Chapter 5 of David Maurer’s “The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man” (TBC) consists of a discussion of “The Mob”. This chapter describes the internal organization (such as it was) of a big-con mob in the early 1900’s. It includes some interesting information on the financial arrangements of such a mob, as well as some insights into the highly specialized nature of con men.
Con men organize themselves into teams; the core of the mob is an insideman and a roper. Usually one insideman works with many ropers; this arrangement is driven by the fact that it takes a good roper months to find a mark, but the insideman only a few days to con him. When the con is played against a big store, the insideman will arrange for the services of a number of ancillary personnel: a store manager, clerks and board-markers, shills, and tailers. Of these latter, only the manager will typically maintain a long-term relationship with the insideman.
A large con mob will therefore include:
- 1 insideman
- 40 to 50 ropers
- 1 manager
and will add, when running a con:
- 10 to 15 shills
- 2 to 4 clerks, board-markers, etc.
- 1 to 2 tailers
additionally, the insideman will deal with:
- 1 banker
- 1 fixer
Just as a quick review of everyone’s responsibilities:
- The insideman performs the actual con, and persuades the victim to hand over his money
- The ropers find likely marks, and bring them to the insideman
- The manager co-ordinates the operation of the big store, manages the shills, and handles the money that persuades the mark that he is surrounded by heavy wagering
- Shills pretend to gain and lose large amounts of money
- Clerks pretend to operate the bookmaker’s or brokerage that the shills are supposedly dealing with
- Tailers follow the mark, and see that he does not contact the police, and (when he is carrying money) that he is not robbed before he can be swindled
- Bankers are otherwise legitimate men who know what the insideman is doing, and who agree to allow the mark to make use of their bank without alerting him that anything is suspicious
- Fixers are politically connected men who, for a fee, arrange for the local police to take little interest in the insideman’s activities
Usually, the roper takes 45% of the score, and the insideman 55%. From his end the roper must pay the 10% (gross) “put-up” fee, if the mark was referred to him by someone else. (If two ropers worked as a team, as is commonplace, they must split the 45% – or 35% – between them.) The insideman, for his part, must pay everyone else:
- 10% (gross) to the manager
- 7.5% (gross) to the banker
- 1% (gross) to each of the shills, etc.
- 50% (net) to his fixer
This means that an insideman might pay out between 30.5% and 38.5% in expenses, leaving only 24.5% to 16.5% to split with the fixer. His payoff of 8% to 12% might seem small compared to the roper’s, but he works with many of them, and might fleece as many as 50 times the number of victims per year as any one roper. It is also not to be overlooked that the insideman is often the only one who knows the exact value of a score, and one might suppose him to be less than scrupulously honest at all times.
A final note on the subject of money: Ropers must cope with rather high living expenses. In addition to the cost of maintaining a home for their family, they must support themselves in their continual travels and apparently prosperous lifestyle. A roper usually seeks his marks out on the road, and he almost always presents himself as a prosperous and important man, the better to gain the mark’s confidence and put his mind at ease. The cost of this activity, coupled with the relatively low number of marks found by even a good roper (2-4 per year) means that a roper’s 45% dissipates rather quickly.
Maurer reports a striking fact: Very few con men can work as either ropers or insidemen. Good insidemen are rarer, but often even the best of them “could not steer a hungry man into a restaurant”. This seems to me to be a significant detail: These men have dedicated their professional lives to lying, cheating, and swindling and still must specialize due to the limits of their abilities. This suggests that one should not expect too much when one seeks to persuade or influence others; you can, indeed, persuade some people of some things, but not anyone of anything, no matter your skills or the circumstances.
Advice from Two Ropers
Maurer reports that he once asked two ropers what qualified a man for their line of work. He says that their answers were “not entirely serious” but that they “contain[ed] a measure of truth beneath a broad burlesque of the platitudinous style of Dale Carnegie”.
One spoke of the importance of will-power and discipline to a grifter who wishes to progress to larger and more profitable rackets. Of those who would disagree with him, he said:
Of course, there are grifters who will object to any talk of training the will. They will talk wisely of the need for self-expression and the inhibiting effects of any kind of discipline. But you will find that grifters who do this do so because of their inordinate desire for self-indulgence.
The other offered somewhat more practical advice:
- “Never permit yourself to be bored. … [S]ome heel-grifters think it is smartly sophisticated to appear languid or condescendingly wise. That is really stupid.”
- “Never ask a mark embarrassing questions.”
- “Never advance political views unless the fink asks you to do so.”
- “It is good to ‘yes’ him.”
- “Never give detailed accounts of a trip, accident, or personal ailment unless your mark evinces an avid interest in all the details.”
- “Never interrupt a fink while he is talking. Be a good listener and he will immediately conclude that you are a young man of some note.”
More generally, Maurer observes that a good roper (or insideman, for that matter) must have “grift sense”: A mixture of instinct and judgement that, among other things, tells the roper how best to present himself to a particular mark in order to gain his trust.
Mobs are organized along the cellular or compartmentalized lines one might expect of any modern secretive organization. Typically only the insideman knows how to contact any of the other members of his mob, and is also responsible for such bookkeeping as may be required.
Members of the mob may arrange to contact a friend or family member at regular intervals. A missed call means that the con man has likely been arrested, and needs assistance. Such an arrangement renders unnecessary an explicit call for help from the con man, which might enable the police to more easily unravel his connections and associations.
When not working, con men tend to congregate in establishments (be they “cigar stores, hotels, restaurants, bar rooms, or brothels”) which cater to their kind, and which exclude the general public. Every town with any number of con men in it has such establishments, and they allow visiting con men to keep in touch with one another in a general way. It is from such hangouts that insidemen will recruit the shills needed for a play against the big store.
If a con man is arrested, his bail money will usually be raised by his insideman; the insideman will go to the places where con men congregate, and pass around a sheet of paper asking for donations. (The paper will be given to the arrested man along with the money, and he will understandably make every effort to repay his debts as quickly as possible.)
What is interesting about this arrangement is the following remark from Maurer:
Every con man who is thus approached, and has or can get money, is honor bound to subscribe … [I]f [the arrested man’s] name is good, even his personal enemies feel obliged to contribute …