Arts & Culture

Roping the con artists

Book review: Amy Reading’s The Mark Inside.

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Psst. Hey, you. Yeah, you. You’re a smart one. Am I right? You’d know a good investment? You’re not a mark or a sucker. I can just tell. Know a good thing when you see it, I bet, and, lemme tell you, I just lucked into the luckiest break ever. …

The con man’s spiel. We all recognize a come-on these days, whether it’s a panhandler who claims to need bus fare or a Nigerian gentleman who needs to transfer millions into your bank account. The plot and lingo of the con job have fully invaded our national consciousness—perhaps because America invented the modern swindle—and we love it. The Sting is typically listed among America’s top movies. Ask any grandmother: that Robert Preston is just so adorable in The Music Man.

While all that language and style have seeped into the culture, we’ve largely forgotten the details of the great scams of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when America’s frontier spirit, lots of new money, and the telegraph sparked an epidemic of con artistry. It’s estimated that losses from bunco artists and mountebanks ran about $1 billion a year between 1919 and 1929.

Even the most famous of these grifters—“Yellow Kid” Weil, “Christ Kid” Mead, “Soapy” Smith, or “Thick Lips” Mushnick—don’t ring a bell for most of us. And completely erased from the public history is the story of one mark who didn’t shamble home with only his shame and his bankruptcy. That story is now hilariously resurrected in The Mark Inside, a fabulous new book by Amy Reading ’07PhD. Trust me on this (you’re a smart one, am I right?): the details and turns of the story are so unbelievable that I wondered if Reading herself wasn’t working a con on us readers. Yet it’s all true.

J. Frank Norfleet was a classic Wild West cowboy, a Zane Grey character right down to his ten-gallon hat, boots, wool vest, mustachio, and six-shooter. Even his name is mythically American—his original Scottish surname was lost after his ancestors lived through a North Fleet shipwreck off Virginia, leaving the survivors to be known thereafter as the Nor’fleet boys.

Norfleet was a successful Texas rancher when he traveled to Dallas on business in 1919 and fell for the most notorious con of the day. It starts with Norfleet making a new friend. When the two find a lost wallet, they do the honest thing and return it. They are thrilled that the wallet’s owner is a stock wizard who wants to show his gratitude by letting them in on a sure-fire way to make some easy money. He takes them to a brokerage house to meet the manager. Soon, Frank is mortgaging just about everything he has in order to hand over $45,000 in cash. Minutes after he does, the five players—the roper (or steerer), the inside man, and the crew posing as the brokers—are gone.

Norfleet ran all over town to find them, but when it finally became clear what had happened, he drifted back to his hotel a little after 10 a.m. and lay down to stew. Every single moment of foolishness replayed in his brain. When he finally looked at the clock, he couldn’t quite believe it was only 10:30 a.m. When he called downstairs, he realized it was actually more than 24 hours later. He was a man who no longer understood time. Just revenge.

Back in Texas, he told his wife, Eliza, that he had to go get ’em. She understood. He was a cowboy; he got things done. He stuffed his shooting iron in his pants, and on the barest of leads—Norfleet had glimpsed a name in one con man’s little address book, and he knew somebody by that name in Corpus Christi—he left town. As he was leaving, Eliza altered his plan with a single utterance: “Frank, bring them in alive. Any fool can kill a man.”

So Norfleet set out to capture the five men who fleeced him. I won’t tell you how it ends, but this being a story of American frontier justice, I don’t believe I have to.

And that’s just what might be called the “movie-option” part of the book. Besides being a yarn-spinner, Reading is a historian. Woven in and out of Norfleet’s epic journey—which lasts four years, involves a suitcase full of disguises, and takes him from armed standoffs in Florida to a surreal and suspenseful climax in Denver—is a short history of the con that is just as amazing as Norfleet’s odyssey.

In fact, financially speaking, “America was, from its inception, a confidence trick,” Reading writes. All good cons are built on trust, and so was the economy of this new nation. But she argues that the dark side of exploiting that trust was as productive as the virtuous one: “The new nation would never have prospered without imposture, speculation, and counterfeiting.” Even as individuals, Americans came to be known as people who reinvent themselves, make up new names, cultivate new personas, and improvise their way into a new life and a living. This contradictory sense of fraudulence beats in the heart of every honest American.

Reading perfectly captures a flickering truth with both her page-turner of a yarn and her fact-filled argument—that the America worth writing about is found in that Schrödingerian space, an oxymoronic place of dubious credulity where what’s possible is not only the ransacking con as practiced by, say, “Big Bertha” Heyman or “Canada Bill” Jones, but also the loopy redress and hilarious comeuppance carried out by Frank Norfleet.

The Mark Inside goes right to this eternal contradiction: we’re a people who honor hard work and the meritocratic bootstrapping of, say, a Barack Obama, but who also want in on the easy money from the leveraged-buyout speculations of, say, a Mitt Romney.

In every era, we flatter ourselves that we’ve progressed—moved on from the simple colonists who were bamboozled by the flimflammers. But walk through any airport waiting area these days and you’ll find a covey of small-time businessmen gathered around a CNBC Mad Money report, listening to one of Jim Cramer’s come-ons—You’re a smart one. Am I right? You’d know a good investment?—and you wonder if the only difference between then and now is that today’s ropers don’t have really cool nicknames.


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