The $34,000 Pyramid

What if the widow of Gen. Sonny Abacha really does want to share her family fortune with you?

Gloria O'Rourke doesn't own a computer, but she's heard about the flood of get-rich-quick emails that fill inboxes. They come, day and night, by the dozens, hundreds, and thousands, from Lagos, Moscow, Amsterdam. They ask for pittances and they promise fortunes. No one but a fool would believe a word of it.

In the 1960s, Gloria was an avid participant in chain letters. Send this note to 10 of your friends and it will bring you good luck, they demanded, often threatening ruin and misfortune if you failed to respond. Gloria never broke the chain. She didn't want to be rude. She wanted to keep her good luck, which served her well in the summer of 1978.

"The only thing that really gets my Irish up is when they call it a 'scam,'" says Gloria, her hammy fists flashing in front of her face. "We know better. We did it."

There's a big difference between a pyramid scheme and a house of cards
City Pages
There's a big difference between a pyramid scheme and a house of cards

On a Sunday afternoon in 1978, Gloria's shop-owner neighbor Ruth visited the O'Rourke home in the so-called Catholic ghetto of south Minneapolis. Incarnation Church and school on 38th Street and Pleasant Avenue was one of a half-dozen parishes that made up the area, which was stuffed with baby-boomed working-class families. Gloria and her husband Bob were raising 10 children on Bob's traveling-salesman salary, augmented by Gloria's occasional part-time work as a door-to-door market researcher.

That Sunday, Ruth excitedly explained the pyramid scheme to Gloria and her daughter. Ruth handed the O'Rourke girls a sheet of mimeographed paper. On the sheet was a list of 30 or so names and addresses. The names were in the form of a pyramid. To join, you needed simply to put your name at the bottom of the pyramid and mail a 50-dollar bill in a greeting card to the person at the top. Next you'd convince your friends, family, and strangers to do the same, and wait for your payday.

Ruth heard about it from her relatives in Pennsylvania. She was the second or third person in Minnesota to sign on, and she wanted Gloria to be number four. Gloria was reluctant that afternoon, but her daughter wasn't.

"She's the one who did it. She sent the card and put my name at the bottom," says Gloria. That's not her real name, by the way. She still smarts from the publicity that came with the whole "scam" of the late '70s, and the role "the media" played in bringing it down. The fact is, she didn't want to be interviewed for this article, and she certainly didn't want to have her picture taken. But her Boston-born husband Bob, who sat next to her at the kitchen table in their modest St. Louis Park apartment, agreed to it. (All of the names in this article have been changed to protect the writer from getting his ass kicked by Gloria.)

"The reason it worked is because of the women," says Bob. "They made it work. They organized the parties, they made all the phone calls, and they were honest. They would call you up and ask if you were having trouble getting people to join, and if you were, they'd help. They'd talk you through it. They kept it going. And if you wanted out, they'd give you your money back."

"These two are like that," says Bob and Gloria's daughter, Mary, joining the discussion at the kitchen table after stopping by to deliver some groceries to her parents. They're retired now, but keep busy with volunteer and charity work. "They love people. They're good people. They want everybody to be in on it, to have a good time. They've always been like that."

After the initial sign-up, the work began. Gloria made calls to her church posse. All down Pleasant and Pillsbury people were joining—or snubbing—the pyramid. She and Bob hosted in-home explainer parties to, as Gloria says, "entice" people to join. They traveled to other neighborhoods in Minneapolis—Gloria remembers visits to Kenwood, Edina, Southeast, and the North Side—and even trekked up to the North Shore. Then, three weeks after she signed on, the money started coming in.

At first, it was one envelope. One birthday card. Gloria opened it and found a crisp $50 bill. The next day, more. The day after that, more. This went on for months. Some days it was $50; others, $500. At some point, the mailman stopped delivering mail to the O'Rourkes' mailbox, and started waiting for a human being to hand it off to for safekeeping. When he wouldn't join the pyramid because of fear of reprisal from his employer, the O'Rourkes signed him up.

"It was so exciting," says Gloria, her voice revealing a thick New York accent that hasn't faded a bit after decades of living in her adopted hometown. "We had so much fun. I just remember going to the mailbox and laughing. And we met so many good people. I remember the people more than...I don't even remember how much money came in."

"Thirty-four thousand," says Bob.

"No! That can't be," says Gloria.

"Thirty-four thousand," repeats Bob, nodding knowingly.

There are no bank records or cancelled checks to be dug up, because, "we blew it," says Bob. "All of it. Being a traveling salesman, I knew you don't try to hang on to something like that. I bought a new car. Paid cash. The salesman looked at me and said, 'I've never had anyone pay cash for a car before.' We might have paid off the mortgage on the house, I can't remember. We took the whole family to visit our relatives in New York. Fourteen of us."

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