On ‘The Big Con’

Now reprinted after a shamefully long hiatus, The Big Con by David Maurer is, like its subjects, crowned with many hats. Its origins are in linguistics; it is nominally a work of criminology; 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 spring-heeled piece of literature. Swindling is a literary subject that must go back to Egyptian and Mesopotamian antecedents, certainly to Reynard the Fox by way of the Elizabethan coney-catchers and the Spanish picaresque. In American culture it looms as one of the major themes, along with self-invention and going on the lam, which are not unrelated. Edgar Allan Poe put it conclusively:

A crow thieves; a fox cheats; a weasel outwits; a man diddles. To diddle is his destiny. “Man was made to mourn,” says the poet. But not so:—he was made to diddle. This is his aim—his object—his end. And for this reason when a man’s diddled we say he’s “done.”

The Big Con can also be considered a piece of art criticism, since it is not just any taxonomy of styles in diddling, but a refined appreciation of the high swindle, the confidence game in its Augustan age.

David Maurer was a linguist, eventually professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of Louisville. He inaugurated his publishing career in 1930 with “Speech Peculiarities of the North American Fisherman” and not long after began his lifelong study of criminal and demimonde dialects. His other books include Narcotics and Narcotic Addiction (1954), Whiz Mob: A Correlation of the Technical Argot of Pickpockets with Their Behavior Pattern (1955), The American Confidence Man (a more scientific enlargement of the present book; 1974), Kentucky Moonshine (1974), and the posthumously published omnibus volume Language of the Underworld (1981). He was one of the editors of H.L. Mencken’s The American Language in its single-volume format and he contributed the entry on slang to at least one edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. His correspondents included fellow language addicts such as S.J. Perelman, and an enormous number of denizens of the underworld, both behind bars and at large. When Prudence Crowther, editor of Perelman’s letters, sought out his end of their exchange, she discovered that Maurer had requested in his will that his entire archive be destroyed upon his death, for fear of compromising his pen pals pursued by the law.

Maurer, as this book will amply demonstrate, earned the intimate confidence of many vulnerable and closemouthed miscreants, people who would not have opened up to journalists. The kind of fieldwork he engaged in, as the linguist Stuart Berg Flexner, a former student of Maurer’s, pointed out, “takes a great deal of physical stamina and a strong personality, as well as mental ability.” It didn’t hurt that Maurer was “big, with large shoulders and strong arms and hands, a man who can help pull in a heavy fishing net in freezing weather…

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