to bury her infant because it wasn’t baptized and she was outraged. She left Catholicism after that.

Another instance of Viola’s depth of love and compassion for others also shined at work. Once she discovered that a secretary where she worked had been laid off without severance pay. She gave the woman her entire paycheck hoping it would embarrass her employer into giving the woman severance. It didn’t, and she paid for her activism by losing her own job.

She was also ambitious. Viola Liuzzo wouldn’t settle for being a housewife. Though she was a ninth-grade dropout, in 1961 she enrolled in night classes to become a medical assistant. She graduated with top honors. While her neighbors were taking cooking classes or doing church volunteer work, Viola was preparing for a career, going to school, raising 5 kids… and on top of that… she was crusading for equal rights.

Viola was spurred to join the efforts of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and after seeing televised footage of hundreds of peaceful protestors being clubbed and tear-gassed by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965 she decided to drive to Selma, Alabama from Detroit to join in the Selma to Montgomery march.

When she called home. “I’m going,” she cheerfully announced. “I’m on the way.”

Viola Liuzzo

Her husband was like… civil rights “isn’t your fight.” But Viola just responded with, “It’s everybody’s fight.” And she got in her Oldsmobile and drove 800 miles to Selma.

There, Liuzzo was one of 2,000 marchers gathered. And she plunged right in, she joined the movement’s transportation committee and there her role was to ferry civil rights marchers around Selma, essentially.  Now, some of those marchers were black men. Viola was likely aware of the dangers of a white woman being seen in a car with a black man at the time – especially because cars displaying swastikas drove by marchers constantly. White locals made obscene gestures at white women marchers walking next to black men.

It probably didn’t help that Gov. Wallace publicly warn Alabamans that white women like Viola had come down from the North for the march would be going back home to give birth to black babies.

And then photographers and members of the press were trying to photograph marchers at night when they camped out in the open during the five-day, 50-mile march… likely because they wanted to get pictures of black men with white women.

One of the days that she was in Alabama she went to a speech / rally type of thing and someone that was there shared this quote…

She was standing there, clutching a check. She brought it up onto the stage and presented it – it was a check from her husband’s union. On her way back to her seat, there was a big cheer and applause. She was just beaming. She walked past me, nodding at me as if to say, ‘We’re going to win this thing.’”

On March 25, 1965, Viola marched from Selma to Montgomery with 25,000 others led by Dr. King. She listened to MLK speak his now famous speech “How long, not long” where he said… “however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because “truth crushed to earth will rise again.” How long? Not long, because “no lie can live forever.” How long? Not long, because “you shall reap what you sow.”

After this, Viola called home around 8 pm to let her family know how joyful the day had been.

That night, Liuzzo, tired but exhilarated, shuttled local marchers back to their homes. She volunteered to drive Leroy Moton, an African American teen back to Selma.

While she was driving Leroy, a car full of Klansman started following Viola and Leroy, tailing her and trying to run her off the road. Viola actually tried to outrun the men, singing, ‘We Shall Overcome,’ but it was reported that the Klansmen pulled alongside her car and fired the fatal bullets. Viola was hit in the head and died instantly. Her passenger, Leroy Moton, pretended to be dead and was left unharmed.

President Lyndon Johnson personally called Viola’s husband, Anthony and told him… ‘I don’t think she died in vain because this is going to be a battle, all out as far as I’m concerned.’ And within 24 hours of the murder, President Lyndon Johnson went on television to announce the arrests of the KKK members – Eugene Thomas, Collie Leroy Wilkins, Jr., William Orville Eaton, and Gary Thomas Rowe – and demanded an immediate Congressional investigation of the KKK.

This… didn’t go great at first. They compiled an all-white, all-male jury that – despite eyewitness testimony and ballistics evidence – acquitted all four men of Viola’s murder. Then they were tried again under different charges. Their trial was moved to a different jurisdiction and three were sentenced to 10 years in prison for violating her civil rights. Which is the weirdest way to say MURDER that I’ve ever heard.

The fourth guy, by the way, was not convicted because he was granted immunity because he was actually an FBI informant within the KKK.

Viola’s funeral in Detroit was attended by many dignitaries, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King himself comforted Viola’s family. He pulled them aside and said, ‘I wanted you to know something: 30 years ago, my dad couldn’t be in this ballroom. And today you and I are here together, and it’s because of your mother.”

SO, you might be thinking… yeah, Viola was a hero! Why haven’t I heard about her?? Wellll, after her death her reputation was slandered, as false accusations were made about her morality, dedication to her family, and drug use.

Newspaper reports claimed that Viola had gone south to meet and have sex with black men. Another rumor claimed she was a drug addict. And the July 1965 issue of The Ladies’ Home Journal published a poll that asked if readers thought Liuzzo was a good mother. Fifty-five percent didn’t. (“I feel sorry for what happened,” said one woman in a focus group convened to talk about the Liuzzo story, “but I feel she should have stayed home and minded her own business.”)

Then bumper stickers started appearing on cars and trucks in the county where Viola was murdered, saying, “Open Season.” Next, a group of people tried to break down the Viola’s family’s door, and a cross was burned on their lawn.

One of her daughters, Sally said she remembered vividly the morning she returned to first grade after her mother’s death. She was wearing her saddle shoes, which her older sister, Penny, had polished.

“It was pouring rain that day. And I looked down at my saddle shoes and the white polish was coming off,” she says. “These people — grown-ups — lined the street and were throwing rocks at me, calling me ‘N-lover’s baby.’ I didn’t know what that meant. I thought it was because of my shoes.”

Anthony – Viola’s husband –withdrew his daughter from the school and had her transferred. For years, he drove her to and from school every day and even hired two armed guards to watch their house day and night for two years.

The family couldn’t figure out where people were getting these lies from. Then, when the Klansmen were put on trial for Viola’s death, the fact that one of the guys was a paid informant for the FBI came out. And years later what they found out was that the rumors about Viola came DIRECTLY from none other than the man himself: J. Edgar. Hoover.

People think it’s probably because he was desperate to divert attention from the agency because he was worried that Gary Rowe was culpable in Viola’s death… so, the obvious alternative was to smear her instead.

His claims in official reports were that cuts on Viola’s arms from the car’s shattered window indicated “recent drug use” and that her proximity to Moton resembled “a necking party,” despite an autopsy revealing no traces of drugs in her system and indicating she hadn’t had sex recently before her death.

The FBI also held Viola’s effects long after her case was settled. It took a long time for them to get her wedding ring back, which is what her husband desperately wanted. When they did finally get her things back, a journal that she took with her to Alabama was in the box. She wrote this:

“I can’t sit back and watch my people suffer.”

She wrote that about people who looked nothing like her, because she believed that all human beings were her people. That’s pretty incredible – and that’s why Viola is most definitely a badddd bitch.

Story 2 – Charles Ponzi

Most of us have gotten messages like, “Hey Girleeeeee, want to lose that mom pooch by drinking this green smoothie that will help you shit your insides out?” Well I thought I’d go back to the creator of these dreaded facebook messages – at least indirectly. Here’s the story of the man behind the Ponzi Scheme: Charles Ponzi.

There isn’t a lot out there on Charles Ponzi’s early life. Most likely, he was born Carlo Ponzi in Parma, Italy. He grew up there and attended the University of Rome La Sapienza. But by 1903, it was bye-bye Italy, hello Boston! Charles stated that he gambled away most of his money on the boat ride over, but would later state “I landed in this country with $2.50 in cash and $1 million in hopes, and those hopes never left me.” It didn’t help that many found him handsome and charming – and he was a short king, measuring all of 5’2.”

Charles began his American dream by working a number of odd jobs, including washing dishes in a restaurant, leading me to suspect that he was the inspiration for that line in Kanye’s song “Gold Digger,” “There’s dishes in the back, he gotta roll up his sleeves; But while y’all washin’, watch him; He gon’ make it to a Benz out of that Datsun.” Allegedly.

In 1907, Charles moved to Montreal and began a job as a teller at Bank Zarossi. This bank was created specifically to cater to Italian immigrants, who were charged high interest rates. However, his fate as a teller was not to be, because the bank went under due to bad loans. Charles was left with less than he came over with and was forced to start all over. He ended up forging a bad check, which landed him three years in a prison in Quebec. In my opinion, Charles Ponzi’s lies started out innocently enough – he told his mom he was working in a prison, not living in a prison, because he didn’t want her to worry about him.

He was released after 3 years, at which point he went from a little light crime to a little heavier crime. Charles started smuggling Italian immigrants from Canada into the United States. Apparently, he wasn’t very good at this, because he went to jail for another two years, this time in Atlanta, GA.

But much like you and I, Charles Ponzi couldn’t stay away from Boston. He headed back in 1917 and began working as a clerk for a merchandise broker. He meta stonographer named Rose Gnecco – I read that he met her on a streetcar – and started wooing her. And she was, indeed wooed. Charles and Rose got married in February of 1918. He continued to job-hop, working for a hot minute at his father-in-law’s grocery store, which he instantly fucked up, but he couldn’t keep anything for long.

Charles Ponzi

So, he started to think about a less-traditional means of money-making. And then, inspiration hit in the form of snail mail. Or, as they called it in the early 1900s: Mail.

Originally, Charles wanted to create an international trade journal, in which he could turn a profit from advertising. He tried to go legit for this one, asking that Hanover Trust Company for a $2000 loan. But the bank was all, “we’re good, bro.”

Then, in August of 1919, Charles got a letter from a Spanish company that contained an International Reply Coupon, or IRC. According to Wikipedia, an IRC “is a coupon that can be exchanged for one or more postage stamps representing the minimum postage for an unregistered priority airmail letter of up to 20 grams sent to another Universal Postal Union Member Country.” Essentially, one might need an IRC if they wanted to send someone in another country a letter, and they wanted that person to be able to write back easily, without incurring another fee or trying to figure out a foreign postage.

Charles realizes that he can take these IRCs and turn them into profit, buying them in one country and exchanging them for more expensive stamps in another country. So, he started sending money to people in other countries. These people would buy IRCs and send them back to Charles in the US. Then, he would exchange the IRC for stamps that were worth more than he paid for them and sell the stamps. Apparently, he made over 400% on some of these sales. He calls his business the Securities Exchange Company.

Eventually, Charles Ponzi got tired of all that envelope-licking and stamp hustling, and he started looking for investors. He was all “Hey Babe! Do you want to make 50% profit in 45 days or 100% profit in 90 days? Have you tried stamps?!!? Of course, Charles didn’t have the money up front, so he got people to invest in, and then he would pay them with money that he got from newer investors, instead of paying anyone with profit. And, like any great fraudster, he refused to tell anyone how he was so good at making profits. You see, he couldn’t give information on his investment strategy, because then it might get leaked to his competitors. 

His investors started making so much profit that they would be coached to recruit more investors. But there was no investment. It’s just moving money from one person to another – it’s literally what the Tinder Swindler did. 

And this shit worked. Like I said, he was charming – multiple sources I read stated that he had “chutzpah.” Charles was able to convince working-class Italian immigrants to invest with him, as he was a part of their community, but he also convinced cops, politicians, and even a priest to invest in his scheme. Charles Ponzi bought a 12-room mansion in Lexington, MA. This place apparently had AC and a heated pool, which is the dream. He had cars, including a custom-built limo. Charles kept Rose in the finest clothes and jewels. And he had acquired rental properties and stock in multiple banks. And to stick it to the man, he took ownership of Hanover Trust, the bank that had denied him a loan for his original idea. Allegedly, he was making $250,000 A DAY. In today’s money, that would be over $3.5 million. In one day.

But all good pyramid schemes must come to an end. In August of 1920, The Boston Post smelled something fishy after a man named Joseph Daniels filed a $1 million law suit against Charles Ponzi. He was a furniture salesman and stated that Charles Ponzi owed him a debt, and he wanted some of that stamp money. The Boston Post began to investigate Charles Ponzi, making him front page news Obviously, this investigation created a frenzy, and many of his investors began trying to pull their money out of the company. And ultimately, a federal criminal investigation was launched. Oh, and for funsies, when Charles’ company was audited, his assets, AKA the IRCs were worth $61.

Even during the investigative report and the actual investigation, Charles Ponzi had swagger. One quote from him, “My secret is how to cash the coupons. I do not tell it to anyone. Let the United States find it out, if it can.” Of course, there was a mob scene in front of his mansion during the investigation, with people trying to exchange vouchers from his company into actual money. And Charles was eating it up. He ordered sandwiches and coffee for the mobs to eat, and insisted that women be moved to the front of the line. Morbid curious were confused – do we love this guy or do we hate him? Some cheered him while others booed him. Of course, there was more booing when people realized their vouchers weren’t worth shit. But he kept addressing and schmoozing crowds.

That is, until August 11, 1920, when the Boston Post announced that Charles Ponzi had done time in Canada. And then Atlanta. Charles was NOT a fan of bad press. You can’t corrupt his chutzpah with FACTS.

On August 12, 1920, Charles was arrested and charged with 86 counts of mail fraud. Apparently, he was smiling even during the arrest and his jailer is quoted as saying “The man’s nerve is iron.” He owed about $7 million, and pled guilty. That would be over $100 million today. 

Charles’ arrest had a huge impact on the local economy. Multiple banks crashed and anyone who held stock in his company received under 30 cents on the dollar. But some people still held onto their vouchers, thinking that Charles would somehow pull off a miracle and come through for them. The Boston Post actually won a Pulitzer Prize for their hard-hitting investigative journalism on Charles Ponzi.

Charles Ponzi was sentenced to 14 years in prison for the federal charges but was paroled after 3 ½. In 1925, he was convicted on state fraud charges. He was on bail at the time, so he went to Florida to attempt to fundraise, going under the fake name of Charpon. He tried to sell swampland, but was quickly arrested for fraud. Realizing that he was screwed in both Florida and Massachusetts, he jumped bail and headed for Texas, but he was intercepted in New Orleans and sent back to Massachusetts to serve his time.

Charles Ponzi was released again in 1934. At this point, he had lost a little bit of his swagger. He was going bald and had gained about 40 pounds, which is a lot when you’re only 5’2. And he got a very warm welcome from immigration. In a big twist, Charles Ponzi had never become an American Citizen, and at the time he was considered “an undesirable alien.” His appeals were denied and he returned to Italy. 

Rose stayed in Boston, hopeful to join Charles in Italy when he found a stable job, but after 2 years of waiting (and Charles finding no stable employment) Rose divorced him. I think she must have really loved him – she, along with 8 of her family members, had loaned Charles over $16,000. Rose eventually remarried and moved to Florida, trying to escape Charles’ infamy. 

Much like his early life in Italy, there is mystery that surrounds his later years. Some think that Charles sweet-talked his way into a high-ranking financial position in Mussolini’s government, but when he was found out as a fraud, he fled to Brazil toting 2 suitcases of cash. Another theory is that Charles Ponzi was helped by his 2nd cousin, Colonel Attilio Biseo of the Italian Air Force. He was a friend of Mussolini’s, and ended up getting Charles a job with a new airline who did business between Italy and Brazil. This kept Charles in his fancy lifestyle from 1939 through 1941, but at that point, the US entered WWII and the Brazilian government cut off supplies to the airline for which Charles was working. They didn’t want to help the Italians in the war.

So Charles was back to doing odd jobs to make ends meet. He taught English and French and worked as an interpreter for an Italian importing firm. But his health was failing. He suffered a stroke in 1948 which left him partially paralyzed. 

Charles went to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and died on January 18, 1949 in a charity hospital. He was broke AF, but did have $75 to pay for his burial. 

And to Charles Ponzi, his brief moment of fame and fortune was completely worth it. I’m going to end this story with one last quote from him about the investors in Boston who were never paid. He stated, “Even if they never got anything for it, it was cheap at that price. Without malice aforethought I had given them the best show that was ever staged in their territory since the landing of the Pilgrims!… It was easily worth 15 million bucks to watch me put the thing over!”

And that is story of Charles Ponzi, the reason we have the term “Ponzi Scheme.”


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