The Big Con

Tags:  non-fiction,

David W. Maurer’s The Big Con provides a fascinating look into the carefully orchestrated scams pulled off by early 20th century con men. The “big cons” were truly elaborate, involving a large cast of con men, carefully scripted stories, props, role-playing and more.

The Big Con, by David W. Maurer

A typical big con started with a roper identifying a mark. The roper was a smooth-talking, respectable looking traveler who kept up with the news and could converse fluently on any number of topics. The mark was the intended victim, usually traveling by train or ship.

The roper’s job was to identify the mark and “rope him in” to the scheme. A good roper would assess his fellow travelers to identify the person who met two criteria. First, they had to have a fairly substantial amount of money. Second, they had to be corruptible, the type of person willing to enter into a get-rich-quick scheme that they knew was dishonest.

One of the earliest schemes was called “the wire.” In this one, the roper convinces the mark that he knows a disgruntled employee at the Western Union telegraph office. Before radio, horse-racing results were reported by telegraph to betting offices around the country. The roper convinced the mark that his friend in the telegraph office could delay the reports of race results by a few minutes, just long enough for someone to place a bet on the known winner before the bookies closed up betting.

If the mark was interested, the roper introduced him to his “friend” who supposedly worked for Western Union. The “friend” was known as the inside man. The friend told the roper and mark to wait together at a pay phone across the street from the betting office. He would call the pay phone, tell the mark that Horse X won the race, and that he could delay the telegraph report for five minutes.

The mark would cross the street, enter the betting office, put a hundred dollars on Horse X and win five hundred a few minutes later.

What the mark didn’t know was that the whole betting office had been set up by the roper’s accomplices. The betting window, the furniture and results board were all carefully crafted props. The office manager, the gamblers, and the man posting race results were all actors. The betting office also had what appeared to be huge rolls of cash changing hands. These bankrolls looked like the banded stacks of cash you see at an actual bank, but typically had a hundred dollar bill on the top and the bottom with a stack of ones in between.

Inside the betting office, the mark witnessed what looked like tens of thousands of dollars changing hands on every bet. This was all part of the illusion to whip up the mark’s greed. While he may have won $500 dollars on his first bet, he watched others walk away with thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.

When the mark’s greed was in full control of his reason, the roper and the insideman convinced him to empty his bank account and sell off all his stock and other liquid assets for one final “sure” bet.

Often, the mark had be sent back to his home town to collect this money. The con men called this part of the operation “the send.” It could take days or weeks for the mark to return with the cash.

The mark invariably returned and bet his life savings on a sure-fire ten-to-one bet. And he always lost when some pre-arranged “miscommunication” between the insideman and the roper caused him to put his money on the wrong horse. The roper and the insideman would argue violently about who was responsible for the loss, and often the insideman would shoot several rounds of blanks into the roper’s chest, apparently murdering him in front of the mark and a crowd of gamblers. The con men even used chicken blood as part of the act.

At this point, the mark, who was now an accomplice to murder, was too terrified to worry about losing his life savings. He was more concerned with avoiding a murder wrap and saving his own skin. The insideman would hustle him back onto a train or ship and send him off to hide.

The con men regularly paid out a part of their earnings to the local police, who ignored their activities as long as they were paid. Part of the deal between cops and con men was that the cons could never run their scams on locals. Too many angry citizens would bring too much pressure on the department, hence the ropers' use of trains and ships to rope in marks who were traveling from distant towns.

When the telegraph went away, the big con changed with the times. The wire turned into “the pay-off,” in which the roper convinced the mark that his friend, the insideman, was part of a race-fixing ring. The con followed the same pattern, with the mark taken to a fake betting establishment where he was allowed to win a number of increasingly large bets until he was hooked and ready to put his life savings on the line.

The last of the big cons was “the rag,” which was just like the pay-off, except it targeted businessmen who liked to day-trade stocks. In this one, the con men set up whole fake stock-trading offices, convinced the mark that they were part of a stock manipulation ring, let him win big on a number of day trades, then fleeced him for all he had.

Many victims, deprived of their life savings, were too embarrassed to complain to the police. If they went to the local cops, it was to no avail, because the cons were bribing them for protection. Often, the local cops would ask the victims who did complain to take them to the betting establishment or stock trading office where they had been ripped off. When they arrived, the cops and victim found only an empty room because the cons had removed all of the actors and props as efficiently as a local theater cleaning up after the matinee.

Maurer also summarizes a number of “short cons,” which often amount to rigged bets and card games designed to rob suckers of whatever cash they may be carrying with them.

The big cons are more elaborate and interesting, but the ropers for both big and small cons all say they have an instinct to identify people who are willing to cheat for a quick buck, and that these people make the easiest marks. The ropers say that truly honest people who don’t want to take part of any operation that smells of larceny simply can’t be conned. The prerequisite for any mark is that his greed must exceed his ethics.

Interestingly, all con men fit this description, and all the ones Maurer interviews say that other con men make excellent marks and are easy to fleece. You just have to suss out their weakness–usually gambling–and rope them into a fixed game.

In the course of his research, Maurer interviewed a number of aging ropers and insidemen. His account of the con game includes a number of colorful characters and interesting anecdotes. For those alone, the book is worth the read.

Though the big cons have changed over the decades, the psychology of con man and victim has not, and the pattern remains the same. The con man gets the victim to trust him, gets the victim to put up some money for a “sure thing” (like releasing the Nigerian prince’s millions), gives him a taste of the rewards to come, then fleeces him for the big score.

As in the old days, the con man’s hold on the mark’s trust is often so secure that the mark refuses to believe he’s been ripped off, even when everyone else can clearly see it. The mark, perhaps to save his own pride, sincerely believes that the loss of his money was due to some corrupt third party (such as the Nigerian bureaucracy who had tied up the prince’s funds).

“Confidence men trade upon certain weaknesses in human nature,” Maurer concludes. “Hence until human nature changes perceptibly there is little possibility that there will be a shortage of marks for con games.”