Bubble, Bubble No— Toil, No Trouble


The trail led to Texas. Five days after he left Florida, he dodged the waiting authorities at Houston and shipped as a common seaman aboard an Italian freighter bound for Genoa. On June 28, 1926, when the freighter touched at New Orleans, a Houston deputy sheriff was waiting for him. Florida and Massachusetts both wanted him, but the Texas governor sent him back to Boston.

In February, 1927, he began his term for larceny at the Charlestown State Prison, across the river from Beacon Hill, where his compatriot, Bartolomeo Vanzetti, was undergoing the final year of his imprisonment. While at Charlestown Ponzi continued to study law. He spent much of his time writing vain appeals to the governor for commutation of sentence in order to escape deportation. In 1934 his seven years’ minimum was up, and as his behavior had been excellent, he was freed. Florida had forgotten about him.

Ponzi was now fifty-two years old. Charlestown prison had aged him. What was left of his hair was turning white. His face had sagged, and his dapper figure had grown pudgy, though he still carried himself in the grand manner. Rose was still waiting for him. Through all the years, even the Florida interlude, she had stood by him. Together they went to see the new governor, Joseph B. Ely, to plead against the deportation threat that was now beginning to loom large over Ponzi’s head. While his wife worked as secretary for the owner of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub he spent his days in the law library of the Federal Building, trying to discover some legalism that would let him stay in the country. Meanwhile, he paid a visit to the city room of the Post . There he shook hands with the city editor, talked of old times with some nostalgia but no resentment, and then left. On the way out he walked past the Pulitzer Prize plaque the Post had won for exposing him.

There were no conjuring paragraphs to be found in the law library, and Governor Ely was as adamant as his predecessor had been. On October 7, 1934, the U.S. Immigration Service put Ponzi aboard the Vulcania in Boston Harbor for a single passage to Italy. He still had enough friends to give him a rousing sendofF from the dock. As he went up the gangplank, he raised his arm in the Fascist salute.

Back in Italy he became an English translator for a small export house in Rome. He revisited the cafés of his student days; his photograph, showing him at ease over an apéritif, appeared in the American press.

In his spare time he began writing his autobiography and apologia. Rose had expected that after he found work in Rome he would send for her, but he never did. After two years of waiting she at last lost patience and divorced him. She never remarried.

Shortly after Ponzi’s divorce Mussolini offered him a job in Brazil with Italy’s new airline. From 1939 to 1942 he served as branch manager in Rio de Janeiro. In 1942 he lost his job because, he claimed, of his protests against “wide departures from the organization’s original, strictly honest commercial operations.” A group of airline officials had, in fact, been smuggling currency. They had not included him in their group, and when he found out what they were doing, he tipped off the Brazilian government with the expectation of getting 25 per cent of the fines. Then as an afterthought he offered to come to America to tell the government what he knew about the operation.

The United States government did not want him. As the tide of war turned against Italy the airline closed down. No money came to Ponzi from any fines. For a while he tried unsuccessfully to run a lodging house in Rio de Janeiro. Through the war years he made a meager living giving English lessons while he drew a pittance from the Brazilian unemployment fund.

The year 1949 found him, semiparalyzed and partly blind, in the charity ward of a Rio hospital. Flanked by an old man with a hacking cough and a quiet, senile black man who spent his days staring at the ceiling, he still tried to work on his autobiography. Somehow he had saved up seventy-five dollars, enough to keep his body from potter’s field. He died in January, 1949, leaving behind him his unfinished manuscript, “The Fall of Mister Ponzi.”