August 7, 2012
Most folks are honest, but there are those about whom it's said, "after you shake his hand, count your fingers." The most insidious form of robbery is not burglary or pickpocketing but causing someone to innocently hand over money to an impostor who promises a good return on investment but then takes the money and runs. Legitimate business and economic activity has to function partly on trust, shared values, good will and the confidence that honesty will prevail. "Sincerity," goes the motto, "Learn to fake that and you've got it made." In her new book "The Mark Inside", historian Amy Reading of Ithaca brings back what might be called the Golden Age of the swindle and the story of J.Frank Norfleet, a straight-arrow rancher from Texas who became the victim of con artists around 1919. Often the "mark" would be so embarassed by a swindle that he was reluctant to report it to law enforcement. In Norfleet's case, after being swindled a second time he embarked on his own four-year investigation and pursuit which, amazingly, led to the conviction of the men who had conned him. Along the way, Norfleet also helped rid Denver of racketeer Lou Blonger and his cohorts who nearly controlled the city. Norfleet became something of a national folk hero and Amy Reading's book should reestablish his reputation, though the light of history that she shines does put the episode into perspective. Norfleet seems quite capable of embellishing his own story.
"The Mark Inside: a Perfect Swindle, a Cunning Revenge and a Small History of the Big Con" can be appreciated on many levels. The story begins and ends in Texas and gives Dr. Reading's history the pacing, detail and even the action of a western adventure. The historical detail is solid and the description of how con men operated is explicit with regard to the step-by-step review of the observation, approach, dialogue and timing that made a successful con a precise collaborative work of semi-improvisational theatre. A "mark" was usually a solitary man from out of town who would appreciate a stranger wishing to befriend him and draw him into what sounded like a lucrative deal. Even a non-gambler like Frank Norfleet might be willing to take a chance on some easy money. But "The Mark Inside" shows that rampant speculation, swindling and "funny money" has often been circulating in our national economy and society; if Bernie Madoff is a descendant of the con men who robbed Frank Norfleet, then Benjamin Franklin was an ancestor. Amy Reading asks a beguiling question about the con artist in American life:
If he is conning us, do we mind? Arguably, the most defining -- and perplexing -- characteristic of an American sense of fun is a perennial willingness to make oneself into the mark of a showman, artist or director. Audiences and spectators have relished the very particular pleasure of accepting an invitation into a story they know might be false, only to be immersed in it completely and then duped at the end by what they thought was true. It is a sensation that is composed of equal parts admiration for the cleverness of the play and gratification at a neat resolution, and it has a long pedigree in American culture. It is called humbug, and it all started with P.T. Barnum. -- from "The Mark Inside"
Frank Norfleet travelled the country, often in disguise and sometimes with the knowledge and cooperation of local police, to find those who'd conned him. Amy Reading pieces together his adventures through Norfleet's 1924 and 27 autobiographies, newspaper reports, court transcripts and other legal documents, as well as the papers of those involved in the rackets and the law enforcement. All dialogue is from verbatim records or personal accounts.
Amy Reading grew up in Pennsylvania and Washington State, and in 2007 earned a Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University. Her interest in the confidence racket and Frank Norfleet is an outgrowth of her doctoral dissertation on the subject of accuracy and deception in American autobiography. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and blogs for the Huffington Post.
The photo above is a still from a 1929 silent film produced by and starring J. Frank Norfleet (r.) that was never completed.