A con man knows that a little larceny runs in everyone's veins, and if he's good enough he'll get you to hand over all your cash on the pretext that with it he can get you a whole lot more. If he's really good, he'll have you running to the bank to empty your account and perhaps even take out a loan. You say it could never happen to you? Well, maybe not. But the con man counts on your thinking you're too sharp to be duped. After all, if you believed someone could fool you, then you might believe you were being conned. And that's the last thing the confidence man wants.
It's all in The Big Con, David W. Maurer's definitive 1940 study of the American confidence man. This paperback edition is its first reprint. Luc Sante, the author of Low Life, brought the book to the attention of the publishers and also supplied the introduction, in which he describes Maurer's work as a combination of linguistics, criminology, folklore and social history as well as "a robust and spring-heeled piece of literature." I found it a perfect companion to my favorite forgotten classics of dark American life in the early decades of this century: The Dictionary of the Underworld by Eric Partridge, You Can't Win by Jack Black, Tom Kromer's Waiting for Nothing and Boxcar Bertha's Sister of the Road.
Maurer was a linguist who set out to do a study of underworld vernacular; he ended up writing a full-blown story of the con artists' world that flourished in the 1920s and 1930s. This was a time when money could be -- and was -- made fast, sometimes on a tip from a stranger you met in a Pullman train car. It was also the heyday of the grifter, who dressed well and frequented the smoking cars, spotted gullible (if not greedy) marks, roped them in, then trimmed them for all they were worth. Grifters might play the short con, which took the marks for whatever cash they had on hand. But the prize game was the big con, when they sent the suckers home to get the loot.
There were fat targets everywhere in America, and grifters took them down through schemes supposedly involving fixed horse races, fixed prizefights or inside stock tips -- all of which ended, of course, by going bad for the marks. The prerequisites to any of these cons were that the mark have plenty of money, want to make more -- and be willing to cheat. Nearly all the ruses employed a so-called big store, or fake betting house. Set up with all the trappings, it must have been marvelous to see: betting windows, chalkboards for race results, a ticker-tape machine, smoke-filled rooms and up to several dozen actors, from the inside man running the show and the roper who brought the mark in to the bit players and extras, all doing their part for a percentage of the score. It was a playhouse, a theater, a world of make-believe -- to everyone but the mark.
In a truly successful con, the mark didn't realize he'd been trimmed. He'd simply tried to cheat a betting house, he thought, and he'd lost -- he could hardly run to the law. But if by some chance he did, often enough the police were in on the con for their share, too.
If all this reminds you of a movie, it should. According to Sante's introduction, The Big Con inspired the popular 1973 movie The Sting. It may also remind you of something else. "Con men," Maurer wrote, "following trends current in the legitimate world, have employed techniques very similar to those used by big business."
The con job has thrived in every time and place the world has known, but a case can be made that the con as we know it was perfected in America with the advent of "the fix," the guarantee that the "mark" won't squeal to the cops. David Mamet and Jim Thompson are just two of many writers whose work romanticizes the con as part of American history; scholar David W. Maurer is another. His book The Big Con, a sociological study of the con man's culture, was first published in 1940 while he was teaching in the linguistics department at the University of Louisville, and it remains a valuable resource for all those fascinated with one of the criminal world's most interesting sub-sects. As would befit a professor in his field, Maurer was interested in the way con men spoke as much as how they operated. Criminals often speak in their own invented colloquialisms and codes, and his book, via anecdote and observation, opens a window into this secretive and colorful world. Maurer is clearly enamored of pre-Depression grifters with nicknames like the Narrow Gage Kid, Yellow Kid, and Postal Kid, descriptive appellations rarely encountered outside of Tom Waits' lyrics. Yet his stories and analysis ultimately seem like little more than a tantalizing build-up to the book's real payoff: an extensive dictionary of con-man lingo. Luc Sante's foreword to the recently reprinted edition is useful for putting the book in perspective: The con, Sante hypothesizes, is most widespread in times of great prosperity, and he writes that it would be useful to return to Maurer's text in light of today's flourishing economy. Perhaps he's right, as the classic con continues to evolve with technology; the characters Maurer writes about would go nuts with the wonders of the Internet. The Bandwidth Kid, anyone?
The book is spellbinding: It's origins are in linguistics; it is nominally a work of eriminology; it has blood ties to folklore; it falls within the scope of Americana; it serves up a parcel of social history; and of course it is a robust and springheeled piece of literature.
Time Out New York
The Big Con is righteous! It's an illuminating textbook of the confidence game; it's a deft tour of early twntieth century crime; it's a feast of language.
James Ellory, author of L.A. Confidential
A bonanza of wild but credible stories, told concisely with deadpan humor ,as sly and rich in atmosphere as anything this side of Mark Twain.
New York Herald Tribune
The last word in this amusing and sinister branch of skulduggery.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
During the first three decades of the 20th century, a legion of smooth-talking, quick thinking, mostly nonviolent criminals traveled America taking people's money. They grew more skilled as the years passed, devising ruses more intricate than the last, including staging scenes with props and sets, and scripting dialogue. Yet con men shared information only through what might be called oral tradition. Enter a professor of linguistics. Maurer first published this book, long out of print, in 1940, when he could see the dynamics of this kind of crime rapidly changing and the world of the original con man fading He embraced that world and devoured its schemes, its nuances and its language. The exemplary rip-offs (called "tear-offs" in the '30s) Maurer collected come from con men themselves, and they are retold complete with suggested dialogue of the time. Businessmen traveled on ships and trains for days and stayed in strange cities for weeks at a time waiting for the deal to close, becoming marks (the victims) scooped up by ropers (the scouts who brought victims in). As proof of their talent, con men sought out big game: the entrepreneurial veteran, the crafty wannabe and the successful risk taker. Maurer methodically documents how the three biggest ploys evolved and details the process of cleanly and cleverly removing large amounts of money from a befuddled mark step by step. That level of detail--capturing this oral tradition--makes his book a valuable resource for readers who want a taste of the reality that inspired such films as The Sting. (Aug.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Edward Frank Allen
[The book is] entertainment for crime literature addicts....a textbook for prospective confidence men...
The New York Times Book Review, 1940
Read an Excerpt
A Word About Confidence Men
The grift has a gentle touch. It takes its toll from the verdant sucker by means of the skilled hand or the sharp wit. In this, it differs from all other forms of crime, and especially from 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 the confidence man is sometimes classed with professional thieves, pickpockets, and gamblers, he is really not a thief at all because he does no actual stealing. The trusting victim literally thrusts a fat bank roll into his hands. It is a point of pride with him that he does not have to steal.
Confidence men are not "crooks" in the ordinary sense of the word. They are suave, slick, and capable. Their depredations are very much on the genteel side. Because of their high intelligence, their solid organization, the widespread connivance of the law, and the fact that the victim must virtually admit criminal intentions himself if he wishes to prosecute, society has been neither willing nor able to avenge itself effectively. Relatively few good con men are ever brought to trial; of those who are tried, few are convicted; of those who are convicted, even fewer ever serve out their full sentences. Many successful operators have never a day in prison to pay for their merry and lucrative lives spent in fleecing willing marks on the big-con games.
A confidence man prospers only because of the fundamental dishonesty of his victim. First, he inspires 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 thevictim 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 fatted for the kill. Thus arises the trite but none the less sage maxim: "You can't cheat an honest man."
This fine old principle rules all confidence games, big and little, from a simple three-card monte or shell game in a shady corner of a country fair grounds to the intricate pay-off or rag, played against a big store replete with expensive props and manned by suave experts. The three-card-monte grifter takes a few dollars from a willing farmer here and there; the big-con men take thousands or hundreds of thousands from those who have it. But the principle is always the same.
This accounts for the fact that it has been found very difficult to prosecute confidence men successfully. At the same time it explains why so little of the true nature of confidence games is known to the public, for once a victim is fleeced he often proves to be a most reluctant and untruthful witness against the men who have taken his money. By the same token, confidence men are hardly criminals in the usual sense of the word, for they prosper through a superb knowledge of human nature; they are set apart from those who employ the machine-gun, the blackjack, or the acetylene torch. Their methods differ more in degree than in kind from those employed by more legitimate forms of business.
Modern con men use at present only three big-con games, and only two of these are now used extensively. In addition, there are scores of short-con games which seem to enjoy periodic bursts of activity, followed by alternate periods of obsolescence. Some of these short-con games, when played by big-time professionals who apply the principles of the big con to them, attain very respectable status as devices to separate the mark from his money.
The three big-con games, the wire, the rag, and the pay-off, have in some forty years of their existence taken a staggering toll from a gullible public. No one knows just how much the total is because many touches, especially large ones, never come to light; both con men and police officials agree that roughly ninety per cent of the victims never complain to the police. Some professionals estimate that these three games alone have produced more illicit profit for the operators and for the law than all other forms of professional crime (excepting violations of the prohibition law) over the same period of time. However that may be, it is very certain that they have been immensely profitable.
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 quietly as possible. (Blowing him off.)
10. Forestalling action by the law. (Putting in the fix.)
The big-con games did not spring full-fledged into existence. 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 they have, from the criminal's point of view, reached a very high state of perfection.