Outline/summary of the scholarly work by David Maurer
The difference between a grifter and a racketeer is that the grifter need not use coercion to get money. He merely convinces the victim to give it to him. In practice it is very hard to bring a confidence man to justice. They are usually too slick to be caught, and the authorities are often too compromised to enforce the law. Moreover, the victims, in pressing charges, would have to admit criminal intentions of their own.
The last point is the key one. Con men flourish due to the dishonesty of the victim. The con proceeds in three general steps. (1) The con man convinces the mark of his own honesty. (2) He excites the mark's own cupidity. (3) He shows the mark how to make lots of money through means that are guaranteed to succeed because they are dishonest. The mark does the rest.
Cons are distinguished according to whether they are "short cons" (run for immediate stakes) or "big cons" (which are run to maximize the touch). Big cons operate according to a ten-step formula.
1. Putting the mark up: A well-to-do victim is located and investigated.
2. Playing the con: The victim's confidence is secured.
3. Roping the mark: The victim is steered to the "inside man."
4. Telling the tale: The victim is shown how he can make money dishonestly..
5. Giving him the convincer: The victim is allowed to make a profit.
6. Giving him the breakdown: The victim is talked into investing a certain amount.
7. Putting him on the send: The victim is sent to get his money.
8. Taking off the touch: The victim is played and fleeced.
9. Blowing off the mark: A quiet escape is made.
10. Putting in the fix: The law (police, courts, etc., as necessary) are bribed.
These techniques are probably very old, but their recent refinements come in conjunction with the development of "the big store," which is a front within which the swindle is conducted.
2. The Big Store
Ben Marks began life as a three-card monte player. He would challenge people to "find the queen" when he threw down three cards, and let them win. A secret accomplice -- the shill -- would find a rich victim and invite him to cheat the dealer by bending the corner of the queen. After large stakes had been wagered, the dealer would "move" the bend, taking the money.
In Cheyenne, Marks settled down and opened a new kind of gambling establishment -- a disguised one. He opened "The Dollar Store," which advertised its wares, all of which only cost a dollar. Customers would enter and be "switched" from shopping to gambling in the permanent "friendly" games that were going on inside. Little merchandise was moved, but lots of money got left behind.
This was a tremendous innovation, because it was the start of "the big store" -- the use of a faked-up venue that would hide from the victim the fact that he had been rooked. It was also the start of "big-con" games as opposed to the "short cons" that had been prevalent.
From 1880 to 1900 these stores (which spread across the country) were mostly small-time operations, gathering what money they could off what marks they could lure in, and paid off local policeman to let them alone. They gradually expanded, however, as short-con grifters began to rope in marks for the stores; money became more plentiful; and more complicated grifts developed. The idea spread and variations appeared. The main one was the "mitt store," a legitimate business that practiced swindles on the side. Other variations included the "fight store," the "wrestle store" and the "foot-race store," which relied on marks placing bets on sporting events.
The typical "fight store" scheme went like this: The roper finds a mark, and tells him he is the private secretary of a traveling millionaire who likes to stage illegal prize fights, betting on his own private boxer. The secretary, saying he is disgruntled, tells the mark that plans to quit after first cheating his employer. He has paid the boxer to take a dive in the next fight. However, the secretary cannot bet on the fight -- the millionaire won't let him -- so he wants the mark to put up the money: the secretary will take a percentage of the winnings in return for having set it up. After the mark has invested, the fight occurs, but the millionaire's fighter throws a seemingly wild punch early in the fight that puts the local fighter on the ground. A doctor pronounces the local man dead, and the crowd has to scatter. The con men make off with the mark's bet.
The great innovation in these stores was that the mark was invited to cheat another participant, not the store itself. The store -- though still a location -- took on the character of a prop. Once these innovations were recognized, the big con could transform into a collapsible, movable stage set.
Further evolutions happened with the invention of the three main big cons around 1900.
The Wire: A racing swindle in which the mark is told that a crooked Western Union operator could delay race results long enough for the mark to bet on a sure thing. The prop locations included a fake Western Union office (or a real one borrowed under pretense) and a betting establishment. [See "The Sting" for a "wire" scam in action.]
The Pay-Off: Another racing swindle, in which the mark is invited to join a ring of operators who are fixing races and fleecing gambling clubs. Prop locations used large club rooms.
The Rag: Similar to the pay-off, but placed in a stock market setting. The gang represents a Wall Street syndicate that is manipulating share prices. Prop locations used brokerage offices.
Occasionally the con could be run out of a hotel room ("laying the man against the wall") but this was rarely as effective as a store, which with its props -- especially the stacks of cash -- could get inside the mark's defenses.
The cons became a big business through standardization and specialization. The games themselves became rigidly conventional, which allowed for the rehearsal and refinement of technique. At the same time, the workers became specialists in certain roles -- the inside man, the shill, the roper, etc. -- so as to create the best possible illusion and to keep the game running as smoothly as possible.
The big stores were initially concentrated in the big cities, particularly New York and Chicago. But these proved expensive venues as the authorities demanded greater payoffs in return for allowing the games to continue; they also soon developed a reputation for being the homes of swindlers. Safer, more lucrative venues were then found in smaller cities.
In the early days, monte and mitt stores did well to get $500 in a touch. The sports stores might make $5000. But once these techniques, the stories, and their props had been invented, the confidence men could plausibly target the wealthy and the socially prestigious.
The first big score off the wire was $50,000. Before World War I the scores would run to $100,000, and sometimes $200,000 [$5 million in 2017 currency]. The war brought millionaires in as touches -- these were often easy marks because they had acquired their own fortunes in shady ways. Ten thousand became the minimum amount that would interest a store; some scores ran to $375,000; one was rumored to have reached $2.8 million. Ropers sometimes had to take turns using the local store because there were so many marks to be trimmed. But, in normal times, ropers would be fortunate to bring in only four marks in a year; many failed to bring in more than one in their lifetimes.
After 1930 the confidence games went into abeyance, largely as a result of the US government extending its legal powers. Many con men moved overseas, but some can still be found [at the time of the book's writing] operating stateside.
3. The Big-Con Games
"The Wire" evolved from a scam run by telegraph operators who tried wiretapping the lines to get racing information ahead of time so their financial partners could place winning bets before the results were known locally. The professional grifters moved it into their stores where they could control it.
The mark is given the following story: A man in the Western Union office has it in his power to briefly hold up the race reports, and he intends to use this power to place some winning bets. The mark is asked to finance the operation. Tests are run for the mark's benefit, and he always wins. He agrees to the scheme, and brings in a large amount of money for a "sure" bet. However, the bet goes awry in some way, and he loses the money.
"The Pay-Off" evolved from a short-con game played at the race tracks. Like The Wire, it was moved into a store where it could be controlled.
The mark is introduced to a man who travels the country placing bets for a syndicate that has fixed certain races. The fixer takes the mark to the parlor for a play, and lets him see the operation win -- but the payoff is then locked away because the manager suspects the check used to place the bet was no good, and for the reputation of his establishment insists it be redeemed for cash before he will release the winnings. The fixer can't cover the check (for reasons) and the mark agrees to cover it in return for a share of the winnings. When the mark prepares to hand over the cash, the fixer induces him to put the cash and the money already won on a new race -- another sure thing. But the bet goes awry, and everything is lost.
"The Rag" works on the same basis as The Pay-Off: The mark is induced to cover a "fixer's" check in order to secure a winning, and then loses it on a second play of the same game. The difference is that The Rag uses a stock market, and the store is rigged up as a brokerage firm, not a betting parlor.
Principles and Strategies
It is common for the roper -- the man who brings the mark into a con -- to research prospects before time. Often he approaches the mark with what seems a legitimate business proposition, then gradually switches him to the "inside man" who proposes the con. Many times the mark is invited to join because some other financier has vanished.
Small bets or investments, called "convincers" played to the benefit of the mark, and he is usually invited to hold onto those winnings. These, however, are always recouped as part of the final con.
The mark is usually put "on the send" -- physically returns home to get the cash -- so that mail fraud won't be implicated. If the mail is used, the mark is usually "tied up" so that he is always in the company of one of the con men. Often the mark is talked into watching one of the con men -- it is intimated that one of the conspirators (the roper, usually) cannot be trusted and the inside man tasks the mark with keeping him under wraps. After the con has been completed, the mark is given a "cooling off" during which the con men solicitously cover all his expenses and promise to make good his losses. The "blow off" occurs when they are done with him, and the mark never hears from them again.
Many times the roper will be the one to accidentally sabotage the con, ruining the plans of the mark and the inside man. If this is to be the play, the mark's confidence will be transferred to the inside man, and the roper's reputation will be gradually ruined in the mark's eyes so the final catastrophe looks convincing.
Occasionally a mark will raise a terrible row. In such cases a "cackle-bladder" will be used -- a pistol with blanks will be fired at a member of the gang, and he will burst a vial of chicken blood in his mouth and in his vest to simulate being shot. The mark will be hustled out and sent away ostensibly to keep him safe from the police. In other cases, immediately after the money is secured "the button" will be used -- fake policemen will appear to arrest the inside-man, charging him with running a scam against the store. The inside-man will "convince" the police to let the mark go as an innocent bystander, but he will have to forswear the money he invested in the scheme or else he'll be charged as an accessory.
4. The Mark
The distinguishing characteristic of the mark is his lack of integrity, not his lack of intelligence. In fact, unintelligent people frequently make poor marks, for the story that is told to them will frequently be beyond their comprehension.
Most marks come from the upper classes -- they understand the plot being pitched them; they have the money to invest; they regard themselves as being too smart to be fleeced; and they are usually businessmen who have themselves been guilty of sharp practices.
Most marks are found by chance: ropers travel the country, sizing up chance acquaintances. Others are found by placing advertisements for "investment opportunities." Others are steered to the mob (on a commission basis) by other ropers with extra marks on a string; by criminals; by professional gamblers; by crooked cops; and sometimes even by common people who know the con men and want to see a particular mark hurt. Sometimes wise-after-the-fact marks bring new marks to their victimizers, for the pleasure of seeing someone else hurt as they were. And sometimes a mark will earn back his losses on a con by steering (again, for a commission) new marks to the gang.
The characteristics of a mark: They must have money. They must be (a) fundamentally dishonest, yet (b) convinced that they are impeccably honest. (Ropers typically start by insisting that the mark demonstrate his honesty.) They are almost universally liars, about matters large and small.
Marks respond in a variety of ways to being fleeced. Some take it in good grace. Some become violent and must be cooled down carefully. Some do not recognize that they have been trimmed and will return for more. Very few beef about it to the police, as doing so would tend to embarrass and sometimes even incriminate them. (It is estimated that less than ten percent of marks report the crime to the police.) Con men themselves rarely hold a grudge against marks. Sometimes they find they like the mark so much that they almost (almost!) regret taking his money. They are baffled by marks who refuse to take the bait -- true honesty is something they don't understand -- and they are indulgent about marks who accept their losses, and also indulge those who become violent. The only marks they dislike are those who lie to the police in order to build a case against the mob.
There are many notable stories about the eccentric behavior of marks:
1. Some con artists took a local racketeer. Later, in the same town, they were caught running another con. The racketeer, visiting the police court, recognized them. But instead of revenging himself, he arranged their release, made good their losses, and sent them on their way.
2. Two con men felt out a mark by using a story about the dissipated heir of a rapidly dwindling fortune. The money was to be a hook for the mark, so he would invest his own money in the scheme that the con men were peddling. Instead, the mark proposed murdering the "heir" and splitting his fortune. The con men -- highly indignant at the suggestion -- trimmed him mercilessly.
3. One gullible mark refused to believe he was caught up in a swindle even when the police busted the gang in the middle of the game. The mark even put up bond for the con men, as he was certain they were on the level.
4. One mark, offered a chance to play the wire, became furious, denouncing it as a swindle he'd lost money on, and listed all the other swindles he'd been taken in by. To the astonishment of the con men, he then told them he'd heard about a new swindle -- the pay-off -- that he was eager to try out, and asked them to set one up so he could invest in it.
5. The Mob
A mob consists of a minimum of two: a roper and an inside-man. The roper searches out and identifies marks, and he steers them to the inside-man for the fleece. Ropers typically take 45% of the take; the inside-man keeps 55% and from his take pays off any other grifters who participate in the job.
The two jobs call for different talent sets, and most con men specialize in one or the other. However, both jobs require "grift sense" -- an ability to spot and handle marks. The talent seems to be inborn, though it can be sharpened with practice. Many discover they have that talent at an early age; others discover it later, sometimes only after they themselves have been fleeced by a pro.
Ropers. The success of the store rests on the success of the ropers, without whom there is no income to support the rest of the mob and the associated overhead (fixers, facilities, props). They must move constantly, outlaying money as they go, through territory that may be hostile where they are subject to the constant threats of recognition and arrest. This is why they earn 45% of the take.
Ropers sometimes work in pairs, in which case they will split the 45%, working as roper and a temporary inside-man who will then steer the mark to the permanent inside man.
Good ropers must have the "will" to succeed -- self-doubt and laziness are crippling. They must not be easily bored, and they must possess acting ability, including the ability to improvise convincingly and consistently at a moment's notice. Good technique: never talk politics or ask the mark embarrassing questions. Never volunteer details about personal issues. Never interrupt, and be a good listener. Never drink.
Inside men. The inside man is the executive and the keeper of the books of the mob. The traits associated with a good inside man are rarer than those associated with ropers, so they are the center of a mob, and will sometimes have as many as fifty ropers working for them, so that they have to keep appointment books to handle the inflow of marks. Good inside men are so rare that mobs tend to form and evolve around the same few men, so that "confidence" industry operates unofficially as a closed cartel.
The inside man must possess an air of rectitude and trustworthiness -- typically, a mark leaves the fleece blaming the roper for his troubles, and never suspects the inside man.
Others. The manager is the prop-man, making and storing and deploying the gear associated with the store. He must often be a master forger, but acting ability is seldom called for as he will be only an extra inside the store. He will typically collect 10% of the take. The shills who populate the store each will collect 1%. The fixers (though the inside man may operate as his own fixer) will collect their own negotiated fees.
The overhead associated with a store is considerable, and so the store must operate continually -- another reason why inside men tend to collect a large squad of ropers about them.
The gang will typically have an unofficial hangout where they can be found if outsiders want them, and if the outsider is a stranger the proprietor of the establishment -- usually a bar -- will act as messenger and go-between. Gang members also have evolved a number of signals that they use when they want to communicate in public.
Con men are often known to be such by the proprietors of expensive legitimate businesses -- hotels and restaurants -- and are not only tolerated by protected and supported by them even without a kickback. This is because the proprietors understand that the con men will often steer rich, high class business to them in the course of their fleecings; and they know that the con men, for their own protection, will refrain from bringing a low-class clientele with them.
6. Birds of a Feather
Con men are the aristocrats of the criminal world, which is very class conscious, and unless they lose their self-confidence they will remain in the confidence game unless they retire from crime for good. Retirement is usually the result of the pressure -- of being chased, of being watchful, of being caught. When they retire, many con men try to go into business. Most fail, for though they have a taste for money, they do not connect it with the knowledge and shrewdness necessary to run an actual enterprise.
Where does the money from confidence games go? Some con men are able to save it for an eventual retirement, but the vast majority lose it in gambling games of various kinds -- whether cards, horses, or the stock market. Sometimes the scores off a game vanish within days or even hours at a gaming table. In fact, many grifters, it seems, grift simply as a means to acquire money to feed their gambling addiction. Others merely spend it on perishable goods; sometimes they have to disgorge everything they've won to criminals in the heavy rackets or to various fixers.
Most con men are attractive physically and are respectable looking. They look and talk well, and they keep up with culture and the news, usually for professional reasons, some few because they have an actual taste for it. Some develop idiosyncratic interests and hobbies, such as a taste for Napoleona. But these are almost always superficial veneers.
Con men may dress and live well, but they always try to buy the cheapest, and will try hard to get something for nothing. They will grift at every opportunity. Some con men who survived the Titanic sinking swindled the insurance companies, and the partner of one (who had died) switched price tags on a coffin for his late friend.
Con men are not above pranking each other, either for money or simply for laughs. They particularly enjoy preying on gun molls: tricking them into lifting the fat wallet off a rich mark, only for them to find it full of tissue paper and dirty limericks. Another favorite pastime is maneuvering a fellow con man into a sexually compromising position.
Indiana led the country in the production of grifters in the early twentieth century, possibly because the farmers there were so bored, possibly because circuses used to winter there. (Relatively few come from New York City and other metropolitan areas.) The come from many different backgrounds, however, and many developed their taste for it after being the mark in a game. However, most confidence men showed the necessary talents as children.
Most are very superstitious, and they employ lots of charms and obsessive behaviors, even when not on a job.
[Not a lot in this chapter. It's very repetitive.]
Con-men generally exist in a kind symbiotic relationship with crooked cops and politicians. They prefer to operate in locations where the law is or can be "fixed." If the inside-man doesn't do the fixing himself, he will arrange to pay the local fixer -- usually a machine boss -- a percentage of each touch in return for protection. The amount to be paid varies, but typically is half of the inside-man's share, less expenses. Out of this sum, the fixer pays off the various detectives and prosecutors so they will not hassle the con men.
If a mark beefs, it will be either to a "right cop" or a "wrong cop." The wrong cops are ones who have not and will not be bribed. These can usually be stymied by "right cops" or by the fixers. The "right cops" are those who can be fixed, and if they receive the complaint they will lead the mark on while running the investigation into the sand. Note that although con men rely on right cops, they do not trust them, on the principle that dishonest men are never trustworthy.
The mark can sometimes force the issue higher up the chain of police command, past detectives to prosecutors; past prosecutors to judges; past judges to juries. Each move up becomes more expensive and difficult to fix. As of the 1940s, the most difficult to fix, though, were federal investigators and officials, who were widely understood to be one and all "wrong cops."
8. Short-Con Games
A "short con" is by definition any con game that doesn't require the mark to leave town to get more money. More generally, but accurately, it refers to any con that can be executed for pocket money, with no props, in any location. Some mobs specialize in running short cons and can make a decent living at them. For most con artists, though, a short con is to be executed only when there is need for pocket money.
It is not uncommon for large amounts of money to be taken off marks in a short con, but con artists are so bad with money that they typically lose the entire touch in a matter of days, which necessitates another short con.
Some short cons:
* The Smack: Gambling on evens and odds. A roper pretends to work with the mark to cheat the inside man with the aim of splitting the profits. But the roper disappears after the separate to meet later. This is best played in railroad stations so that the mark is forced to cool himself by leaving town.
* The Tat: A game that works by substituting a crooked die for an honest one.
* The Tip: A crooked poker game in which the mark is subsidized to win, then sent for money to secure what he thinks is a winning hand.
* The Last Turn: Another crooked gambling game, this time against a faro bank. Combines aspects of The Tip and The Smack in that the mark is encouraged to cheat the bank.
* The Huge Duke: A team of con men maneuver a mark into a crooked poker game with a stacked deck. Played on trains and boats, with the mark giving a check to cover his looses. The check is elaborately destroyed (but secretly palmed) so that the mark doesn't suspect the swindle until long after when he gets a bank statement.
* The Money Box: A machine for making counterfeit money. It requires authentic paper, though, and the mark is tasked with financing its purchase.
* The Hot Seat (The Wipe): The mark is asked to guard some money, and to prove his trustworthiness he is asked to put some of his own money into the receptacle. Too late he realizes that he is guarding an empty box.
9. The Con Man and His Lingo
[An appendix of terms used by con men.]