Even as it was coming off the press in 1940, The Big Con was describing history. The confidence game described by David W. Maurer had evolved with the times, opportunities, and creativity of the con men, and it surely didn’t stop evolving 70 years ago. Even so, it’s an interesting history.
Maurer was a linguist who studied the jargon of criminals. The book includes a glossary of terms used by con artists in the early 20th Century. If you want to talk like a character in a hardboiled crime story, check it out.
This study led him to the culture and methods of confidence men. Con men were the kings of grifters. The grift involved nonviolent crimes, in contrast to the heavy rackets. The confidence game was the highest grift because the marks would give their money to the grifter. It was a game of intelligence and acting (and deceit) that tripped up the greedy. Con men had to be able to mix with legitimate society and seem to fit in with people who had regular jobs, legitimate business, and money. The appearance of respectability was so important that con men avoided the company of other criminals and cultivated associations with straight citizens (maybe just a little bent).
The Big Con is not a textbook for running a con game. It does give you a pretty good idea of how con men worked. Maurer concentrates on the big cons: the wire, the rag, and the pay-off. These games all convince the mark to get involved in a crooked scheme for sure-thing bets on horses or stocks. They give him a taste of winning, and then send him off to get all the money he can get his hands on. When the big money is in, the scheme falls apart and everybody needs to skip town to escape suspicion. A hooked mark is convinced he was onto something and may come back to try again. Even if he is suspicious, he has little recourse because turning in the con men means admitting involvement in something shady and possibly criminal.
Maurer summarizes several short cons, too. Some of these may still be around. I saw a version of the wipe depicted on and episode of CSI: New York. Because it was a CSI: show, the con artist was murdered; obviously not part of the plan.
The big cons are not one man operations. Maurer describes the con mob. He also discusses the relationship between con artists and crooked officials and other criminals. He is interested in culture as well as methods.
Maurer comes off as having some a fascination with the con men, even a kind of admiration. I don’t think he admired what they did. He seemed to respect the skill it took to pull a successful con, especially to do it over and over. The con men come off as charming, probably because they were. They had to be charming, they had to be able to read people, and they had to recognize people who had the right combination of money and greed to make a good mark.
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