Something for Nothing
March 19, 2012 | by Ian Crouch
America, from its Puritan past to its mass-incarceration present, has never been particularly hospitable to criminals. Yet, from time to time, an outlaw rises to the level of folk hero, based on a captivating personal narrative or a prevailing mood in the culture. Perhaps no category of crook has been more consistently compelling than the con artist. During their heyday, from the mid-nineteenth century up through the first decades of the twentieth, when innovations in transportation brought more strangers together and promises of fast fortune spread across the country, practitioners earned memorable nicknames—Soapy Smith, Snitzer the Kid, Appetite Bill—and spoke in a florid and amusing argot. (Every object in the game, from money to cards to actors, was given a nickname, as were the games themselves, dubbed the wipe, the wire, the big mitt, the huge duke, the tip, the tale, the strap, the spud, or the shake with the button.) Con men normally stole by guile rather than by physical intimidation or brute force. And their thieving relied on complicated mechanisms of performance and intelligence—it was indeed an art, complete with its own hierarchy of ability. The best of them could be imagined as dashing and debonair—like Paul Newman and Robert Redford in The Sting, men who valued the game more than what it earned.
Most important, the nature of the con implicated the victim in its own criminal logic. Marks were roped in with promises of inside information on a fixed horse race, rigged stock market, or some other path to easy money—only to see their contributions to the dubious venture stolen right before their eyes. As the linguist David Maurer wrote in The Big Con, his encyclopedic study of confidence crimes and the men that ran them, the operation worked based on a fixed maxim: “You can’t cheat an honest man.”
For many con artists, this was as much an excuse as a credo. Take, for example, the Chicago con man Joseph “Yellow Kid” Weil, who claimed to have stolen more than eight million dollars from assorted marks, as victims in the con game are known, during a career that spanned more than half a century. You would think he’d be the last person inclined to judge harshly the avarice of his fellow man. Yet, in 1956, after he’d turned eighty, he explained himself to Saul Bellow, who summed up the man’s conception of the moral universe:
The years have not softened his heart toward the victims of his confidence schemes. Of course he was a crook, but the “marks” whom he and his associates trimmed were not honest men. “I have never cheated any honest men,” he says, “only rascals. They may have been respectable but they were never any good.” And this is how he sums the matter up: “They wanted something for nothing. I gave them nothing for something.” He says it clearly and sternly; he is not a pitying man. To be sure, he wants to justify his crimes, but quite apart from this he believes that honest men do not exist.
While many con artists gained larger-than-life reputations, their victims mostly remained faceless, since, as Amy Reading explains in her engrossing new book, The Mark Inside, most were reluctant to take a complaint to the authorities. Local police were often paid off to look the other way, but even if they hadn’t been, marks were unlikely to confess to being robbed while putting money on a crooked scheme. Even the truly innocent—and indeed there were honest and decent people cleaned in cons—wouldn’t be eager to come forward and announce their gullibility to the world.
Who, then, would stand up for the victims, the marks who were considered at best fools, or at worst, criminals themselves? Enter J. Frank Norfleet, a short, mustachioed cattle rancher from the Texas panhandle, who became the most renowned advocate for the victims of cons in the history of the game. In 1919, Norfleet was taken by the notorious con man Big Joe Furey and his associates in a fake stock-market scheme known as “the rag,” which was, as Reading explains, “a tightly scripted drama with nine acts, each with its own distinct function in conveying the mark toward the climax when his money will be whisked away.” It began in a Dallas train station, moved to a nearby hotel, where after a series of chance meetings and coincidences (including the discovery of a planted wallet) Norfleet was persuaded that his new acquaintances had inside information on the markets, and were making stock bets that couldn’t lose. He was nudged to return home to get forty-five thousand dollars, which he eagerly contributed to the game. While he awaited his payout, the other actors in the drama skipped town, leaving Norfleet “stone-broke but wealthy in outrage.”
In most cases, “the sucker never squeals,” as Reading reminds us. But what Norfleet’s manipulators didn’t know was that they had messed with the wrong man. Rather than return home poorer but wiser, Norfleet instead sought to inflict some “cowboy justice” on Furey and his henchmen, undertaking an amateur cross-country manhunt and becoming, in time, the most dogged advocate for the swindled that the country had ever seen. In The Mark Inside, we follow Norfleet as he darts from California to Florida and back again, toting a suitcase packed with a revolver and a variety of disguises. He posed as a potential mark in big cities and small towns, garnering information about the Furey gang, and over the years, apprehended each of the men who had done him wrong. Not satisfied, in the years that followed, Norfleet managed to arrest more than seventy other con artists, becoming variously a feared and admired vigilante.
Here, the Norfleet story takes an intriguing turn. Norfleet retold his dramatic narrative in an autobiography, but it’s a tale that relies on too many astounding chance encounters and too much coincidence. His adventures seem, well, a bit too adventuresome. Zelig-like, he shows up everywhere just at the right time, whether it’s meeting the right person in a train car, spotting his prey among many faces in crowded room, or rescuing, behind the scenes, the operation that broke up Lou Blonger’s bunco ring in Denver. “The reversals of fortune that Norfleet relates in his autobiography are so incredible and so relentless that in the retelling they become almost tedious,” Reading admits. Norfleet insisted that he was a straight-shooter: “I don’t drink, chew tobacco, smoke, cuss, or tell lies ... The last is the most important. I never tell a damn lie.” But, just as he couldn't see the irony in forswearing obscenity and swearing in the same breath, he missed the essential aspect of his own personality. A lie and a con are not the same—anyone in a tight spot or out of mere habit can tell a lie, while a real and durable con requires planning and dramatic flourish—but Norfleet, like any good con man, recognized that there was money to be made from a story well told, regardless of whether all of it was true. He packaged his newly created personality not just into the autobiography but also into a tour on the vaudeville circuit, and even early footage for a feature film, in which, no surprise, he cast himself to play himself. He made the most of his run-in with the Joe Furey gang, going from a hapless rube to a jaunty hero. In the way of most American reality stars, misfortune was the best thing that ever happened to him.
Reading makes it clear that in the process of becoming the nation’s first mark hero, Norfleet ironically began to take on the characteristics of the con man. She is bemused by Norfleet’s gusto but still determinedly attempts to sort out where he embellished his story. She also poses an essential question: “If he is conning us, do we mind?” This gets to the center of both Norfleet’s story and the mass appeal of the con artist as a figure in American culture. P. T. Barnum, himself a master of the con, once remarked, “The public appears disposed to be amused even when they are conscious of being deceived.” We like being conned, at least within limits, and we like being told stories. We like telling stories, too, perhaps most notably about ourselves.
“Of all the grifters, the confidence man is the aristocrat,” David Maurer wrote back in 1940. Even then, however, the shine of the enterprise was beginning to come off. Now, when we think of the long con—despite all the crooked cops and low-rent betting parlors essential to its success—we imagine a more hopeful, innocent era. The ideal circumstances for a con, as Maurer described them, read like an elegy for a freer time:
The ease with which people make traveling acquaintances may account for the great number of marks which are roped on trains or ships. When a mark is off his home ground, he is no longer so sure of himself; he likes to impress important-looking strangers; he has the leisure to become expansive, and he likes to feel that he is recognized as a good fellow. The natural barrier to friendships come down. He idles away time chatting and smoking in a way he would not do at home. And the roper knows how to play upon the festive note which is always latent in a traveler away from home.
Over the years, and as traveling lost this freewheeling feeling, popular cons became less personal and more indirect. Technology made it easy to reach a wider audience. Cons were pulled through the mail and, later, in what became something of a menace of the eighties and nineties, over the telephone, with scammers making marks of the elderly. Today, the con has become ubiquitous online, with baroque narratives full of desperation or promises of fast money appearing daily in our inboxes from some friendly Nigerian royal who’s got gold to move. Most of us quickly dispatch these e-mails to the trash, but somewhere out there is the next J. Frank Norfleet, who from some combination of curiosity, greed, foolishness, and hope is willing to be told the tale.
Ian Crouch contributes to The New Yorker’s Sporting Scene and Book Bench blogs.