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 or push a car out of a muddy backroad on the way to an illegal still.” He was also, quite evidently, blessed with a considerable sense of humor.
Maurer studied the lingo of—among others—carnies, junkies, safe-crackers, forgers, pot smokers, faro-bank players, shell-game hustlers, race-track touts, pickpockets, moonshiners, prostitutes, and pimps, but his interest in the language of the confidence men was a case apart. More than any other of the dialects of the American underworld it approached the comprehensiveness of French argot or Australian rhyming slang. It is one of the peculiarities of all American subcultural lingos that they focus solely on technical terms or other weighted topics—there are invariably words for sex, death, and money, but not for table, door, or window. Grifter slang is more complex by virtue of covering a more complex subject, with an enormous range of situations, nuances, and subtleties that find no equivalent in the language of circuses or dice games or heroin traffic. (“The shut-out,” for example, means to prevent the mark from initially placing a wager in a rigged betting parlor so as to increase his desire and his recklessness.)
To study the lingo of the con is inevitably to study the con itself, since a term such as “cackle-bladder” or “tear-up” cannot be properly defined without giving a full account of its use, and such an account cannot be illustrated with stick figures. That is why this book stands alone in Maurer’s oeuvre: whereas it is possible to map out the generic behavior of pickpockets, tracing patterns and supplying copious examples without necessarily referring to individuals, confidence men are after all artists, laden with idiosyncrasies that distinguish their work. There are styles, schools, trends, evolutions, innovations, reactions, triumphs, failures. And it takes much more than cupidity and unscrupulousness to make a con artist. The best possess a combination of superior intelligence, broad general knowledge, acting ability, resourcefulness, physical vigor, and improvisational skills that would have propelled them to the top of any profession. The big con would be poorly served by entomology; it demands narrative.
Poe, in “Diddling,” provides a list of necessary characteristics of the swindler: “minuteness, interest, perseverance, ingenuity, audacity, nonchalance, originality, impertinence, and grin.” They are items needed for the short con as well as the long or big. But while any practitioner of the big con can play the smack, the tat, or the wipe, the reverse does not obtain. The big con is the game of an elite; to Poe’s list must be added ambition, endurance, rigor, concentration, organization, compartmentalization, persuasiveness, and ironclad self-confidence. If the short con is an anecdote, the long con is a novel. Essentially, a short con involves taking the pigeon for all the money he has on his person, while the big con sends him home to get more. What all confidence games have in common is that they employ the victim’s greed as a lever. The most primitive—the gold brick, which is supposed to be literal, or the green goods, which is a machine alleged to crank out banknotes—operate on the same basic principle as the most elaborate rigs involving intercontinental travel, multiple furnished sets, and dozens of carefully rehearsed extras. In all of them the mark is induced to participate in an extralegal money-making scheme, which requires an investment. The cruder mechanisms are simple bait-and-switch devices—the wipe, for example, in which a rustic or an immigrant is invited to pool his resources with the sharper and deposit the total as security against an eventual split of the take when the two find a wallet on the street, apparently simultaneously. This continues to figure in the press at intervals to this very day. In the most sophisticated cons, however, the doe may ever after remain unaware that he has been bilked, merely registering the affair as a gambit that failed.
That last, Cheshire-cat item in Poe’s list merits attention. Humor is never very far from the heart of the con. After all, garden-variety swindles from shortchanging to fortunetelling to patent-medicine manufacture are merely theft without a weapon. The con, however, which hoists the victim by his own petard, combines formal elegance, careful imitation of legitimate enterprise, and rough justice into what can only be called parody. The subgenre called the rag, for example, involving as it does a pretense of stock manipulation, attracts the sorts of birds who would be drawn to actual stock manipulation and skins them alone, thus producing a far lesser loss to society than the swindles engaged in by ostensibly respectable sorts. (Typically, this scheme would involve the interception of telegraph messages announcing, say, a major impending purchase of obscure stocks by a large consortium, the sucker thus being given an opportunity to get in first.)
The big con can also be considered as a form of theater, very nearly a Gesamtkunstwerk, staged with minute naturalistic illusionism for an audience of one, who is moreover enlisted as part of the cast. The con game always has at least two principals, the roper and the inside man, whose roles are as archetypal as Punch and Judy, or Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones in minstrelsy. They bounce the victim between them the way cops in a Mutt-and-Jeff torture team maneuver a suspect; it is a kind of three-man tango. Then there are two kinds of settings: available real-life items, such as restaurants and hotel rooms, which might verbally be given imaginary properties but are otherwise unaltered, and outfits completely rigged up, empty offices or storefronts made over into bookie joints, brokers’ suites, or high-end gambling clubs. A scheme might require one or more of these, furnished down to carpets, ashtrays, and spittoons, with crowds of several dozen currently unemployed con men acting as shills, fronts, or mere bodies, at the center of it a manager who is both acting the part of a manager and actually managing the outfit. And such a production must be called into being on very short notice.
I’m referring to all these matters in the present tense, but while there is undoubtedly some surviving form of the big con in operation, these days perhaps being staged on the Internet (aspects of the late savings and loan boondoggle had notably big con-like appurtenances), the high and elegant style described by Maurer was already in eclipse by the time he wrote the book. Its decline, like its rise, was occasioned by changing technology. The reader will note, of course, that all dollar values quoted in his book must be multiplied by at least ten to achieve their equivalent in current sums. Even so, the big con’s Golden Age, which is usually agreed to have run from the turn of the century to the Depression with its peak occurring roughly between 1914 and 1923, was a period of unprecedented prosperity for the American upper middle class. Provincial dentists and wholesale grocers, whose fathers had been blacksmiths or coopers, were making fortunes apparently without effort in a stock market that appeared to have permanently defeated the law of gravity.
Often enough such types were persuaded that their success was owed to their perspicacity, rather than to luck or general trends. And while a lack of material advantages is customarily cited as defeating moral strictures and preparing the ground for criminal activity, there is at least as much to be said for the exact opposite circumstance: good fortune can lead to the sense that one stands above the common clutter, that one can’t lose, that one’s prosperity can’t help but benefit the rest of society. Does any of this sound familiar from more recent times?
In that period, however, communication was slower and more haphazard, making possible the payoff, for example, which depends on an interval between the end of a horse race and the broadcasting of its results. (The sucker believes he has heard the results before the betting window closes, and acts accordingly.) And there were just fewer people in the world, so that business was more personal and intimate, and casual trust in others—especially within the apparent bounds of one’s own class—was greater. It was, after all, a world in which it was actually possible to get in on the ground floor of something big just by striking up a conversation in a Pullman smoker. Some of those bilked by Limehouse Chappie or Yellow Kid Weil may have known others for whom an apparently equivalent setup actually led to a timely investment in Oldsmobile or Goodyear. And it was possible, at least in second-rank towns, to grease the entire municipal apparatus with only one or two convenient bribes.
By 1940, when The Big Con was originally published, the big con had already retreated into a kind of music-hall nostalgia. Before George Roy Hill’s The Sting (1973), which was inspired by the present volume, the most memorable representation of the topic in a Hollywood film was probably in Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve (1941). Barbara Stanwyck plays an ingenue grifter traveling with her elderly relatives, all of whom are veteran confidence men; they are preserved in Edwardian amber. Stanwyck’s character is a parody of a stock type, the good girl who hews to family tradition in the face of modernity. If you ever see a photograph of Yellow Kid Weil, you will note he could pass for one of her uncles.
The Big Con may be the only one of Maurer’s books that can be read for purely literary value, but whether or not this is owed to a natural ability otherwise repressed in the interest of science, it flies along as if it had written itself. The language on display certainly must have had something to do with it—available vocabulary can lubricate a subject (or, alternatively, tie weights to its shoes and throw it into the river). But the jovial demeanor, linguistic invention, and casual hyperbole of the grift establish a natural rhythm that ties accounts by retired con men, by police detectives, and by a linguist like Maurer all together into a common barstool chorus. And the slang is only part of it, although it’s hard to see how anyone could resist the joy of typing a sentence such as: “‘It’s a lot easier to just plug the roper and watch the mark light a rag,’ he laughed.” (That is, the easiest gambit is to contrive a fake shootout in which one con man apparently kills another. The mark, feeling implicated, runs away.)
Maurer’s informants can also sound a mythic note, straight from the frontier of Mike Fink: “At that time marks were so thick in Florida that you had to kick them out of your way.” Of course the names themselves suggest an origin on the flatboats and in the lumber camps and along the railroad lines of an earlier America: the Square-Faced Kid, Slobbering Bob, the Hashhouse Kid, the High Ass Kid, the Indiana Wonder, Wildfire John, the Christ Kid. Throughout the narrative it is necessary to remind oneself that these various “kids” were distinguished-looking gentlemen in frock coats and homburgs and Van Dyke beards. The Narrow-Gage Kid was so called because his “height was just the distance between the rails of a narrow-gage railway,” the Yenshee Kid because he chewed gum opium. (Maurer is wrong about Yellow Kid Weil, however, who derived his moniker not from the fact that he had peddled cheap watches but, according to his autobiography, from his fondness for the comic strip of the same name by R.F. Outcault.)
These grifters do emerge from American tradition, combining in their persons aspects of both the Yankee peddler and the backwoods trickster. The genre, furthermore, had been given its epic nearly a century earlier in Herman Melville’s famously “unreadable” novel The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857), apparently a parody of Plato’s Republic, in which the con artist keeps reappearing in different guises—land agent, herb doctor, charity supplicant, snake-oil butcher, etc.—aboard a Mississippi steamer. He later appears aboard other boats in the works of Mark Twain, notably as the King and the Duke in Huckleberry Finn, and continues making episodic appearances, as deathless as the Comte de Saint-Germain, throughout the course of American letters up to the present day. That The Big Con is nominally a work of popular sociology should not prevent it from numbering among the landmarks on this serpentine traditional path. After all, a look around present-day American institutions should suffice to demonstrate that the character in question has now fully emerged from the underworld and entered the mainstream, where he may be far less colorful and imaginative, but no less on the grift.
June 24, 1999