Book review: Hustlers and Con Men: An Anecdotal History of the Confidence Man and His Games

Hustlers and Con MenHustlers and Con Men: An Anecdotal History of the Confidence Man and His Games
by Jay Robert Nash
Published by M Evans & Co (April 1, 1976)
Buy it at: Amazon

The best trivia

  • So-called Drakers thought they’d be able to get a slice of the supposed billions in explorer Francis Drake’s inheritance (con men claimed Drake had an illegitimate child with Queen Elizabeth). The scam continued well into the 20th century.
  • In the early days of the post office, mail-order scams were common. For example, the Buncomb Company offered readers a moth cure for just 50 cents. Suckers got back a letter with a cure suggesting they burn down their house with kerosene.
  • During the 1849 gold rush, American con men duped greedy suckers by painting lead bricks with gold paint. One scammer, Reed Waddell, even set up a fake US Assayer’s office where an accomplice analyzed the lead brick and declared it was real gold.
  • A con man named Daniel Drew suckered both Cornelius Vanderbilt and John Jacob Astor’s brother. Vanderbilt bought Drew’s boat service before he knew it consisted of a single paddle-wheeler that barely ran, and Astor’s brother bought some sick cows that Drew had fattened up with water.

The con: history’s best prank show

A great con is structured like a great joke: there’s the expectation, the flash of surprise, and then, when it’s all over, the bewilderment at how you fell for it in the first place. Hustlers and Con Men captures history’s best jokes with wit.

This book is hard to get—it’s an out of print classic from 1976—but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a read. Jay Robert Nash’s book is an anthology of cons, from historic goofs to relatively modern swindles. The stories are recounted in bursts as short as a barroom anecdote, and if they don’t all seem plausible, that doesn’t detract from their appeal. A good con usually includes a great story, so it’s only fitting that some of these stories strain credulity in delicious ways.

When the book’s at its best, you can see new texture in broader history, the same way examining a cloth up close reveals its many threads. Example 1: the Garfield assassination. To most of us, it’s a dull fact, but reading about related cons brings the history alive. Shortly after Garfield’s assasination, a newspaper ad promised the grief-stricken public a steel-engraved portrait for just a dollar. Suckers who fell for it were sent a portrait—the one that appeared on a five-cent postage stamp.

What the book is

Hustlers and Con Men is a romp through the sleazy side of history. You’ll find great stories, some fine pictures, and a lot of examples of amazing tricks.

What the book isn’t

Hustlers and Con Men won’t give you a systemic overview of cons, an academic survey of deceit, or any other high-minded synthesis. It’s a collection of short, punchy essays meant to inform and entertain (with emphasis on the latter).

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