"Yellow Kid" Weil: The Autobiography of America's Master Swindler

by J.R. Weil

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Bilked bankers, grifted gamblers, and swindled spinsters: welcome to the world of confidence men.

You'll marvel at the elaborate schemes developed by The Yellow Kid and cry for the marks who lost it all to his ingenuity—$8,000,000 by some estimations. Fixed horse races, bad real-estate deals, even a money-making machine—all were tools of the

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Bilked bankers, grifted gamblers, and swindled spinsters: welcome to the world of confidence men.

You'll marvel at the elaborate schemes developed by The Yellow Kid and cry for the marks who lost it all to his ingenuity—$8,000,000 by some estimations. Fixed horse races, bad real-estate deals, even a money-making machine—all were tools of the trade for the Kid and his associates: the Swede, the Butterine Kid, the Harmony Kid, Fats Levine, and others. The Sting (1973), starring Paul Newman and based largely on the story of the Yellow Kid, is entertaining, but is no match for the real deal.

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DURING THESE YEARS I DISCOVERED MANY THINGS, BUT MOST important I learned about people, their strong points and their weaknesses—especially their weaknesses. All the people I swindled had one thing in common—greed, the desire to acquire money. But that was not always enough. In numerous cases there was some other factor, some small desire that helped me to clinch a deal.

Some of my tales may sound unbelievable. But they are true. I could hardly believe some of them myself, but as time went on I came to look for the little weaknesses. Trivial matters often meant the difference between success and failure for me. In my most successful con game, the stock swindle, the mechanics were the same in every case. Yet in each one was some subtle variation.

One of the most amusing occurred in the case of a banker in Decatur, Illinois, Mr. Appleby. He had been around with me while I acquired blocks of stock at ten cents a share and had accompanied me to the brokerage house where I sold the same stock for two dollars a share. He did not seem to suspect anything wrong, but he was apathetic when it came to buying a big block of stock with his money. I had decided that he was good for $30,000.

Just before the big deal he hesitated. "I don't know why I should speculate," he said, as we walked along the street, discussing it. "I make a comfortable living. Im not rich, but I get along." I gave him my best arguments, but it seemed that I was about to lose him. Then we happened to pass a furniture store. Hair mattresses were displayed in the window. He stopped and looked.

"Hair mattresses!" he exclaimed. "Aren't they beauties?"

"Why, yes," I replied, but without his enthusiasm.

"I've always wanted hair mattresses in my home," he continued, "but I never felt that I could afford them." He gazed at them rather wistfully.

I was quick to recognize this as the weakness I'd been looking for.

"Let's go in and see them," I suggested.

"What good will that do?" he asked. "I don't feel I can afford them."

"Well, it won't cost anything to look. Come on."

We went in the store and the clerk showed us an assortment. But when Mr. Appleby learned the prices, he shook his head and we walked out.

"A hundred dollars is a lot of money," he said. "I would need at least five for my home. I can't afford them."

"Mr. Appleby," I said, "you can have those hair mattresses for nothing, if you want them."


"I have offered to let you share in buying that block of stock. With the money we will make you can buy a hundred hair mattresses."

"By George," he exclaimed. "That's right." There was a new light in his eyes. I knew he was sunk.

From then on it was easy. He invested $30,000 in a block of my worthless stock—all for the sake of a hair mattress. I might add that in those days hair mattresses were the last word in style and comfort and were found only in the homes of the wealthy.

While this may seem incredible, every word is true. It's the little things that count.

On one occasion, I worked on the president of a large bank in Omaha. The deal involved the purchase of the street railway system of Omaha, including a bridge across the Mississippi River. My principals were supposedly German and I had to negotiate with Berlin. While awaiting word from them I introduced my fake mining-stock proposition. Since this man was very rich, I decided to play for high stakes. After an elaborate build-up, during which the banker took a trip with me to New York, I had the cables to Berlin busy. They were real cables and the answers were sent by a man in Berlin—the purser on a Hamburg-American Line ship.

Meanwhile, I played golf with the banker, visited his home, and went to the theatre with him and his wife. Though he showed some interest in my stock deal, he still wasn't convinced. I had built it up to the point that an investment of $1,250,000 was required. Of this I was to put up $900,000, the banker $350,000. But still he hesitated.

One evening when I was at his home for dinner I wore some perfume—Coty's "April Violets." It was not then considered effeminate for a man to use a dash of perfume. The banker's wife thought it very lovely. "Where did you get it.? "It is a rare blend," I told her, "especially made for me by a French perfumer. Do you like it?" "I love it," she replied.

The following day I went through my effects and found two empty bottles. Both had come from France, but were empty. I went to a downtown department store and purchased ten ounces of Coty's "April Violets." I poured this into the two French bottles, carefully sealed them, wrapped them in tissue paper.

That evening I dropped by the banker's home and presented the two bottles to his wife. "They were especially put up for me in Cologne," I told her. The next day the banker called at my hotel. His wife was enraptured by the perfume. She considered it the most wonderful, the most exotic fragrance she had ever used. I did not tell the banker he could get all he wanted right in Omaha.

"She said," the banker added, "that I was fortunate to be associated with a man like you."

From then on his attitude was changed, for he had complete faith in his wife's judgment. It was only a matter of time until we had "cornered" the big block of stock. He parted with $350,000. This, incidentally, was my biggest score.

Most confidence games are built on human frailties. There was the case of a wealthy spinster who lived on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. I had some difficulty arranging an introduction, but finally accomplished it through a priest, who acted quite innocently.

Miss Buckley was about forty, owned several million dollars and some Arizona mining property. I posed as a mining engineer and was engaged to look after her property in Arizona. I later brought in Fred "The Deacon" Buckminster as my associate. But we found she was only mildly interested in the mines.

One day Buckminster took me aside. "I've found out how we can get to Miss Buckley."


"She wants to get married," he said. "She lives in deadly fear that she's going to be an old maid."

"What can I do about that?"

"You're going to woo her," Buck replied.

"Buck, I can't do that," I objected. "I've got one wife."

"She doesn't have to know that. You can do it gradually. Meanwhile, we can clean up."

Somewhat reluctantly, I agreed. I began making love to the woman and her attitude changed. When it got to a point I considered dangerous, I got a sudden call to go to Arizona to inspect the mining property. She gladly paid our expenses. And when someone else paid the bill, our expenses were tremendous!

From then on, for several months, that was the routine. I wooed her for a while, then Buck and I made a trip to Arizona. Since the love interest had entered her life she was far more interested in her mining property. We saw to it, however, that our presence at the mines was often required.

We made six trips to Arizona, each more expensive than the one before. Altogether we got about $15,000 for our services as mining engineers.

Inevitably, the day came when she expected me to marry her. That was when I had to bow out.

Nearly everybody believes the old saying that "It isn't what you know, but whom you know." I had occasion to cash in on that, too. I had been to the City Hall, where my brother was a Municipal Court bailiff. As I was leaving, a breezy young fellow approached me. He handed me a cigar and offered to buy a drink. I was surprised, but accepted. Then he suggested dinner and some entertainment. As long as it was his idea and he was paying the bills I went along.

I didn't quite understand what was back of it and he didn't tell me, beyond a hint that he was a stranger and wanted companionship. I let it go at that. We had a pleasant evening and he suggested that we get together again.

The next time he told me that he was a salesman for a sign company in Rochester, New York, and that he was trying to interest the Bureau of Streets in complete new metal signs for Chicago street intersections.

"I understand you're a pretty good friend of the Commissioner?"

I knew now that he must have mistaken me for somebody else. But it looked like an opportunity to make a little money.

"That is correct," I told him.

He then told me his proposition. Metal signs for Chicago streets would amount to $129,000. His commission would be $17,000. He would give me $11,000 of this if I would intercede in his behalf.

I agreed to undertake it. He turned the contracts, long detailed documents, over to me. I made frequent trips to the City Hall, while he anxiously waited to hear the outcome. I told him there was much negotiating to be done and carried this on for a week. Finally I came out with the contracts, signed and notarized. He was overjoyed. He forwarded them to his company and we had a celebration. In a few days I received a check for $11,000. My friend went back to Rochester. I later heard that a big warehouse in Chicago was piled high with metal signs but that the Bureau of Streets would have no part of them. Presumably they were the signs from Rochester. I don't know what happened to them.

The Deacon and I were the first con-men to introduce Chinese stooges. They were Chinese-Americans who lived in Chicago. But for our purpose, we rigged them out in fancy oriental clothing and told the prospects that they spoke no English.

We used them in a deal with a paper manufacturer in Kalamazoo, Michigan, whom I will call Mr. Stimson. He wasn't much interested until we brought in the Chinese. This was a logical move, since the Chinese had manufactured the first paper. Wc told him of a new Chinese discovery that would revolutionize papermaking.

After we had taken the Chinese boys in and introduced them as paper experts from China he fell for this line. The purpose of the whole thing was to get him worked up and then switch his interest to the stock scheme. We succeeded in doing this, thanks to the Orientals.

But we had to make several trips to Kalamazoo. On the last trip, when we were to complete the deal, we were about fifty miles out of Chicago when the Chinese who was driving suddenly stopped the car. Buckminster and I were in the back seat with a bag containing $250,000 in boodle. We both thought they had decided to rob us.

"Why are you stopping?" I asked.

"For a showdown," answered the spokesman for the three Chinese.

"What's wrong?"

"You're making a lot of money on this deal?"

"We expect to," I admitted.

"But you only pay us ten dollars a day."

"That's correct," I said. "What do you want?" I was sure now that he wanted a big cut.

"Ten dollars is not enough," he replied. "We get twenty dollars a day or we don't go another foot."

I felt like laughing, but I gravely agreed to raise their pay. They smiled, the driver started the car, and we went on. They placidly went through their paces and we had no more trouble with them.

Mr. Stimson came through for us with $15,000 on the stock deal.

One of the most unusual characters I ever met was a young man in Cincinnati. He was heir to a large soap fortune, but he had little time for business. He had two interests in life: beautiful women and Scotch whiskey.

I interested him in one of my stock transactions and took him to Muncie, Indiana. He took along a small satchel that looked like a doctor's bag. It contained numerous vials, also like a physician's case. But each vial contained Scotch whiskey.

"This is something I never travel without," he said. "I never have to worry about companionship as long as I have my bag." All during the trip he sampled the contents of the vials. I was never present when he ate breakfast, but I sometimes wondered if he poured Scotch on his oatmeal.

I took $50,000 of his money, but he never filed a complaint against me.

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Meet the Author

J.R. Weil: J.R. "Yellow Kid" Weil (1875–1976) was a successful confidence man working mainly out of the Chicago area. His elaborate schemes, however, took him all over the world.

W.T. Brannon: W.T. Brannon was a St. Petersburg, Florida-based journalist. He passed away in 1981.

Bruno Ruhland: Bruno Ruhland is the editor of AK Press's Nabat Series. He's a veteran of the Bay Area book world. Bruno is a long time employee of Moe's Books in Berkeley and the Bound Together book collective in San Francisco.

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