My stock story was basically the same for more than twenty years. However, each victim was different, and the situations varied. Strange-enough, the victims themselves made suggestions that helped me to improve the scheme. – Joseph Weil, The Autobiography of Yellow Kid Weil, Ziff-Davis Publishing Co., 1948.
More sherry, dear? asked Aunt Sarah, waving toward the decanter. “Just help yourself.”
I have never liked sherry, especially the sweet, cream sherry favored by Aunt Sarah, but I have been drinking a glass of it every Thursday afternoon in this room since I was 13 years old. I had been coming the few blocks to see her about once a week from the time I was allowed to make the trip by myself. The week I was 13 she served me my first glass of sherry. I didn’t like it then, either, but I was not about to admit it. Although she never said a word about it, I knew my parents would have conniptions if they knew she allowed me to drink a grownup’s drink, so I never told them. For reasons that I could never fathom, they were not really pleased anyway, with my friendship for Aunt Sarah. She was really my mother’s aunt, and though my mother seemed very fond of her, she did not encourage my weekly visits. In the beginning my fascination with Aunt Sarah was that, even before I was 13 and eligible for sherry, she talked to me as if I were an adult, and that is a rare experience for a boy, or a young man, for that matter, and we, to this day, shared a passion for reading and for talking about books. I missed the years that I was away at school, but once I was back, I had picked up the old habit again. In all those 14 years nothing seemed to have changed about Aunt Sarah or the room. I had always thought her to be very old – I guess now she was at least 75. She was not very fond of discussing her age so I was not really sure. I guess she must not have always been this thin and frail looking, and perhaps her wrinkles had become more numerous and more pronounced, but her hair had been snow-white ever since I could remember, and her sparkling black eyes held the same humor and intelligence that they had always done.
We heard the sound of her front door opening and closing and footsteps in the hall. “It’s Robert,” she said. “He’s on days this week. It always amazes me that such a big man can walk so quietly.”
“Robert,” she called. “Come in here.”
“Well, greetings, George. How’s the future DA getting along?”
“Still lost in the back in that crazy office. How’s the flat-foot business?”
“Oh, booming,” he said. “One thing cops never lack is business.”
I watched, grinning to myself, as Aunt Sarah handed him a glass of sherry. I knew he didn’t like sherry either, but one would never guess that from the way he accepted the glass. Bob and I had met at school in a criminology class and in spite of rather different temperaments – he was a talented football player, and I was a bookworm – had become good friends and had roomed together our senior year. I had gone on to law school, but Bob had come home to his job in the police department; exactly what he had always wanted and his reason for majoring in criminology. Knowing that Aunt Sarah had a small apartment to rent in her old house, I had suggested that it might be suitable for him. It had worked out better than I had hoped. One could see now at a glance the affection and esteem they held for each other.
Bob lowered his bulk into a chair that seemed a little small for him. In spite of his size he moved gracefully and easily. One doesn’t become a college football star on size alone. As he sipped his sherry, I became aware that he was uneasy. His normally cheerful expression had been replaced by the slight frown that I knew meant concern and indecision. He seemed to be searching for a way to say something as his brown eyes flicked uncertainly toward and then away from me. “I’m glad you are here, George,” he said. “There is something that I have to discuss with Aunt Sarah, and I am glad that you are present. It’s kind of serious, and you are her real family, after all.”
I looked at Aunt Sarah, but she was smiling at Bob without any visible concern. “My, you are serious. What in the world is it, Robert?” she asked.
“Well,” said Bob, “I haven’t seen you for some time, George, and you probably don’t know that I’ve been assigned to the buncombe squad. They say the department believes that trying to outwit con men is an education for new detectives. And they may be right. I’ve learned more in a few weeks about people than I would have dreamed possible. And some of it I’m sorry I even learned. Did you know Aunt Sara is a fountain of information and an all-around expert on all kinds of bunco schemes?”
“No, I sure didn’t. How in the world would you know anything about confidence games?” I asked her.
“Oh, George, you know I’ve read a million whodunits. I may have read every whodunit printed since 1890. There’s no aspect of con games that has not been thoroughly written up in these time wasters.”
“George, do you know what the pigeon drop confidence game is?” asked Bob.
“No, I know the name, but I don’t know the details,” I answered.
“Well, it works more or less this way. A man, or more often a woman, is accosted on the street, often at a bus stop, by a woman holding an envelope. The woman says, ‘Look what I just found. An envelope full of money. Just look. There’s $5,000 here.’ And she opens the envelope to show a stack of bills. ‘What do you think we should do with it?’ the woman asks. The victim or mark, surprised at being included in the decision, usually does not know what to say, and the con woman then says, ‘I know, my boss is a lawyer, he’ll know what to do. Come to this phone booth while I call him. He’ll tell us what to do.’ She makes the call and then says, ‘My boss says that we should hold the money for thirty days, and if no one has advertised for it or claimed it by then, that it is ours. He says since you know about it, we should split the money.’
“Now comes the tricky part. The woman explains to the victim that she will trust the victim to hold the victim’s half of the money, but the victim must prove that he or she will not spend the money before the thirty days are up. The way the victim can prove that is by withdrawing a like amount of money from his or her savings account and showing it to the confidence operator. This the victim often does. The operator then puts the money that the mark has withdrawn into the envelope that contains half the found money and then give the victim the sealed envelope with the money to hold for thirty days. The victim opens the envelope as soon as she is home or out of sight of the operator and, of course, finds the envelope is now full of sheets cut from a newspaper. Not only has the found money disappeared, but the savings she withdrew is gone as well.”
“That sounds insane to me,” I said. “I don’t see how anyone could fall for such a stupid game.”
“Well,” said Bob, “they’ve been falling for it for something over a century. It has been well publicized and is perhaps the best known swindle in the world, and it is pulled a dozen times a year in every city of any size in the country. And I promise you it will be a popular con game long after we are gone. I know it sounds like it would never work, but it sure does.”
“Actually,” said Aunt Sarah, “I know from my detective novels that the most successful con games don’t seem to make a lot of sense. Somehow the very implausibility of them seems to make them more believable. The victim is allowed to fill in details to suit himself. It’s the simple appeal to greed and larceny in the mark that works – not complicated and subtle schemes.”
“One of our recent victims, even after the confidence game was exposed kept saying of the operator, ‘But she was such a nice, friendly person – the nicest person I’ve met in a long time.’”
“Looks like people would know about this one,” I said.
“You didn’t,” Bob said.
“Well, I didn’t recall the details, but if anyone had tried it on me, I would have remembered it. I had read about it before, of course.”
“They wouldn’t try it on you,” Bob said. “Do you remember, Aunt Sarah, that I told you that you would be taken as a prime candidate by a con man. You look like you probably have some money in the bank, and you are the right age so that you might have a little confusion if faced with their scheme.
“George, when I was assigned to the bunco squad, I was given a briefing on four couples who are known to operate the pigeon drop in this town. Like you, I could hardly believe anybody would fall for it, but I read case after case where it had been successful. I mentioned it to Aunt Sarah, and she seemed interested in all the details of the racket. And she was very helpful to me. She told me some things to watch for – some tip offs that the game was in progress, and as a result I was able to apprehend one of the operators with what I think will be enough evidence to get her convicted. My sergeant, Sgt. McCluskey, said that it was beginner’s luck. It wasn’t; it was knowledge gained from talking to Aunt Sarah.
“Two weeks after we arrested that woman, one of the other known couples disappeared. Sgt. McCluskey picked up some strange rumors that they had been victimized by one of their marks and had left town hurriedly in anger and embarrassment.”
Aunt Sarah laughed. “I’ve read,” she said, “that nothing is so humiliating to a confidence game operator as having a supposed mark outwit him. Confidence swindlers always think they are the only people who have any brains at all. I guess they have some reason to think so, considering what they are able to make people believe.”
“That’s not all,” said Bob. “I was assigned to try to catch one of the other operators. The man was not identified, but the woman, known as Waxy Malone, is famous for her skill in the game. Aunt Sarah helped me with a plan to catch her. We had spotted her several times at a bus stop on Fourteenth Street across the street from District Saving & Loan. Also, there is a phone booth on that corner. It’s an ideal location to operate the pigeon drop. A patrol officer, Maggie Lewis, was recruited to help us, and she dressed up as a little, old lady, looking exactly like Aunt Sarah said a mark should look. She visited the savings and loan office every day and then waited at the bus stop, timing it so she would be there about a half-hour before a bus came. One of the tellers, the one that worked next to the window, was given a description of Waxy and asked to keep an eye out for her. We went through this routine every afternoon for about two weeks, and then suddenly we got the bit. The operator, Waxy, approached and opened an envelope and gave her speech. Now, of course, we intended to arrest her only when Maggie Lewis had passed some money to her so I was waiting, where I could see the bus stop, in the District Savings & Loan. To my surprise, Maggie suddenly whipped out her handcuffs and arrested Waxy right at the bus stop. I immediately went across the street to see what had happened. Maggie told me that Waxy had finally looked in the envelope that she was holding and had started raving and cursing and started to turn away, so Maggie had decided she’d better make the arrest. I looked in the envelope and saw that it was filled with cut sheets of newspaper. They always have at least a couple hundred dollars of real money along with stage money to make the mark think they have thousands, but there was not a single dollar in this envelope. Waxy was still raving, but she finally calmed down to a sullen silence. She also had on her another envelope filled with newspaper for her next victim. We might have got her to talk if Sgt. McCluskey hadn’t laughed so much when he saw the envelopes. That set her off to cursing and raving again. We had to let her go, of course, since we had no evidence whatsoever against her.”
“What do you think could have happened?” I asked.
“Oh, I know,” he said, “a supposed mark got to her and so skillfully that she didn’t have any idea she’d been had. She thought she had the money that she’d swindled out of her supposed victim in that envelope. This time she was going to show the new mark a batch of real money since it was handy.”
“I guess I don’t understand,” I said.
“Well,” Bob said, “I talked to the teller that we had briefed on the plan, and he gave me a vague description of a woman who had been in the office about an hour earlier that afternoon with Waxy. He had not recognized Waxy from our description but had seen her at the bus stop during her arrest, and he was sure she was one of the women who had been in the office earlier.”
“That’s pretty funny,” I said.
“Yes, it is. But there’s one little difficulty. Defrauding a confidence operator is a crime, too. As an august representative of the district attorney, won’t you verify that, George?” As he spoke to me, he was looking at Aunt Sarah. She was smiling at him as if she was proud of some accomplishment of his that I couldn’t see.
“Well, sure,” I said. “I’d hate to have to prosecute such a case though. It might be hard to persuade the jury.”
“All the same, it is a crime. Let me try to make my position clear. I’m assigned cases – it is not my duty to investigate on the basis of my suspicion. We are far too busy for that. But if I knew for a fact that someone had committed a crime, I could not just ignore it. Not even if it were you, George, or even you, Aunt Sarah.”
“If you saw me running a red light, I would fully expect you to see that I went to prison for life,” I said. “But I don’t see what you are getting at.”
“Well, I’ve finished. If I could just have some assurance that this would not happen again, I’d forget the whole thing,” Bob said.
“Robert,” said Aunt Sarah, “I think you can depend on it. It sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime affair to me. As you know, I am quite interested in your work, and I hope you will continue to discuss it with me. You’ll have no cause to regret it; I’m sure you won’t.”
“Good,” said Bob. He put his sherry glass down and left the room, hitting me lightly on the shoulder as he passed my chair.
“Listen,” I said. “I don’t think I like what he seemed to be implying. That is, if I understand it. Has he gone crazy?”
“Oh, George,” she said. “As shocking as it may seem to you, I was not always Aunt Sarah.” There was a touch of acid in her tone that I had never heard from her. “I used to be just Sarah. And Sarah at 17 married Sam. He was dead before you were born. But it was a great scandal in the family when I married Sam Huntley. It was a great scandal because Sam had been in prison – he was a confidence man, and I knew it when I married him. He could charm the birds from the trees, and he later charmed my family so that they accepted him, but they never quite forgave me for marrying him even after they accepted him. It’s a long, long story, but Sam and I worked some of the most successful, most imaginative games that had ever been done. If he ever had a peer at the business, it had to have been Yellow Kid Weil. His schemes were not as elaborate as some of Weil’s, but they had the sure and certain touch of a master.”
I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t even believe what I was hearing. “I don’t think it’s possible that you were a confidence operator,” I said.
“That’s the best qualification that a confidence man can have,” she said. “That is exactly the way everybody felt about Sam. Even afterwards, his marks could not believe that Sam was involved. They usually thought he must have been duped as well.”
I said nothing; I could think of nothing to say. After all these years I understood something of the background of my mother’s attitude toward Aunt Sarah. How many other secrets were hidden from me in my family? I suddenly felt like an outsider. Why had they never told me? Did they still think me a child?
For no reason I suddenly remembered that when I was 12 years old, I had discovered the Tom Swift books and for a year had read and reread every one that I could get my hands on. Every time I saw Aunt Sarah we talked about those books. Not once in that year did she ever show any sign that the Tom Swift stories were not the greatest of literature. She discussed them with seeming enthusiasm and pleasure. Was that a con game? No, encouraging a boy’s love of books is not a con game, that’s just love. Isn’t it? Love is not a con game, is it? Is it?
Aunt Sarah also lapsed into silence. Her face was turned toward me, but she had a distant look in her eyes as if she were reviewing something remote in time and place from this present and from this living room. Somehow, maybe by a trick of the lighting, she looked older than she had an hour ago. We sat in silence for a few minutes, and I finally said that I should be going. She got up from her chair and got an envelope from her desk and handed it to me.
“You have a lot of young men and women in your office. Some of them might like to go to the Policemen’s Ball next month. I happen to have a few tickets which I certainly don’t need. Would you be so good as to give them away for me?”
“Has Bob been pushing tickets off on you? Listen, no matter what he says, I know you didn’t do what he suggested. I just know you couldn’t.”
“Thanks, dear,” she said, holding my hand for a minute. “And he didn’t mention the ball; I bought the tickets from a patrolman who knocked on my door.”
As I went down the front steps to the sidewalk, I put the envelope into the breast pocket of my jacket, but almost immediately succumbed to an urge and retrieved it and broke the seal of the envelope and took out a string of tickets. Ten, twenty, twenty-four tickets, I counted. Twenty-four tickets at $20 each. Two swindlers swindled. I regressed to a childhood oath. “Holy mackerel!” I said.
Handset in Deepdene; display type is Piranesi Italic and the initial is a gift from Jim Walczak. Cover is Gold Skytone, 65lb. and text stock is 60-lb. Hammermill offset. Edited and published by Jake Warner who printed 450 copies on a 10×15 C&P at the Boxwood Press, Greenbelt, Maryland 20770.