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The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man Paperback – July 20, 1999
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From Publishers Weekly
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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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.
“Of all the grifters, the confidence man is the aristocrat.”
THE BIG CON is a casual narrative that eases you into the world of the modern (1940s) confidence man as its pages offer you true third party insight with the occasional tale or anecdote from those who actively play the game. Educational, amusing, informative, and a remarkably quick read this book provides all that is needed for the casual enthusiast.
Non-fiction is pretty hit-or-miss for me but the narrative that spun this research together drew me in immediately. It felt so conversational I became eager to hear him out and learn what was being offered. And what Maurer was offering was a base of history, a trove of secrets, and a smile of stories straight from the horse’s mouth.
Read my FULL review here: [...]
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.
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