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The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man

3.84  ·  Rating details ·  1,012 ratings  ·  108 reviews
The classic 1940 study of con men and con games that Luc Sante in Salon called “a bonanza of wild but credible stories, told concisely with deadpan humor, as sly and rich in atmosphere as anything this side of Mark Twain.”

“Of all the grifters, the confidence man is the aristocrat,” wrote David Maurer, a proposition he definitely proved in The Big Con, one of the most colo
Paperback, 315 pages
Published July 20th 1999 by Anchor (first published 1940)
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Orinoco Womble (tidy bag and all) There's a lot of old fashioned language and criminal's slang that you probably won't understand. Also, it describes the USA in the 1920s and 1930s, a …moreThere's a lot of old fashioned language and criminal's slang that you probably won't understand. Also, it describes the USA in the 1920s and 1930s, a time long past, so a lot of the concepts will be unclear to you.(less)

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K.J. Charles
Very interesting overview of con-men in the US. It was used as the basis for The Sting, which is pretty obvious (as in, if you haven't seen The Sting for some reason, watch it first before reading this or it will give away all the twists.)

Written in 1940 and it shows in the casual asides re race and gender, so heads up.

Oddly amoral too. The author clearly admires the con-men and takes the view that you can't con an honest man, therefore all the conned people must be dishonest, therefore it's b
Mar 23, 2012 rated it really liked it
A fascinating linguistic and anthropological study of a bygone criminal era... details an amazing variety of crooks and parasites evolved to fit any niche they could find. The catalog of these specialties is oddly romantic; Pullman train-car bunko specialists, trick Faro dealers, and "golden wire" or "big store" experts have all gone the way of hurdy-gurdy repairmen and buggy-whip manufacturers, into the trash bin of history. Their descendants are still out there, spamming Nigerian scam e-mails ...more
Eric Stockwell
Jan 31, 2017 rated it really liked it
This was an interesting look into the big con games of the early 20th century, when the modern equivalent of millions or hundreds of thousands of dollars could vanish into thin air. Several aspects of the big-con lifestyle are covered, including the various flavors of scams, the opinions and philosophies espoused by con men, their vices, dirty political aspects, and the elaborate vocabulary ("argot") of the in-crowd. Since the book was published in 1940, the "big con" has obviously evolved in th ...more
May 27, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Three hundred pages of this, a fine book to draw out over the summer:

"O.K.," says John. "We'll give him the hides. What kind of an egg is he?"
"Well, he's no lop-eared mark," says Jimmy. "He knows what it is all about. And he may be hard to handle. He is a hefty baby with plenty of moxie. I'd guess he'l be hard to cool out."
"If he gets fractious, he'll get the cackle-bladder. That cools out those tough babies. Do you want to find the poke for him?"
"We might as well. He's right there in the hotel
Philip Hollenback
Oct 28, 2010 rated it it was ok
Shelves: nonfiction, history
This book started out with a lot of very interesting stories and descriptions of elaborate con games. However, it kind of went nowhere after that. It felt like the author didn't actually have a cohesive story to tell.

So, I recommend you read maybe the first third of this book and ignore the rest.
Sally Britton
Nov 24, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Perfect research on the subject of con artists.
Jon Frankel
Apr 03, 2015 rated it it was amazing
David W. Maurer was a linguist, and language, professional argot, is his entree to the world of conmen, but don't let that fool you. He loves his subjects. This kind of book has a long history. Robert Greene started it all with his Coney Catching pamphlets, about con artists in Elizabethan London. Greene was a drunk, a playwright and a gambler. He knew his business too, and it lay in the fertile fields of slang. Maurer anatomizes the con games, the conmen and their argot. The book was first publ ...more
Eric Smith
Jul 22, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
This is one of my favorite books and I recommend it to everyone, especially if you have an interest in acting, sales, marketing, business development, confidence games, or organized crime. The book was written by a linguist and he has a deep interest in the lingo used by criminals, in this case con-men, and he uses that knowledge when writing the book. The style of his writing is clipped and hip in a kind of Humphrey Bogart kind of way, which perfectly suits the subject matter: the men who ran t ...more
Michael Burnam-Fink
Apr 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, non-fiction, 2018
A classic of popular sociology and underworld linguistics, Maurer takes us inside the world of the big con. In its heydey in the 1920s, mobs of organized grifters would set up elaborate fake betting shops, poker dens, and stock exchanges, where traveling marks identified by "ropers" would be sent in to turn over the life savings to the machinations of the "insideman", the chief grifter of a city. Cons works on any man with larceny in his heart, a desire to win some money on a sure thing.

By train
Orinoco Womble (tidy bag and all)
If I come back to this book, the rating and review may change, but for now I'm done. I enjoyed the first half, and now The Sting makes a lot more sense than it did when I saw it in my teens. Henry Gondorff was a real person! Who knew? I certainly didn't. I laughed the other day when I saw a sidebar ad just like the ones he mentions that con men put in the newspapers back in the 1920s, offering incredibly good "investments" (ie Ponzi schemes).

Unfortunately, about half way through the book bogged
DeAnna Knippling
Apr 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction

Written in 1940, it's got The Sting all over it.
Sarah D Bunting
Jun 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
Full review at!
Jul 29, 2020 rated it it was amazing
While reading the book I rewatched The Sting as well as its wiki, and realized that most of what was depicted there was heavily inspired on Maurer's book. This made The Big Con and skills of the con men even more fascinating. Highly recommended. ...more
Ryan Holiday
Jun 22, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Stories about con men and criminals are good to use as anecdotes and metaphors. The Big Con does this well and if that was all it did it would be worth having. What I didn't realize is that Maurer's book is the definitive academic piece on early 20th-century crime. As in, he also wrote an entire book on the linguistics of the underworld (which is interesting to think about considering how commonly we use their phrases - grift, rag, con, the fix, blowing him off) and wrote the Britannica article ...more
I'd actually give this book three and a half stars. David Maurer was a linguistics professor in Kentucky whose study of the lingo of con men led him to learn more about the con man lifestyle. At its best, this book describes some of the classic cons of its time (the book was first published in 1940) and I now want to rewatch some David Mamet movies to see how that correlate to the text.

While Maurer was an academic, he is clearly having fun writing about grifters and ropers and insidemen and so f
Robert Starr
This book could have benefited from a good editor. The cons described are interesting, though there's a similarity to many of them and we never see how they work with an appropriate depth. Though the author, David Maurer, clearly talked to some successful con men, and manages to use a bit of their terminology, I do think that having things in their own words may have worked better.

This is a tough book to write, I imagine, owing to the amount of improvisation required to perform these acts of dec
May 22, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This study of cons and con men of the early 20th century is a must-read for the lingo and monickers alone. I also enjoyed the detailed breakdowns of some of the cons. Never underestimate the power of greed to cloud men's minds. As Maurer says, "a confidence man only prospers because of the fundamental dishonesty of his victims." Variations of some of these scams are going on to this very day and idiots are still falling for them. ...more
Apr 17, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I enjoyed this tremendously, particularly how clear it becomes that the smarter a mark is, the more of a sucker he is. The 'big con' is a a play in which the main character has no idea that he's in a play, and long after realizes that he was the audience. great website on the book:
Max Nova
May 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: cons, life-of-crime, crime
There is a certain romance about master confidence men. The risk, the cleverness, and the nervous tension all combine to make the expert grifter the beloved subject of some of our culture's most treasured films and novels.

In "The Big Con", University of Louisville professor David Maurer explores the world of the confidence man in their golden age - roughly 1914-1923. Drawing details from his personal interviews with hundreds of practicing grifters, Maurer schools us in the art of the con.

As a li
Jun 11, 2017 rated it really liked it
The Big Con by David W. Maurer was incredible. It's a long read, and a rather slow one, mainly due to unfamiliar terminology, but once you get into the flow of it, it picks up. It's a history of confidence games and con men, starting with the earliest cons and going through the 1940s, when it was originally written. This is from the second printing in the 1960s, so it's got a whole additional section with that perspective as well. It was fascinating, not just because of how easy it was to run th ...more
Apr 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
Fascinating history of con-men up to 1940, when the book was published. In the end most cons consist of convincing an "honest" man that he can make easy money dishonestly by putting up funds, and cheating him out of the funds he puts up. Famously inspired the movie The Sting, and if you've seen that, you'll recognize most of the big cons.

The names of the con men are wonderful. The High Ass Kid. Yellow Kid Weil. The Narrow Gage Kid. As is all their argot. There's an extensive glossary near the en
Larry West
Apr 22, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It's a bit dated - occasional 100-year-old cultural references, a little casual racism - and a few of the stories drag a bit, or I stumble over the ancient slang.

(There's a passable glossary, but of course only for terms the author thought a 1940 audience might not know.)

But overall, if you want a glimpse into the lives that grifters lived and the cons they ran, and the way they actually talked, this is an interesting book.

You can tell from the intro by Luc Sante and the first chapter whether th
Mary Pat
Fun for the lingo and tricks

Covering the con games and lingo of con men, primarily in the U.S. from 1900 to 1940, one gets an idea of the old time scams. That specific world seems to have been killed by the move of transport to plane & car, not to mention federal prosecution, and now it would be hard to pick up a mark when they're always looking at their phone. The games get to be a bit repetitive after a time, and one gets the feeling of laundry lists, past a certain point. Would be good for th
Rex Hurst
Feb 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing
First published in 1940, this is the inside story of the confidence trickster. The author, a professor of linguistics, won the trust of hundreds of swindlers. They let him in on their language and methods, allowing him to write this in-depth study. This book originally started as a study of the swindler's lingo, but the author found that, unlike other culture's criminal class, the American jargon was all technical and thus a deeper study of their life was required. A bit dated as the modern day ...more
David Mcangus
Nov 24, 2020 rated it liked it
Interesting historical document written in 39 covering late 19th/ early 20th century con games and the people who play and get played by them.

I'd have prefered more of a focus on people and real stories rather than technical explanation of the games themselves but I suspect this was done on purpose. The psychology of marks and manipulators is touched on in pasing, but to me this would have been the information of greater use for longevity. For the games always change but people stay the same.
Todd Bradley
Jul 28, 2017 rated it liked it
This is the book that inspired and informed much of the script of the film "The Sting." After reading it, I know a lot more about the state of the art of confidence games from 80 years ago. The book is great at capturing a moment in time, and I think I liked it as much for how dated it feels as for how much I learned from it. It's a bit cumbersome, and probably twice as long as what I would've liked. But I enjoyed reading about con games popular from 1900 to 1935. ...more
Sean Baity
Jun 13, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Awesome look at the language and devices used by the turn of the century con artists in America up through maybe the 1930s, 1940s.
Detailed explanations of The short and long cons, and an especially detailed look at the "wire," "payoff," and "the rag."
Read this and then watch The Sting with Robert Redford and Paul Newman!
Amazing piece of criminal sociological research.
Makes you wonder what modern con games have evolved since this era.
Thane Economou
"Of all the grifters, the confidence man is the aristocrat."

Written in 1940 by a professor of linguistics who got friendly with dozens of the top confidence men in America who told him the inside story of how the biggest con games work. This book never feels like the text book it could have been. Instead, the colorful language and characters tell us the insane but true stories of the most audacious time in American swindling.
Kaja Šmidová
May 24, 2021 rated it it was ok
Shelves: nonfiction
While binging Leverage I had the strong urge to understand all the classic cons they referenced, unfortunately this book didn't REALLY give me that. The language was very dated even though a linguist wrote the book - could've been intentional but it made me feel like I was reading a book in a foreign language. There were a lot of names of con men I couldn't place and grandiose declarations without evidence but I can't say it wasn't an interesting book, just not really a book for me. ...more
Mar 19, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
As others have said the book is definitely repetitive especially when it comes to lists of names and given that it was first published in 1940 there's a fair amount of casual racism and sexism. But it's a fascinating look at the cons of the early 20th century which eventually led to the Nigerian Prince schemes of today. ...more
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David Warren Maurer was a professor of linguistics at the University of Louisville from 1937 to 1972, and an author of numerous studies of the language of the American underworld.

Maurer received a doctorate from the Ohio State University in Comparative Literature in 1935. He spent much of his academic career studying the language of criminals, drug addicts, and other marginal subcultures. He died

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