The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man
by David W Maurer
A review by Steve Fidel
The first truly entertaining book I read about men putting the bite on one another
was Donald E. Westlake's God Save the Mark. I was 12, and have never lost
my love for a good swindle tale. My young adult years were filled with stories
of amiable riff-raff in the form of books like Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry
Finn, lots of Westlake and Elmore Leonard. Hollywood, to my great delight,
produced scores of wonderful fraud flicks. The Lady Eve, Double Indemnity
(novel by James M. Cain), Paper Moon (also a wonderful book), The Usual
Suspects, The Last Seduction, Jackie Brown (a Leonard story),
and The Sting, which won the 1973 Oscar for Best Picture, tucked neatly
between Coppola's twin awards for Godfather I and II.
One of the primary source materials for The Sting was David
Maurer's classic handbook of American confidence games, The Big Con,
which first appeared in 1940. In a country replete with televangelists, Wall
Street boondoggles (the dot.com bubble the most recent example), and endless
pyramid schemes, the interesting thing is that Maurer's is neither a cautionary
nor sensationalistic tale. A sociologist and professor of linguistics, Maurer
approached his subject with the thorough mind of an academic. Well-researched
and well-documented, the book is a catalogue of confidence schemes revealed
through dozens of primary sources, con-men all — a solid work of scholarship
with no contemporary equal.
When it comes to double-dealing, America is a bit schizophrenic. The world
over, we are regarded as a gullible people. Yet we have produced more than our
share of charlatans. Baudelaire, it seems, may have been very close to the mark
when he said, "Americans love so much to be fooled."
Where else could a questionable cache of gold plates in upstate New York evolve
into one of today's most dynamic religions? Though spiritual snake oil is only
the tip of the iceberg. As Maurer points out, there are a good number of now-legitimate
American businesses that began their lives as ornate confidence schemes. The
American political system appears sometimes little more than a confidence game;
and certainly the election of the current president suggests someone got swindled.
We don't like our cheats to appear too evil, however. Melville,
for example, in his seminal The Confidence Man tossed his tale with such
venom that it put the final nail in the coffin of his literary career. Tricksters
in other cultures are commonly found out and undone; but we prefer our swindlers
likeable and given a sporting chance. A fraud here is more likely to end his/her
days in a gated community than behind bars. Mark
Twain recorded his confidence yarns with such love that they've become international
classics. And only after his death, did a significant audience begin to appreciate
the dark duplicity of Jim Thompson's characters.
The difference between The Big Con and most of the above, is that those
works want you to believe that an average Joe or Josephine is unlikely to get
involved in a swindle — you would have to be an extraordinary fool to fall
for one of those wise guys. The Big Con, however, demonstrates that 90
percent of us are likely to fall for a shakedown, because 90 percent of us are
essentially dishonest and greedy. It's true, an honest man cannot be cheated — because
in order to be cheated, there has to be at least a little larceny in your heart.
The con man in America, Maurer demonstrates, has it easy because we have earned
so much of our wealth through slick marketers and sales people, we prefer to
examine not too closely a friend or acquaintance who might have a bit of the
grifter in their soul. But we all know them. They surround us (mostly in upper-middle
class neighborhoods) — at work, at school, in our own families, and in our churches.
Rootless, suspect of history, most comfortable with surface interactions,
we respond most positively to a nice face, quick wit, and superficial kindnesses.
The Big Con has convinced me that most Average Joes are natural marks
— God Save Us, as Westlake put it so eloquently those many years