on July 22, 1999
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.
on December 30, 2002
"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.
on July 31, 2000
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.
on December 22, 2010
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.
on August 5, 2007
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.
on July 3, 2002
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.
I read 'The Big Con' because it reportedly provides the basis for the movie 'The Sting.' The book was originally published in 1940, and recently republished. Author Maurer, a Louisville professor, took his research seriously and is credited with having conducted numerous interviews with some of the men who conducted these cons. One of the con leaders referenced is a man named Gondorff, who got his start in 1900 New York City. Gondorff is also the name of the con taken for a ride by Newman and Redford in the movie. Gondorff took a New Britain banker for $375,000 - about $11 million in today's dollars.
Maurer's well-written book begins with an overview that describes the best cons as combining intelligence, broad general knowledge, acting ability, and improvisational skills. A 'short con' involves taking the pigeon for all the money he has on his person, while the 'big con' sends him home to get more. All con games employ the victim's greed as a lever. In all of them the mark is induced to participate in an extralegal money-making machine that requires and investment. The cruder mechanisms are simple bait-and-switch devices; in the most sophisticated the victim may never realize he's been bilked, merely registering the outcome as a failed gamble.
The con game always has at least a 'roper' and the 'inside man' who bounce the victim between them. The high and elegant style of the big con described in this book as decline, perhaps disappeared, due to changing technology. Communications are now faster and more widely available. Relatively few good con men are ever brought to trail - the victim must virtually admit criminal intentions himself to prosecute, and about 90% never do. Of those con men who are tried, few are convicted.
The steps in a big con are: 1)Locating a well-to-do victim. 2)Gaining the victim's confidence. 3)Steering him to meet the inside man (roping). 4)Permitting the inside man to show him how he can make a large amount of dishonest money. 5)Allowing the victim to profit. 6)Determining how much he will invest. 7)Sending him home for that amount. 8)Playing him against a 'big store' and fleecing him. 8)Getting him out of the way as quietly as possible. 9)Forestalling action by the law.
An early version of the big con ('fight store') involved staged fights between a traveling millionaire and his boxer, vs. a supposed local champion, with a fake doctor also involved. An 'employee' of the millionaire supposedly out for revenge and in cahoots with the millionaire's favored boxer would solicit participation by others in a supposed rigged dive. However, the champion would land a surprise hard blow to the challenger's chest, the challenger would fall to the ground, and the 'doctor' pronounced him dead. The victim loses his bet, and all fled to avoid being entangled in a manslaughter investigation (prize fighting then was illegal, and there would be few attendees). The record take for this con is believed to have been $50,000; this con faded when prize-fighting became legal around 1915.
Another version, 'the wire,' was invented just prior to 1900. The con men convinced the victim that with the connivance of a corrupt Western Union official they could delay race results long enough to place a bet after the race ended. Two fake setups were used - in one a Western Union office was established, along with a horse race room located elsewhere with a telegraph, odds board, bookmaker, and shills winning and losing large sums of money to whet the victim's appetite. In the 'economy version,' the cons would sneak into a real Western Union office, until the company put a stop to this. 'The rag' was a variation of this that convinced victims the mob's inside man was manipulating stock prices.
Lou Blonger was kingpin of an extensive ring of confidence tricksters operating for over 25 years in Denver. His gang set up rooms resembling stock exchanges and betting parlors to convince tourists to put up large sums to secure delivery of stock profits or winning bets. He had long-term ties do politicians and law enforcement in Denver, including the mayor and police chief. In 1922, however, the district attorney (Blonger had offered election assistance) bypassed the police and used his own force, funded by secret donations from 31 wealthy locals, to bring Blonger and the ring to justice after a year of investigation - including spying on him from a building a cross the street, installing a Dictaphone inside his office (did not require a search warrant at that time), and allowing a crooked detective to work inside his office and feed Blonger misleading information.
The Denver attorney general then made it known in the summer of 1923 that he was going on a long fishing vacation, signaling the gang that the heat was off. Texas rancher J. Frank Norfleet showed up at this very time - after having been twice scammed by other gangs (taken for $45,000 in 1919 attempting to take advantage of 'inside information on stock trades) and hunting for the men who had swindled him. (Some had already been imprisoned.) Norfleet spend five years and $75,000 tracking down the swindlers, but lived to age 102.
Maurer reports that a roper was considered doing rather well if he brought in 2 - 4 victims/year, though one in Florida succeeded in bringing in three in one 1922 week. The one inviolable rule was to never bring in a local resident; some ropers used advertisements soliciting business opportunities or offers to buy businesses. Maurer's book provides both an overview of how the major big cons (and some of their simplifications) worked, but details of how typical conversations by the various players proceeded. The sophistication and cleverness involved is quite impressive - typically beginning with a proposal to buy eg. a business from the victim, then evolving into another 'opportunity' while the lawyers etc. are freed up to complete the deal.
The 1930s brought greater involvement of the federal government, and ended perpetrators' ability to hide behind corrupt local officials.
on October 29, 2008
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.
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.
Stories about con men and criminals are good to use as anecdotes and metaphors. The Big Con does this well and if that was all it did it would be worth having. What I didn't realize is that Maurer's book is the definitive academic piece on early 20th-century crime. As in, he also wrote an entire book on the linguistics of the underworld (which is interesting to think about considering how commonly we use their phrases - grift, rag, con, the fix, blowing him off) and wrote the Britannica article for "slang." You would probably be well served to explore a few of the biographies of the characters in the book, although the 48 Laws of Power does a good job with some of the highlights.
The one thing to take away: con men exploited the desire of wealthy people to get something for nothing and their willingness to break the rules to do so. Avoid that weakness, even if we don't have to worry about roving bands of con men as much anymore.