Monday, March 11, 2024

The Demise of the Beneficial Order of Earnest Workers

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director 

Every day when opening our social media accounts, we discover new scams aimed at tempting us to send money or provide personal information. Despite filters, and best intentions, it just seems to be part of doing business in the early 21st century. A blessing and a curse, digital media have increased our risk, and artificial intelligence has made scams more sophisticated. But, is this different than before? A look back at newspapers from the late 19th century proves that while the scale of scams may have increased, they are certainly nothing new.

One national scam with local impact took place in the spring of 1891. The Star-Gazette reported that over a period of four weeks, a group of citizens in Elmira lost a total of $1,500, or $50,000 in today’s money. The unfortunate group had joined a newly formed chapter of a national organization with the unlucky name of The Beneficial Order of Earnest Workers (BOEW).

Unidentified factory workers, 1890-1920, Elmira, NY

Headquartered in Philadelphia,  the BOEW boasted over 28,000 members nationwide, with the Elmira chapter counting for 128 members. The organization was one of a number of short-term beneficial societies that promised to pay investors $100 in return for their small investment in only nine weeks. At one time, the New Jersey branch took in over $25,000 in investments every week. Though not all beneficial societies were corrupt, this entire organization was.

Today, the name of the organization seems quaint, though it was a term used to describe a collective or cooperative financial group. Sometimes called friendly societies, benevolent societies focused on providing funds for a group financial or social purpose and were common before modern insurance or organized social services. Beneficial societies can still be found in countries where larger banks do not want to invest.

This society, however, wasn’t built on altruistic ideas. Instead, the officers schemed to extract hard-earned cash from anyone willing to risk their money. Men with titles like The Supreme President, The Supreme Treasurer, and The Supreme Secretary of the Beneficial Order of Earnest Workers enticed their unsuspecting victims.

When the scheme fell apart, after only a matter of weeks, various members were arrested in Philadelphia. At least one of these reportedly had his travel cases packed and tickets bought, knowing he needed to escape. One of the Elmira officers traveled to Philadelphia to recover money, but was unsuccessful. Sums lost ranged from $37 to nearly $700. Writing about the scandal, The Star-Gazette mentions a “prominent disinterested lawyer” in Philadelphia remarking that because the victims willingly invested, it would be hard to pursue justice.

It’s not clear if any of the victims ever recovered some or all of their investments. Certainly, the Elmira members were not the only ones, but for a few days in 1891, it made a dramatic story in the paper.

We like to think we’re smarter than that, but today’s schemes continue to lure unsuspecting victims. Below is information from the US government on ways to avoid being a victim of scams, and we encourage you to share it with anyone who might benefit. 

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