‘The Big Con’ by David Maurer

‘Everything About 1900s Cons’

Score: 5/5

David Maurer

Books like this could easily be dull, but this book was thoroughly enjoyable. It’s not filled with characters and anecdotes, but there are enough dotted around the place. The central theme though is the mechanics of the 3 ‘big cons’, details of how they’re done, and (most surprisingly to me) the history of their development.

I don’t know why it was such a surprise to me. I didn’t think these cons arrived fully-formed. I guess I just didn’t give it much thought at all. This book goes into some detail about the history of the big cons, how they were an innovative development of the ‘big store’ cons - itself a big leap in con development.

The 3 ‘big cons’ of the 1900s-1930s were The Wire, The Rag and The Pay-Off. I don’t want to post any spoilers here, but when you read this book you’ll come across basically the entire plot of ‘The Sting’. It surprised me how close a fit it was. So close I’d imagine the producers of the film would have sued, were it not for the fact the book was first published in 1940, a good 30 years before the film was made.

There are some nice characterisations scattered about the place. Here’s one:

Ignorant and repulsive-looking, freckled to the point of blotchiness, with the nasty shade of blue eyes which often accompanies a certain cast of red hair, awkward and slew-footed, Red Lager is certainly the acme of unattractiveness among con men. He is everything and does everything which, theoretically, a good con man shouldn’t. He has never heard of Dale Carnegie and is unaware of the barest rudiments of the science of ‘influencing’ people; yet he has made a fortune on the pay-off. And he has a son, the exact replica of his father down to the duck-like walk, who, despite his addiction to drugs - one vice the old man shunned - is today a successful confidence man.

It really paints a picture, doesn’t it?

The author does seem to have more than a little sympathy for the con artists he talks about. The police fare less well. Not because they lock up his pals, but just for the sheer volume of corruption there appears to have been in that era. Each big con mob had a ‘fixer’ whose job was to pay all the appropriate police and judges to make sure the cons could go ahead with impunity. Places where it was known it was safe to work were called ‘right’ places, and cops who could be bought were ‘right cops’. ‘Wrong cops’ were the upright police who couldn’t be bought. That feels like such an alien viewpoint!

Here’s another anecdote that made me chuckle:

Eddie Mines, according to underworld rumor, once got a mark for the huge duke [a card-based short con] who backfired on him. He and his partner, Johnny on the Spot, were working the trains when they rope a ‘smart’ mark. The play started and the mark appeared to be eating it up. When they put the ‘chill’ [the final bit where the mark loses] in it was loaded with four jacks for one member of the con mob and four nines for the mark. The mark tossed in his money like hay. When they laid down their hands, the mark showed four aces. Eddie is reputed to have let out a yell that could be heard all over the train: ‘God damn it!' he roared. ‘That’s not the hand I gave you!'

Even though there’s a lot of talk of the development of these big cons, I’m not sure on how they’ve really developed since the book was written. I don’t hear much about big cons these days apart from in TV series like Hustler. Maybe they are all still going on and people are reluctant to talk about them.

Much more common these days are modern versions of the short cons. There are plenty of these about, all taking full advantage of the latest technologies. The web is full of ‘em! Tourist spots often have plenty of cons who make a play of ‘finding’ a ring ‘someone must have lost’ right in front of you. And there are boiler room scams and pump-and-dump share cons, but nothing really of the scope of these big cons. I reckon that’s a good thing. I suspect all the con artists have moved into more lucrative work, like merchant banking and HFT. I reckon that's a bad thing.

And how do you protect yourself from them? There’s not a lot of advice to be had there. The best is probably ‘You can’t con an honest man’ since so many of the cons depend on the greed of the mark, seeking something for nothing. But even that’s not absolute - there’s at least one short con described in the book that can indeed con an honest man. (Cons in this era were very male dominated - women to get significant mentions throughout the book, but usually as exceptions or addenda. There are other areas and terms we’d find offensive these days too, so be warned.)

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