I just finished reading ” The Big Con” about how confidence men use to go around the country and con people out of their money.The time frame of the story takes place between 1880 trough 1930 and delves into the lives of a legion of smooth-talking and quick thinking criminals who traveled America taking people’s money. As the years progressed they grew more skilled at devising ruses more intricate than the last…including staging scenes with props, sets, scripted dialogue.
The book is written by a linguist that captures the phrases and the terminology of the day, so at times it can be seen hard to follow but the stories are brilliant and the schemes quite elaborate and detailed. There were a few points in the book that I found fascinating such as what makes a good mark ( a good victim to be swindled)?
- Con men exploited the desire of wealthy people to get something for nothing and their willingness to break the rules to do so. Con men exploited the honesty of people. Con men went at great lengths actually have the victims prove how honest they were. The con men knew two things about human nature. First, if you have to tell everybody you are honest–you’re probably not that honest. Secondly, once the mark went out of his way to prove how honest he was, the con men knew the mark would act consistent with that belief and thus be more easily controlled.
“Every saint has a past and every sinner a future.” It is a paradox. Truly honest and introspective people really understand how hard it is to be honest and know how weak they are. By understanding that inherent weakness, only then can they be honest. It is our nature to truly believe that we are good and honest people but the fact is the con men knew otherwise; they understood this little paradox and exploited people’s delusion of themselves for gain.
Since some of the tricks and schemes were so elaborate and the amount swindled quite large, payoffs and bribery were par for the course. Bankers, police, government officials, real estate agents all had to be paid off. If the mark complained too loudly about the amount lost, all of the players mentioned had to play the part to soothe the marks concerns that all was being done to find these men and bring them to justice.
Even though the book’s stories take place 100 years ago, it is painful to see that all of our institutions were already corrupted even back then. Sadly, it is no different today. A few years ago, bankers walked with millions as they saw their firms collapse and the equity holders were wiped out. To date, no major player in the financial debacle has seen any time in prison (Bernie Madoff was not a banker but ran a Ponzi scheme). As you can see, the institutions entrusted to protect their citizens had already been corrupted.
As the saying goes the more things change the more they stay the same.