From Merdle to Madoff

They found him sprawled out in his bath, ‘lying in it as in a grave or sarcophagus . . . the white marble at the bottom of the bath veined with a dreadful red . . . on his side an empty laudanum-bottle and a tortoise-shell handled penknife–soiled, but not with ink.’‘Separation of jugular vein–death rapid–been dead at least half an hour,’ proclaimed his physician.‘The report that the great man was dead got about with astonishing rapidity. At first, he was dead of all the diseases that ever were known, and of several bran-new maladies invented with the speed of light to meet the demand of the occasion. He had concealed a dropsy from infancy, he had inherited a large estate of water on the chest from his grandfather, he had had an operation performed upon him every morning of his life for eighteen years, he had been subject to the explosion of important veins in his body after the manner of fireworks, he had had something the matter with his lungs, he had had something the matter with his heart, he had had something the matter with his brain. . . . By about eleven o’clock in the forenoon, something the matter with the brain became the favorite theory against the field; and by twelve the something had been distinctly ascertained to be ‘pressure.’At first ‘pressure was so entirely satisfactory to the public mind, and seemed to make everybody comfortable.’ But after a time the reports of pressure began to change. Whispers became louder; until at last it became “known that the late Mr. Merdle’s complaint had been simply forgery and robbery–and that he was simply the greatest forger and the greatest thief that ever cheated the gallows.

Richard Merdle is one of Charles Dickens’ characters in his novel Little Dorrit of 1855–7. He is a great man, a wizard investor, and many of London’s high society have invested with him. But he is not always well. He suffers from “pressure,” the stress of making difficult decisions. Then he is found dead. For the more things change the more they remain the same, and from London to New York, from Merdle to Madoff, a Ponzi scheme is a Ponzi scheme.

 


GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief