May 25, 2012 1:55:40 PM
If you remember the movie The Sting from 1973 you will recall that there was a series of various confidence tricks, including a pigeon drop, a rigged card game, and an elaborately staged fake betting parlor set up just to con a despicable gambler. As entertaining as Robert Redford and Paul Newman made the movie, I remember thinking that the fake betting was just too complicated and preposterous for anyone to have confidence in. It could only happen in the movies. I have found myself proved wrong as I was reading The Mark Inside: A Perfect Swindle, A Cunning Revenge, and a Small History of the Big Con (Knopf) by Amy Reading. Reading holds a doctorate in American Studies, and the book started as an academic venture, and comes with plenty of footnotes, but forget all that. This, Reading's first book, is a terrific story of duplicity and revenge, and an examination of confidence schemes as a manifestation of a particularly American drive.
The hero of the story is J. Frank Norfleet, and when we meet him in 1919, he was merely an upstanding, teetotalling, diminutive, third-generation Texas rancher, in his prosperous 54th year. He came to Dallas for the purpose of buying and selling land. This is the proverbial honest man who could not be cheated, and yet his honesty and goodwill were played against him by three clever gentlemen who were prosperous and friendly. They were just his sort of people, even though they were strangers. He entered the St. George Hotel, and as Reading says, "... he entered 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." Reading describes each of the nine acts, which have names like "roping the mark" or "the convincer." The lines and the actions of the three con men were carefully planned beforehand, and they might just as well have scripted Norfleet's lines and actions, too, for looking at things from his viewpoint, there is no way he could have avoided acting in just the way he did. He enjoyed being with these men, he enjoyed helping them out, and he even invited one back to his home, where his wife made them dinner while he rustled up some extra cash for the deal. He played his role with all the propriety in his character, and he stuck to that role while the bunco artists took him for $45,000 ( more than a half million in today's money) and disappeared.
Only then did Norfleet go off script. Swindlers maintain that a sucker never squeals because he voluntarily participated in a swindle and will not report the crime due to his complicity and due to fears of earning the contempt of his peers. It may be true sometimes, but it certainly was not in Norfleet's case. It took a while for his loss to sink in, but it hit him hard. "Forty-five thousand dollars gone!" he was to write in his book telling of his exploits, from which Reading has drawn extensively. (She initially thought the book was a fake as she used it for her dissertation, but her research showed it was a true story.) "Fifty-four years old! The knowledge paralyzed, then shook me like an earthquake, crumbling my castles into ashes about my feet." Not only did Norfleet report the crime, he took off on a one-man, coast-to-coast, four-year crusade for vengeance. His devoted wife Eliza encouraged him, although she was left back at the ranch and reduced to raising turkeys; she barely got by as Norfleet was gone for long times and had his own traveling expenditures.
Norfleet's tracking down of the con men used their own tools against them. He proved adept at studying the details of swindles, at disguising himself, at conducting stake-outs, and at enlisting the help of police chiefs and sheriffs around the country (as long as they were not in the pay of the swindlers themselves). He obsessively followed tiny leads that come to him by chance. There is excitement in the chase because the swindlers are just as smart as Norfleet is, and they are slippery. For instance, Norfleet eventually captured Big Joe Furey, the man in charge of his swindle, and was taking him by train for an arrest. Furey attracted the attention of other riders in his carriage by calling for their sympathy to his plight; he might be in handcuffs, but he yelled that he had had no drink or food all day. "For God's sake, help a dying man!" the skilled con man pleaded, and with everyone's attention fixed on his plight, he then "... showed what he was made of. He stepped back into Norfleet's car, put his palms together, raised his arms, and dove through the plate glass window of the moving train. Before anyone quite knew what had happened, Furey was free." Temporarily, at least. He was to be recaptured and would die in prison; unless he faked his death, and that's not beyond possibility.
In addition to an exciting story, Reading has given a history of confidence schemes as they played out in America. It is surprising that there was a first confidence man. He was a New York swindler who was adept at having men hand over their watches to him as a demonstration of their confidence in him, and when he was eventually arrested in 1849, a reporter coined the term "confidence man." Of course there had been American swindlers before, from the start of the nation, and they may have helped the nation grow. Counterfeiters, for instance, usefully supplied a working currency at times when the government had not printed enough. P. T. Barnum never had a mermaid, but he made a fortune on telling people he did, even people who knew they were being taken and enjoyed the ride just for the sake of it. Reading reminds us of the very real problem that investment and speculation and swindling are not distinct categories with firm boundaries; think of all those responsible investors who were just doing what everyone else did until it all went bad on Black Monday in 1929. Some of the con men so successfully integrated themselves into the running of cities like Denver that they were a government tandem to the official one. Norfleet was involved in helping to pry the swindlers out of the Denver bureaucracy, and the resultant trial in which he participated was such a sensation that the movie houses complained it was taking their business away.
Norfleet's story of revenge is a crackerjack. His swindles are not our swindles, if you think about Bernie Madoff or Enron, but just today I got an e-mail to let me know I had a half million dollars coming to me, if I just sent along my banking details so that it could be deposited. Norfleet got to tell his story repeatedly, in print and on radio, and he became a Texas institution. He may have exaggerated the tale sometimes. He reports that one of the criminals he slammed into jail was glad to get there, because as he explained, "I'd rather die and go to hell tonight than live as I have since I met Norfleet. Every knock on the door, every telephone bell, every stranger in the night has raised hell with my nerves." Reading reminds us that Norfleet probably threw some stretchers into his story, but his genuine accomplishments allow that we ought to give him our confidence.