Join 3,512 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


"Do unto others what they'd like to do to you... But do it first!"
October 16, 2007 1:04 AM   Subscribe

Soapy Smith was "the king of the frontier confidence men." Born Jefferson R. Smith, he gained the nickname "Soapy" after running a successful scam that the Denver newspapers dubbed "The Prize Package Soap Sell Swindle." He ran criminal enterprises in Colorado and Alaska until his death at the hands of vigilantes in 1898. Every year his descendants hold a wake in his honor. His story has inspired several books and movies. The Soapy Smith Preservation Trust maintains an extensive archive of his life and times.
posted by amyms (20 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
This post looks truly great, but I'm kinda scared to click on the links in case the people who idolize him as much as they do have decided to follow in his footsteps.

Do the modern day scam merchants who punt herbal viagra etc. via spam also have nicknames? Is there a 'Joey Viaxx'? Or a 'Pete Penis Extension'?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:20 AM on October 16, 2007 [2 favorites]


Do the modern day scam merchants who punt herbal viagra etc. via spam also have nicknames?

Peter, your name would be perfect for that line of work! Peter "Extender" McDermott.
posted by amyms at 2:40 AM on October 16, 2007


I love stories about the olde tyme world of con men, carnie hucksters, gamblers, pool hustlers, etc. etc. One of the things that's so disappointing about the modern world is that our crooks are so damned homogeneous, and our modern criminal subcultures lack that wonderful diversity with it's rich characters, argot, etc. In those days, being a con artist was a skilled profession. In order to be any good at it, you really had to work on your routines for years and years, and they were far from certain. A big con game was expensive to mount, both in terms of man power and the props that made it all work. You had to be an entrepeneur with a high level of faith in your ability to pull off the scam, and the fact that the sucker really did have enough larceny in his heart to take that bait.

Great post, amyms.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:45 AM on October 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man by Maurer & Sante is a good read, though the soap sell is a short con.
posted by scruss at 4:43 AM on October 16, 2007


The link to the Encyclopedia of Scams made my day. I've always been fascinated by cons, and somehow never knew that site existed. Thank you very much amyms.
posted by sotonohito at 4:44 AM on October 16, 2007


I do wonder, though, at our amazing propensity to make heroes out of people who screw other people over for a living.

I know people have been doing it forever (Coyote, Loki, Til Eulenspiegel, etc.), but I wonder if we don't do it more in America than they've done it elsewhere or in the past.
posted by lodurr at 5:14 AM on October 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I've read the Big Con. I'd also recommend the following:

You Can't Win by Jack Black -- on Hobos
Confessions of a Sword Swallower by Dan Mannix -- Carny Life

Also, Michael Konik's books on gambling. The first two are really just collections of magazine articles, but the latest, Smart Money, is an account of a couple of years as an apprentice to a major sports book gambler. Absolutely great.

I do wonder, though, at our amazing propensity to make heroes out of people who screw other people over for a living.

It's hardly just limited to the USA. Sales of True Crime books are strong everywhere. Also, I wouldn't say that we make them heroes. Con men and scammers do tend to benefit from this more than most though, because of the amount of skill that goes into their operation, but also because their scams are largely dependent on the desire of the mark to get something for nothing. While the old saying, 'You can't cheat an honest man' might not be strictly true, it's truer than not.

There's a good reason why those Nigerian emails start out by telling you that they need access to your bank account because they are trying to avoid the clutches of the government or whatever.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:42 AM on October 16, 2007


While the old saying, 'You can't cheat an honest man' might not be strictly true, it's truer than not.

It's only true insofar as we have a not very useful definition of "honest".
posted by lodurr at 6:01 AM on October 16, 2007


I'm guessing this guy was the inspiration for the guy shilling soap every few Deadwood episodes. That's great! Thanks for the post!
posted by m0nm0n at 6:13 AM on October 16, 2007


Beating to death by vigilantes... They knew justice back in the olden days....
posted by Mastercheddaar at 6:19 AM on October 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


There was/is a club in Denver called Soapy Smith's. As I recall they had the best chicken wings and jalapeno poppers which hearkened back to the days of the Old West.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 8:03 AM on October 16, 2007


Fuck, they're always eating poppers 'n' wings in fucking Deadwood. Fuck.
posted by lodurr at 8:10 AM on October 16, 2007


NO TRUST

From what I remember of the introduction to this novel, 'Confidence Men' weren't widely known in the U.S., or maybe just not widely published, before the mid-19th century. Then, starting maybe a decade before Melville published that book, they began appearing in literature and newspapers with more and more frequency.

(Ok, maybe I just couldn't resist adding in a link to one of my favorite Con men texts to this post...)
posted by Barmecide at 9:51 AM on October 16, 2007


It's only true insofar as we have a not very useful definition of "honest".

The reason why three card monte artists are as successful as they are -- astonishing as it would seem in this day and age -- is because the mark believes that he has an unfair edge on the dealer due to a bend in the card. Or the pigeon drop, in which somebody supposedly finds money in the street, and rather than hand it in, they agree to divide it between the finders. Many of the classic scams -- including the Nigerian email scam -- work in this manner, by leading the victim to believe that they're going to get something for nothing, or that they'll get a deal that's too good to be true.

I think part of the reason why people find con men so interesting is because there's almost a meritocratic element involved, insofar as you've got two crooks pitting their wits against each other, and the crimes often do have this component of instant justice involved, as the victim is seen as somebody who is almost deserving of being victimized due to the way that their greed makes them the architect of their own downfall.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:27 AM on October 16, 2007


You pick some obvious targets. But there are plenty of cons that don't depend on cupidity at all.

AFAICS, this notion that the mark is always somehow dishonest is part of the myth of the con. Most cons, as far as I can see, are just instances of people lying to other people to screw them. We don't build up a noble mythology around those, but there are plenty of people who lionize scumbag liar con "artists" nonetheless.

So, fascinating as I find the "art" of the con (and it is an art, as I define art), it all boils down to someone deciding to screw someone else -- often as not followed by an annoying attempt to rationalize that decision as somehow natural or righteous. (I'm much more comfortable with con artists who are just honest about what they're doing -- being predatory -- and don't pretend there's any virtue to be imagined in it.)
posted by lodurr at 12:19 PM on October 16, 2007


We don't build up a noble mythology around those.

That's because they're just not very interesting, so not only do we not build up a mythology around them, we barely even report them. Although the man who dresses as an official to talk his way into an old lady's house prior to robbing her might legally fall into the same category, there's just nothing of interest there. It completely lacks the 'art' aspect that you're referring to.

As far as being 'more comfortable' with such people, well, I'm not sure how comfortable comes in to it. I feel competent to protect myself against the first sort of scam. Less sure that I can protect myself against the second. I'm not at all sure that the romantic notion of the conman who devotes his life to running 'the big store' or whatever exists any more -- if it ever did, so presumably today's con artists move from one category of scam to the other with ease.

So I think what is interesting here are the scams themselves, and the subcultural ecology in which the scammers historically existed. The scammers themselves, probably not so much -- though if Maurer's reporting is to be believed, that was definitely true at one point in time, and his work is rich enough that I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:16 PM on October 16, 2007


Of course we report them. Think of all the bits spilled reporting about boiler rooms full of people who pray on the elderly by phone or email.

I'm not sure it matters that they're "not interesting." They're interesting to me. What I'm arguing is that they are of a piece.

When I said that they qualify, AFAIAC, as "art", I wasn't referring to the constructed idea of "elegance" or "interestingness" that we build up around teh slick Con Man. I was referring to my own highly idiosyncratic definition of art: That which we do to make sense of what which does not make sense. Some cons into that category, because they constitute a person's effort to rationalize their existence: "I am smart, I am strong, I am more virtuous than the rubes." That holds for the rationalized predators as much as it holds for the "artful dodgers."

It doesn't hold for the "honest cons" -- the folks who'll admit to what they're doing and claim full responsibility for it. I think such people are somewhat rare in a civilized society (at least for most of us here on MeFi), but really common in a place like, say, Iraq, or Somalia. They've made decisions about what's important to them, they know what they're willing to do.
posted by lodurr at 1:28 PM on October 16, 2007


When I say we don't report them, I mean that they don't really generate a literature in the same way that the other variant does -- not that they don't get reported to the authorities. They don't generate a literature because they don't capture the popular imagination in the way that the classical romantic con man does.

What I'm arguing is that they are of a piece.

I understand that that's what you're arguing. You choose to find interest in the similarities. Most people find the interest in the differences. But I'm not sure how you see any of this as rationalizing something that doesn't make sense. To me, it makes absolute rational sense. Most con games are nothing more than a form of hyper-capitalism, in which the con artist simply tries to maximize his edge and his profit with the understanding that there'll be no repeat business. Take a typical carnival game like hoop-la. They present as a test of skill, customer against carny, and are mostly fixed, but nobody really minds because they're only going to drop a couple of dollars. However, the more rapacious carny games like Razzle is just as fixed, but it's designed to extract the maximum amount of money from a single player. As such, victims are much more likely to complain, but I'm not sure that there's any moral difference between the two scams.

In precisely the same way, somewhere like Wal-Mart will sell lots of goods with very low margins, while a high end retailer will choose to put exorbitant mark-ups on their goods. The outcome for the consumer is exactly the same as it is against the con man. They've been just as seriously scammed, but one set of scammers operate within the laws, while the others, lacking the resources to run these legal scams, operate at the margins of the law.

I think such people are somewhat rare in a civilized society (at least for most of us here on MeFi), but really common in a place like, say, Iraq, or Somalia.

I think that your ideas about crime and criminals are at least as idealized and as far from reality as those you decry.

In the west, in criminal circles, people not only take full responsibility for their crimes, if anything, they over-emphasize their criminal success and their predatory nature. This discourse only really shifts to a rationalizing discourse when the criminal is forced from their own milieux, into one in which they are likely to be penalized or shunned as a consequence of such admissions. The two places where you can see this effect most clearly are in the courts, and in criminal memoirs. In both instances, there's a vested interest in minimizing the predatory nature of their crimes.

I'm certain that this process works in exactly the same way in every other country. Now, you may be correct in claiming that there's a much larger predatory criminal underclass in places like Iraq and Somalia, but I'm pretty sure that when they get captured and dragged up before the beak, they whine and make excuses in exactly the same way that criminals do everywhere else in the world.

And I'm pretty sure that the discourse at a company like Enron works in exactly the same way. Glorifying their rapacity when with insiders, feigning legitimacy when with outsiders, and squealing like a stuck pig when before the courts.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 4:15 AM on October 17, 2007


To me, it makes absolute rational sense. Most con games are nothing more than a form of hyper-capitalism, in which the con artist simply tries to maximize his edge and his profit with the understanding that there'll be no repeat business.

Yes, but you're not a grifter or a carney. (At least, I don't think you are.)

I wouldn't contest your economic analysis. But I don't believe it comes anywhere close to telling the whole story. It's been my experience that people involved in grift-oriented cultures and sales-driven cultures tend to have elaborated rationales for their behavior that cast them as somehow morally superior to the people they are trying to get an advantage on. In sales culture you often hear customers referred to as "sheep" or "cows", for example, and there's a widely-accepted view of sales force management that breaks the sales effort up into groups of "hunters" and "maintainers": A predatory metaphor for new acquisition, and a herdsman metaphor for existing customers.

One anecdote springs to mind. Years ago I rode for a day in a wholesale van -- one of those vans/cars that drives around hawking trashy crap for whatever the driver can get (the reality is that it probably costs them a couple of bucks, they sell it for twenty or thirty). I think the name of the parent org was "National Wholesale", but I could be mistaken. On the dashboard of all the "company" vans (that's another story), there was a decal of either a cartoon rhinocerus head, with the legend "Go Rhino!" underneath, or a cartoon cows head with a circle-slash. The parent org passed down this organizing myth/metaphor to the troops through an MLM/pyramid of resellers, that separated everyone in the world into two classes: Cows, and Rhinos. As it was given to my by my host, "Cows are nice enough, they sit around in the pasture all day, chewin' their cuds and eatin' grass and takin' what's given to them. But a rhino, a rhino has a six inch thick hide and it just goes right through everything and takes whatever it wants. We're rhinos. They're cows."
posted by lodurr at 6:41 AM on October 17, 2007


In those days, being a con artist was a skilled profession.

Well, for the con artists that're still known today, sure.

But most con artists, then and now, run depressingly simple scams, for small amounts of money, on regular people.

People who (every time you see them) insist that they just need a couple of bucks for the bus fare home, they'll pay you back, honest, are not a modern invention.

Nobody's going to get a fan club by doing boring stuff like that, of course.
posted by dansdata at 7:06 AM on October 17, 2007


« Older "Darling, I have a headache, why not use your robo...  |  The greybeards of the U.S. for... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments