April 16 (Bloomberg) -- In the 1900s and 1910s, hundreds of swindling teams worked the Big Con in U.S. cities.
The time was right because, by the beginning of the century, the sensational exploits of robber barons and the vast fortunes to be had from railroad, mining and other industrial enterprises had created an appetite for financial speculation that most Americans couldn’t satisfy.
The stock markets were open only to the few who could afford the high share minimum and margin requirements. This moment in history -- after gambling ceased to be widely considered immoral and before securities became a standard part of retirement funds -- left middle-class businessmen quivering for opportunity.
Enter the confidence man, who calibrated his pitch just right: He wasn’t offering something for nothing; he was looking for a wide-awake investor who knew how to read the winds.
The Big Con was a precisely constructed play in nine acts. Take the experiences of J. Frank Norfleet, a prosperous, self-made cattle rancher from the Texas Panhandle, who was visiting Dallas in November 1919 to sell land.
Norfleet’s swindling began when the members of the Furey gang “put the mark up,” or identified him as a likely victim. They looked for out-of-towners, ideally, rich ones who weren’t too familiar with the financial industry. Norfleet fit the bill.
In the ornate lobby of the St. George Hotel, with his pants tucked into his cowboy boots, Norfleet stuck out. One of the swindlers, Reno Hamlin, befriended him and expressed interest in a carload of mules Norfleet had for sale. Just then, W.B. Spencer strode into the lobby. Hamlin introduced Spencer as a buyer for the Green Immigration Land Company in Minneapolis who might be interested in Norfleet’s land.
Hamlin and Spencer, the steerers of the gang, were “playing the con” for Norfleet, a crucial step that involved fostering intimacy. This took several days, as the ropers wined and dined their mark and earned his trust. Then they “roped the mark,” or transferred his loyalties to the inside man.
Spencer and Hamlin met Norfleet in the lobby of another fine Dallas hotel, the Adolphus, where they intended to discuss their land deal. But as Norfleet sat down, he felt something pressing against his thigh. He discovered a wallet with cash, a cipher code card and other documents, all inscribed with the name J.B. Stetson. The men ascertained that Stetson was a guest of the hotel, and they knocked on his door to return the wallet.
Stetson was, in reality, Joe Furey, the gang’s ringleader. In gratitude for the return of his wallet, he pressed a $100 bill on the rancher. Norfleet refused, as they knew he would. Furey then suggested that he repay Norfleet’s kindness by investing $100 on the local stock exchange and allowing his benefactor to keep any profits.
Thus began Act 4, in which Furey “told the mark the tale.” Furey alias Stetson said his job was to play the market using information in encrypted telegrams sent to him by United Brokers, a clandestine syndicate of Wall Street firms. United Brokers controlled large enough blocks of stock that it could swing the market. Since Furey always knew its manipulations in advance, he could place opportunistic orders.
Furey dashed to the brokerage. Twenty minutes later, he was counting $800 into Norfleet’s hand. It is a truism of the Big Con that no mark has ever been able to resist “the convincer,” the material proof that the mechanism behind the con actually works. Furey then confessed that he was in debt, and asked Norfleet for help. He wasn’t permitted to place his own money on United Brokers’ stock picks, Furey explained. Would Norfleet consent to use Furey’s money but sign his own name on the stock orders, and split the profits? Furey would be happy to reinvest Norfleet’s cut.
Over the next few days, Norfleet sat in Furey’s room in the Adolphus and filled out “buy” and “sell” orders as Furey deciphered his telegrams. Furey took the orders to the exchange and returned with his arms full of cash (actually, newsprint sandwiched between real bills). Norfleet’s profits had reached $28,000, or about $350,000 in today’s currency.
Suddenly, E.J. Ward, the secretary of the exchange, burst into the room. Norfleet had been speculating on the exchange illegally, Ward said, because he wasn’t a registered member. Ward would have to seize Norfleet’s profits.
Furey volunteered a solution. If Norfleet could retroactively back his speculation with the cash deposit required of members, could he keep his winnings? Ward said he could.
Next, Furey and Spencer began “giving the mark the breakdown,” which involved gently sussing out how much money he could raise at a moment’s notice. Norfleet said he could get $20,000 from his bankers.
The swindlers then “put the mark on the send,” dispatching him to raise the cash. This was usually a fragile juncture, and so Spencer accompanied Norfleet. While Spencer ate Eliza Norfleet’s corn pone and baked ham, Norfleet visited his banker.
Then came “taking off the touch,” when the money under Norfleet’s arm vanished before he realized it was gone. It wasn’t until Furey failed to appear at the Cadillac Hotel in Dallas the next morning that Norfleet realized he had been swindled.
The last act of the Big Con called for “blowing off” or “cooling out the mark.” The swindlers designed the endgame so that the mark returned to his regular life without complaint.
This part of the con didn’t work as expected with Norfleet. He wasn’t cooled out and didn’t slink home in shame. As it turned out, he wasn’t a typical mark. At the last minute, he decided to get even with the men who swindled him. But that’s another story.
(Amy Reading is the author of “The Mark Inside: A Perfect Swindle, a Cunning Revenge and a Small History of the Big Con,” recently published in paperback by Vintage. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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