Last year I reviewed a book about Erik Jan Hanussen, a mentalist and con man who first flourished and then crashed and burned in Berlin during the Nazi era — an Austrian Jew posing as a Danish aristocrat. Hanussen struck me as one of the most bizarre characters in the drama of that time, but he has to make room in the pantheon for a puny Jewish teenager who is the subject of Jonathan Kirsch’s arresting book, The Short Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan.
Herschel was living with his Polish parents in Hamburg, Germany, when the Nazis came to power. During the run-up to the Holocaust, when Adolf Hitler’s scheme was to make life so unbearable for Jews that they would leave the Third Reich by their own volition, Herschel’s parents became concerned about his wellbeing. Their solution was to send him East when he was 15 years old, and he wound up living with his uncle and aunt in Paris.
During his sojourn, Herschel’s parents and siblings were among about 12,000 Polish Jews who were abruptly taken from their homes by the Nazis and deposited on the Polish side of the border with Germany. From the refugee camp there, Herschel’s sister wrote to him, describing the harsh conditions.
After an argument with his uncle over the question of helping the Grynszpans financially, Herschel bolted from the apartment and, on the following day, bought a revolver, entered the German embassy on a pretext, and shot a young diplomatic aide, who died from the wounds.
When he was taken into custody by French authorities, Herschel, who saw himself as some kind of avenging angel, immediately and then repeatedly told them that he had shot the man, Ernst Vom Rath, in response to the treatment of Polish Jews and, in particular, of his own family.
The Nazis reacted to the murder with the carefully staged mob rampage that destroyed Jewish businesses and synagogues and terrorized Jewish people throughout Germany and Austria on the night of November 9 and 10, 1938 — the so-called Kristallnacht.
Meanwhile, Hitler and his partners in paranoia had a different take on the crime. They saw it as the work of the “international Jewish conspiracy” that actually existed only in their nightmares. Hitler sent representatives to both observe, manipulate, and exploit the proceedings against Herschel.
Before the case was played out, however, Germany invaded France, and after Herschel, with the connivance of the French, dodged the grasp of the Nazis in a chain of events that sounds like a Marx Brothers scene, he fell into German control.
Hitler, employing a brand of logic of which only he was capable, decided to stage a show trial so that the international community would conclude from this solitary crime that Jews everywhere were plotting to take control of Germany if not the whole world.
Kirsch describes the elaborate investigations and other preparations the Nazis made for this spectacle, inquiring into the most remote details of Herschel’s background.
But Hitler didn’t know whom he was up against. The hundred-pound dropout pulled the rug out from under the Nazi propaganda machinery by telling interrogators that he and Vom Rath had actually been involved in a homosexual relationship that went sour. It was a idea that had been suggested to him by one of his lawyers while he was still in French custody. The Nazis were stymied. Given Hitler’s horror of homosexuality, they couldn’t let the show trial go ahead and take a chance that Herschel’s claim would become public. On the other hand, they also couldn’t simply do away with Herschel after making such a big deal about how the case would be tried in public. The trial was postponed — indefinitely, as it turned out.
In a way, that’s where this story ends. No one knows what became of Herschel Grynszpan, although the debate goes on about whether he was a megalomaniac lone ranger or an overlooked hero of the Jewish resistence.
It’s a wonderful yarn, and Kirsch tells it like a novelist, exploring the psyche of an oddball teenager who played a quirky role in the biggest historic epoch of the twentieth century.
April 14, 2013
Sometimes it’s better to accept the plot of a movie and move on. The Magic of Belle Isle is a case in point.
This feel-good film, released in 2012, was written by Guy Thomas and directed by Rob Reiner. The story concerns Monte Wildhorn (Morgan Freeman), who was once a successful author of novels about a cowboy named Jubal McLaws. Disappointments in his life have dried up his creativity, and he is spending a summer at a borrowed house in fictional Belle Isle (actually Greenwood Lake, N.Y.), where he plans to drink and be disagreeable.
Partly due to his Victorian manners, he grudgingly develops relationships with people in the neighborhood, including Charlotte O’Neil (Virginia Madsen) the attractive divorcee next door, and her three daughters.
Monte especially becomes engaged with Charlotte’s middle daughter, Finnegan (Emma Fuhrmann), for whom the concept of imagination is elusive. There is also an undisguised chemistry between Monte and Charlotte — an improbable couple by reason of their widely different ages.
In a side plot not wholly irrelevant to the main story, the O’Neil children are going through the pain of separation from their father — an issue that creates a great deal of tension between Charlotte and her oldest girl, Willow (Madeline Carroll).
There is also a sidebar concerning Monte’s positive influence on a mentally or emotionally challenged young man (Ash Christian) who likes to hop around town like a bunny.
If one wonders too hard about how Monte, who has no use of his left arm and leg, can manage to do all the things that go along with living alone, or how he can drink as much as he does and sober up enough to be a good neighbor … well, if wonders too hard about a lot of things in this story, one may miss the benefits of good acting by a talented cast, a visually pleasing presentation, and a little optimism about human nature.
March 28, 2013
During the four decades I spent covering the news of Central New Jersey, there were sporadic stories about artillery shells being unearthed up and down the coast in Middlesex and Monmouth counties. These were the lingering legacy of a catastrophe that occurred in 1918, an event described in Explosion at Morgan: The World War I Middlesex Munitions Disaster by Randall Gabrielan. The title refers to a series of fires and explosions at the T.A. Gillespie Loading Co., a shell-loading operation, on October 4 and 5, 1918 — just a few weeks before the end of World War I.
The plant, which was located in the Morgan section of Sayreville, was one of four identical facilities hastily built in New Jersey to supply the firepower needed by the allied armies in Europe. Operations at the plant were overseen by U.S. government inspectors
The loading of shells required the handling and processing of huge amounts of TNT and ammonium nitrate, which were combined and heated to produce amatol, a highly explosive material. There is no certainty as to what sparked the calamity, but Gabrielan writes that the first explosion probably occurred in a kettle in which 2,600 pounds of amatol was being brewed.
Once the trouble started, it spread into chaos, with fires raging and shells flying in all directions. The concussions caused property damage over a wide area surrounding the plant, but particularly in the City of South Amboy, where virtually every window was broken. People started fleeing the city simply out of fright, but eventually authorities ordered an evacuation. There were at least 100 people killed in the plant, although the actual total is not known because some of the victims were vaporized in the explosions. Gabrielan also reports that there were about 150 injuries.
This book is carefully researched and precisely written, and its value is not only in its reconstruction of the Gillespie disaster, but in putting both the Gillespie plant itself and the explosions in the wider context of the history of that time. Gabrielan points out that, despite the occasional recovery of a shell, the dramatic and destructive incident has largely faded from the collective memory of the community that was affected by it.
March 20, 2013
When we were watching episodes of Downton Abbey on a DVD, we turned on the English subtitles, because we had trouble understanding a couple of the actors — particularly Rob James-Collier as Thomas Barrow and Sophie McShera as Daisy Mason.
It turned out that while some of our difficulty with the dialogue had to do with the one actor’s mumbling and the other one’s accent, some of it also had to do with the vocabulary itself — British terms that we did not know.
Most of us are familiar with terms like “lorry,” “loo,” and “lift,” but we saw others in the captions that we had never heard before.
It was to be expected that the English used in Britain and the English used in the United States would evolve differently, but I learned recently that that didn’t happen only over time but was done deliberately, on our side of the ocean, soon after the American Revolution.
That’s what Paul Dickson reports in his book Words from the White House, which is a compilation of words and phrases that either were either coined or made popular by presidents and other prominent Americans.
According to Dickson, an 18th century sentiment shared by Thomas Jefferson and Noah Webster, was that Americans had to craft for themselves a language that was distinct from the “king’s English.”
Webster was so confident that this goal could be achieved that he wrote in 1806 that “In fifty years from this time, the American-English will be spoken by more people than all the other dialects of the language.”
Part of the process by which language evolves is “neologizing” — that is, inventing words or phrases from whole cloth.
Dickson writes that the word “neologize” was itself neologized by Jefferson in 1813 in a letter to John Adams.
So Theodore Roosevelt, who — for my money — is disproportionately represented in this book, was neologizing when he invented the term “pussyfooter,” and his distant cousin FDR was doing the same when he created the useful word “iffy.”
Some presidents have been accused of using non-standard terms, not because they were being inventive but because they didn’t know any better.
In this regard, for instance, Dickson mentions Warren G. Harding and George W. Bush.
Harding has often been ridiculed for his 1920 campaign promise of a “return to normalcy,” but Dickson points out that the word “normalcy” had been already in use in several fields, including mathematics.
Harding’s innovation was to give the term a political meaning — and, the author reminds us, it worked.
The second Bush — who could be hard on English — was kidded mercilessly for his used of the term “decider” which he applied to himself when the press asked him about calls for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (“I’m the decider, and I decide what’s best.”) Dickson gives Bush credit for coining this word, but apparently the author didn’t check a dictionary: that word was around before George Bush was president, meaning exactly what he used it to mean.
February 12, 2013
I don’t know if this is still true, but when I was at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, visitors were invited to write in a large book their opinions of President Harry S Truman’s decision to deploy the atom bomb against Japan in 1945. My opinion is that it’s easy to make Harry Truman’s decisions if you’re not Harry Truman. The same thing can be said for all such figures, including Pope Pius XII.
A great deal has been written about what the pope did or did not do with respect to the Jewish people who were being systematically exterminated by the Nazis during World War II. The latest contribution, if it can be called that, is Gordon Thomas’s book, The Pope’s Jews, which is designed to show that Pope Pius was clear in his condemnation of the Nazi regime and that he was directly involved in a variety of schemes to either help Jewish people escape from Italy or hide them in church properties, including the Vatican itself, during the German invasion.
The best that can be said for this book is that it is superfluous and that it is so badly executed as to be an embarrassment to the publisher and an insult to the reader.
Most if not all of what the author reports here has been published before. It has been well recorded that Pius, a former papal nuncio to Bavaria, was confronted with the murderous Nazis, on the one hand, who had a track record for wreaking indiscriminate vengeance whenever they met opposition or resistance, and the godless Soviets, on the other hand, who were eager to extend their dominance over as much of Europe as possible. The pope was also the head of a neutral state, and the safety of untold human beings depended on the guarantees that accompanied that neutrality.
There also has been a great deal written about the various bishops, priests, and nuns who either helped Jewish people get out of harm’s way or hid them in church properties, including the Vatican itself. Among those complicit in this was Sister Pascalina Lenhert, who was both housekeeper and confidant to Pius XII. Many sources have reported that the pope himself was not only aware of these activities but was directly involved in some of them.
Thomas writes about all this, and he also writes in some detail about the Jewish people living in the Jewish ghetto in Rome (most of whom died in a Nazi concentration camp), the Jewish resistance movement in Rome, and those working — and, in many cases, hiding — in a Jewish hospital on an island in the Tiber.
Thomas includes a lot of information about the work of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, who had charge of a network of church operatives who hid Jewish people in multiple safe houses.
Most of this, as I say, comes from secondary sources, and that’s what the bibliography in this book consists of. In the several instances in which the writer does refer to primary sources, he provides no footnotes and no reference to those documents in the bibliography.
Moreover, this book is so carelessly written and edited that the quality of such scholarship as there was must be questioned. The author has a maddening fascination with the past perfect tense of the verb and uses it liberally, especially when it’s not appropriate. That plus awkward or downright improper sentence structure makes reading the text a chore.
And then there are the factual errors. St. Paul was crucified (we don’t know how he died, but the tradition is that he was beheaded); St. Paul had a vision of the risen Jesus in Rome (that happened on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus); Pius XII canonized St. Catherine of Siena (that was Pius II in 1461); Pius XII silenced the anti-Semitic radio priest Charles Coughlin (the Vatican didn’t approve of Coughlin, but didn’t take any action against him; he was forced off the air via regulation by the National Association of Broadcasters after he opposed U.S. involvement in what became World War II).
In his apparent zeal to cast the Catholic Church as a friend of the Jewish people, Thomas writes that Pope Pius IV in the 16th century relaxed a variety of restrictions on Jewish life that had been imposed by his predecessor, Paul IV, but the author does not point out that the restrictions were restored by Pius V.
Immediately after a reference to Pius IV, who assumed the papacy in 1562, Thomas writes this: “The Nicene Creed, the core of the church for centuries, would teach that Pontius Pilate was ultimately responsible for Christ’s death sentence, and that it was the gentiles (sic) who had mocked, scourged, and crucified Jesus.” The Nicene Creed dates from the fourth century, not the 16th, and it doesn’t say anything at all about Gentiles as such: it mentions only Pilate. The Apostle’s Creed, which dates from much earlier than the one adopted by the Council of Nicaea, says exactly the same thing about Pilate. Considering the crimes committed against the Jews over the past 20 centuries, those creeds can hardly be used to make the Church look benign. It was the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s that specifically repudiated the idea that the Jewish people had some corporate responsibility for the death of Jesus; that council also forbid the Church to teach that the Jewish people had somehow been rejected by God (see the council’s document Nostra aetate).
In the decades since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has made a serious effort to improve its relationship with the Jewish people and to condemn any form of anti-Semitism. The present pope, who is about to abdicate, has been very active in that area. Although it does seem that Pius XII gets a bad rap from people who didn’t have to deal with the complex situation he faced, there’s no denying the trouble history between the Church and the Jews. It’s good to think that it might all be behind us.
January 16, 2013
In a book I reviewed here last year, Amy Reading wrote, in effect, that people are easily conned partly because they want to be conned — they want the hoax to be true. No doubt that was at play in 1869 when a gypsum statue was passed off on thousands of people as either the corpse of a centuries-old prodigy or the artifact of a culture that thrived in upstate New York in antiquity. This monstrosity is the subject of Jim Murphy’s new book, The Giant and How He Humbugged America.
This book is one of several Murphy has written for a young-adult audience, but it is entertaining reading for adults of any age. Murphy recounts the incident in which a ten-foot figure of a naked man was unearthed on a farm in Cardiff, N.Y., by workers who ostensibly were digging a well. The “discovery” almost immediately attracted public attention and just as quickly inspired a debate about what the colossal figure was — a body, a primitive work of art, a fake.
The owner of the farm, William “Stub” Newell, quickly set up an exhibition tent on his property and people flocked to see the marvel. Soon there were investors and then more investors and shares in the giant changed hands again and again. It was clear to those with an interest that the potential of this attraction was too big for at tent on a farm, and they took the giant on the road.
Among those who saw the possibilities in the Cardiff giant was the famous showman Phineas T. Barnum, who tried to buy his way in.
When he was unsuccessful, Barnum found a sculptor who could provide him with a duplicate giant, and he and his phony behemoth went into business, competing with the original phony, as it were. The stakeholders in the true fraud, if you get my meaning, took legal action to stop Barnum, but they failed. The giant that really emerged from the pit in Cardiff drew between 35,000 and 40,000 when it was exhibited in Syracuse, but when it went head-to-head with Barnum’s creature in New York City, it ran second best at the box office. Meanwhile, the sculptor who had provided Barnum with his version of the giant turned out at least four more.
The story is full of colorful characters, not the least of whom was con-man George Hull, the “father” of the giant, so to speak.
This all may seem rather silly to us post-modern people, although some of our fellow post-moderns fall for some pretty tall tales, especially those get-rich-without-leaving-your-home schemes.
Murphy points out that as silly as the Cardiff caper was, it really wasn’t funny, when one takes into the account the people who were deceived and made into fools and the people who were cheated out of their hard-earned money while a few others pocketed big profits.
December 30, 2012
I have often had the experience, as I am about to fall asleep, of seeing for a fleeting moment the image of a familiar person and hearing that person speak directly to me. Although I am always aware that the image and the voice are not real, they always seem to be real.
Phenomena of that kind are the subject of a chapter — “On the Threshold of Sleep” — in Hallucinations by Dr. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and author. In this latest of his many books, Dr. Sacks discusses the wide range of circumstances under which some folks (many folks, as it turns out) see things, hear things, even smell things that do not exist in objective reality. These are not sights, sounds, or aromas that the hallucinator voluntarily conjures up in his or her own mind, but rather the products of extraordinary activity in various parts of the brain.
The hallucinations Dr. Sacks writes about may be associated with medical conditions that include epilepsy, narcolepsy, and partial or total blindness, and they may be associated with the use of certain drugs. What they usually are not associated with, Dr. Sacks writes, is mental illness. In fact, many people who experience hallucinations are aware that what appears real to them is, in fact, not real.
The condition Sacks explores first, setting a context for the rest of the book, is Charles Bonnet Syndrome, or CBS, which was first identified by an 18th century Swiss naturalist. Persons with CBS have deteriorating or deteriorated eyesight, and they have hallucinations that in a sense fill in the gap of visual sensory input. These hallucinations may be superimposed on the impaired visual field or they may fill in the blind spot of people who have lost sight in half the visual field. Sacks provides this contrast between hallucinations of this kind and dreams:
“Dreamers are wholly enveloped in their dreams, and usually active participants in them, whereas people with CBS retain their normal, critical waking consciousness. CBS hallucinations, even though they are projected into external space, are marked by a lack of interaction; they are always silent and neutral—they rarely convey or evoke any emotion. They are confined to the visual, without sound, smell, or tactile sensation. They are remote, like images on a cinema screen in a theater one has chanced to walk into. The theater is in one’s own mind, and yet the hallucinations seem to have little to do with one in any deeply personal sense.”
Dr.Sacks has spent his professional lifetime collecting case histories from his own interactions with patients, from his reading, and from correspondents who have shared their experiences with them. In this book as in most of his previous ones, he uses that knowledge to illuminate the growing understanding of the human brain.
Meanwhile, the subject matter of this book reminded me of the poem by Hughes Mearns:
Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away…
When I came home last night at three
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall
I couldn’t see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don’t slam the door… (slam!)
Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away
That poem is called Antigonish because it was inspired by a ghost story in the Nova Scotia city of that name. Mearns, an educator who believed deeply in cultivating the creativity of children, wrote the lines for a play called Psyco-ed while he was a student at Harvard. It was published as a poem in 1922.
October 28, 2012
As we left for a long drive the other day, I grabbed a Johnny Mathis CD to play along the way. Among the songs was “All in the Game,” a favorite of mine and a song with a unique history: It’s the only song with a melody written by a man who both served as vice president of the United States and won the Nobel Peace Prize.
The composer was Charles G. Dawes, who served as vice president in the Calvin Coolidge administration — from 1925 to 1929. Dawes is forgotten today, but he was a prominent man in his time. His great-great grandfather was William “Billy” Dawes, who rode with Paul Revere, but somehow escaped Longfellow’s notice. The latter Dawes was a lawyer, banker, politician, and humanitarian. He was an army officer during World War I, and then President Warren G. Harding appointed him the first director of the Bureau of the Budget. In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge appointed him to the Allied Reparations Commission, and Dawes shared in the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on a plan to stabilize the economy of Germany, which had been devastated by the war and its aftermath.
Dawes was about the fourth choice to run for vice president with Coolidge, who was elected to a full term of his own after finishing the term of Warren Harding, who had died in office. Dawes was clumsy in the position and alienated Coolidge from the first day of the administration. President Herbert Hoover appointed Dawes ambassador to Great Britain, and Dawes served effectively in that post for three years.
In 1911, Dawes, who played the piano and the flute, wrote a composition called “Melody in A Major.” The sheet music was published without Dawes’ knowledge, and it became an popular violin piece; in fact, the great violinist Fritz Kreisler used it to close his recitals.
In 1951, after Dawes had died, songwriter Carl Sigman modified the melody somewhat and wrote the lyrics that made the song a standard in American popular music: “Many a teardrop will fall , but it’s all in the game. …”
Sigman, who was a member of the New York Bar and a hero in World War II, compiled quite a track record for writing memorable lyrics. His songs include “Arrivederci, Roma,” “Ebb Tide,” “Shangri-la,” “What Now, My Love,” and the theme from the film Love Story.
“All in the Game” has been recorded by Dinah Shore, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Andy Williams, Robert Goulet, Johnny Ray, Jackie DeShannon, Cass Elliot, Van Morrison, Neil Sedaka, Merle Haggard, Barry Manilow, and many others.
Tommy Edwards had a major hit with it in 1958, and that recording is ranked No. 38 on Billboard’s Top-100 list. You can hear Tommy Edwards’ recording at THIS LINK.
September 19, 2012
Taylor Teagarden’s major league baseball career hasn’t amounted to much yet. As of yesterday, he had appeared in only 136 games in five seasons. He has shown a flair for the dramatic on a few occasions—last night being a notable example—but he hasn’t yet become the Jack Teagarden of the diamond.
Jack was another story altogether. As soon as I heard of Taylor T., I wondered if he and Jack were related. Naturally a guy would wonder that, what with the unusual last name and the fact that both of these Teagardens were from Texas.
Well, I say “naturally.” It was natural for me, because of a 78 rpm record that belonged to my parents. I loved that record when I was a kid, and I still do. It’s a rendition of a 1941 Johnny Mercer song, “The Waiter, the Porter, and the Upstairs Maid,” sung by Bing Crosby, Mary Martin, and Jack Teagarden. It’s one of those witty, sophisticated lyrics that Mercer wrote best. You can hear and see that trio singing Mercer’s song at this site: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0e1DF4TUYY. Or you can come over Saturday afternoon, and I’ll play it for you on the Victrola. If you don’t know what a Victrola is, you probably already stopped reading.
Jack Teagarden, who came from a family loaded with musical talent, was in heady company with Crosby and Martin, and he was a very good crooner himself, as well as a composer and bandleader. Among the highlights of his memorable career were his vocal turns with Mercer and Louis Armstrong. But he made his most indelible mark as an innovative jazz and blues trombonist. He is often referred to as “the father of jazz trombone.” You can learn a lot about this important figure in American cultural history at www.jackteagarden.info.
Although it’s a lot easier than it was in the pre-digital age to answer such questions as, “Is Taylor Teagarden related to Jack?”, I have had trouble finding out. Until I wrote this post, I had found only one reference, buried in an non-authoritative web site, reporting that the catcher thinks he might be the great great nephew of the musical genius. But my friend Brian VanderBeek, a sports writer with the Modesto Bee, responded to this post by reporting that he had met Taylor Teagarden in 2007 when Taylor was playing for Bakersfield in the California League and Taylor, on that occasion, confirmed that Jack Teagarden was his dad’s great uncle.
Taylor is with the Orioles now, and his season got a late start due to a back injury. It remains to be seen if he will leave in baseball a footprint like the one Jack Teagarden left in music, but Taylor has already taken advantage of baseball’s unique capacity for providing even the most obscure player with opportunities for heroics.
He came up with the Texas Rangers in 2008, and his first major league hit was a sixth-inning home run off Scott Baker of the Minnesota Twins. Baker had not given up a hit up to that point. And Teagarden’s homer produced the only run in what turned out to be a 1-0 game. When he came off the disabled list for the Orioles on July 14 of this year, he hit a two-run homer that broke up a 6-6, 13-inning tie with the Tigers.
Last night, Taylor got to play Mr. Clutch again as he pinch hit a single in the top of the 18th inning, driving in the winning run as the Orioles beat the Seattle Mariners and pulled into a virtual tie with the Yankees for first place in the American League East. No matter how the rest of his career goes, Taylor T. can always say with another lyricist, Ira Gershwin, “They can’t take that away from me.”
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.