Here are ten questions to get your book group started on The Mark Inside. I’d love to hear what you’ve got planned or what you end up discussing. The book would pair beautifully with a showing of “The Sting.” What else?
Who can be conned? In the first chapter, Reading lays out the nine stages of the con with its three psychological moments. Does this script work on anyone? Can you be conned? If you were going to write a script to entrap yourself, what vulnerability that you would exploit?
What links the deceptions of Tom Bell, William Duer, and Stephen Burroughs? How do they foreshadow the distilled trickery of the Confidence Man in 1849, and the green goods salesmen, wiretappers, bucket shop proprietors, and big con men of the late 19th and early 20th century?
Reading suggests that not only is the con man a kind of outlaw hero of American mythology, but that the real swindlers who populated history were innovators who helped push the nation forward in its economic development, especially when the elites were reluctant to open markets to the middle and working classes. Counterfeit money helped grease transactions when currency was scarce, and bucket shops helped farmers and clerks push their way into the stock exchanges. What does it mean to consider the con man as a crucial actor in American history? Does a history of economic development through the lens of swindlers change your perception of the national story?
Can you relate to Norfleet’s motivation for going after his swindlers? Is his account of his decision sufficient? Are there other moments in his story when you found yourself speculating about what the true story might have been?
Reading puts Norfleet’s authority into question (p. 63-65), and she also makes parallels between the con man’s spiel and all storytelling (p. 243). Does this place her own authority into question? Why or why not? Keep in mind her point that swindles often start with the promise of inside information. Does this pertain even to inside information on the inner workings of the con?
Reading emphasizes that the big con was a national phenomenon, as distinct from other criminal subcultures that are rooted in ethnic ties and specific location (p. 104). Yet she also spends a long time elaborating the local histories of the Texas panhandle and Denver. Why? Is the con a particularly American phenomenon?
What do you think—did Big Joe Furey die in prison?
The growth of the big con paralleled the growth of speculation as a legitimate way to invest money, and Reading argues that for much of the 19th century, the two were often too intertwined to tell apart (p. 144-150). How is speculation distinguished from gambling and swindling in the present day? Does this history help explain the 2008 financial crisis?
Reading cites an Harvard study from 1928 which found that 97% of margin traders on Wall Street lost money, 2% broke even, and 1% made money (p. 209). Does this surprise you? How do you account for the willingness to speculate even when financial loss is so very likely? What does this mean for economic and political theories of behavior which assume that people always act in their own best interests to maximize profit?
Do you like J. Frank Norfleet? Would you have liked to spend time with him in the years after his swindling? Does he seem like an apt synecdoche for the American personality throughout the early 20th century?