Golden Age of the Grift

From The Times Literary Supplement:

Just as one would expect a profile of a skilled illusionist to open with a colourful retelling of his most famous sleight of hand, the most natural way to begin a multi-book review about con artists would be with the tale of a particularly egregious swindle. It would start by presenting a situation exactly as the con artist would want his or her audience to view it, that is, at face value. The exotic prince who desperately needed help to secure his vast fortune. The successful doctor who held the promise of a fairy-tale relationship. The financial mastermind with a foolproof moneymaking opportunity.

That, of course, would constitute the all- important setup, a fundamental component of the con proper. Then would come the equally important reveal. The so-called prince was in fact the itinerant oddball son of Midwest factory workers. The doctor was a college drop-out with a history of domestic violence. The financial mastermind was perched atop a precarious multimillion-dollar pyramid scheme. Justice would not always feature in the coda, but various manifestations of shock, anger and suffering would be all but guaranteed.

Clearly, the con – the bunco, the gyp, the sting – lends itself to anecdote. It’s no accident that Hustlers and Con Men (1976), Jay Robert Nash’s thick compendium of 200 years’ worth of cheats and hucksters of all kinds, used that pithy narrative form as its sole vehicle. But a more fruitful jumping-off point might be to peer behind the anecdote and try to locate the source of its appeal, a kind of “Cons and Their Relation to the Unconscious” . What exactly is it that we find so compelling about con artists, even if their hustles are variations on a timeworn theme and their success depends entirely on things ending badly for someone? Maybe it’s that the tales of their exploits rarely fail to provide us with many of the classic elements of a riveting story: mystery, suspense, oversized personalities, moral (and indeed mortal) conflict, adventure, romance. The brazen flouting of rules and convention, often facilitated by spring-loaded wit and a gilded tongue, evokes a powerful mixture of admiration and resentment.

. . . .

The term “confidence man” appears to have been coined in 1849 during the trial of one William Thompson in New York. A debonair thief, Thompson had a knack for ingratiating himself with complete strangers on the street and then asking, “Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?” Many did, which cost them their expensive timepieces. The much-publicized trial and the odd crime at its heart piqued the interest of Herman Melville, who reworked it eight years later for his under-appreciated high-concept final novel, The Confidence-Man. After boarding a Mississippi steamboat on April Fool’s Day, its Mephistophelean titular character adopts a succession of guises with evocative backstories and surnames (Goodman, Truman, Noble) with the aim of getting one over on fellow passengers. Spurred by self-interest and reflective of society at large, the dupes place unquestioning trust in tokens such as attire and profession, making them as complicit in the con as the perpetrator. In The Adman’s Dilemma (reviewed in the TLS, January 25), which used literary and cultural waypoints to chart the evolution of the common snake-oil salesman into the modern man of advertising, Paul Rutherford bleakly described Melville’s novel as “a study in deception and even a self-deception so complete that there was no possibility of redemption”.

Link to the rest at The Times Literary Supplement