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The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man Paperback – July 20, 1999

4.1 out of 5 stars 41 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

"To study the lingo of the con is inevitably to study the con itself," writes Luc Sante in his foreword to this classic work of urban anthropology, originally published in 1940. "A term such as cackle-bladder or shut-out cannot be properly described without giving a full account of its use, and such an account cannot be illustrated by stick figures." Thus The Big Con is filled with richly detailed anecdotes populated by characters with names like Devil's Island Eddie, the Honey Grove Kid, the Hashhouse Kid, and Limehouse Chappie ("distinguished British con man working both sides of the Atlantic and the steamship lines between, all with equal ease"). David Maurer spent years talking to con men about their profession, learning about each and every step of the three big cons (the wire, the rag, and the payoff). From putting the mark up to putting in the fix, Maurer guides readers through the fleecing--pretty soon you'll be forgetting the book's scientific value and reading for sheer entertainment. (A cackle-bladder, by the way, is a fake murder used to scare the victim off after his money's been taken. As for the shut-out, well, that you'll have to learn on your own.) --Ron Hogan

From Publishers Weekly

During the first three decades of the 20th century, a legion of smooth-talking, quick thinking, mostly nonviolent criminals traveled America taking people's money. They grew more skilled as the years passed, devising ruses more intricate than the last, including staging scenes with props and sets, and scripting dialogue. Yet con men shared information only through what might be called oral tradition. Enter a professor of linguistics. Maurer first published this book, long out of print, in 1940, when he could see the dynamics of this kind of crime rapidly changing and the world of the original con man fading He embraced that world and devoured its schemes, its nuances and its language. The exemplary rip-offs (called "tear-offs" in the '30s) Maurer collected come from con men themselves, and they are retold complete with suggested dialogue of the time. Businessmen traveled on ships and trains for days and stayed in strange cities for weeks at a time waiting for the deal to close, becoming marks (the victims) scooped up by ropers (the scouts who brought victims in). As proof of their talent, con men sought out big game: the entrepreneurial veteran, the crafty wannabe and the successful risk taker. Maurer methodically documents how the three biggest ploys evolved and details the process of cleanly and cleverly removing large amounts of money from a befuddled mark step by step. That level of detailAcapturing this oral traditionAmakes his book a valuable resource for readers who want a taste of the reality that inspired such films as The Sting. (Aug.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; 1st Anchor Books ed edition (July 20, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385495382
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385495387
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #36,109 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
I read this book when it was first published in the '40s and I have thought of it often since then because it impressed me so much. Of course, I was a kid then and it was fascinating because of the people descriptions. It was so rich in characterization it caught my imagination. It was also a lesson for a young man; "If it seems to good to be true, it probably is." I've always remembered that lesson. It is an excellent description of the con games that were popular up to that time. Most of the current ones are not much different in their basics, only in their methods. Although the characters were fascinating, the message was even more so: Beware your wallet if someone wants to give you a large amount of money. I will buy this newly released edition just because of my memories of it some 50 years ago.
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"The Big Con" is an excellent read from several perspectives. It is extremely well written. The pages fly by, which is saying something considering that it is non-fiction. As a 40's period piece, it is a must read for any fan of the crime/detective genre. Lastly, for anyone interested in the "confidence game" or related artforms, it is an esstential primer that considers the con at its most developed level. If the text has any weakness, it is that it leaves one with a craving for more details on the "short con." This may be forgiven because the point of the book is to examine the "big con," but as the author often notes, the masters of the big con nearly always get their start with the short con.
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Format: Paperback
Interesting study of con games, starting from early (and primitive) set-ups around the turn of the century (1900 that is) to more elaborate operations later. Focus on the lingo of con games, but with many entertaining examples and anecdotes.
Particularly interesting are the idiotic repeat victims who, after being conned again and again, keep coming back for more.
Lest you think that the book is of historic interest only, many of the (small-scale) cons described therein are still be practiced today. My local Chicago neighborhood newspaper carries periodic reports of victims of the "pigeon drop" con.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I was a bit worried that the book would be too dated - mostly in the language. I was expecting something like Dashiell Hammett. Enjoyable, but you're constantly reminded that those days are gone. That's not the case here. The book could have been written yesterday from a language perspective, and any linguistic idiosyncrasies are specific to the language of the con man.

As some people have noted, it can be repetitive, but that's because most "big" cons (those where the con men work in large teams and have established locations) are very similar in essence; only the execution and specifics are different.

I found it to be very interesting, both from a technical perspective on how things were done, as well as a sociological perspective.
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Format: Paperback
I have been looking for this book for about forty years. I read it originally in the 1950's. When the movie "The Sting" came out I said "that's a dead steal from 'The Big Con'". It was a great read then and I'm looking forward to re-reading it.
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Format: Paperback
For anyone who watched "The Sting" or BBC's "Hustle" and found themselves fascinated, this is absolutely the book for you. Maurer's "The Big Con" is at once a history and an apt analysis of con artists and their trade, but is never dry or boring. It is clear from the work that Maurer spent a great deal of time with his subjects and the work is not lacking for detail. However, more fascinating even than Maurer's explanations and elucidations of the various elements of the con artist's trade are his examinations of their psyches - not dashing, devil-may-care rogues, Maurer shows his subjects to be flesh-and-blood individuals with their own virtues and vices, personal triumphs and personal demons. The book also includes a glossary of slang which is very interesting as well. If you ever watched "The Sting" and wondered "Is this for real?" or are just a fan of a good old-fashioned yarn, "The Big Con" is a worthy buy. Enjoy.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The only thing more astounding than the degree of thought, care, judgment and energy these con men dedicated to their dishonest trade is the fall-on-the-floor-laughing GULLIBILITY of some of the victims (marks) they ripped off. Given the plain old greed that propelled most of the victims into the traps they pretty much set for themselves, they absolutely deserved to be skinned as thoroughly as they were.
The stories in this book are eminently enjoyable, and they really make you wonder what sort of big con games are flourishing across the USA even as we speak.
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Format: Paperback
This is a great look at the cons and the con games they ran. He spent years in the 1920's and 30's gaining the confidence and interviewing these rogues.

Written by Professor David Maurer (a professor of linguistics at the University of Louisville from 1937-1972) "The Big Con" was his magnum opus which served as the source of that great Oscar-winning con movie "The Sting".

The language is wonderful and informative, the basis for much of today's crime and con lingo. This book is a great read.

Professor Maurer also wrote "Kentucky Moonshine", "Whiz Mob" (pickpockets), and "Language of the Underworld", all based on his extensive interviews with such real-life personages as the Sanctimonious Kid, Ocean-Liner Al, and Limehouse Chappie. He was also an extensive contributor, co-author or consultant on many definitive books on gambling by Scarne.

I highly recommend all of his books. They give a wonderful portrait of the world of the big (and little) con in the 1920's thru 40's.

A footnote:
At the age of 75, after a horrible auto accident (he came over the top of a hill in his own lane when an idiot passing illegally hit him head-on) that left him terribly disabled and in uncontrolled pain, unable to work, David Maurer took his own life. A sad ending for a great writer.
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