A great number of the classic tricks of the age-old human practice of the con game are known from many works from the world of literature; most likely, or on the whole, they being semi-autobiographical work cashing in on the leftovers of a wasted life. While sharp, savvy, savagely brutal precepts, maxims, aphorisms, parables, and insightful anecdotes about confidence trickery can turn up in the most unlikely places in the literary world, from the works of Aristotle to Zeno (excluding Diogenes), or even from Austen to Zola (including Dickens), and beyond. Although I suspect that not a great number of the more fanciful scams portrayed therein would now be of much real use for budding confidence tricksters, even if they could be effectively extracted from their original context.
As such, many, truisms, euphemisms, and precepts concentrating mainly on the shifty principles of the conman’s art as first put forward in a fairly coherent form, can be found in the writings of that famous 19th century Yankee charlatan, shyster, confidence trickster, and swindler of gullible businessmen, Prof. Philo T. Cozener, in his autobiography, My Life and Times as a Confidence Trickster. This is a brief, sensationalistic, but still insightful work, being a short 149-page book that was published in 1908 in a now rare, signed limited edition of 350 copies printed on hand laid paper. It was privately printed by the Roycroft Press for the author at Elbert G. Hubbard’s renowned arts and crafts workshop in North Aurora, New York State. Nowadays it is quite a hard book to track down, even in its second and third issues, even in the specialist antiquarian bookshops of Charring Cross Road.
The renowned Professor of flim-flam, blarney, and spiel from Yonkers, and self-acclaimed master of the confidence trick, was the man (and not a lot of people know this) who reputedly tried to sell the French the whole concept of building the Statue of Liberty out of the newly-available, lighter, cheaper, and rust-proof aluminium, instead of the more traditional (but subject to verdigris decay) bronze sheeting; though, surprisingly enough, without gaining much credit for it at all, monetary or otherwise. He was apparently in cahoots with many of the professional conmen of the New York underworld at various times in his career, switching loyalty between whoever was in charge of the most lucrative con game in town at the time, which was usually something to do with the burgeoning bunkum bunko-traps and such-like, and other similar slight-of-hand malarkey.
Always staying in the shadows, a supporter of more famous individuals rather than appearing to be an obvious driving force, he preferring to remain a subdued presence in any of the more high profile activities involving some form of illegality or another. He was known, not as the man with a thousand faces, but by a dozen different names mostly of Irish Catholic origins, holding separate bank accounts in each name and set up to launder money through each one. Thus he managed to avoid the clutches of the law for longer than most of his contemporaries in the field, justifiably earning the nickname of “The Professor” among his associates. But, as is inevitable really for those who repeatedly cross the line of lawful common sense, he was finally apprehended, tried, and sent to Sing-Sing correctional institution for his crimes.
As the story goes, he was caught red-handed by one Alexander “Clubber” Williams, the New York Captain of police, apparently trying to sell some fake blueprints of the Brooklyn Navy yard’s’ new Dreadnaught battleship turbine engines to some Japanese technology investors. They even wanted to take a whole turbine engine apart and ship it back to Tokyo to use as a prototype engine design in their own growing modern model navy. Unable to do this legitimately they resorted to industrial espionage, exploiting newly forged Yakuza connections with the New York underworld. In the headlong pursuit of this shifty policy change they eventually fell into the clutches of the New York confidence men’s fraternity, who dealt with them accordingly, sending their best man up against them. But they could only get hold of the blueprints they wanted at extortionate cost, or so they thought, being conned into buying into a number of huge real estate deals selling some useless tar-soaked grazing land in Texas as part of the price of obtaining the desired documents.
At the end of it all, together with owning vast tracts of worthless tar-soaked scrubland in Texas, the Japanese found they were only left with some inscrutable designs for some new fangled kind of inertia-powered flight. They supposedly being the novel ideas of some unrecognised boy-inventor going by the name of Bobby Goddard, who actually though he could fly a rocket to the moon if only he had the right kind of engine to do it with. Apparently, he was some unknown crackpot inventor (whose dubious fate more than likely is now completely lost to history) whom the Professor had enmeshed into participating in the scheme somehow or other, probably by promising to finance his future education at some Ivy League university. If the celebrated Professor had not tried to branch out from his main line of confidence trickery defrauding New York bankers of unused monies held on deposit, who knows, maybe he may never had gotten caught. Indeed, he might never have been heard of at all, and so gone unrecorded in the annuals of American confidence tricksters.
The Professor’s book itself is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a sensationalist piece of writing that touches on the raw essence of the con artist’s game, but may be more to do with a complete egotist’s overweening pride, vanity, avarice, lust, and greed. But then these are also natural human attributes that we all have to deal with one way or another almost every day of the week (usually as found in other people around us), and so might easily be overlooked in the man himself, simply for being purely human faults which we all suffer from on occasion. On this slightly controversial autobiography being published at the time by the Roycroft Press, I do not really expect any tacit approval of the book itself was really forthcoming in the literary world as it then was; or, come to think of it, of the various accounts of the scams and dodges included within it as being a valid subject for a legitimate Roycroft Press book. Which is probably one of the reasons why it is such a difficult book to get hold of, as commercial press reprints seem to be non-existent.
However, once the initial surprise about its insidious subject matter was put aside, I expect it could be appreciated for what it was, or as it was intended to be. As a common enough type of work that usually rounds off a misspent life that was lived, once it was lived poorly, and so was beyond all redemption (a fate reserved for any vain-glory amateur writer of sensationalistic autobiographical material, whoever he thinks he is). Of course, it shows us the true nature of the conman’s nefarious trade in the States at the time. But in a more serious vein, maybe it should really be considered as being more of a work that, through its focus on such a sensationalist subject, was still directed at the sensation-seeking public in general (they being ordinary, workaday people who liked to read lurid accounts of the current events in the crime world), rather than simply being a “rough guide to the con” for potential conmen, who probably wouldn’t read it anyway. It was, perhaps, more suitable then, as now, as being a popular magazine’s serialized page filler (where pages need to be filled quickly in some publication operating on the fringes of acceptability), and possibly best destined for the “Hello” magazine of the day.
This little-known work printed at the Roycrofters’ craft workshops, would probably be a “must have” reference source for anybody who seriously considered himself to be an expert on the history and nature of the con game in the States; and so for anybody with credibility who subsequently wanted to write a competent book on the subject. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many copies left around to be had, but fortunately, especially for any serious researchers into the subject of the con game, there is one available “on shelf” in the Bodleian Library storage facility at Swindon, Wiltshire, a short train ride away from central London. The Bodleian, or Oxford University Library, being one of the few copyright storage facilities of printed books in the world, and stores for future reference virtually every book printed in Britain to date, and also many printed in other English speaking countries, including the United States.
As hand printed books go, this rare autobiography of a conman is a pretty artefact: the title blind printed on soft leather boards, with brown washed silk endpapers, signed and dedicated by the author in the front, together with a copy number, “Copy No. 93.”, as usual the pages having been opened with a paper knife, with the publishers printing particulars and print history placed surreptitiously in the back of the book as per usual, and with the typeface chosen for the work immaculately suited to the subject. A collectable Roycroft Press book if I ever saw one. When I first saw it I was almost tempted to walk right out the door of the Bodleian with it tucked up underneath my arm; no one would really have missed it.
But I would never have gotten away with it, (as there’s always a witness, even if it’s only oneself), despite knowing full well from experience that, as Prof. Philo T. Cozener himself said at his trial, “He who dares do the unexpected, grabs the prize right out from under the noses of the unprepared.” Or, as he said on another, more promising occasion in a lecture to the Women’s Institute of Yonkers, New York State long before he was caught, and perhaps more relevantly, “The world about us distracts us from seeing reality as it is, the lucid mind (when made aware of it) concentrates its thoughts on overcoming this illusion, or it is simply part of it.” As, after all, when it comes to tricking people intent on concentrating upon the moment at hand, surprising them with its banality is perhaps the best way to do it.
But such things as petty pilfering is dishonest, and not the sort of thing basically honest people want to be involved in too often, if only for the sake of being afraid of being caught at it. And filching books from public libraries is something only the likes of people like Joe Orton could get away with with impunity; and even he was eventually charged with defacing public property in the end, as, in the end, he just returned them, vandalized with obscene graffiti. (These defaced copies of well-known works are now treasured possessions of the British Library, which actually puts them on show occasionally, often enticing groups of unsuspecting tourists, usually middle-aged Americans, in off of the main hall to see them in small, stuffy rooms with subdued lighting.) After all, when all is said and done, if an honest man is to go crooked over anything then it is much better for all concerned for him to do one big thing once, and then live on the proceeds ever after (much like receiving publishing royalties), and live much like a model law-abiding citizen from then on.
Reading of the good Professor’s sensationalist exploits, chock-full of moralistic tirades, clever anecdotes, novel observations and the contrite, condensed wisdom of a reformed confidence trickster, who had eventually been caught red handed at the game he though he knew so well, it seems a pity that his talents could not be employed in a more honest business. However, ending on a good point, I believe he ended his days as an evangelical preacher, preaching redemption to the converted in the mid-West. How much he was sincere about what he preached is open to debate, but, whatever he was on about, for many years he was very successful at it, at the zenith of his preaching fame at the height of the Great Depression he eventually dying of a heart-attack on stage in front of hundreds of wiling “schmucks”.
However, these numerous tricks of the trade he speaks about so profusely and in so much detail here in this book (despite his later digression from his natural career path), are still a handy reference tool for exploring how to fake and make and close deals, even in today’s world. Of course, they are a guide, an amusement, and also a rip-roaring yarn, but also a moral warning to us. And I think that the best thing to take away from this book of tall-tales is not to get above the bastion of reality that protects all those who take cover behind it. As once that is done, there is no cover from the slings and arrows of outrageous fate available there for anyone who does so, and he will eventually fall, like so many egoistic men before him have done, back into the abyss of self he crawled out of.
Further information on this particular Roycroft Press book, together with a micro-filch text document of the book, can be obtained from, The Archivist, Main Enquiry Desk, The Bodleian Library, Broad Street, Oxford, OX1 3BG, United Kingdom. Specific catalogue enquiries or selective comments can be made by sending the communication to this email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. It should be noted that the library would prefer to receive more complex enquiries in writing; this ensuring that the library staff understand the details of the enquiry correctly, and so that they can devote a sufficient amount of time to the answer. That is, if they deem the enquiry to be of sufficient merit to answer at all, and not ignore completely.
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