The Mark Inside

It’s somewhat discomfiting to think of the history of United States as one long con game, exploited by the likes of Benjamin Franklin (who helped print the money in the early republic) and early gold, silver, and stock speculators (who arguably created nothing but worthless paper, which they then sold to saucer-eyed suckers). And yet in The Mark Inside: A Perfect Swindle, a Cunning Revenge, and a Small History of the Big Con, Amy Reading makes a compelling argument that the country would never have achieved its Manifest Destiny if people weren’t willing to con (and perhaps as important, be conned) in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Everyone, to varying degrees, carried “the mark inside.” And perhaps none so indelibly as J. Frank Norfleet, a Texas rancher who got swindled out of his life savings but whose vigilante campaign to track down his personal con men (and along the way, many others) made him a household name in the 1920s.

Before the establishment of a national currency during the Civil War, counterfeit bills flooded the marketplace. Everyone knew it, and yet, suggests Reading,  most people accepted it — because they had confidence that others accepted it, too:

America between the Revolution and the Civil War experienced dramatic economic development as the frontier moved westward and the eastern cities commercialized. This development happened not despite but because of counterfeit. At a time when the appetite for development outstripped the available credit, the fake bills that inflated the money supply performed a public service, especially in the West.

People were game to be hoodwinked, and this prevailing attitude helps explain the tremendous success of P. T. Barnum.

“In fact, as Barnum knew full well, it was precisely because his exhibits veered so close to con artistry that audiences found them so exhilarating,” Reading says. But this willingness to “buy in” had devastating consequences, too; notably, when this increased tolerance for “minor fraud and perceptual ambiguity” spread, average citizens  of a once frugal nation became willing to engage in high-risk gold and silver speculation, “long after it had become unprofitable.”

But the effect of this nationwide addiction to “humbug” was vastly multiplied by the new connections that spanned the vast spaces between American cities. By 1919, train tracks and telegraph wires draped the country in a vast web — a web that con men like Big Joe Furey could slink along, searching for prey like J. Frank Norfleet. This was prior to the establishment of a national database of mug shots and fingerprints, so catching these con men was difficult, especially because many of them were itinerant and used multiple aliases.

Norfleet considered himself an honest, hardworking man who trusted people implicitly. But his confidence in others was what made him a perfect mark for Furey, whom the newspapers called “the cleverest bunco man in the country.” When Norfleet, fifty-four, traveled from the Texas Panhandle to Dallas in November 1919, he stepped from the prairie into an elaborate sting — the type of big con that would be replayed in countless cities and towns across the country in those years. The profile of an ideal target:

[The] mark would have to be, first and foremost, an out-of-towner so that he wouldn’t be able to turn to his local banker for advice during the swindle or encounter the con men after his money vanished. He would be from a second- or third-tier American city, traveling alone in a large city for business purposes…. He would be a prosperous, substantial citizen in his community. More than that, he would be a self-made man, accustomed to both hard work and seizing the main chance. He must be able to raise $20,000, $30,000, $40,000, even $50,000 in a day or two, but he must not have so much money that he would refer a deal to his bankers and accountants. He wouldn’t be overly familiar with the financial industry. Norfleet fit that role in almost every particular.

Furey and his four associates devised a plan that made Norfleet believe he’d made easy money using privileged stock information. They replayed the con several times, upping the amount and assuring him that even higher winnings awaited him. When he finally went in deeply — putting down $45,000, or $560,000 in today’s money — they “took off the touch,” in con man lingo, and split town with his money. “The game was up, and he was worse than broke.”

But when Furey and his gang fleeced Norfleet, they’d unwittingly sheared the wrong sheep, as “Norfleet emerged from the big con as a changed man, stone-broke but wealthy in outrage.” He set off on a four-year crusade that crisscrossed the nation and drew him into a series of dramatic encounters with violent criminals and shrewd swindlers. To catch the con men, he’d have to adopt their tactics. He became a trained impostor, beguiling confidence men and undermining their operations. He helped make dozens of arrests and most famously he helped bring down Lou Blonger’s crew, a vast network of Denver fraud artists that largely preyed on visiting businessmen and protected themselves by paying off politicians and police. By this point Norfleet, the renowned, self-promoting vigilante, had a new full-time profession: selling himself, “and in this quality he was the quintessential American,” Reading says.

In the end Reading is left to wonder whether Norfleet — whose 1924 autobiography was a main source for this book — has conned everyone with his exaggerated tales of avenging justice. Like many of his countrymen, he’d finally learned to spot the mark inside.