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A victim turns the tables on con men

Author Amy Reading discusses her new book 'The Mark Inside,' which details the story of a Texas rancher who got his revenge on a gang of grifters.

By Randy Dotinga / March 6, 2012

The confidence game is nothing new, says writer Amy Reading. Confidence men who fool people by inspiring their trust have been around for centuries.

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Back in the glory days of the Big Con, rich people who got swindled rarely made a stink.

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They were humiliated and embarrassed. And they often worried that the law enforcement would go after them because many of the schemes were designed to rip off someone else.

But a rancher from Texas who lost a bundle in 1919 decided to tell the world about his epic hoodwinking by an expert gang of grifters. And then he did something else: He got them back in a sting that would have made Paul Newman and Robert Redford proud.

Amy Reading, a journalist based in Ithaca, N.Y., chronicles his story and more in the new book The Mark Inside: A Perfect Swindle, a Cunning Revenge, and a Small History of the Big Con.

I asked Reading about the history of the swindle in America, the inner workings of the Big Con, and the man who conned the con men.

 Q: How did the term "confidence man" – shortened to "con man" – come about in the first place?
 
A: It's an American story.

There were definitely swindlers and con men before then. But the name comes from 1849 when a man with many aliases was walking the streets of New York. He'd go up to people and ask if he knew them. He'd be so charming and gracious that they'd believe they did know him.
 
He'd engage them in conversation, and then he'd say, "Do you have enough confidence in me to lend me your watch?"

The frame of that social encounter was so strong that the mark would hand over the watch, maybe internally mystified but not wanting to call out this account as strange. Then the confidence man would saunter off with the watch.
 
The word "confidence" became an instant meme, as we'd call it now, a catchword for what had been happening for centuries.

Q: Swindles had been around for a long time?

A: You can trace it to early modern Europe. A swindler is a particular kind of thief who steals by engaging in someone's trust. It's definitely something that bedeviled the commentators and philosophers of the day who are concerned about what this means for the conditions of trust in society.
 
Q: You tell the real-life story of a rancher who was swindled in an elaborate con with multiple players and scenes, a lot like the movie "The Sting." How did cons get so complicated when they used to be just one guy asking for another's watch?
 
A: It goes from being a one-act play to a three-act play with a script and sets and actors, and a particular way of hooking the mark. It's an outgrowth of the gambling impulse and a somewhat more respectable impulse to invest via speculation, on margin.

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