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

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