In 1919, Texas rancher J. Frank Norfleet lost everything he had in a stock market swindle. He did what many other marks did—he went home, borrowed more money from his family, and returned for another round of swindling.

Only after he lost that second fortune did he reclaim control of his story. Instead of crawling back home in shame, he vowed to hunt down the five men who had conned him. Armed with a revolver and a suitcase full of disguises, Norfleet crisscrossed the country from Texas to Florida to California to Colorado, posing as a country hick and allowing himself to be ensnared by confidence men again and again to gather evidence on his enemies. Within four years, Frank Norfleet had become nationally famous for his quest to out-con the con men.

Through Norfleet’s ingenious reverse-swindle, Amy Reading reveals the mechanics behind the scenes of the big con—a piece of performance art targeted to the most vulnerable points of human nature. Reading shows how the big con has been woven throughout U.S. history. From the colonies to the railroads and the Chicago Board of Trade, America has always been a speculative enterprise, and bunco men and bankers alike have always understood that the common man was perfectly willing to engage in minor fraud to get a piece of the expanding stock market—a trait that made him infinitely gullible.

Amy Reading’s fascinating account of con artistry in America and Frank Norfleet’s wild caper invites you into the crooked history of a nation on the hustle, constantly feeding the hunger and the hope of the mark inside.

9 Stages of the Big Con

Walk through the swindling script as spelled out by the first scholar of the Big Con, David Maurer

Reading Group Guide

Ten questions to start off your book group’s discussion

Historical Documents

It isn’t all myth and legend. See what happens when confidence artists make it into newspapers, court documents, and other primary sources

Pulling a Norfleet

To coin a phrase, “pulling a Norfleet” means going deeper into a story to double-check and outsmart a deceiver.
Help unravel these potential cons from Norfleet’s memoir

Links to the Con

Read my picks for the
best writing on the
web about swindling,
old and new

Book Excerpt

Read Chapter
One: Confidence


View select photos
from the book

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