Yellow Kid Weil: Autobiography of the greatest con man in American history

By Cory Doctorow

Joseph "Yellow Kid" Weil may have been the greatest American swindler of all time. The Yellow Kid operated in the gold age of the American con, from the late 19th century up to WWII, and became a legend in his own time, immortalized in such books as The Big Con (the sociological study of con artists that was the basis for the movie The Sting).

The first edition of "Yellow Kid" Weil, the as-told-by autobiography of the cheerful crook, was published in 1948. It was long out of print, but it was reprinted in 2010 by AK Press, and it's one of the most entertaining memoirs of the era.

Students of con games will know the basic mechanics -- many of which Weil claims to have invented -- and will know that some legitimate contemporary business practices, such as giving away high-priced premiums to sell commodity goods and stocking department stores with flashy, cheap goods that are priced as though they were being sold at a great discount, came to prominence as part of elaborate con-games and only later were institutionalized as normal business.

But the real, serious, high-octane cons were practiced with a cast from two to 200, using elaborate sets, timing and staging, and usually involved a faked-up plan to cheat on horse races, real estate or the stock market. This plan always went awry somehow, and ended with all the participants losing their shirts (as far as the mark knew, anyway -- in reality, his "pal" the con-man lost nothing and would split the take with the inside man).

Weil's autobiography is really more of a memoir -- it doesn't provide much of a coherent narrative of the man and his life. Rather, it is a series of unconnected -- but hugely entertaining -- anaecdotes about the various scams he ran and the venal fools he took for thousands and tens of thousands of dollars. Weil is a virtuoso exploiter of human foibles, and each story serves as a miniature morality play in which someone who thinks he's getting something for nothing (usually at some innocent's expense) instead loses everything as payback for his venality.

One glaring blindspot in Weil's narrative is Weil himself. He has practically no self-awareness, and there's virtually no sense of what's going on in his own head as he bilks and cons his way around the world. This omission is as striking as anything else in the book, and speaks volumes about how disassociated Weil was from his own ethics and morality. The final two chapters are the most poignant, as they are where Weil, now gone straight, accounts for himself and his deeds. He repeats the con-artist's shibboleth that he only cheated crooks who thought they were cheating others (though the book has plenty of contradictory examples he neglects to mention), but there is a glimmer of self-knowledge there that is all the more remarkable due to its absence elsewhere in the narrative.

This is one of the most entertaining memoirs I've ever read. Its episodic nature makes it a natural for quick reads -- a more perfect toilet-tank book there never was -- and the detailed descriptions of Depression-era cons are priceless, especially for anyone interested in gadgets and improvisation. The scam fortuneteller whose turban disguised a telephone clamped to his head, which was wired down his collar and trouser-leg to an electrical contact on the bottom of his shoe, which would be mated to a telephone circuit when the "swami" reclined on an "oriental lounger" to "commune with the spirit world" is one of the best things I've ever read.

"Yellow Kid" Weil

Published 6:37 am Thu, Dec 8, 2011

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About the Author

I write books. My latest are: a YA graphic novel called In Real Life (with Jen Wang); a nonfiction book about the arts and the Internet called Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age (with introductions by Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer) and a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.

17 Responses to “Yellow Kid Weil: Autobiography of the greatest con man in American history”

  1. Paul R says:

    “from the turn of the 19th century up to WWII”  You don’t see as many 140-year careers  these days. Today’s conpersons have gotten soft.

    • flosofl says:

      Pretty sure “turn of the 19th” is correct, indicating 1899->1900 (or 1900->1901 for pendants). 

      • Wordguy says:

        Wow, that’s an old necklace.

      • Andrew Forrest says:

        Pretty sure you’re wrong! Turn of the 20th C was 1901; turn of the 19th C was 1801.

        • flosofl says:

          Via Wikipedia it appears we are both wrong (and right).

          According to the Chicago Manual of Style, there is no common agreement about the phrase “turn of the ____th century.” For instance, if a statement describes an event as taking place “at the turn of the 18th century”, it could refer to a period around the year 1700 or one around the year 1800. As such, they recommend using only “turn of the century,” and only in a context that makes clear which transition is meant.

    • John Smith says:

      I like when people correct authors over minor, insignificant errors.

  2. paul beard says:

    Isn’t a lack of self-awareness a feature for con-men, rather than a bug? It’s all about projecting a false reality: why not start with yourself?

    • ackpht says:

      I think that’s true- to be a really fluent liar, you have to in some way believe in the lie yourself. Whatever lie/reality alert mechanism that would cause conflict in a “normal” brain is turned off so that the conflict cannot impair the delivery of the lie.

      And then some people believe that if they have an opportunity to cheat someone, they’d be foolish to pass it up, and any fault lies with the person dumb/conceited/greedy/dishonest enough to be cheated.

  3. Pavlo says:

    It is really a wash-wash. It’s full of good old con artists anecdotes, albeit Mr. Weil takes credit for all of them. Would be OK book if it were under 50 pages, instead he goes on repeating himself for 200 pages! It’s not comparable to Big Con, nor to The Man Who Sold Eiffel Tower.

  4. Brainspore says:

    The Yellow Kid operated in the gold age of the American con…

    Joke’s on you, Cory. It was just a “fool’s gold” age.

    • jimh says:

      Ain’t no golden age like the current one. I’m sure the Kid would have enjoyed hearing about fleecing millions of people at once, getting caught, and then having the Fed cool out the marks (and kick in an extra $700B).

  5. efergus3 says:

    Wait – “the greatest conman in American history”?  Wasn’t that George W.?

  6. GregS says:

    If he were alive today, we’d probably be referring to him as “Senator Weil”. 

  7. gilgar13 says:

    Great book, but why not read it for free at the online library here, http://www.archive.org/details/yellowkidweilaut00weil  instead of buying at Amazon?

    • Michael_J_Walsh says:

      Don’t like Amazon?  Want to support the folks who reprinted this?  Buy direct from the publisher … they earn more that way.

  8. Dave H says:

    They say there is a book that is given to all junior congressmen on how to conduct them selves in washington, now we know what book it is 

  9. pginna says:

    There’s good stuff on Yellow Kid Weil & what made him  a successful con in BOZO SAPIENS: Why to Err Is Human by Michael & Ellen Kaplan: http://www.bloomsburypress.com/books/catalog/bozo_sapiens_pb_911

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