July 14, 2012
I was a neophyte reporter in Perth Amboy when I first heard the term “flim flam.” I came across it on a police report during my daily visit to headquarters, and I was to see it many times during the two and a half years I covered the city. This term can be used to mean more than one thing, but in the parlance of Perth Amboy police in the mid ’60s, it meant a scam that was run on the sidewalk outside a bank. In those days, before there were banks every thousand feet, Perth Amboy was a banking center and therefore a favorite haunt of a certain kind of con artist.
In Perth Amboy, flim flam meant that an older person who had just emerged from one of the banks on Smith Street would be approached by an amiable stranger who appeared to be both excited and confused. The stranger had found a bank envelope stuffed with cash and with no identification. While the stranger explained this to the unwitting target, a third party would “observe” the scene and approach the pair to ask what was up. Eventually, the ring leader would offer to split the money with the dupe — something that wouldn’t make sense if the easy mark wasn’t drunk with the smell of found money. There was a catch: the sucker would have to put up a significant among of money to show “good faith.” Usually, the victim would go back into the bank and withdraw that money, agree to meet the pair later to split up the dough, and you know the rest.
This gag followed the same pattern every time. The first few times I read flim flam reports, I asked anyone who would listen how a person could fall for such a scheme. Cops who knew more about human nature than I did told me it was about greed, but it was also about trust. That’s the “con” in “con man” — a guy gets away with a stunt like that because he wins the confidence of his prey.
That phenomenon — the ability to con — is the subject of Amy Reading’s sassy, informative, and sometimes provocative book, The Mark Inside. In this book, Reading, who holds a Yale doctorate in American Studies, traces the origins and development of the con game in America, finding its roots in the humbug of showmen such as Phineas T. Barnum and following its evolution into the modern age — an age, she writes, in which the con is no longer the sole province of showmen and criminals but a vital tool in the commerce of everyday life.
Radical changes in American life, Reading deduces, led to this vastly increased reliance on the con. These changes included systems of rapid transportation — notably the railroad, the rise of cities, and finally the emergence of a “managerial class,” very different from the classes that once lived and traded only with what their own hands had produced, a class whose lingua franca was trust, the ability to get others to like them. Some critics have argued that Reading exaggerates the pervasive influence of this development, but the anecdotal evidence of the daily news — and even our own behavior, if we’re honest about it — seems to support her. What is our first concern in any transaction if not that the other party likes and trusts us, whether or not the trust is well placed?
As Reading is describing this aspect of American history, she is also telling the story of J. Frank Norfleet, a successful Texas rancher who in 1919 went to Dallas to conduct a legitimate transaction designed to improve his land holdings. When he arrived in the city, he almost immediately became the target of a gang of swindlers overseen by Joseph Furey, a gang that prowled cities like Dallas on the lookout for people exactly like Norfleet.
Through an ostensibly chance encounter not unlike those on the streets of Perth Amboy, the gang drew Norfleet into a web that eventually involved phony securities investments and wound up costing him what today would be well over a million dollars. The Furey gang had this swindle down to an art form; every person involved knew his part well. What they didn’t count on was the personality of Frank Norfleet. Unlike con-game victims who usually slunk way in shame and fear, Norfleet put his personal affairs aside and went after the six characters who had done him wrong. He spent a fortune, took big chances, chased down leads from state to state, coped with corrupt cops and politicians, and benefited from dumb luck. Eventually, he succeeded utterly, and all six of the gangsters were prosecuted.
When Norfleet traced the last of the six to Denver, he became the target of yet another con game, this one engineered by an organization run by Lou Blonger, who for 25 years was the crime kingpin in the city. Blonger himself ended up being toppled, thanks to the amateur detective, J. Frank Norfleet.
Norfleet, by Reading’s account, quickly warmed to his role as a relentless and fearless sleuth, and he loved to tell the story, even if he exaggerated at times. Reading’s own detective work sorts through fiction and fact, and the fact turns out to be compelling and even astounding on its own terms. After Norfleet had disposed of his quarry, he wrote an autobiography, appeared on vaudeville stages, delivered lectures, and started to produce a silent movie about himself. He became, Reading writes, a con man in his own right, selling J. Frank Norfleet to whoever would buy.