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The Big Con

There is a wonderful book about old-fashioned American con men of the early 20th Century, called “The Big Con.” It was written by David Maurer, who was a linguistics professor at the University of Louisville for decades. The book was first published in 1940. Maurer had managed to win the respect and confidence of some of the people who made their living by conning people out of their money through clever and sophisticated schemes, and they told him more about their trade and devices than had ever been revealed.

Con men, a shorthand term for “Confidence men,” were prevalent in America in the 19th century. Herman Melville wrote his novel “The Confidence Man , His Masquerade” in 1857. This book, which I own but have not yet read, is apparently about more complex matters as well. Mark Twain wrote stories about con men, and “Huckleberry Finn” has the two memorable characters who call themselves “The Duke” and “The Dauphin,” and who are pretty obviously, at the stage when Huck meets them, small-time crooks who well may have had past success in their schemes.

The con men whom Maurer interviewed in depth, were from the first three decades of the 20th Century, when it was a very sophisticated and profitable art. Maurer has a glossary at the back of his book, with definitions for the colorful argot they used.

If you have seen the great movie “The Sting,” you will know something about the craft of the “long con” or “big con” artists, who certainly considered themselves artists. They almost never were violent or threatening, they used psychology and friendly persuasion to fleece their marks. And at that point in American history, the big cities often had a whole network of people, some of whom would find potential victims, others who would play various roles, and work together to invent a “tale” by which to delude the mark that he and the con man (who of course the mark had no idea was one) were going to make a lot of money conning the system.

The stories Maurer tells are fascinating. There were “bird dogs” who would find potential suckers. It was important that the potential marks be from out of town. The con men looked for people who thought they were smart, liked the idea of “putting one over” on other people, or being cleverer than entities such as bookmakers or stock exchanges.

“The Sting,” which almost certainly relied on this book for background, since the names of some of the characters are the same, even Paul Newman’s starring role as Harry Gondorff, provides a very illuminating view of the trade. There were various scams, which usually involved one of the con men making friends with the mark. He would eventually tell him that he himself had a friend who had found a way to beat the system. Maybe it was “past posting” horse races, making a bet after the race had started, or was over, via the supposed use of a “wire” to call in the results before the bookies could get them. Maybe it was pretending that the friend could instantly wire information about major stock trades which would drive up or down the price of a stock, before the stock price had changed..

The con man was ostensibly telling the unsuspecting mark this, because they were now buddies, and because combining their money would make the wager more feasible, something like that. So there would be a trial run, where the mark would put up a little money, and he would win, as he had been assured would be the case. There would then be a second test, for a larger but still reasonable amount, and he would win again (the con men would of course be paying the money to him as an investment). Then perhaps he would be told that this system was making some people suspicious, so that they could not rely on it too much longer;and that they should try to take advantage right then of this tremendous opportunity.

And of course the much larger wager or investment would be lost. The key was that the con man also would supposedly also have lost a lot of money, at least that is what the mark would think. He might tell him that the “inside man,” the one who was supposed to bet their money, was cheated in some way. Or more likely, that he had cheated both of them, and left town. The con man would vow to get their money back, but of course would not.

This fake effort might go on for some weeks or months, the con man calling or writing to the mark, telling him of the supposed progress of the hunt for those who had cheated them. The goal was to get the mark to keep moving closer to his home, because once he got back, he was likely to eventually abandon this. And obviously, very few men who think they are smarter than everyone else, are going to admit to themselves, their wife, or their friends,that they had been duped.

Now, occasionally, one of the marks would not behave as expected, and would threaten lawsuits and even violence, at which time the grifters might have to give him some of his money back, in some fashion. But this was rare. More amazing is that some of the con men showed Maurer their books, and they had occasionally managed to fleece the same person for large sums more than once!

I find this fascinating, particularly when viewed from a distance. Those elaborate operations became less prevalent after the 1940’s. I think that there was more law enforcement action, and less of the bought-off cops or District Attorneys who would not prosecute, telling the complainant that there was nothing they could do; not enough evidence, hard do locate witnesses , etc. But I am sure that some of it still goes on.

And now with modern technology, there are even more cons, though not nearly as elegant as in those days. We know that we are inundated with spam calls, ads, and I guess the thing called “phishing.” Bogus offers, fake companies to subscribe to, contests where no one gets awarded a prize. I suppose that some of these have legal action taken against them, but probably not many.

Have you ever gotten this automated call saying that your car’s warranty has run out, that they “have attempted several times to notify you by mail,” but you must call them now? I never respond, but sometimes their calls slip into the cell phone, and one time I hit the wrong button, and instead of disconnecting. I got a person.

Without preamble, this person with a foreign accent snapped at me to tell him the year, make and model of my car. I yelled at him to stop calling, whereupon he said something very vulgar, and hung up. I put that in only to show what absolute scum these people are. I sometimes wonder how anybody would want to do this, call up people and completely lie to them in order to steal their money. Do they enjoy it? Are they misanthropes? Have no other possible area of employment but cheating people?

And we all have heard about the Nigerian Prince, and other such ludicrous ruses. What they lack in plausibility and sophistication, they try to make up for, by their computers’ ability to call an almost infinite number of people, over and over and over. At least the con men that Maurer knew had to affect a style, a line of patter, a tale that could convince others to hand over their money to them. Characters who were known as “Limehouse Chappie,” “Kid Twist,” “The Seldom Seen Kid” to their colleagues; who had a panache and gift of gab. We could almost excuse them for bilking people out of their money, though not quite

A burgeoning area of conning is now in the realms of the Far Right, where the masses who have been inflamed by the lies that the elections where their side loses are fixed, and that there are various unspeakable things being done by liberals, are easy marks for people “on their side” to steal money from. And the people who steal it have not one bit of compunction or remorse about it. They know that their marks are so ignorant or brainwashed, and desperate to be on their team, that they will keep sending them money whenever they ask for it,

Steve Bannon, who is one of the worst people alive, who wants the United States to be engaged in internal armed conflict, and then be taken over by a dictator, also doubles as a cheat who somehow got a bunch of Trump supporters to send him money so that he could “build the wall” at the border. He kept all the money; was convicted, got a prison sentence, and Trump pardoned him.

Trump, who has spent his life cheating everybody, has drawn virtually every crook in the country into his orbit, and they have stolen money from the Treasury, the shareholders of companies, investors, taxpayers, pension funds, government agencies of all types. We will never be able to add up the trillions of dollars stolen, and the thousands of grifts, scams, and thefts. And many of hi victims love him for it, or convince themselves that he is not stealing their money, he is fighting to defeat their enemies.

In that way, the ultimate Big Con has been achieved. Through a nonstop media onslaught of lies, scares, and threats, they have found a way to cheat people, which is massive in scope, can be used over and over again, and doesn’t even leave its victims upset. Do you remember Trump University, an absolute fraud, for which anyone else would have gotten ten years in prison? Trump paid $25 million to settle the lawsuit, and the media has never mentioned it again.

One of Maurer’s con men could have only dreamed about that kind of setup. But even if they had, they might have disdained it, because it would have hurt too many innocent people; and they liked to believe that the only person who could be conned is someone who wants to con someone else. Trump will gleefully cheat every single person he can. And the Republican Party has provided him with an endless supply of suckers to steal from, as they somehow manage to hide behind the ruse of “law and order,” while they are taking everything they can get their hands on. They are the Cons,, and I wish more people would call them that.

If you are interested in this theme, I do highly recommend David Maurer’s book, it is a fascinating read, and a visit to a different time. I also recommend “The Sting,” of course, and the movie “House of Games,” the latter featuring the magician Ricky Jay, who had an immense knowledge of the history and practice of con men.