Telling It All: My Life As A con Man


This mesmerizing biography is the real life story of Alabama Fats who made a living for 60 years conning elderly people out of their money. He's now 85 and an unrepentant con man but he's telling his story in order to warn young people to watch out for their grandparents because if the young people don' like Alabama Fats certainly are.
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This mesmerizing biography is the real life story of Alabama Fats who made a living for 60 years conning elderly people out of their money. He's now 85 and an unrepentant con man but he's telling his story in order to warn young people to watch out for their grandparents because if the young people don' like Alabama Fats certainly are.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780979087868
  • Publisher: Community Press
  • Publication date: 1/28/2007
  • Pages: 148
  • Product dimensions: 6.14 (w) x 9.21 (h) x 0.33 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter Two
The Game
Call me Alabama Fats. That's my street name and everyone has been calling me Alabama Fats for the past 60 years. I was skinny once, but that was a long time ago. Later, I was pear-shaped. Alabama Fats-that's what the Cleveland Police called me. That's the way I'm listed on their police report, which I have included in the back of this book to prove that I am the con I say I am. I might have been pear-shaped then, but now I'm just plain fat. Old and fat. In my 80s, and getting older every day. I'm still fat. I'm still black, too.
Right now, at the very beginning of this book, I want to make absolutely sure that everyone who reads this book understands exactly what I was for those 60 years. I was a street hustler, a con man. I have conned so many people here that the Cleveland Police used to have my picture up on the wall in the Fifth Precinct. People I conned would come in and see my picture and point to it and say "That's the man that conned me." But there was nothing the lames could do about it. I had their money. There was nothing the police could do about it. It was some lame's word against mine.
Oh, I've been caught lots of times. I spent six months in jail once. In the 1950s, in Montgomery, Alabama. For gambling on a train. That was a violation of interstate commerce and that was a federal arrest. It was a pleasant six months, and that was the longest I ever spent in jail. Other than that it was a day or two here and another day or two there-in Jackson or Chicago or Atlanta. But I never stayed locked up long.
Back in the early days, it was easy to get out. You just split your money with the cops and yougot out. A policeman was the best friend a con man had. You were his meal ticket. When he needed money, he'd bust the con man. Take half. Or most. Or all. But that was back in the old days, the 40s and 50s.
It's like night-and-day now. Back then you could get arrested and booked on general principles. That's what they called it "general principles." You can even see that kind of arrest in my file. "General Principles." What they usually meant was that I didn't have enough money on me to make the policeman that stopped me happy. If you didn't have enough money to give the cops, you got arrested.
Even if I did get arrested, I didn't say in jail long. If I got there at all. Sometimes I paid a bail bondsman to get me out of jail, and then I paid a fine. But that was it. I didn't want to go to the penitentiary, and the cops didn't want me to go there either. I was making too much money for them on the street. All the fines I paid ended up in someone's pocket. No judge ever knew I was even arrested.
That's the way the world was then. Maybe not so much now, but that was the way it was in the 30s and 40s and 50s. You thought you were working for yourself, until the police showed up. Then you found you had a partner. There was a lot of money to be made hustling on the streets. I know because I made a lot of money in my life, wearing expensive shirts during the Depression when other folks were lucky to be making 50 cents a day.
I'm black, but that doesn't mean anything. I'd hustle anyone. Sold fake jewelry, watches. Played the Three Card Molly all over the South, from Montgomery to St. Petersburg to New Orleans. Been to New York once and Chicago quite a few times. When I started, out I took the train, then the Greyhound. America was a different place when I started the con game. Not that many people had cars. Not that many people I conned had cars. They took the trains and buses, walked the city streets, stayed in the cheap hotels. Just like me. Where they were, I was too. You've got to live like the people you con. You have to be the people you con, be in their heads.
Now, I don't gamble. Never have. Never went to Vegas. That's not gambling. That's just giving your money to the casino. I don't gamble when I play cards. You don't gamble when you play cards with me, either. You just lose. That's the way the game is played. It's a sting, and you are the person what gets stung.
Alabama Fats isn't my real name, but I guess you figured that. I am a real person and not some cheap character someone made up for a paperback book. I'm using my street name for a number of reasons.
First, I don't need any more trouble than I've had in the past. What I've got to say might open up some old police files. The Cleveland Police and I have an agreement. I don't cause trouble, and they leave me alone. The Police in Cleveland today are not what they used to be.
Second, there's a culture out there on the streets. There are lots of cons out there, making their living on the street. People haven't changed, so the con games have not changed either. Stupid people lose their money every day. They should. But I'm not here to help the lames or turn in the cons. That's life on the street. You don't rat out your brothers. Well, I'm not part of that culture any more, but I don't want any old friends showing up in my life.
Third, I have always dreamed of writing this book, Telling It All by Alabama Fats, and every word in this book is true. I lived it; I ought to know. I've been writing this book in my head since 1925.
Something else. I'm not writing this book to say I'm sorry for what I did. I'm not. I had to make a living, and I did it the best I knew how. I cheated a lot of people, but all of the people I cheated deserved to be cleaned out. They were looking for an easy buck. They'd have conned me, if they could have.
You cannot take money from a man who does not want to be cheated. They've got common sense, and that is the worst enemy a con man has. Common sense means you know you are not going to get something for nothing.
The con game is exactly that. It's a con, a sting, a snatch. We were using the terms sting, stang, stung long before the movie. He got stung. We stung this lame. That's the way we talked. Still do. It's part of our language on the streets. It's what we do for a living. Sting. We get people's money. All of it. We take every dime, every dollar, every penny. I was very good at it. So were my friends. We could con anyone, and we conned a lot of people in our days. You give me a deck of cards-my cards-and I can clean a man out in about two hours. Every cent he's got. If he's really stupid, I can clean out his life savings. I've even walked into a bank with a lame and have him clean out his checking and savings accounts and lose every dime. If it wasn't me, it would be to my partner. We took them all.
The best cons require a partner. Sure, you can play the Three Card Molly by yourself, but you can't do that well unless you have a partner. Every good con man's got a stick man. Sometimes a lame man, too.
That's what we called the people we stung. The lames. If we had been white, we would have called them lambs, like sheep, but I didn't know that until years later. On the street, they are the lames. And they get stung. The lame man gets the lame into the game, the con. The cap man is the person who pretends to be a passerby, someone who just happens to be there. But all of us work together. It just doesn't look that way to the lame.
There never was any one con man or one con game that I favored. I tried them all. Over the years, I met and worked with a lot of other cons. Played a lot of games. Some of the cons I worked with were very good at what they did. Others could not take a dime from a blind man's cup.
The man who first taught me was Mobile Fats. He was a big, black man who showed me how to work the trains and how to play the Three Card Molly. He was older than me, about five years older. I must have been 15 when he first showed me in Montgomery, where I was working at a dry cleaning business. It was honest work, but it didn't pay. Mobile Fats had a better way to make money. Faster. He showed me how to sting the lames. He wasn't fat then, so I don't know why he was called "Fats." He was a skinny kid with a baby face, and he used to wear caps that were pleated in the back. There weren't any baseball caps in those days. This was a real cap, looked expensive and probably was, considering how much Mobile Fats made.
Mobile Fats found me working at a dry cleaning store. I was married and had a kid and wasn't making enough money to pay for three people. Top of that, I was being burned alive from the chemicals in that store.
They didn't have any environmental-type laws, like they do today. In those days, you just used the chemicals the company gave you. We'd put the chemicals in a vat and breathe those fumes all day. My hands were raw and had sores from sticking my hands in the chemicals. They'd be all burned with rashes and red splotches all the way up my arms. Back then the chemical vats were an "occupational hazard." That just meant it was your problem, not the company's.
I wasn't making near enough to feed and clothe three people working 8 hours a day at the dry cleaning store when I met Alabama Fats, and he said there was a better way to make money. An easier way. I sure wasn't going to get rich dipping my hands in those kettles full of cleaning chemicals, so I took a chance. Best choice I ever made.
Alabama Fats took me down to the train station one day, and we took a train out of Montgomery. I don't remember where we went, but that doesn't matter. Five days, out on Monday and back on Saturday. He taught me how to play the Three Card Molly, and we stung lames everywhere. On the train. In the stations. On the streets beside the station. Uptown. Downtown. We'd get off the train and just start walking. There were dumb people everywhere. Still are! They'd be standing in lines waiting to play the Three Card Molly. We'd clean 'em out, then we'd get back on the train. Next town, next street corner, next lame, next sting.
That was in about 1936, right in the middle of the Depression. Everyone was broke in those days. There weren't any jobs, not a lot of food and everyone was looking for an edge, a score, a way to get some money. They sure thought we were suckers, two skinny black boys who looked like they'd just run away from a farm.
They took us for fools and we cleaned them out. One after another.
Five days later, I was back in Montgomery with more money than I would have had if I had worked at a regular job for a year. I never really went back to honest work. When times were really tough, I would get a job, but I never made a career of honest work. It was too hard. The con was too easy.
Was I a natural? I guess you could say so. I was very good at it when I started. It was the first big money I ever made. It wasn't that hard either; it was a kind of game. I had to look dumb on the outside, but keep my mind focused on the inside. It was like acting. It was acting, and it paid very well.
I didn't work with Mobile Fats very long. I had a wife and child, and Fats was always on the move. He was good enough that he didn't need a partner but every once in a while. It wasn't anything regular. I might not see him for six months, and suddenly he'd be in Montgomery. We'd work together for a few weeks, and then he'd be gone again, on his own, headed north or south or east or west, wherever the trains would take him.
Then one day, he never came back. I heard he had died in Detroit fairly young. About 30. Sometime during the Second World War. Got involved in some drug deal that went bad. Got shot in a parking lot. A con man should stay away from drugs. If you are a good con man, stick with the con. Drugs are nothing but an expressway to getting killed. Con men live longer. They also make more money.
Mobile Fats was really good on his own, but most con men work in pairs. That's the best way to
skin a lame. One person can con someone else, but it's best to work in pairs. It's one man to stop the lame and the other man to set him up. The one that stops the lame is called the lame man. He's the one who has got to get the attention of the lame. Then there's the cap man. Sometimes he's called the stick man. He's the innocent bystander. The lame doesn't know the cap man's part of the sting team. The lame just thinks this is someone who just happened to be there on the street. That's how dumb these lames are.
All cons start by stopping a lame. Suppose you're the lame man and you see someone come out of the bank. This guy has got money, otherwise he wouldn't be in a bank. So the lame man would do something to start a conversation, like ask directions or ask where he might find a woman. The lame would be polite 'cause that's the way most of us were brought up.
The minute the lame starts talking to the lame man, the cap man shows up. It's like a chance meeting on the street. The lame doesn't know the lame man and the stick man are working together; he just thinks he found two friendly folk on the street.
When the lame man stops the lame, his job is to get the attention of the lame and keep his mind occupied. Never let the lame start to think, 'cause the moment he starts to think you have lost him. The lame man keeps the lame occupied until the stick man gets there. Then the stick man takes over and the con begins.
Once you have the lame's attention, you got to know what he wants. That determines how you are going to skin him. If he's looking for a woman, you take him to a house, and while he's waiting for a woman, you pull him into a game of Three Card Molly. If he's a drinking man, take him to a bar. This is where working with a partner is so important. You have to know what your partner is thinking, because it has to be natural, so the lame doesn't know he's about to be skinned.
Over the years, I worked with five great con men. Were we the best? Who knows? They don't give awards for being good con man. You just get the money. But we were good. Real good. We didn't get caught that much, a day or two here and there. We all made a lot of money over the years. I'm one of the only ones still alive, and the rest of them died old and in their own beds. We must have been doing something right. That would not have happened if we'd been selling drugs.
Sometimes I worked with Git. Sometimes with Shitty Dave. It all kind of depended on who was doing what. We were all married and had families. What cons we pulled depended on what was happening at home. We didn't just go to the train station and leave. We planned our trips.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 14, 2007

    A Confessional Expose of Con Artists Embedded in a Fine Social History of America

    Dave Gray 'AKA Alabama Fats' takes the confessional platform in this excellent book TELLING IT ALL - MY LIFE AS A CON MAN, a reflection of a life of crime as shared by an 80-year-old African American to writer Steven Levi, and what makes this book even better than the rather sensational aspect of its con man content is a survey of social history from 1927 to 2007, a period of great change in the status of African American position in the culture of the USA. It is a terrifically entertaining and informative brief read, but it is also a reflection of change we all need to remember. Alabama Fats is the child of a poverty stricken family who at age 19 met up with a con artist who introduced him to the profession of taking money from people by means of card games 'Three Card Molly' and money scams such as Bank Agents. Fats 'tells it all' without remorse, sharing techniques and secrets of how 'lames' 'victims' could be identified and bilked out of their cash. And while this information is rather startling and fascinating and shocking, the method of sharing the changes in the way con men worked as the atmosphere in the USA changed from the Depression years through the post-WW II years, through the spend thrift 1950s, into the 1960s and beyond gives a unique historical vantage: the disappearance of trains as a common means of transportation, the introduction of credit cards and checks overriding the carrying of cash, and the altered view of the African American male with the shift from Inner City ghetto life to integration of cities and the speedy exit modes of the automobile culture changed the approach of the con artist as 'progress' altered life in the US. If the book is at times repetitive 'and what conversation with older people isn't?' and despite excessive editorial flaws, this is a fine little book to read and from which to learn. Steven Levi captures a refreshing freedom of style that makes this little volume feel like an oral history, and while Alabama Fats makes no apologies for his life as a con man, he concludes his true story with a warning for folks 'especially the vulnerable elderly' to be aware that the streets are still populated with artists trained to take their money. Grady Harp

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