Pyramid Schemes Are as American as Apple Pie - WSJ.com:
"Ponzi schemes, where early investors are paid dividends out of the money put in by later investors, usually last only a few months. Charles Ponzi's eponymous scheme in 1919 started with just 16 investors and $870. Six months later, there were 20,000 investors who had put in $10,000,000. Ten million was a whole lot of money in 1919 and when it attracted attention, Ponzi soon found himself with a five-year jail term and the dubious honor of adding his name to the English language for a type of fraud he hadn't even invented.
Most Ponzi schemes are penny-ante affairs, such as chain letters, that bilk their victims out of a few dollars each. Even Charles Ponzi's investors put in an average of only $500 each. But Wall Street's most famous Ponzi scheme was, like the present one, no small affair. And its principal victim was a man few associate with Wall Street at all -- Ulysses S. Grant."