The American Confidence Man – (Charles C. Thomas, Publisher, Illinois, 1974)
By David W. Maurer, Professor of Linguistics, University of Louisville, Kentucky.
The principles of the confidence games are very ancient, going back through the history of Europe to the Near East, where their origins are lost in the haze of antiquity. However, the confidence games as we know them today involved very modern technology, and the big-con games represent a brilliant invention of the twentieth century.
The big-con games per se, together with the name, are American. Perhaps the earliest mention of the term confidence trick was in the New Orleans Picayune in 1849. The publication in 1857 of Herman Melville’ novel, The Confidence Man, introduced the term early into serious literature….
Some of the basic psychology of the con games has been adapted by certain phases of legitimate business, and especially the advertising business, both in the United States and elsewhere. However, the use of these principles by legitimate business is usually (technically, at least) on the right side of the law.
This book is a by-product of linguistic research, in the course of which I have had to examine the backgrounds of many rackets. Over a period of years I have explored the secret and semisecret communications systems of professional criminals both in the United States and other countries. Very early I discovered that the technical language of criminals, which is called “argot,” cannot be studied in terms of language alone.
These speech-systems have to be viewed in light of the subcultures which produced them, for all language has a close relationship to human behavior. In other words, before one can write about criminal argot, he must learn how professional criminals live….
Where, then, does one go or the answers?
I have gone to the criminals themselves. And I have not been disappointed.
While the methods by which this material is collected cannot be described here, it should be said that they are in no way sensational, mysterious, or colorful. I do not wear disguises or spy on operating professionals. And although I speak several argots with some fluency, I do not, like many bright young television detectives, join mobs incognito in order to case the racket from the inside, for I would be detected inevitably – probably on the basis of my language.
My approach is simple. I determine who the good professional are, secure their assistance, and work with them much the same as an anthropologist might work with an American Indian tribe he is studying.
This work is not glamourous or exciting or filled with adventure; rather, it is carefully restrained within the serve limits of the scientific method. When I begin having adventures in my work, I will know that something has gone wrong with my method.
This book should give the reader a better understanding of one phase of professional crime, but it is not intended as an expose. It does not purport to reveal ‘forbidden’ secrets of a dark and sinister underworld. I have not intended to appear as an apologist for the criminal. On the other hand, I have scrupulously refrained from passing any judgements with a moral bias. My only aim is to tell, for the general reader, the story of American confidence men and confidence games, stripped of the romantic aura which commonly hovers over the literature of the modern big-time criminal.
A Word About Confidence Men
The grift has a gentle touch. It takes its toll from the ripe sucker by means of the skilled hand or the sharp wit. In this, it differs from all other forms of crime, especially the heavy rackets It never employs violence to separate the mark from his money.
Of all the grifters, the confidence man is the aristocrat. Although he is sometimes classed with professional thieves, he is not a thief at all because he does no actual stealing. The trusting victim literally thrusts a fat bankroll into his hands. It is a point of pride with him that he does not have to steal….
A confidence man prospers only because of the fundamental dishonesty of his victim. In his operations, he must first inspire a firm belief in his own integrity. Second, he brings into play powerful and well-nigh irresistible forces to excite the cupidity of the mark. Then he allows the victim to make large sums of money by means of dealings which are explained to him as being dishonest and hence a “sure thing.” As the lust for large and easy profits is fanned into a hot flame, the mark puts all his scruples behind him. He closes out his bank account, liquidates his property, borrows from his friends, embezzles from his employer or his clients. In the mad frenzy of cheating someone else, he is unaware of the fact that he is the real victim, carefully selected and fattened for the kill. Thus arises the trite but nonetheless sage maxim: “You can’t cheat an honest man.”
…Modern con men use at present only three big-con games, and only two of these are used extensively….The three big con games, the wire, the rag, and the payoff, have in some seventy-five years of their existence, taken a staggering toll from a gullible public….
All confidence games, big and little, have certain similar underlying principles: all of them progress through certain fundamental stages to an inevitable conclusion; while these stages or steps may vary widely in detail from type to type of game, the principles upon which they are based remain the same and are immediately recognizable. In the big-con games the steps are these:
1. Locating and investigating a well-to-do victim. (Putting the mark up)
2. Gaining the victim’s confidence (Playing the con for him)
3. Steering him to meet the insideman (Roping the mark)
4. Permitting the insideman to show him how he can make a large amount of money dishonestly.
(Telling him the tale)
5. Allowing the victim to make a substantial profit. (Giving him the convincer)
6. Determining exactly how much he will invest. (Giving him the breakdown)
7. Sending him home for this amount of money. (Putting him on the send)
8. Playing him against a big store and fleecing him. (Taking off the touch)
9. Getting him out of the way as quickly as possible. (Blowing him off)
10. Forestalling action by the law (Putting in the fix)
The fix, like insurance, is protection bought and paid for. It is an institution among all professional criminals, but perhaps no other professionals use it so continuously nor rely on it so implicitly as the con men. When it is “in” con men know that certain powerful representatives of law and order will not only wink at the operation of con games, but will actually cooperate if necessary. All this is accomplished by paying a percentage of each touch for stipulated protection. As long as the con man has the money to meet his obligations and as long as he knows that the fix is reliable, he has every reason to feel secure. When he is broek or when the fix “curdles,” he knows that his days at liberty are numbered.
All habitual and professional criminals employ the fix in one form or another….The fix for professionals is administered through a more or less permanent fixer who is part of the underworld-political set up in every city which harbors any sort of organized crime – and that means every city of any size in the United States. It is not implied that a fixer is necessary a part of any party political machine – a good fixer can weather many a change in administration – but he usually plays off to that machine, directly or indirectly, in cash. The fixer is sometimes a respectable and legitimate citizen, often an attorney, but in some places he has a hand in the rackets…
A good con mob would no more think of setting up a big store until the fix had been investigated and found effective than Mr. Chamberlain would think of setting out without his umbrella. Con men have long ago established the value of “appeasement” and they have developed the proper machinery for distributing it in an equitable manner.
Confidence men normally have the occasion to fix…..a bank in the city where the store is located, the chief of police or the chief of detectives, prosecuting attorneys or district attorneys, judges, juries, sheriffs, and on occasion the mark himself…..The first thing a big store must have is the protection and co-operation of a bank….
The “Right Copper” is the one that will take a bribe, while the “Wrong Copper” won’t.
The wrong coppers are usually too fair-minded to hate con men; they know only too well that con-game victims are fleeced while trying to profit by a dishonest deal; furthermore, they see arresting a con man and giving honest testimony against him only as part of their sworn duty. But the wrong copper is a very rare bird. The right coppers who have been on duty for many years know all the important con men in the country and the con men know all the detectives. They do not hate each other any more than a merchant hates his customers; they co-operate for their mutual well-being; it is part of the system…..
The big-con games did not spring in to existence full-fledged. The principles on which they operate are as old as civilization. But their immediate evolution is closely knit with the invention and development of the big store, a fake gambling club or broker’s office, in which the victim is swindled. And within the twentieth century these games have, from the criminal’s point of view, reached a high state of perfection….
So well did they understand human nature that they played upon it like a symphony conductor directing a great orchestra. It is mainly about these men that this book is written; some of them contributed substantially to it. The new generation, while producing some very competent operators, is a pedestrian lot by comparison. They lack the grand thinking, the unlimited gall, the sure touch, the high intelligence, and the total contempt for a materialistic culture….
The confidence games are not always played for money. Sometimes,….they are played just for fun.
THE BIG STORE
In the fall of 1867 the Union Pacific railway reached Cheyenne, Wyoming, and that hurly-burly outpost became the spearhead of a frenzied effort which thrust its way relentlessly up the canyons, through the passes, and over the Badlands ever towards the West…..
….Ben Marks understood all about easy money, for his business was sure-thing gambling. Ever since he left home in Council Bluffs, Iowa,….Ben had an idea, an idea which was eventually to revolutionize the grift, and idea which was to become the backbone of all big-time confidence game. Why not set up a place of business of his own? Why not operate from a permanent base, let the players come to him?....
He turned the idea over in his mind for some time and finally opened, in a shack of a building, which he called The Dollar Store. In the windows he exhibited all kinds of colorful, useful and even valuable merchandise – with all items priced at one dollar – and he soon had customers aplenty. Inside there were several monte games going, replete with shills and “sticks” to keep the play going at a lively pace. Once a gullible customer was lured in by the bargains he saw displayed, Ben “switched” his interest from the sale to the three-card monte, which was being expertly played on barrelheads. The merchandise never changed hands. It remained always the same. But the customers were different….
When the big-con games came in, out went the more primitive stores….The store was now a much more pretentious institution where men high in the social and financial world could be played for scores which ran into the hundreds of thousands of dollars….The most effective swindling device which man had ever invented was now in the hands of the confidence men.
But a big store will never beat a mark; it will not take off a score by itself. It is effective only when it is manned by good professionals and when the props and personnel are used most strategically. Little by little, con men discovered which parts they could fill best; some showed special talents which they developed and perfected to a truly remarkable degree…..
While many grifters before the advent of the big-con games had been actors of a sort, and certain grifting teams had learned to complement one another’s little acts in order to obtain the desired reactions from the victim, there was no organization…..
By 1898 the wire had started in New York City. Christ Tracy, a fine insideman, opened up the first of the big stores there that year….By 1900 Charlie Gondorf….set up a store of his own…
THE BIG CON GAMES
The con man approaches a mark with the old story that he needs an honest man to finance a dishonest project. The success of the game hinges entirely upon the ability of the operator to “tell the tale” to the mark….
One of three modern big-con games, the rag, the wire, and the pay-off, the wire was invented first. Without it, the rag and the pay-off could not have developed….
The name for the game is an abbreviated form of wiretapping, from which the idea for the swindle developed….The modern wire store is operated by one regular insideman who poses as a Western Union official, a variable staff of shills, and a staff of several outsidemen or ropers. These ropers travel the country looking for victims who have money and can be played for the wire…..[in which horse race results are delayed long enough to get a bet down on the winner.]
Like the wire, the pay-off sprang from a humble beginning….racetrack touts….[using phony tickets for supposedly fixed races]
In the rag we see the principles of the pay-off applied to a deal in stocks or securities.
Big-time confidence games are in reality only carefully rehearsed plays in which every member of the cast EXCEPT THE MARK knows his part perfectly. The insideman is the star of the cast; while the minor participants are competent actors and can learn their lines perfectly, they must look to the insideman for their cues; he must be not only a fine actor, but a playwright extempore as well. And he must be able to retain the confidence of an intelligent man even after the man has been swindled at his hands….
The rather remarkable but well-established fact is that men who have been beaten once will come back again – and again, and again. Truly, you can’t knock off a good mark…..
Others do not discover that they have grift sense until later in life. Some competent con men are turned out on the big con after they have been beaten at a confidence game, when suddenly they realize that they have the ability in that line also; then, without benefit of early training,…they go to work with a professional mob…..
Training and experience are of course important, but without the grift sense they count for little, as can be seen from the Gondorff family. Two of the brothers, Charley and Fred, were rated at the top of their profession, while brother George, who worked under the very best tutelage, never succeeded…..he just didn’t have grifting sense….
Con men know where they will find their kind, and when they are not in the store, they usually keep to the company in the hangout….The hangouts are often run directly or indirectly by a fixer, and thus they provide protection to grifters who are in a strange town….
All mobs have certain systems of communication among themselves, including their professional argot, which is more or less unintelligible to the outsider, and a system of signs and signals (called offices) which are somewhat standardized. For instance, if one con man sees another on the street and does not want to be recognized, he will give the office in the form of a slight, high-pitched cough or a signal made by tapping the closed hand casually against the mouth…..
Thus mobs are organized. Even though their members are loosely held together and the functioning units are often flung far afield, there is a remarkable sense of professional unity. A highly developed group solidarity keeps intact a very strong morale…. Although there are channels of communication from mob to mob, and, on occasion, even co-operation of a professional nature, these interrelationships are casual and personal. It should not be assumed that there is anything like an organization of mobs on a wide or even a national scale under the direction of “supercriminals” so dear to the minds of a gullible public nourished since childhood on flamboyant film and fiction….
However, since all confidence men live in much the same environment, have something of the same training and background, live by a loose but nevertheless real code, are all of high intelligence, have similar attitudes towards their victims, towards the law, and one another, and run somewhat true to form in their amusements and recreations, it follows naturally that they develop certain traits in common. While these traits can hardly be said to be earmarks of their profession, and certainly they could not be used to identify a confidence man, they are, regardless of individual variations, characteristic of the group.
Many play golf for sport….Some fancy horses…
Grift sense appears to be inherent; con men testify that experience may be helpful in attaining a high state of perfection, but all agree that the grift sense must be there first….
In addition to grift sense, a con man must have a good deal of genuine acting ability. He must be able to make anyone like him, confide in him, trust him. He must sense immediately what aspects of his personality will be most appealing to his victim, then assume that pose and hold it consistently….
These steps are, in themselves, little dramas which must be enacted with great naturalness; one false move and the mark suspects that his new-found friend is not all that he seems. If he acts his part well, the mark suspects nothing, for the sequence of events is built up with most convincing logic and plausibility. After the mark has taken the bait, and while he is making the easy money which prepares him for the final plunge, the roper has complete charge of him, that is, he has him tied up, although the mark firmly believes that he is keeping the roper under the control at the confidential suggestion of the insideman….
When the mark is being played for, he is never alone or a minute. The insideman tells the mark to watch the roper carefully so that he won’t tip off the situation to any outsiders. And the mark will always guard him faithfully….
It is a peculiar fact that every professional criminal group has its own language…..
Criminal argots are rally artificial languages used by professionals for communication among themselves. The professional criminal speaks one or more argots in addition to colloquial English. Each profession has its own argot, based no one or more of the several large systems of argot-formation which are at work in the American underworld. Intimately related professions usually have argots which are closely related…But all professional criminals speak at least one argot or lingo fluently….
Why do criminals speak a lingo? There are several reasons, perhaps the most widely accepted of which is that criminals must have a secret language in order to conceal their plans from their victims or from the police….The lingo of the confidence men is one of the most extensive in the underworld…..
Closely related to the phenomenon of argot-formation – in fact, one aspect of it – is the use of monickers,…Relatively few criminals are known in the underworld by their real names; in many cases their closest friends know little of their family connections…..These underworld nicknames usually stick….
Confidence men trade upon certain weaknesses in human nature. Hence until human nature changes perceptibly there is little possibility that there will be a shortage of marks for con games. So long as there are marks with money, the law will find great difficulty in suppressing confidence games, even assuming that the local enforcement officers are sincerely interested…..As long as the political boss, whether he be local, state or national, fosters a machine wherein graft and bribery are looked upon as a normal phase of government, as long as juries judges and law enforcement officers can be had for a price, the confidence man will live and thrive in our society.
THE BIG CON – The Story of the Confidence Man (Anchor Books, Random House, NY, 1999) with an introduction by Luc Sante
Note: Originally published in the United States by Bobbs-Merrill, an Indiana Compnay in 1940.
When we think of cheese, it’s Wisconsin,…but with grifters, it’s Indiana….Con men look puzzled and scratch their heads when we ask them why that would be so…Perhaps the fact that for many years it was customary for circuses to winter in Indiana may help to explain the number of grifters who came from that state.
Introduction to the Anchor Editon
The Big Con can be considered a piece of art criticism, since it is not just an taxonomy of styles in diddling, but a refined appreciation of a the high swindle, the confidence game in its Augustan Age.
David Maurer was a linguist, eventually professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of Louisville. He began his publishing career in 1930 with Speech Peculiarities of the North American Fisherman and not long after began his lifelong study of criminal and demimonde dialects. His other books include Whiz Mob: A Correlation of the Technical Argot of Pickpockets with Their Behavior Pattern (1955), Narcotics and Narcotics Addiction (1973), The American Confidence Man (1974), Kentucky Moonshine (1974) and the posthumously published omnibus volume Language of the Underworld (1981)….Maurer had requested in his will that his entire archive be destroyed upon his death, for fear of compromising his pen pals pursued by the law.
Maurer, as this book will amply demonstrate, earned the intimate confidence of many vulnerable and close-mouthed miscreants, people who would not have opened up to journalists. The type of field work he engaged in, “takes a great deal of physical stamina and a strong personality, as well as mental ability.”
Maurer studied the lingo of – among others – carnies, junkies, safe-crackers, forgers, pot smokers, faro-bank players, shell game hustlers, race-track touts, pick-pockets, moonshiners, prostitutes and pimps, but his interest in the language of the confidence men was a case apart…..
The big con can also be considered as a form of theater, very nearly a Gesamtkunstwerk, staged with a minute naturalistic illusionism for an audience of one, who is moreover enlisted as part of the cast. The con game always has at least two principles – the roper and the insideman, whose roles are archetypical as Punch and Judy…They bounce the victim between them the way cops in a Mutt-and-Jeff torture team manipulate a suspect: it is a kind of a three man tango….
By 1940, when The Big Con was originally published, the big con had already retreated into a kind of music-hall nostalgia. Before George Roy Hill’s The Sting (1973), which was inspired by the present volume,….
After all, a look around present day American institutions should suffice to demonstrate that the character in question has now fully emerged from the underworld and entered the mainstream, where he may be far less colorful and imaginative, but no less on the grift.