Hustling Hitler is the story of Freeman Bernstein, a failed business man, vaudeville manager, carnival barker, boxing promoter, stock swindler, card sharp, self-proclaimed “Jade King of China” and all around con man. But none of these previous feats compared to when Bernstein was arrested in 1937 by the Los Angeles Police Department for grand larceny, or according to Bernstein, conning Adolf Hitler himself.

Growing up, journalist Walter Shapiro heard outlandish stories about his infamous great-uncle Freeman’s crazy adventures and how he racked up enough debt and IOU’s to fill multiple lifetimes. Shapiro believed the tales to be mere exaggerations until his research found the truth about Freeman to be even more shocking and outrageous.freeman bernstein

Born in Troy, New York in the mid-1870s, Freeman Bernstein was a born con artist and his multitude of occupations left behind a trail of unpaid bills and angry creditors.

After an unsuccessful stint as a fight promoter Freeman Bernstein went into vaudeville, touring the world with “Bernstein’s Vaudeville Stars”.

However, his first tour ended abruptly in Scranton, PA when Freeman Bernstein realized the box-office receipts were only enough to cover train tickets home for him and his brother Sam. Both men left in the middle of the night leaving his 20 performers stranded with unpaid hotel bills and no money.

In the 1920’s, Bernstein started a new career smuggling jade out of China by feeding the precious jewels to his dog. He would later sell the recovered jade (mixed with fakes) to unwary buyers as the self-proclaimed “Jade King”.

After meeting a member of the German embassy in China in the mid-1930s, Bernstein was presented with the most audacious con of his life, selling “nickel” to Nazi Germany for weapon construction.

To carry out his plan, Bernstein paired with Canadian Meyer Brenner. The two would find a buyer who would sell to the Germans and have him sign for the nickel as an order of “scrap metal” to get around Canada’s law prohibiting export of war materials. Then Bernstein and Brenner would do a “bait and switch” and send the buyer an order of worthless scrap metal.

At first, the plan worked perfectly and Bernstein wound up with over $116,000. But in 1937, his luck ran out and he was arrested.

On April 8, 1938, Freeman Bernstein stood outside a Los Angeles courthouse and spoke to the press about how he had hustled the leader of Nazi Germany.

“I went visiting in Germany about a year ago,” Freeman told the LA Times. “Der Fuhrer was pretty down in the mouth because the iron embargo passed by the United States had hurt ’em badly. He begged me to find some metal.”  Always the opportunist, Bernstein was quick to add that “General Goering also did some pretty hard begging.”

In June 1941, after years of legal battles, Bernstein got the charges dropped.

Hustling Hitler is a fun read about a remarkable man with an infamous reputation, one of the few men who claimed to have swindled Hitler and lived to tell about it.

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