The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man by David W. Maurer (1940)
Non-Fiction | Crime | AmericanaBlurb:
“Of all the grifters, the confidence man is the aristocrat,” wrote David Maurer, a proposition he definitively proved in The Big Con, one of the most colorful, well-researched, and entertaining works of criminology, ever written. A professor of linguistics who specialized in underworld argot. Maurer won the trust of hundreds of swindlers who let him in on not simply their language, but their folkways and the astonishingly complex and elaborate schemes whereby unsuspecting marks, hooked by their own greed and dishonesty, were “taken off” — i.e., cheated — of thousands upon thousands of dollars. The products of amazing ingenuity, crack timing, and attention to every last detail, these “big cons” richly deserve Maurer’s description as “the most effective swindling device which man has ever invented.”
The Big Con is a treasure trove of American lingo (the write, the rag, the payoff, ropers, shills, the cold poke, the convincer, to put on the send) and indelible characters (Yellow Kid Weil, Barney the Patch, the Seldom Seen Kid, Limehouse Chappie, Larry the Lug). It served as a source for the Oscar-winning film The Sting and will delight fans of such writers as David Mamet, Jim Thompson, Elmore Leonard, and William Burroughs for its droll, utterly authoritative look at the timeless pursuit of relieving one’s fellow man of his surplus cash.
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pooled ink Review:
Non-fiction is pretty hit-or-miss for me but the narrative that spun this research together drew me in immediately. It felt so conversational I became eager to hear him out and learn what was being offered. And what Maurer was offering was a base of history, a trove of secrets, and a smile of stories straight from the horse’s mouth.
This book guides its readers through the history of the con man from its Three-Card Monte beginnings in the United States through to the modern day professionals. I can only imagine how things must have developed and evolved since the 1940s when this book was written. The history was brief but thorough. It gave you a reasonable understanding of how it evolved in the USA without smothering itself in a tangle of excessive details. Once you grasp a decent understanding of how it began Maurer dives right into the games themselves.
…he [the confidence man] is really not a thief at all because he does no actual stealing. The trusting victim literally thrusts a fat bank roll into his hands. It is a point of pride with him that he does not have to steal.
Sure, as Maurer admits, there are many different cons that can be pulled but they all connect to one of three basic long cons at heart (unless it’s a short con which also contains its own classic roots). A description and explanation of the game is provided and then he provides a full example complete with scenarios, characters, dialogue, etc. Finally to tie it all up he’ll walk you through the moves made in the game he just played for you. This section of the book really gives you a comprehensible understanding of the main three long con games and a sampling of short cons.
The first thing a mark needs is money. But he also must have what grifters term “larceny in his veins”…If the mark were completely aware of this character weakness, he would not be so easy to trim. But, like almost everyone else, the mark thinks of himself as an “honest man.” ….Truly, “you can’t beat an honest man.”
Following this comes a section a bit more personal. The home life of con men, the different roles and jobs a person can play in a con, the ideal character for a mark, the skills required and/or cultivated, the rules of thumb between and amongst con men, and more. This was a good call to include because it really rounds out the purpose of his book. You learn the history, the job, and the persona of the modern confidence man.
Says the Postal Kid, “Con men don’t hold out on their pals. Only rats do that. And news travels fast. …I know the old saying is that there is no honor among thieves, but I’ve seen plenty of it. And I’ve seen thousands of marks who claimed to be square paper, but had all the corners torn off.”
At the back of the book there is even a handy glossary filled with terminology from the con man’s argot. And more than that this book lists charts upon charts of statistics, con men, marks, and winnings/losses.
As someone who has always found the art of a con interesting (mostly because it’s romanticized and skewed by films and TV) I definitely soaked up what this book had to offer. It’s not very long but it doesn’t need to be. Anything more could be potentially overwhelming while anything less would have been thoughtless. Overall I’d recommend this book to those looking for a casual journey into the confidence world and if I could suggest any improvements it would be the inclusion of drawings and/or photographs. Definitely a good starter book though.
“If a man had any sense in the first place,“ runs an old saying among grifters, “he’d never be a thief.”
The Big Con is a casual narrative that eases you into the world of the modern (1940s) confidence man as its pages offer you true third party insight with the occasional tale or anecdote from those who actively play the game. Educational, amusing, informative, and a remarkably quick read this book provides all that is needed for the casual enthusiast.
Purchase here: The Big Con
Meet David W. Maurer!
David Warren Maurer was a professor of linguistics at the University of Louisville from 1937 to 1972, and an author of numerous studies of the language of the American underworld.