- Melville’s first book, Typee, is, like most literary memoirs, a fraud: though he certainly ventured to Polynesia, many of the events in the book are clearly created out of whole cloth—and they suggest how little we really know about the events of Melville’s life. “There is no reason to believe that Melville didn’t witness clothmaking and woodcarving. However, the scene in which his friend Kory-Kory rubs a six-foot pole between his hands, as his back arches and muscles tense, until it bursts into flame, is most likely a metaphoric rendering of a different act (no record exists attesting to whether Thoreau tried this method at Walden).”
- While we’re talking fraud, Arthur Conan Doyle was set up—by the Staffordshire fuzz, no less. “Newly discovered documents show that the Staffordshire police fabricated evidence to try to discredit Arthur Conan Doyle’s investigation into the curious case of George Edalji, a Birmingham solicitor accused of maiming horses and sending poison-pen letters at the turn of the twentieth century.”
- Amazon’s Kindle Scout program— a “reader-powered” publishing platform in which authors submit their work and readers vote on it—is perpetrating a kind of fraud, too. It’s become “a murderously deft purveyor of books seemingly designed only to be inhaled like so many bibliographic nachos.” Is it the new center of reading as a camp experience? Or is it just shit? “The bigger problem with so-bad-they’re-good novels is that sometimes they’re just so bad they’re … bad. For every camp triumph on Kindle Scout, every daft splendor of weaponized pit bulls, you’ll find three corresponding duds.”
- Everyone loves a good art heist. The trick isn’t so much stealing a painting, though, as managing to sell it again when it’s known to have been stolen. “The misappropriation of masterpieces continues to have a distinctive hold on the public imagination, even as it becomes a type of criminal activity that’s both misunderstood and increasingly hard to pull off.”
- Among the fake self-help books hidden on shelves in an LA Bookstore: The Beginner’s Guide to Human Sacrifice, Learn to … Dress Yourself!, and So Your Son Is a Centaur: Coping with Your Child’s Confusing Life Choices.
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. Read More