Pietro Longhi: The Charlatan, 1757

A charlatan (also called a swindler or mountebank) is a person practicing quackery or a similar confidence trick in order to obtain money, power, fame, or other advantages through pretense or deception. One example of a charlatan appears in the Canterbury Tales story "The Pardoner's Tale," with the Pardoner who tricks sinners into buying fake religious relics. Synonyms for charlatan include shyster, quack, or faker. Quack is a reference to quackery or the practice of dubious medicine, including the sale of snake oil, or a person who does not have medical training who purports to provide medical services.


The English word comes from French charlatan, a seller of medicines who might advertise his presence with music and an outdoor stage show. The best known of the Parisian charlatans was Tabarin, whose skits and farces - which were influenced by commedia dell'arte - inspired the 17th century playwright Molière. The word is also similar to Spanish charlatán, an indiscreetly talkative person, a chatterbox. Etymologists trace charlatan ultimately from Italian, either from ciarlare,[1] to chatter or prattle; or Cerretano, a resident of Cerreto, a village in Umbria, known for its quacks in the 16th century,[2] or a mixture of both.


The Pardoner, from the Ellesmere Chaucer

A distinction is drawn between the charlatan and other kinds of confidence tricksters. The charlatan is usually a salesperson of a certain service or product, who has no personal relationship with his "marks" (customers or clients), and avoids elaborate hoaxes or roleplaying con-games. Rather, the person called a charlatan is being accused of resorting to quackery, pseudoscience, or other knowingly employed bogus means of impressing people in order to swindle victims by selling them worthless nostrums and similar goods or services that will not deliver on the promises made for them. One example of a charlatan is a 19th-century medicine show operator, who has long since left town by the time the people who bought his "snake oil" or similarly named "cure-all" tonic realize that it was a scam. A misdirection by a charlatan is a confuddle, a dropper is a leader of a group of conmen, and hangmen are conmen that present false checks. A gaff means to trick or con and a mugu is a victim of a rigged game.

In reported spiritual communications, a charlatan is a person who fakes evidence that a spirit is "making contact" with the medium and seekers. Notable people who have successfully debunked the claims of purported supernatural mediums include magician/scientific skeptic James Randi, Brazilian writer Monteiro Lobato and magician Harry Houdini.

Infamous individuals

See also


  1. ^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Charlatan" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 5 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 891.
  2. ^ Charlatan. Dictionary.com
  3. ^ "Radionics". Skeptics Dictionary.
  4. ^ Mary, Johanna (1995). "Amy Bock and the Western Tradition of Passing Women". New Zealand Studies. 5 (3). Retrieved 31 May 2021.
  5. ^ Coleman, Jenny (2010). Mad or Bad? The Life and Exploits of Amy Bock. Dunedin: Otago University Press. ISBN 978-0-947522-18-6.
  6. ^ Humphreys, Jennett (1887). "Carleton, Mary" . In Stephen, Leslie (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 9. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  7. ^ Bernbaum, Ernest; Levis, Howard C.; Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection (Library of Congress) (1914). The Mary Carleton narratives, 1663-1673, a missing chapter in the history of the English novel (PDF). Cambridge, Harvard University Press; [etc., etc.]
  8. ^ Paul, Kari (27 April 2023). "Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes again delays start of 11-year prison term | Theranos | The Guardian". The Guardian. Retrieved 2023-05-02.
  9. ^ Nash, Jay Robert (2004). The Great Pictorial History of World Crime, Volume 2. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 364. ISBN 1-928831-20-6. "Gustavus Katterfelto launched a successful medical swindle. Passing himself off as a worldly philosopher and scientist, Katterfelto swindled Londoners with his sleight of hand tricks and medicine show for nearly three years. In 1872, he claimed to have invented the Solar Microscope, which he used to detect a deadly plague similar to the Black Death."
  10. ^ Partnoy, Frank (2010). The Match King: Ivar Kreuger, The Financial Genius Behind a Century of Wall Street Scandals. PublicAffairs. ISBN 978-1586488123.
  11. ^ Creswell, Julie; Thomas, Landon Jr. (January 24, 2009). "The Talented Mr. Madoff". The New York Times. New York. Retrieved June 27, 2020.
  12. ^ Quen, Jacques M. (1963). "Elisha Perkins, Physician, Nostrum-Vendor, or Charlatan?". Bulletin of the History of Medicine. 37 (37): 159–166. PMID 13972718.

Further reading