The Big Con (1940), by David W. Maurer


David W. Maurer, a professor of linguistics at Louisville University who passed in 1981, has left us a book based on extensive field work in the 1930s that no one of us born suckers should face life without having read. The movie, The Sting, was lifted entirely from Maurer’s The Big Con. That movie dramatizes a particular con game known as “The Wire.” And we all know what happened to mobster Doyle Lonnegan in that classic of preying on the gullible.

We learn from Maurer two important things: 1) there were countless stings going on at the time he wrote, just as there have been from the dawn of history; 2) we’re all Doyle Lonnegan.

Especially, it seems, are we kin to Lonnegan these days. (But actually, in this matter it’s always the worst of times.)

Maurer wants to preserve underworld lexicons of the Gangland Period and to capture a recent chapter in one of the oldest professions, the con.

Here’s the deviousness we all face, Maurer says with wonderful elegance in reporting on masters of the con and the essential principles by which they work:

1. Find a moneyed victim, the Mark (Robert Shaw as “Doyle Lonnegan” in The Sting). This is called “Putting the Mark up.” It is also called “roping the Mark.” The finder here is called a Roper (Robert Redford as “Johnny Hooker” [natch!] in The Sting). One legendary Roper once said of Florida, “You have to kick the Marks out of your way.” But not being in Florida is no protection.

2. Make sure the Mark trusts you. This is called “playing the con for the Mark.”

3. Maneuver the Mark to meet the Insideman (e.g., Paul Newman as “Henry Gondorff” in The Sting.)

4. Let the Insideman convince the Mark that the latter can make a lot of money in “a sure thing” that is dishonest or unseemly. The dishonest and/or unseemly part is crucial when it comes time to dispense of the Mark quietly, with no trouble, after he or she has been fleeced. (In The Sting, the “sure thing,” that big con known as “The Wire,” is that a friendly telegraph operator will delay officially transmitting race results to a bookie joint just long enough for previously alerted insider-betters to fleece that joint by placing bets on a horse that moments ago has already won or placed.) Here the Insideman might arrange for the Mark to make a small but telling profit, a tactic known as “the convincer.” (In The Sting, Gondorff lets Lonnegan, visiting the Store, win a preliminary small-bet gamble on a “sure thing” horse race, a “test case” to convince him the disguised con is on the level; and Gondorff arranges a second small-bet gamble in which Lonnegan is prevented from placing a bet because he is barely “too late” to the betting cages before the race begins but in which Lonegan can “verify” the “sure thing” because he is there moments later to hear the winner announced, a winner he’d been informed of beforehand.)

5. Have the Insideman learn how much of the Mark’s own money the Mark can invest. This is called “giving the Mark the breakdown.”

6. Send the Mark back home so that he or she can raise that money (e.g., take out a second mortgage, cash in bonds, etc. [AKA “Putting the Mark on the send”].)

7. Fleece the Mark in a Big Store. A “Big Store” is Gondorff’s fake bookie establishment in The Sting in which everyone in the place except Lonnegan and one unwitting cop is a shill playing a part in a staged drama; a Big Store can, of course, mimic any sort of moneymaking establishment. The fleecing is called “taking off the touch.” If the big con is organized around playing the horses, you tell the Mark after he’s laid down his bet on a given horse to win (e.g., Lonnegan in The Sting) that you meant his horse to place, not win. (Or employ a similar ploy.) Oh, my goodness! What a foul-up! And be sure to absolve the Mark of blame; for example, have the Insideman threaten to kill the Roper for the Roper’s bonehead blunder of possibly not having been clear enough in his instructions to the now fleeced Mark.

8. Get the fleeced Mark out of the way ASAP, known as “blowing him off.” (In The Sting, the device here is the fake murder of Johnny Hooker, causing Lonnegan to decide to scram before approaching cops arrive rather than sticking around and trying to strong-arm his half million back. But a motive as simple as embarrassment could cause the Fleeced not to want to confess to having been taken.)

9. Prevent any trouble with the law (“putting in the fix”).

The Big Con has been reprinted with an introduction by Luc Sante.

One telling recommendation for Maurer’s great book is that it has been a mandatory source book for many detective writers.

Before he passed, Maurer said that the basic principles he pulls together in The Big Con work in all times and places. The reasons are depressingly obvious.

Maurer, who had a motive to warn, clearly took righteous satisfaction in the historical consequences of gullibility. Yes, “gullibility” needs volumes written about it, and they already have been written. One notable metaphorical one has to do with being kicked out of Eden and the everlasting attitudes and, above all, massive yearnings it has caused in the banished. The perennial Free Lunch illusion writ large. Very large.

So, our Mystery Guest Con Artist of these times (hint: that artist works in the Financial Sector) will:

1. Visit institutional investors.

2. Use past ROIs for those clients to gain their confidence for investing in something New and Really Big.

3. Send a team of Inside men and -women to the mahogany conference rooms of the Marks.

4. Make it a Sure Thing but terribly complex. You need a PhD from MIT to understand this new latest-and-greatest offering. But, really, all you need to do, ladies and gentlemen, my friends, is to look at those tall arrows on the chart! Now here’s the next chart with the dollars inherent in those arrows! Wow, eh?

5. Sure. I’ll take only a little money now, show you safely what can be done. It’s OK that you’re being conservative. Very understandable. I’d be that way, too, if I were you! Gotta keep that portfolio diversified, right? Unless, of course, you Learn Something Really Smart. I know, I know. But you’ll see!

6. Hello again! Wonderful sunshine you have out here! Trust it’s been a good few weeks for each of you. Yes, I had a smooth plane ride. And thanks for asking. Well, let me show you this visual. Wow! Look at your ROIs! Pretty convincing, huh? So…shall we Really Go For It? We’ve got some even newer out-of-this-world CDOs. Special just-structured offerings for our most valued clients. We call ’em Magic Offerings. Say again? Oh, great! You won’t regret it. Home values just ain’t goin’ down. Like the sun rising each morning.

7. Manny, I just got back from California and I’ve got billions ready to bet on the Magic CDOs. So call our shill hedge fund and have them hire a small army to hurry up and comb through those crappy subprimes and assemble the absolutely worst ones, the ones sure to default, into the Magic CDOs. When they’re packaged, we’ll get those losers rated triple-A. Then we’ll bet against them while the other side of the bet gets made by the starry-eyed out there in the Golden State.

8. Hello, Acme Fund in California. Gosh, it’s awful. We’re so embarrassed. We could have sworn….

9. Hey Manny, did you read The Wall Street Journal today? The existing laws aren’t comprehensive enough to nail us. Besides, we’ve hired L.O.B. and Y. to hit Capitol Hill starting tomorrow morning. Those guys have been phenomenal up there.

David W. Maurer, RIP. Meanwhile, we’re neither resting nor in peace. But you’ve warned us. Eternal vigilance applies here. And Andy Grove: “Only the paranoid survive.” And certainly Lt. Harry Callahan: “A man needs to know his limits.”

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