Book Review: 'The Mark Inside,' by Amy Reading
Illustration by Esao Andrews
The tale of a masterful con inspires nostalgia for the glory days of the bunco job
The Mark Inside:
A Perfect Swindle, a Cunning Revenge,
and a Small History of the Big Con
By Amy Reading
Knopf; 304pp; $26.95
One day in November, 1919, a man named J. Frank Norfleet walked into the lobby of the St. George Hotel in Dallas. A rancher from the Texas Panhandle, Norfleet came to the city to sell some of his land and buy a bigger spread from a neighbor. At the St. George, Norfleet began chatting with a man named Miller, a mule buyer also in town for business, and soon the two were talking deals, with Norfleet confiding his plans to sell land. What a coincidence! Miller had a friend who might be interested in buying it. On cue, his aforementioned friend, the well-tailored Charles Harris, sauntered into the building.
Miller, whose real name was Reno Hamlin, and Harris, well played by one W.B. Spencer, would come to rue the day they ever picked Norfleet as their sucker. Both worked for Big Joe Furey, a bunco artist who specialized in stock swindles. Furey’s con often worked this way: a couple of steerers befriend the sucker and arrange it so the mark finds a lost wallet. They locate the wallet’s owner, played by Furey posing as a big-shot broker. A grateful Furey insists on staking the mark to a stock play. The sucker wins big. Before he can collect, however, the pesky rules of the local stock exchange dictate he must show he had sufficient funds of his own to cover his bets in case the market had turned against him. You want your returns? Then show us your cash, which in Norfleet’s case came to $45,000, most of it borrowed from his brother-in-law. The money is whisked away supposedly to show exchange officials, and the mark is told to meet Furey at a different hotel the next day to get his stash back, along with his winnings. Guess who doesn’t show up.
At this point, the losers usually went to the police, who often were in league with the con men, or slinked home, too embarrassed to report the scam. Not Norfleet. As Amy Reading recounts in her rollicking book, The Mark Inside, Norfleet began a four-year countrywide quest to bring down Furey’s five-man team. Joined at first by his son and then his daughter, Norfleet encountered enough grifters to populate a half-dozen David Mamet plays. He not only helped snag Furey and his men (though it remains murky whether Furey died in prison in 1922 or faked his own death and escaped) but ended up chasing so many other scam artists that he became a tabloid hero.
In the era of Bernie Madoff, Nigerian spam scams, and other sordid rackets, it’s heartening to remember that swindling once took a touch more finesse. You could call it performance art, with audience members willing to play along as long as the stakes were low. The author credits P.T. Barnum, with his colorful and overblown hoaxes (most famously the Feejee Mermaid, said to have been captured near the Fiji Islands and preserved for posterity), for creating a popular appetite for the entertaining con. After all, look how many New Yorkers in the 1840s were willing to pay a quarter to check out Barnum’s creation, so obviously a monkey head stitched to a fish’s body.
As Reading observes, those who ended up as suckers often started the game thinking they would make a quick (but legal) killing. The Liberty Bonds issued during World War I created a nation of investors. According to Reading, 17 million Americans owned securities by 1918, up from a half million just before the war. Ideal prey, argues Reading, for con men offering to sell bogus stock to those willing to mail in those bonds. As one con man told the Saturday Evening Post, “The war and the activities incident to it increased the output of American suckers tenfold.”
Reading uses Norfleet’s tale as a vehicle to deliver delightful trivia on the history of con artistry, such as how Benjamin Franklin used to print a sage leaf on his money to stymie counterfeiters, and how Joseph Weil, aka the Yellow Kid, duped Benito Mussolini out of $2 million by selling him mining land in Colorado. At times she overreaches in attempting to impute dark motives to financial transactions, seeing cons where there likely wasn’t any intentional foul play. She states, for example, that when companies began to buy the loyalty of workers by granting them stock, that maneuver encouraged “the middle and working classes to invest in the capitalist system on the terms of the financiers.” How exactly that qualifies as a swindle, or makes anyone more susceptible to a modern-day Joseph Furey is not at all clear.
No one will feel conned, however, buying The Mark Inside. It is an astounding tale, brought to vivid life by an historian who has had to become an expert at distinguishing fact from romantic fiction. Reading’s main source for her book was Norfleet’s own 1924 autobiography, grandly titled Norfleet: The Actual Experiences of a Texas Rancher’s 30,000-mile Transcontinental Chase After Five Confidence Men. Reading at first had assumed the book to be a brilliant, fanciful novel. To her astonishment, the story was true, but as she dug deeper she discovered enough embellishment to give her pause. She found that Norfleet himself, so in love with how the newspapers depicted his exploits, could not help adding dollops of drama and derring-do. He gave lectures around the country, started filming a movie about his exploits (work halted when funding dried up, leading one actress to sue him for nonpayment) and for decades toured the Southwest selling his book at rodeos and fairs before his death in 1967 at 102. In a sense, J. Frank Norfleet became his own kind of con artist, selling an inflated version of himself to anyone inclined to buy it.