David Maurer’s The Big Con

Just read this book, which I picked up on a whim. Maurer was a sociolinguist who published this book in 1940 as a kind of summary of the language and habits of American con men. It is completely fascinating from the perspective of rhetorical theory. It’s a wonder I haven’t run around mention of it before. Take this passage, for example:

Big-time confidence games are in reality only carefully rehearsed plays in which every member of the cast except the mark knows his part perfectly. The insiderman is the star of the cast; while the minor participants are competent actors and can learn their lines perfectly, they must look to the insiderman for their cues; he must be not only a fine actor, but a playwright extempore as well. And he must be able to retain the confidence of an intelligent man even after that man has been swindled at his hands.


His (the mark’s) every probable reaction has been calculated in advance and the script prepared to meet these reactions. Furthermore, this drama is motivated by some fundamental weakness of the victim – liquor, money, women, or even some harmless personal crotchet. The victim is forced to go along with the play, speaking approximately the lines which are demanded of him; they spring unconsciously to his lips. He has no choice but to go along… He is living in a play-world which he cannot distinguish from the real world… He is living in a fantastic, grotesque world which resembles the real world so closely that he cannot distinguish the difference.

Sounds like Burkean dramatism to me, with a bit of Vatz thrown in! I am also particularly interested in the dual-actor nature of most of the cons described, involving both a roper (who “ropes” in promising marks) and the insiderman (who runs the con). In all arrangements, big and small, there is the moment of the “switch” where the allegiance of the mark is handed off to the insiderman and the roper becomes the bad guy, a tricky ethos-based maneuver that I’ve not seen described previously in rhetorical theory. The switch serves to confuse the mark enough that they are swept along into the “play” that is being run without knowing of the transition to the fake-world.

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