"The Big Con"

Six decades after its original publication, an investigation of larceny stakes its claim as an American classic.


Steve McQuiddy
August 3, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

A con man knows that a little larceny runs in everyone's veins, and if he's good enough he'll get you to hand over all your cash on the pretext that with it he can get you a whole lot more. If he's really good, he'll have you running to the bank to empty your account and perhaps even take out a loan. You say it could never happen to you? Well, maybe not. But the con man counts on your thinking you're too sharp to be duped. After all, if you believed someone could fool you, then you might believe you were being conned. And that's the last thing the confidence man wants.

It's all in "The Big Con," David W. Maurer's definitive 1940 study of the American confidence man. This paperback edition is its first reprint. Luc Sante, the author of "Low Life," brought the book to the attention of the publishers and also supplied the introduction, in which he describes Maurer's work as a combination of linguistics, criminology, folklore and social history as well as "a robust and spring-heeled piece of literature." I found it a perfect companion to my favorite forgotten classics of dark American life in the early decades of this century: "The Dictionary of the Underworld" by Eric Partridge, "You Can't Win" by Jack Black, Tom Kromer's "Waiting for Nothing" and Boxcar Bertha's "Sister of the Road."

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Maurer was a linguist who set out to do a study of underworld vernacular; he ended up writing a full-blown story of the con artists' world that flourished in the 1920s and 1930s. This was a time when money could be -- and was -- made fast, sometimes on a tip from a stranger you met in a Pullman train car. It was also the heyday of the grifter, who dressed well and frequented the smoking cars, spotted gullible (if not greedy) marks, roped them in, then trimmed them for all they were worth. Grifters might play the short con, which took the marks for whatever cash they had on hand. But the prize game was the big con, when they sent the suckers home to get the loot.

There were fat targets everywhere in America, and grifters took them down through schemes supposedly involving fixed horse races, fixed prizefights or inside stock tips -- all of which ended, of course, by going bad for the marks. The prerequisites to any of these cons were that the mark have plenty of money, want to make more -- and be willing to cheat. Nearly all the ruses employed a so-called big store, or fake betting house. Set up with all the trappings, it must have been marvelous to see: betting windows, chalkboards for race results, a ticker-tape machine, smoke-filled rooms and up to several dozen actors, from the inside man running the show and the roper who brought the mark in to the bit players and extras, all doing their part for a percentage of the score. It was a playhouse, a theater, a world of make-believe -- to everyone but the mark.

In a truly successful con, the mark didn't realize he'd been trimmed. He'd simply tried to cheat a betting house, he thought, and he'd lost -- he could hardly run to the law. But if by some chance he did, often enough the police were in on the con for their share, too.

If all this reminds you of a movie, it should. According to Sante's introduction, "The Big Con" inspired the popular 1973 movie "The Sting." It may also remind you of something else. "Con men," Maurer wrote, "following trends current in the legitimate world, have employed techniques very similar to those used by big business "


Steve McQuiddy

Steve McQuiddy is the editorial director of Intangible Publications, a nonprofit arts and humanities Web site.

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