In 1919, Texas rancher J. Frank Norfleet lost everything he had in a stock market swindle. He did what many other marks did—he went home, borrowed more money from his family, and returned for another round of swindling.
Only after he lost that second fortune did he reclaim control of his story. Instead of crawling back home in shame, he vowed to hunt down the five men who had conned him. Armed with a revolver and a suitcase full of disguises, Norfleet crisscrossed the country from Texas to Florida to California to Colorado, posing as a country hick and allowing himself to be ensnared by confidence men again and again to gather evidence on his enemies. Within four years, Frank Norfleet had become nationally famous for his quest to out-con the con men.
Through Norfleet’s ingenious reverse-swindle, Amy Reading reveals the mechanics behind the scenes of the big con—a piece of performance art targeted to the most vulnerable points of human nature. Reading shows how the big con has been woven throughout U.S. history. From the colonies to the railroads and the Chicago Board of Trade, America has always been a speculative enterprise, and bunco men and bankers alike have always understood that the common man was perfectly willing to engage in minor fraud to get a piece of the expanding stock market—a trait that made him infinitely gullible.
Amy Reading’s fascinating account of con artistry in America and Frank Norfleet’s wild caper invites you into the crooked history of a nation on the hustle, constantly feeding the hunger and the hope of the mark inside.
This account of con artists and obsessive revenge is replete with dramatic twists and turns. With a fierce work ethic, 54-year-old Texas Panhandle rancher J. Frank Norfleet had accumulated a small fortune by 1919, but he lost it in a stock swindle run by Big Joe Furey's gang of con men. In the opening chapter, Reading outlines in detail the psychological manipulations that led Norfleet to fall for the swindle, and she follows with a chapter on the origins and history of confidence men. Sensing the indifference of law enforcement officials, Norfleet resolved to track down the swindlers himself, and succeeded. With the con men finally behind bars, Norfleet became a celebrity and borrowed the style of dime novels to write his 1924 autobiography, Norfleet: The Actual Experiences of a Texas Rancher's 30,000-Mile Transcontinental Chase After Five Confidence Men, a key source for Reading, who in her first book delivers vibrant characterizations based on her research in archives, scrapbooks, newspapers, and government documents. This narrative of vigilante justice flows like fiction, as con artistry is illuminated throughout, with resonance in today's world of high-tech con artistry.