Pro and Con

The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man BY David Maurer. edited by Luc Sante. Anchor. Paperback, 336 pages. $16.

The cover of The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man

THE CONFIDENCE MAN has stalked American writing for centuries. Even before the Civil War, he’d already found his great literary champion in Herman Melville, who set his strange shape-shifting trickster on a riverboat named Fidèle and sent him drifting down the Mississippi in one of the most vexatious tributes ever composed to this all-American criminal. Nearly a hundred years later, Melville’s creation found its stranger-than-fiction update in The Big Con (1940), a book in retrospect only marginally less likely than its novelistic forebear.

The author of The Big Con wasn’t a man of letters but a University of Louisville linguist named David Maurer, a specialist in slang who had already plumbed the argot of North Atlantic fishermen and would go on to write scholarly studies of a host of underworld jargons, from the lingo of the racetrack to the vocabulary of moonshiners and the language of pimps, potheads, and pickpockets. But with The Big Con he took a plunge straight from the narrows of lexicography into the depths of social analysis and produced a compendious book with a novelist’s flair for character and a journalist’s appetite for getting it right. He described the whole culture of the bunco men, from the company they kept to the women they married (almost to a man, they were men) to the odd gifts they brought to their trade. He related their names and where they came from (an inordinate number hailed from Indiana). He captured the divisions and subdivisions in hierarchy and talent that distinguished ropers from insidemen: The former were adept at spotting a sucker to be skinned, gaining his confidence, and pulling him into the scheme; the latter were maestros at orchestrating scams Wagnerian in their scope and duration, requiring a CEO’s skills to run the grift and a psychologist’s insight into just what made particular marks tick.

Maurer recognized that the data he’d amassed bespoke nothing less than a golden age of the big con, as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth and the countryside boomed with new railroad and telegraph lines and a seemingly boundless spirit of gung-ho growth and loose cash. The Big Con elegantly tracks how the cruder shell-game and faro-bank scams threw off their rustic roots in “the shady corner of a country fair grounds” and headed for the city, where a whole new genius seeded the sophisticated operations that gave this book its title. What made the big con so exceptional was not just the scale of the scam, which might enlist a small army of suave grifters in an ersatz brokerage office or fake bookie joint, but also its almost seamless perfection. Often enough, the big con worked so well that victims could be sent on their way (“the blow off”) without even realizing they’d been fleeced. It’s what put the art in the con artist. The 1973 film The Sting captured to a T one such orchestrated swindle, a complex species of horse-racing scam dubbed “the pay-off”—so much so that Maurer sued (unsuccessfully) for copyright infringement.

What still surprises is the urbanity of Maurer’s approach to his subject. He was a connoisseur of the con’s aesthetics. Unlike the “heavy-rackets,” the grift “never employs violence to separate the mark from his money. Of all the grifters, the confidence man is the aristocrat.” That dandified aspect seems to extend to the language, which might account for the almost bardic delight Maurer takes in the con artist’s words and gumption. “When I’m in chicane,” one old con man says near the end of the book, “I just step into the shed and borrow some nice old pappy’s bank roll on the single-hand con.” If the big con’s moment had faded by the time Maurer documented its most elaborate form, the game itself never really became obsolete—a lesson that the age of the big short might teach us.

Eric Banks is the director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU.