Undue Influence

It’s pretty hard to go more than a few weeks without coming across a newspaper article either about a fraudulent real estate deal opportunity that turned out to be a scam or about well-meaning, honest people investing their money in a business that seemed surefire but almost immediately went belly up, taking the investors’ life savings along with it. We read this and are appalled. We think, “My God, we’re surrounded by corruption and greed. Our modern culture is producing monsters. It must have been better in the old days.” Actually, though, this stuff’s been around for a long time, and what is particularly interesting is that the techniques really haven’t changed all that much. The only thing modern day swindlers are doing is incorporating our modern day technology into tried and true methods of stealing.

The concept of undue influence has been recognized in our legal systems since at least the seventeenth century. Francis Bacon had the honor of having presided over the first recorded court trial regarding this chicanery. Now known chiefly as the possible author of Shakespeare’s plays, Bacon was Chancellor of England in 1617 when he made a legal decision on a case of undue influence that is uncannily modern.

The issue Bacon had to decide was whether an elderly man named M. Lydiatt, clearly cognitively impaired, had been defrauded by a younger woman, ironically named Mrs. Death.

[He] was an old man about the age of eighty years and being weak of body and understanding and having a great estate of goods and lands… was drawn by the practices and indirect means… [by Mrs. Death] to give his house here in London and to come to sojourn with her at her house in the country [although she was married to Mr. Death], and that she having him there did so work upon his simplicity and weakness and by her dalliance and pretence of love unto him and of intention after the death of her then-husband to marry him, and by sundry adulterous courses with him and by sorcery and by drawing of his affections from… his kindred, telling him sometimes that they would poison him and sometimes they would rob him (Nievod, 1993).

Let’s remove ourselves from the legal language of the Elizabethan era and look at what’s going on. We have a well-to-do elderly man – a widower, in fact – whose children are grown and out of the house. He’s lonely and likely suffering from early stages of dementia. Then he gets a lucky break, fate smiles on him, and an attractive woman – single, she says – meets and falls in love with him. As they spend more time together, though, she says she’s worried about his relatives. She doubts their motives and convinces poor Mr. Lyiatt that his family will stop at nothing, not even murder, to get their hands on his money. He should fear for his life and he does, and looks to his devoted fiancée, Mrs. Death, to protect him. Infatuated and trusting in the woman he loves, he accedes to Mrs. Death’s request and severs all contact with his family. Even more, at her urging, he moves to a city far from his home so that his greedy, dangerous relatives can’t track him down. After all, if they can’t find him, they can’t steal from him, they can’t kill him. Of course, once he’s moved to a different city, his family becomes alarmed at all of this, but can’t find him. Mrs. Death moves him in a hovel without access to money or anything the slightest bit familiar to him. He’s helpless to stop her and her partner-husband, Mr. Death, as they completely plunder his assets.

Old timey stuff, right? It’s worthwhile to contrast the tragic story of Mr. Lyiatt with a story right out of the evening news. In 2008, Yana Ristick and Michael Evans, a married couple living in Seattle, Washington, were convicted of perpetrating scams identical that of Mrs. Death.

A husband and wife who prosecutors say schemed elderly men out of high-priced gifts pleaded not guilty to charges of theft Thursday. A total of nine charges were filed against Yana Ristick and Michael Evans, who have a child and are considered a married couple within the gypsy community. Prosecutors say they financed their expensive taste by having Ristick befriend and even romance elderly men. Court documents say in the past year, the pair targeted at least three men, all over age 85. One was in his 90s. Last month, they even drove an 86-year-old widow to Las Vegas where Ristick legally married him. “When you’re lonely and you’re old and you’ve lost your wife of 52 years, your defenses are down,” said Prosecutor Page Ulrey.

This is undue influence in its purest form. The victim is physically and cognitively infirm and lonely. When he responds to the charms of a younger woman, he is methodically cut off from family and friends, removed from familiar surroundings and left in isolation, while she and her associate plunder his assets.

The legal way to view undue influence is to see it as an act of deceit and manipulation in order to suppress an individual’s free will and replace that free will with the goal of the perpetrator. To legally be considered undue influence, four components are necessary: mental or emotional disability, i.e. vulnerability; opportunity; willful deception and manipulation on the part of the perpetrator; and a suspicious or unusual transaction. Matching the victim and perpetrator is like an alignment of the stars: all of us are vulnerable, or will be vulnerable at one time or another, but those people who are victims of undue influence have the tragic misfortune of being vulnerable at the same moment that a criminal spots that weakness.

The set up for undue influence almost always happens within some sort of confidential relationship. In the case of elder abuse, for instance, the confidential relationship might be between the elder and a conservator, family member or health care worker. It might even be between the elder and a new love interest. Internet scams also nearly always involve a confidential arrangement between the scammer and the target. It is usually a special, one-of-a-kind business deal that, due to its supposed sensitivity and possible illegality – avoidance of taxes and tariffs are often the reasons cited – has to be kept confidential.

Indeed, secrecy is important, especially from the criminal’s viewpoint, since it cuts down the chances of being caught. The victim keeps the arrangement secret because the criminal has given him good reason to do so. Elder abuse always involves secrecy, usually against the elders’ own family, who either won’t accept the elder’s new love interest or want the elders’ money for themselves. A gypsy fortune-telling con woman insists on secrecy so that a curse can be lifted. A cult leader may have what his followers consider to be special, esoteric knowledge that they can’t share with outsiders.

Legally, undue influence also has to include a suspect or crooked transaction. Again, this is easy to see if you are looking for it. An elderly person who makes his or her caregiver his primary beneficiary is one example. Not uncommonly, people who have come under the influence of a fraudulent spiritual leader often finance what they are told are business ventures for family members of the spiritual leader. Victims of internet scams use their own money to help someone who will then amply reward them when the financial venture is completed.

Dr. Margaret Singer identified five key elements of undue influence (Singer, 1993). The first is isolation. The victim is isolated, either physically, as with Mr. Lyiatt, or figuratively, through vows of secrecy. Isolation prevents the victim from getting any sort of outside assistance. By isolating the victim from a social support network, the criminal’s worldview becomes all that’s available to the victim. Gradually, that worldview becomes the victim’s too.

The second element is a siege mentality. Anyone who is not part of the perpetrator’s plan is a potential or actual threat to the victim. If the victim is part of a financial scam, those not part of the scam are suspect because they may try to cut in on it or report it to the authorities. Since the scam usually has an aspect of illegality, it might potentially get the victim in trouble and could cut into the profits the victim expects to make.

Think of a battered woman. Through a systematic process, she has been cut off from her friends and family. Her world consists of the abusing partner. She has no friends or family outside of the family with the abusive partner, and she is forbidden to cultivate any interests not in keeping with those of the abuser. Or consider a physically frail, elderly man confined to his home by his domineering and conniving health care provider. While once he had a social life at his lodge and at the senior center, he now has no one. He’s a widower with no children. His phone calls are monitored, and so is his mail. The contact that he once had with nephews and nieces or a surviving sister, all of whom live in a distant city, have been cut off. He lives only by the rules imposed by the caregiver, who is now controls every facet of the elder’s life.

And here’s one more. A middle-aged woman diagnosed with lung cancer visits a psychic who soon professes to have miraculous healing powers. Through the use of simple sleight of hand and professional magician trickery, the ailing woman becomes convinced that the psychic is her only hope. She learns that her cancer is due to a curse placed on her by someone close to her. She is sworn to secrecy until the curse is lifted and is urged to reveal absolutely nothing about this until the spiritual cleansing rituals are completed. That this can take months, she’s been told, because it’s a powerful curse. She tells no one of this because to do so could well warn the placer of the curse who might then place another curse on her.

The third element is dependency. In undue influence, the victim inevitably becomes dependent on the practitioner. For his or her own survival, the elder needs the caregiver, conservator or manipulative family member. A victim of a medical or psychotherapy scam comes to believe that he or she cannot function without the guidance of the healer. Even with Internet scams, the victim feels that coming out of the ordeal with financial solvency is dependent on the criminal who is running the fraud.

A victim of undue influence gradually acquires a sense of powerlessness. Just think of poor Mr. Lydiatt in 1617, from infatuation to love to complete dependency on Mrs. Death in a few short months. Old and infirm and living in a different city, he was unable to bathe or feed himself without the assistance of the woman who cheated and deceived him. Isolation and dependence, coupled with the destruction of self-esteem, ultimately causes the victim to feel helpless without the continued aid of the perpetrator.

The final condition is staying unaware. The victim must never know what is truly going on. The elder’s caregiver or conservator (or attorney or physician, for that matter) might insist that all actions taken are for the benefit of the elderly, but the real purpose is to enrich the perpetrator. There is always an integral aspect of the process that the perpetrator keeps hidden from the victim, and it’s crucial to remember that the victim never knows what is really going on. To stay unaware is to stay vulnerable.

William Thompson – Confidence Man

Nineteenth-century criminal William Thompson is the originator of the term “confidence man.” The impeccably well-dressed and sophisticated Mr. Thompson would approach a clearly well-to-do New Yorker on the street and strike up a friendly conversation with him. After acquiring the person’s trust, he would then say, “Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?” The July 8, 1849 edition of the New York Herald described what would follow:

The stranger at this novel request, supposing [the stranger] to be some old acquaintance not at the moment recollected, allows him to take the watch, thus placing “confidence” in the honesty of the stranger, who walks off laughing and the other supposing it to be a joke allows him to do so. In this way many have been duped, and the last that we recollect was a Mr. Thomas McDonald, of No. 276 Madison Street, who, on the 12th of May last, was met by this “Confidence Man” in Williams Street, who, in the manner as above described, took from him a gold lever watch valued at $110.

Although William Thompson’s methods were simple, they were nonetheless effective. He made a comfortable living with his con, and his methods of operation illustrate in a primitive manner how confidence peddlers do a bait, hook and switch. The poor victim never saw it coming.

To gain some insight into the power that undue influence has over its victims, one might take a look at the disturbing response to an extreme example that has acquired some prominence in the last three decades. In 1973, two bank robbers with machine guns attempted to rob a bank in Stockholm, Sweden. Firing their weapons inside the bank, they terrified the bank’s employees. The police quickly arrived on the scene, trapping the would-be robbers inside the bank. The two panicked robbers took the employees – three women and one man – hostage, and they weren’t at all nice about it. They strapped dynamite to the bodies of the hostages, confined them in a small vault and threatened to kill them if necessary. For five intense days, the hostages were continually threatened with death by the bank robbers. When the hostages were finally rescued and the bank robbers arrested, something unusual and unexpected happened. When interviewed by the media, some of the hostages defended the bank robbers. A female hostage actually became engaged to one of the robbers and another started a legal defense fund for the two criminals.

The reasons for this psychological response, now referred to as the Stockholm Syndrome, has nothing at all to do with the intellect of the victim. In many ways, it is a reasonable response to threat over an extended period: The longer the victim is exposed to the abuse, the more likely it will be that he or she will begin to adapt to the aberrant situation. When the victim correctly sees that there is a genuine threat to his or her safety, giving in to the abuser’s wishes and demands, as arbitrary as they may be, could conceivably be the only way to stay alive.

As the threat persists, small kindnesses to the victim by the perpetrator take on remarkable significance. A drink of water or permission to use the bathroom in a hostage situation, being allowed to make a phone call in an elder abuse situation, or receiving flowers or a card for a birthday in an instance of spousal abuse become highly important.

There are a number of reasons that this occurs. One is that the victim eventually sees things from what he or she believes is the criminal’s point of view. The Stockholm bank robbers weren’t such bad guys after all, they decided. One was an ex-convict who couldn’t find a job, and anyway, how were they supposed to act when surrounded with gun-carrying police? Another reason is the rare kindness on the part of the abuser, appreciated all the more highly because it is rare, which proves to the victim that the perpetrator isn’t all bad. There’s a good side to him, too, the non-congruent thinking process goes, that has to be nurtured so it can grow. Isolation, a recurring theme with undue influence, also plays a part in the victim’s adaptation. There is no one to compare the perpetrator to, because the victim is cut off from healthy social interaction. An abused elder, who is left alone for most of the day, will interpret a cup of coffee in the evening or the chance to watch a favorite television show as a sign of caring.

Undue Influence and Peoples Temple

How many of Dr. Singer’s five elements of undue influence can we see in today’s cults or – more to the point – in Peoples Temple? There can be no doubt that the isolation in Jonestown was complete: access and egress to the project was impossible without permission from the leadership, and passports were confiscated upon the member’s arrival and kept under lock and key. Moreover, the compound was in a hostile jungle setting in a foreign land, far removed from the country’s capital, much less from the U.S. mainland, and even further from their last home in California.

The siege mentality that Singer describes was also present in the Temple’s history even before the mass immigration to Jonestown, and only ratcheted up upon their arrival. Even Jonestown survivors refer to the period in the fall of 1977, when community residents spent several days on the perimeter of the encampment, preparing to defend it with makeshift and primitive weapons against an ill-defined enemy, as the “six day siege.”

If the isolation was complete, so was the dependency of Jonestown residents upon the whims of its leadership. It wasn’t just that the community provided for their housing, their meals, and their medical needs; it was that they had no choice but to make do with what they received, because there was no alternative available to them.

These three elements combined to create an inevitable sense of powerlessness. More than one survivor has spoken about the harsh working conditions, the increasing privation, the exhaustion, and – most discouraging of all – the inability to see a respite from any of it, especially during the project’s final months.

Finally, there is no doubt that the people were unaware of anything outside their immediate responsibilities to the agricultural project, and were actively discouraged from even asking questions of anything beyond their purview. Peoples Temple operated in secrecy from its beginning, with individuals pigeon-holed into specific projects, leaving them little time or energy to explore what other people were doing and thinking. This all fed into the leadership’s secret agenda that the followers are never aware of. Peoples Temple might have seemed to promote social justice, an attraction for many liberally minded people, but its leaders don’t care at all about social justice. The basic goal in attracting and manipulating followers is entirely self-serving.

This aspect followed the members all the way to Jonestown and to their deaths, with the fatal secret. The cyanide was ordered from, shipped to, and stored in Jonestown for months before the final day, and until that day, there was only a handful of people who knew of its existence. By the time it became general knowledge, it was too late for everyone.



Nievod, A. (1993). Undue Influence in Contract and Probate Law. Cultic Studies Journal. Volume 10, No. 1. 1993. 1-18. Reprinted here.

Singer, M. Churches that abuse. Cultic Studies Journal: Volume 10, No. 1. 1993.

(Patrick O’Reilly, Ph.D. is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. This article is adapted from the first chapter of the upcoming book Undue Influence: Cons, Scams and Mind Control. Dr. O’Reilly’s previous articles may be found here. He can be reached at oreillyphd@hotmail.com.)