Take a moment to look around and try to spot the rube in the room. If you find him, congrats, that’s free lunch. If not, it looks like you’re buying. The Mark Inside by Amy Reading takes us inside the world of grifting and one of the slickest scams in history outside of Wall Street.
Excerpted from The Mark Inside by Amy Reading. Copyright © 2012 by Amy Reading. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Since he was a teenager, he’d herded sheep and hogs, driven cattle across the open range, and fenced thousands of acres of pastureland. He’d made foreman on the Spade Ranch in Hale County at a young age and saved his modest wages until, when he was forty-nine, he was finally able to afford his own land. He purchased about 8,000 acres near the Spade Ranch and continued to raise livestock in small numbers, investing the profits in adjacent land until his ranch had grown to 20,000 acres.
On this November day in 1919, he was in Dallas for his biggest deal yet: he planned to sell 2,050 acres of improved land and use the proceeds to buy a choice 10,000-acre parcel from the nearby ranch of Captain Dick Slaughter, the heir of a renowned cattle baron.
Norfleet was as straight as they come. He had banned gambling from the Spade Ranch. “I don’t drink, chew tobacco, smoke, cuss, or tell lies,” he would say, his light blue eyes glinting. “The last is the most important. I never tell a damn lie.” His fierce work ethic and his ability to turn manual labour into a small fortune rightly gave him confidence-hard-earned, time-tested confidence in his own discernment-which in turn allowed him to bestow his trust on others. He prized honesty and square dealing above all else. His word was his bond, and he planned to seal the Slaughter deal with a handshake, because a man wore his integrity as visibly as he wore his mustache.
But to anyone watching, J. Frank Norfleet looked exactly like a sucker. At five feet five in his cowboy boots, he towered above exactly no one, and with his legs bowed from years in the saddle and his suit pants shoved into his boots, he was conspicuous as someone out of his league in the big city. And there were in fact two people watching him make his entrance, two members of the cast who were already at their stations, in costume and with their lines at the ready. Reno Hamlin sat in the hotel lobby, while one of his colleagues hovered just outside the building, peering inside for Hamlin’s signal. Hamlin had dressed to match Norfleet, and with his square head, thick neck, and stocky build he made a convincing Texas countryman.
Hamlin could see from yards away the palpable relief in the cowboy’s eyes when he spotted one of his own kind among the urbanites, and the two men soon fell to talking. Hamlin introduced himself as Miller, a mule buyer from Hill County, Texas. He had also just arrived in Dallas, but his mind was on where he’d come from. “I saw the best carload of mules unloaded at Dublin the other day I ever saw in this country,” he told Norfleet. “I want to buy a carload just like them.” Norfleet’s eyes lit up. Sure enough, Hamlin had unknowingly been admiring Norfleet’s mules, and within minutes they had given each other their word that Hamlin would buy a shipment of them, as well as two freight cars of kafir corn and maize.
After the initial onrush of good feeling, Norfleet explained to his new friend that he couldn’t deliver his goods right away because he was stuck in the city, searching for a buyer for his farm and waiting for Captain Slaughter to return to Dallas so they could close the land deal. “Norfleet, I may help you out,” said Hamlin. He had a friend who was a purchasing agent with the Green Immigration Land Company in Minneapolis-a businessman scouting land in Texas. Perhaps he might be interested in Norfleet’s land? Hamlin gave the secret signal to his confederate out on the sidewalk.
Into the hotel lobby strode W. B. Spencer, and amid exclamations of surprise over the coincidence Hamlin introduced him to Norfleet as Charles Harris. Spencer’s costume contrasted starkly with Hamlin’s. He was a young man with finely etched features, his curly hair swept back off his brow as if he were facing the wind of the future. He wore a crisp suit, the embodiment of the successful businessman. Hamlin began excitedly talking up Norfleet’s farm, its smooth, level land, the particulars of its cultivation, the schoolhouse and church on its grounds. Spencer smiled noncommittally at Hamlin’s overeager monologue. He patiently explained that he was currently negotiating land in Williamson County and wasn’t free to embark on a new deal. He wouldn’t want Norfleet to get his hopes up.
But when the three men met the next day, Spencer was far more effusive. He told Norfleet that the owners of the Williamson County land had decided not to sell because of the recent oil boom and, though he had never purchased land as far west as Hale County, he was now rather desperate and therefore willing to consider Norfleet’s property. He took down the description from Norfleet and telegrammed it to his superiors. In the meantime, he invited Norfleet to check out of the St. George and share his double room at the Jefferson Hotel. He tumbled over himself with eagerness in his invitation, explaining that he wanted to show Norfleet his credentials, which were back at the room, and anyway he could save Norfleet a bundle in hotel bills. Norfleet accepted, charmed by the man’s youthful friendliness. Spencer’s boss, Garrett Thompson, soon telegrammed to say he was passing through Dallas and would love the opportunity to meet Norfleet. Would Norfleet agree to meet him at the Adolphus Hotel the next day?
Courted by three successful businessmen, wined and dined at the city’s best hotels, his down payment on the Slaughter land growing plumper by the hour, Norfleet must have felt as if something great were just beginning. In fact, something great was already well under way. Just twenty-four hours had elapsed and already he was deep into the big con.
When Norfleet stepped into the St. George Hotel, he entered a tightly scripted drama with nine acts, 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. The play hinges on three psychological moments, when the mark must make a decision that will propel him further inside. Any objections he might muster have already been taken into account and rejoinders to them devised. Norfleet’s role called for him to play himself, a part at which he excelled, but in a context designed so that his own earnest words would betray him. Confidence men took inordinate pride in the structured nature of their profession. Instead of the violence and mayhem of other kinds of theft, they relied solely on a perfectly constructed piece of theatre.
Con artistry may seem, at times, like the art of controlling a mark’s mind, but Norfleet made the decisions he did only because his swindlers so completely engineered his interpretation of events. He perceived his initial encounters with the two men as organic happenstances. In fact the swindlers had framed his experiences so that even the backdrop of urban life-the hotel lobbies, the streets, the office buildings-became props in their drama, the strangers around them became unwitting extras. The big con works because it makes use of a time-honored technique from stage magic, the one- ahead, in which the trick begins before the performer formally introduces it to the audience; it is the most elaborate form of misdirection because it leads the mark to misperceive the nature of the entire situation. In the face of the one-ahead, Norfleet’s defenselessness was absolute-who, in his boots, would possibly guess that such an elaborate performance has been devised just for him?
The first of the nine acts began before Norfleet even walked into the St. George, when Reno Hamlin had put the mark up for fleecing. Hamlin had trawled the lines at the train station and the hotels, eavesdropping on conversations and peering over counters at registers and receipts, until he had identified someone promising. Norfleet was no redneck blusterer, no wide-eyed naïf, no freewheeling gambler, no shyster on the make. What about him interested Hamlin? Hamlin had sifted the crowd with a particular set of criteria. His next mark would have to be, first and foremost, an out-of-towner so that he wouldn’t be able to turn to his local 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, travelling alone in a large city for business purposes. It goes without saying that his mark would be male, for women rarely had the fortune, autonomy, and wherewithal to make investment decisions with the decisiveness that the con required. He would be a prosperous, substantial citizen in his community. More than that, he would be a self-made man, accustomed to both hard work and seizing the main chance. He must be able to raise $US20,000, $US30,000, $US40,000, even $US50,000 in a day or two, but he must not have so much money that he would refer a deal to his bankers and accountants. He wouldn’t be overly familiar with the financial industry. Norfleet fit that role in almost every particular.
The second act was to play the con for him: gain his confidence and bait him with thoughts of lucrative business deals. Hamlin and Spencer, the steerers, calibrated their offers to seem eminently plausible, not wanting to arouse Norfleet’s suspicion. By the second day, they had succeeded in imaginatively increasing his wealth. At first glance, their two-step approach-first Hamlin’s mules and then Spencer’s land-might seem unnecessarily elaborate. Why not hook Norfleet simply by providing him with what he sought in Dallas, a buyer for his land? Norfleet and Hamlin would never again discuss that carload of mules. In fact, Hamlin exited the stage of Norfleet’s drama after the second day, his work complete. He had effectively recast the frame of meaning around Norfleet’s activities in Dallas, and the nested business deals had drawn Norfleet deep into the heart of the con.
Norfleet was now firmly under Spencer’s sway. In the third act, roping the mark, the steerer transfers the mark’s loyalties to the insideman, also called the spieler. It was time for the wallet drop. The next day, Spencer and Norfleet went to the Adolphus Hotel, and Spencer asked Norfleet to wait in the lobby while he inquired at the front desk after his boss at Green Immigration Land, Garrett Thompson. Spencer let him sit for a few minutes, contemplating the Flemish tapestries, the Circassian walnut, and the gold leaf of Dallas’s finest hotel. Then he stepped up behind him to say that Thompson hadn’t yet checked in. One of his hands invisibly slipped into the seat cushion.
Just then, Norfleet felt something pressing into his thigh from the back of the chair. He reached down and discovered a bulging billfold. Flipping through it to uncover its owner’s identity, he found $US240 in cash, a Masonic card, a copy of a bond payable to McLean & Company for $US100,000, a cipher code card, a United Brokers’ member card, and various other documents, all made out to J. B. Stetson. “What shall we do with it?” Spencer prompted. Norfleet gave the correct answer: they should immediately return the wallet to its rightful owner. At the front desk, they learned that Stetson was staying at the hotel, then they went upstairs and knocked on his door.
The door opened a crack. Norfleet asked if he was speaking to Mr. Stetson. The face behind the door said that was he. Norfleet asked if he had lost anything. The man answered no and slammed the door in Norfleet’s face.
Norfleet had just met Big Joe Furey, whom the newspapers called “the cleverest bunco man in the country.”
The two men gave each other baffled looks, but they could do nothing more than return to the elevator. Seconds later, the hotel room door opened again, and Furey came bursting through, shouting, “Gentlemen! Gentlemen! I have just discovered that I have lost a very, very valuable pocketbook.” He ushered the two men into his room and stood before them, a tall man with intense greenish blue eyes. One of the many reasons that Joe Furey was so good at his job was his imposing presence, but he was nonplussed to find that he did not have the desired effect upon Norfleet, who made Furey describe the wallet in painstaking detail before he would hand it over. Furey melted into gratitude and pressed $US100 on both men, telling them it would be a favour for him if they accepted. Spencer pocketed his reward, then watched with bemusement as Norfleet huffily waved his money away. Clearly the cowboy did not think of himself as a man on the lookout for easy money.
It was Furey’s job to introduce act four, in which he would tell the mark the tale of how he could earn a fabulous sum. Furey began by apologizing for his initial rudeness. “I thought you were newspaper reporters,” he confided. Lately he’d been hounded by journalists wanting interviews, and the more he refused, the harder they tried to obtain an audience. But the very last thing he could afford was publicity. Spencer and Norfleet leaned in. Furey answered their questioning gazes by reaching into his wallet and pulling out a letter from his employer, United Brokers, which warned him against talking with reporters. He explained that his company preferred to keep out of the limelight because it did not serve the average investor. It operated on behalf of a group of Wall Street firms that had formed a clandestine syndicate to control the market. His job was to play the stock exchange according to encrypted telegrams sent to him by his boss.
“Gentlemen, without this wallet I would be helpless to do my company’s business today.” He pointed to his desk. “Here are six messages and without my code card in that book I could not do my company’s business.” He explained that he was due on the exchange in a few minutes, and with that he excused himself to decipher his instructions. He furrowed his brow, he flushed red, he perspired. He was the very picture of an important man under a great mental strain. At last he finished, and handing a sheaf of newspaper articles and documents to the two men to keep them busy, he dashed out of the hotel room.
Spencer and Norfleet were as mystified as if Furey had himself spoken in cipher. In the opulent suite, surrounded by two trunks overflowing with the finest men’s attire that the cowpuncher had ever seen, Norfleet read through the businessman’s papers just as fast as Spencer fed them to him. The documents were so clouded with opaque references they did little to enlighten him. He gathered, though, that United Brokers wanted to consolidate financial power in New York and extinguish the smaller regional exchanges. They controlled large enough blocks of stock that they could swing the entire market with their buy and sell orders, and since Furey always knew their manipulations in advance, he could place opportunistic orders to extract money from the regional brokerage houses. Spencer amplified the suggestive power of Furey’s documents by murmuring at repeated intervals, “We are very fortunate in making the acquaintance of such a big man.”
The Mark Inside: A Perfect Swindle, a Cunning Revenge, and a Small History of the Big Con by Amy Reading is available from Amazon
Image: O’Brother Where Art Thou