One aspect about the era spanning from the lat 1800s to the second world war that is one of the most colorful is the old time con men. In this series we’ll touch upon some of the most intriguing.
We begin, Ladies and Gentlemen, with one of the best and most clever: Joseph Weil.
“The desire to get something for nothing has been very costly to many people who have dealt with me and with other con men. But I have found that this is the way it works. The average person, in my estimation, is ninety-nine per cent animal and one per cent human. The ninety-nine per cent that is animal causes very little trouble. But the one per cent that is human causes all our woes. When people learn – as I doubt they will – that they can’t get something for nothing, crime will diminish and we shall live in greater harmony.”
Nicknamed ‘The Yellow Kid’ after the Yellow Kid in the comic strip Hogan’s Alley and The Yellow Kid, Weil was born in 1875 in Chicago. At the age of 17 he was involved in the load sharking industry and he saw some of his peers pocketing some the money they were otherwise obligated to hand over to their bosses. And this being Chicago, you can only imagine those bosses. He started a little protection racket, promising to keep it all hush hush for a small piece of the pie.
Mkaing his rounds in the loan sharking industry he became acquainted with Doc Meriwether, a big time con man, and Doc soon took Weil under his wing and taught him the tricks of the trade.
One of Doc’s Main swindles was Meriwether’s Elixir, good for whatever ails man or beast, but particularly helpful with tapeworms. During that period tapeworms were a bit of a boogeyman, thought to be responsible for a myriad of afflictions and actually responsible for none. Doc’s Elixir, whose chief ingredient was rainwater, mixed with with some cascara and alcohol cleared it right up.
We are talking literally, about the set up on the back of a wagon. Doc would roll up, park his wagon, couple of girls would do a little dance, Weil would act as either a barker or a shill (a plant in the crowd) and thus Doc would sell his magic elixir and make a killing.
From there Weil struck out on his own and gradually became one of the most successful con men of all time. His secret wasn’t that his cons were always more imaginative than the standard long cons of the day, (although they were indeed pretty imaginative. Honestly, a lot of his stuff is straight out he BBC series Hustle) his real secret was that he was an extraordinary judge of both character and psyche. He could tell exactly where the mark was in his head and play or change to it.
Some of his cons were as follows:
The Racehorse Con.
Weil and a partner would pose as representatives of The American Turf Association, who control most of the better racetracks in the country. They would approach, say, the an Olive Oil Importer. They needed olive oil to bathe the horse in and give them their sheen. A large order would be discussed, but halfway through the meeting Weil would excuse himself to make an important call.
The mark would wonder what such a call could be to walk out on a meeting and Weil’s partner would begrudging tell him Weil did this every day at the same time and he was calling a betting commissioner. He explained how Weil mysteriously cleaned up at teh track and would show the mark a newspaper clipping from The Racing Form about Weil’s character and how he was so successful at the track.
When Weil returned the mark would question him and gradually drag out fo him that he was getting inside information. The mark would then ask if Weil could place a bet for him. Weil would begrudgingly agree, but just this once. Off to the back they’d go to get a sizeable stack of cash to make the one sure bet…
badda bing, badda boom.
The Faro Bank Pay Off.
So Weil hires a bunch of guys to play their various parts.
A rich woman wants to lease her 9 bedroom apartment on the Gold Coast for several months while she goes abroad. Weil rents it and to insure he gets it, pays in advance.
He and his crew set up an upper class gambling den in it, and declare it to be one of a small number of real clubs set up by a millionaire named Jettison who catered to the socially elite. The apartment was so luxurious that by the time Weil was done putting the games in, it looked like exactly what one would imagine such a gaming room to look like.
Next Weil approached mark 1. Mark 1 was not rich, but his close friend, mark 2 was. Mark 2 was the real mark, but he comes in much later.
Weil’s “uncle” works in the upper class club. After years and years of didicated service he’s being let go and screwed out of his pension, so before he goes he wants to screw the club. He needs mark1 to help. Weil’s character can’t help of course since it being his uncle, he’s known there and winning to big for him would be suspicious.
Weil’s uncle deals the game called Faro Bank. The Uncle teaches Mark1 is to play it and to pick up on his signals. Mark1 will go to the club, play the game with the uncle dealing, make a killing and split it with the uncle.
Mark1 will of course buy in a large amount: $50,000. (this is 1910 remember) Mark 1 doesn’t have the kind of money to buy in such an amount, but no matter. The club being upper class and with a selective clietelle, accepts checks. Makr1 will just use a check and deposit the money needed to cover it eh next day with his winnings.
Mark1 goes to the club, plays the game and wins big. $300,000 kind of big (and we’re talking early 20th century money) Mark1 goes to cash it, a veritable fortune, but the “pitboss” makes trouble.
The pitboss points out makr 1 is not a member, merely a guest invited by Weir’s character. Guests do not have check writing priviledges. Rules are rules. The winnings are indeed mark1’s to have, but the check will not do. He must buy in in cash. And no, he cannot use his winnings to do such a thing. Pitboss has no intention of bending the rules of the Gaming Comission. Everything must be above board.
Oh no… what to do what to do. Weir does not know anyone with that kind of cash. They are lost. Oh, but mark1 points out he does know someone with that kind of cash. He knows mark2, who he certain he can get to cover it.
So mark2 is brought in. Furthermore, unlike mark1, who is quite honest about his lack of knowledge about many things, mark is always int he know about everything. The next day, mark2, Weil and his “uncle” go back to the gambling den. Alas, pitboss is not there and has the money stored in the vault.
Hmm. Well now, while they wait why don’t they teach mark2 the game Faro Bank and he can use the $50,000 he brought to just buy in and win himself?
And so they play. And oh how mark2 begins to win. Last turn comes. The uncle signals mark2. Mark2 bets and goes all in. The uncle furiously signals to withdraw the bet. This is caught by the current pitboss who insists the bet stands. The hand loses. All is lost. Uncle and mark2 and Weil are kicked out of the club.
But here’s the kicker. What ultimately loses the hand is that the uncle signals mark2 to bet on the high card first, thus mark2 bets on the ace first.
Well for heaven’s sake! Don’t you know in Faro Bank the Ace is the low card?!? Mark2 had made out like he had some knowledge of the game. And thus mark2’s know it all attitude is used against him AND mark2 believes he’s the one who screwed up and lost the cash so he doesn’t blame anybody.
Badda bing badda boom.
Weil’s done phony oil deals, he’s been a chemist who figured out how to copy dollar bills, he’s sold lots of land for lots of reasons (gold on it, oil in it, you name it), and tons and tons of stocks. In the 20s before the crash it was easy as cake to sell stocks and Weil made most of his monye off of stock selling. He hustled over $8 million dollars in his lifetime, only spent 3 years in jail, and died at age 100. He even wrote a book “Yellow Kid” Weil: The Autobiography of America’s Master Swindler. Which can be read in its entirety here.
Weil is legendary and one of the most sucessful con men of all time and one of the more colorful characters of early 20th century America and grifter history.