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It takes its toll from the verdant sucker by means of the skilled hand or the sharp wit. In this, it differs from all other forms of crime, and especially from the heavy-rackets. It never employs violence to separate the mark from his money. Of all the grifters, the confidence man is the aristocrat.
Although the confidence man is sometimes classed with professional thieves, pickpockets, and gamblers, he 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.
Confidence men are not "crooks" in the ordinary sense of the word. They are suave, slick, and capable. Their depredations are very much on the genteel side. Because of their high intelligence, their solid organization, the widespread connivance of the law, and the fact that the victim must virtually admit criminal intentions himself if he wishes to prosecute, society has been neither willing nor able to avenge itself effectively.
Relatively few good con men are ever brought to trial; of those who are tried, few are convicted; of those who are convicted, even fewer ever serve out their full sentences. Many successful operators have never a day in prison to pay for their merry and lucrative lives spent in fleecing willing marks on the big-con games. A confidence man prospers only because of the fundamental dishonesty of his victim.
First, he inspires a firm belief in his own integrity. Second, he brings into play powerful and well-nigh irresistible forces to excite the cupidity of the mark. He closes out his bank account, liquidates his property, borrows from his friends, embezzles from his employer or his clients.
In the mad frenzy of cheating someone else, he is unaware of the fact that he is the real victim, carefully selected and fatted for the kill. Thus arises the trite but none the less sage maxim: "You can't cheat an honest man.
The three-card-monte grifter takes a few dollars from a willing farmer here and there; the big-con men take thousands or hundreds of thousands from those who have it.
But the principle is always the same. This accounts for the fact that it has been found very difficult to prosecute confidence men successfully. At the same time it explains why so little of the true nature of confidence games is known to the public, for once a victim is fleeced he often proves to be a most reluctant and untruthful witness against the men who have taken his money.
By the same token, confidence men are hardly criminals in the usual sense of the word, for they prosper through a superb knowledge of human nature; they are set apart from those who employ the machine-gun, the blackjack, or the acetylene torch. Their methods differ more in degree than in kind from those employed by more legitimate forms of business. Modern con men use at present only three big-con games, and only two of these are now used extensively.
In addition, there are scores of short-con games which seem to enjoy periodic bursts of activity, followed by alternate periods of obsolescence. Some of these short-con games, when played by big-time professionals who apply the principles of the big con to them, attain very respectable status as devices to separate the mark from his money. The three big-con games, the wire, the rag, and the pay-off, have in some forty years of their existence taken a staggering toll from a gullible public.
No one knows just how much the total is because many touches, especially large ones, never come to light; both con men and police officials agree that roughly ninety per cent of the victims never complain to the police.
Some professionals estimate that these three games alone have produced more illicit profit for the operators and for the law than all other forms of professional crime excepting violations of the prohibition law over the same period of time. However that may be, it is very certain that they have been immensely profitable. All confidence games, big and little, have certain similar underlying principles; all of them progress through certain fundamental stages to an inevitable conclusion; while these stages or steps may vary widely in detail from type to type of game, the principles upon which they are based remain the same and are immediately recognizable.
In the big-con games the steps are these: 1. Locating and investigating a well-to-do victim. Putting the mark up. Gaining the victim's confidence. Playing the con for him. Steering him to meet the insideman. Roping the mark. Permitting the insideman to show him how he can make a large amount of money dishonestly. Telling him the tale. Allowing the victim to make a substantial profit. Giving him the convincer.
Determining exactly how much he will invest. Giving him the breakdown. Sending him home for this amount of money. Putting him on the send. Playing him against a big store and fleecing him.
Taking off the touch. Getting him out of the way as quietly as possible. Blowing him off. Forestalling action by the law. Putting in the fix. The big-con games did not spring full-fledged into existence. The principles on which they operate are as old as civilization.
But their immediate evolution is closely knit with the invention and development of the big store, a fake gambling club or broker's office, in which the victim is swindled. And within the twentieth century they have, from the criminal's point of view, reached a very high state of perfection. Shop 1 Books 2.
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The Big Con
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The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man
Welcome sign in sign up. 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.
Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man
David Warren Maurer April 12, — June 11, was a professor of linguistics at the University of Louisville from to , and an author of numerous studies of the language of the American underworld. He spent much of his academic career studying the language of criminals, drug addicts, and other marginal subcultures. The lawsuit was settled out of court in He died on his farm outside Louisville from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The Big Con  is Maurer's most popular and perhaps most important book. It was originally published in by Bobbs-Merrill Company. The source material for it came from Maurer's correspondence, interviews, and informal chats with hundreds of underworld denizens during the s.