The 9 Stages of the Big Con
The Big Con is a tightly scripted drama with nine acts,¹ each with its own distinct function in conveying the mark toward the climax when his money will be whisked away. Even the mark has his lines, and just because he doesn’t know them does not mean he won’t say them at exactly the right moment. He will, because the dialogue is designed so that his responses are the most predictable things he would say in such a situation.
David Maurer, an academic linguist of the mid-twentieth century, was enthralled with criminal argot of every kind. He carried out extensive fieldwork among swindlers and grifters, and in deciphering their language, he also built up a sociology of their underworld. What follows are Maurer’s nine categories,² from his book, The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man (reissued by Anchor Books in 1999 with an introduction by Luc Sante), fleshed out with my descriptions.
the mark up
Con men trawled through train passenger lists and hotel registers for marks. Often they paid railroad agents for tips. They looked for a very particular kind of victim. He (and it was always a he) would have to be an out-of-towner so that he wouldn’t be able to turn to his banker for advice during the swindle, or encounter the con men after his money vanished. He would be from a second- or third-tier American city, traveling alone in a large city for business purposes. He would be a prosperous, substantial citizen in his community. He would be a self-made man, accustomed to hard work and seizing the main chance. He would be able to raise as much as $50,000 in a day or two, but he must not be so wealthy that he would refer a deal to his bankers or accountants. He wouldn’t be overly familiar with the financial industry. And he would be smart, so that he could instantly grasp the deal laid out before him.
Playing the con for him
The steerer or roper who first approached the mark wouldn’t immediately proposition him with the scheme at the heart of the con. Instead, he would befriend him and gain his trust by a careful mix of business and pleasure. The roper would offer to take him around town and show him the sights, and he might also strike up a small business deal, which might then lead to another. These nested deals would never be consummated, but would serve to reframe the mark’s stay in the city, to carry him away from the ordinary world.
When the roper ascertained that the mark was ready, he contrived to steer him toward the insideman, who would take over control of the script. Sometimes this introduction would appear serendipitous, as with the wallet drop, also called the poke or finding the leather. The mark would discover a wallet filled with documents testifying to the owner’s success at gambling or stock-market investments, and the mark would be induced to return the wallet and make the owner’s acquaintance. Just as often, the roper would claim to know the insideman by reputation and would tell the mark fabulous tales of his money-making abilities, and then would be stunned when the very man happened to walk past them.
Telling him the tale
After initially rebuffing the roper’s and the mark’s overtures of friendship, the insideman would eventually let the mark into his inner circle, and would reveal the secrets of his seemingly-magical success. Accounts differ on how overtly the swindler would reference the dishonesty at the heart of the scheme. Sometimes the conversation would proceed with a wink and a nod; other times, the con man would stop and ask the mark if he were willing to engage in underhanded activity. It is a truism of the swindling fraternity that no mark ever said no at this stage.
Before asking anything from the mark, the insideman man would provide tangible proof that his secret worked. He would make a small amount of money for the mark, usually without requiring the mark to risk his own money, and he would offer to let the mark keep the profits. Presumably, the mark could walk away at this moment having actually made money from a swindler. But of course none did. In the very next breath, the insideman would offer to reinvest the profit in the scheme, drawing the mark deep inside.
Giving him the
The moment in which the mark put in his own money typically came very late in the script, and it would be preceded by a conversation in which the con men discreetly probed his financial resources and ascertained exactly how much they could take him for. The ropers and steerers would often volunteer some of their own money as a way to push the mark toward the amount they had in mind for his contribution.
Putting him on the send
The most delicate part of the script would occur when the swindlers would send the mark home for his money. For a day or two, he would be out of their sights (though sometimes one of them would find a business excuse for accompanying him). He would have to procure the cash without arousing the suspicions of his wife or banker. A small percentage of marks never returned to the scheme after this juncture. A larger percentage of marks returned even though their loved ones tried to talk them out of it.
This act is the heart of the con itself, the moment when the con men played the mark against the big store, prompting him to put his money into the scheme, with giant profits just on the horizon. Quite often the script called for the mark to succeed in the deal and to actually hold in his arms a big stack of cash—or a big stack of newspaper sandwiched between a few bills.
The final act, also called cooling out the mark, is the endgame, designed so that the mark willingly returns to his regular life without complaint. It is a way for him to save face, to accept the ending and exit the frame of the con. The act might be violent, as when the swindlers fake a bloody shoot-out and convince the mark to flee before the police arrive. More commonly, though, this stage is peaceful, bureaucratic, and frustratingly elongated so that the mark never quite knows when the con has ended. Sometimes the mark is so thoroughly cooled out that he never realizes that he has been conned; he thinks he has simply been unlucky, and returns to put up more money. Swindlers call these men addicts.
¹ Other dramaturges of the underworld counted the acts differently. The same con has been described in six or seven stages by sociologists who worked with con men in the 1920s and 1930s.
² Actually, Maurer listed ten categories, but the last one properly lies outside the frame or offstage. He called it putting in the fix, and it meant making regular payments to everyone from judges down to beat cops, to ensure that they would act in the interests of the swindling fraternity.