“YELLOW KID” WEIL: The Autobiography of America's Master Swindler

J. R. Weil
AK Press ($18)

by Niels Strandskov

Things have changed since Joseph “Yellow Kid” Weil prowled the racetracks and saloons of turn-of-the-century Chicago looking for people with more money than sense who would soon find that ratio reduced, considerably. Weil's autobiography, co-written with W.T. Brannon in 1948, makes it clear from the outset that while the urge to get something for nothing is eternal, many of the forms and predicates have been altered beyond recognition. If we are to believe Weil, as so many others did to their chagrin, many of the changes in American swindling can be traced directly to his own innovations. Although Weil tends to gloss over his antecedents in the confidence game, it is clear that whatever instruction he got as a young con man was only the catalyst around which a brilliant crystal of deceit would form.

In a light, breezy style, the irrepressible fraudster outlines scheme after scheme, each with a little fillip of panache that often seemed to mollify the otherwise angry recipients of his lessons in dishonesty. The most famous of Weil's creations is of course the extended set-piece that forms the basis for The Sting—a fake gambling hall where everyone but the mark is an actor or conman, perfectly orchestrated to separate cash from its owner, by means of a sure thing that never existed. That con depended on manipulating the mark's trust in technology, in this case telegraphy, and as Weil spins out his tale, this theme recurs frequently. Faked-up geological maps of oil wells, money-copying machines, and doctored photos of bogus Michigan resorts all figure in the litany of deception.

The difference between the joyful brio of Weil and his cronies and the desperate, grinding tedium of today's spammers and gold-farmers seems to boil down mostly to personal attention. Weil tells of one con where he solicited 2,000 owners of worthless property to get useless title abstracts drawn up through a legitimate (though corrupt) lawyer for a decent profit of $50 or $100 a throw. Starting with newspaper ads and phone calls, he eventually narrows down the list to several hundred, all of whom he meets personally to con in less than a month. There's a level of virtuosity implied by the relentless repetition of a crooked sales pitch that would put today's hardest-selling phone bank speed-dialers to shame.

On the other side of the law, the same personalization apparently obtained. When Weil started in Chicago, the local justices of the peace were so corrupt that every case was determined in advance, with juries hand-picked (often by the very men, like Weil himself, who often came before them as defendants) to deliver the “right” verdict. Too, Weil drolly relates of a time when, after cheating a notorious madam of $2,500 in a race-fixing con, her Chicago police detective boyfriend set several men to catch Weil, who managed to avoid arrest mostly by dint of being quicker on his feet than the lumbering lawmen.

Unlike many of the previous biographies in AK Press's Nabat series, Weil's entry rarely dwells on what might have been, or on the privations he occasionally faced. In contrast to Jack Black's tale of woe and addiction in You Can't Win, Weil seems to have regarded the path of excess as a laudable end in itself. Of the millions Weil apparently made in his long career, most of it went to wine, women, and song. Lavish multi-day parties ate up cash as fast as he could make it, but that didn't bother Weil too much. Why else was he stealing money in the first place, if not to have a good time? Compare this to the dreary capitalists Weil so often snookered—tight-fisted grumps who only loosened their purses when they thought they were getting the better of someone. Like Black, Weil was the kind of criminal who never stiffed a landlady or dashed out on a restaurant check.

Although Weil's ethics leave much to be desired in any objective calculus, it is of course his style which keeps the pages turning. Always attuned to the details of luxury and flair, he frames every con with a concise explanation of why that particular swindle could appeal to this particular mark. It would not be absurd to speak of Weil and his ilk more as performance artists of the life actor variety than as criminals. The talent for extending someone's consciousness just past the boundaries of good sense, and opening up the heart of a staid small-town banker to the joy of larceny must surely rank with any other expert display of thespianism. Indeed, perhaps it was Weil himself who got the worst of his many swindles. All the marks lost was a little cash, no more than most of them could easily afford to lose. Weil gave them each a glimpse of his genius, a little piece of perfection.

Things just aren't the same today: the suave lions of Weil's confidence game are replaced with the braying hyenas of a million call centers and anonymous script kiddies like dung beetles rolling up credit card numbers by the thousand on their dank, boiler-room screens. Where's the beauty in that? When the Yellow Kid took you, you knew you'd been had.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011