In my early adult years, I moved around, plying the trade of a Pious Itinerant. To wit, I was a folksinger. I first performed in coffeehouses in New York’s Greenwich Village, but moved on to Boston, New Hampshire, Philadelphia, D.C., Maine, and importantly for this story, Baltimore.
Baltimore was an essential stop in my periodic ramblings not because the coffeehouse scene was so good for me, but because some of my best friends lived there. Bob and Chris had a house open to all wanderers. Life at their home in the ’60s was exciting. There were political radicals of all stripes, folkies like me, artists, and lots of people who just wandered in. Chris was the emotional den mother of this band of unlikely cohabitors. Almost anything could happen during a night of round-robin folksinging, political discussion, and sometimes body ( and bawdy) art.
An occasional visitor was John, no known last name, no known previous residence. John was a self-declared “artiste of the con.” He claimed to be so good that he had run a successful rent scam on several of the disreputable fortune-telling parlors downtown. He convinced them, in his tale, to pay their rent to him after convincing them that he had purchased the properties. He’d go to city records to get some official-looking public documents for their specific addresses and convince the fortuneteller to fork over their rents. The con was a onetime only scam, but lucrative. It was also dangerous; some of those folks played rough when they discovered they’d been conned. I believe that was what led to John’s sudden departure from Baltimore.
Before John split town, he decided during one night of alcoholic fug to impart to me what he humbly called “John’s Art of the Con.”
1.) A good con artist enrolls the fish in the scam. The fish becomes a collaborator. If and when the swindle collapses, the fish is too embarrassed to turn in the artiste.
2.) Be honest in all the little things; this lowers the level of suspicion when you tell a whopper. A corollary to this is that a half-truth is much more effective than a whole lie.
3.) Be generous. Gifts to charity help establish your bone fides as a pillar of the community and place you above suspicion.
4.) Don’t be greedy. Most scams artists get caught because they don’t know when to stop.
5.) Don’t involve family or close friends; you need them for protective cover when things go south.
There were others, but considering the amount of beer consumed that evening I am surprised that I remember these.
The one rule that truly stuck with me was number one because it was later confirmed by people who had worked in the intelligence field.
Conversations with a colleague working in criminal justice and a friend in corrections suggested that few career criminals have the discipline needed to apply the rules coherently or consistently. This explains why so many “smart” criminals are in prison, as my C.O. friend points out.
That’s where it pretty much rested until the mid-’90s. I was traveling into the Mid-Atlantic for an in-water boat show. After setting up the afternoon before the show started, I retreated to my hotel room for a shower and a nap before dinner. I rarely watch T.V., but when I travel, I’ll turn on the hotel set to see if I’m missing anything. That afternoon I was surprised. The spokesperson for a Congressman was making an announcement about the Congressman’s upcoming reelection bid. It had been thirty years, but there was something about the guy that seemed familiar. The hair was thinner, there were jowls and about twenty excess pounds around the waist. But, the diction, the facial expressions, the choice of words, and the hand gestures were all John.
John was one of the smart ones. He had latched onto a long-running scam with a low conviction rate.
It was really our fault. We had thought John was a petty scam artist. In fact, he had higher aspirations.