'The Big Con': If You Can't Avoid It, Avenge It When con men took off with Texas rancher J. Frank Norfleet's fortune, he turned con man himself in the hopes of stealing his money back. In The Mark Inside, Amy Reading shares one of the strangest stories in the history of the swindle.
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'The Big Con': If You Can't Avoid It, Avenge It

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'The Big Con': If You Can't Avoid It, Avenge It

'The Big Con': If You Can't Avoid It, Avenge It

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

America is the land of the free and the home of the brave and - Amy Reading suggests in her new book - maybe the birthplace of the modern swindle. She tells the story of a Texas rancher named J. Frank Norfleet who got taken in a con, then spent the next four years crossing the country, donning disguises, and posing as a fool and a dupe, hoping to meet the men who'd conned him and return the favor.

Amy Reading's new book is "The Mark Inside: A Perfect Swindle, Cunning Revenge, and a Small History of the Big Con." Amy Reading joins us from the studios of Colorado Public Radio. Thanks so much for being with us.

AMY READING: Oh, thank you. My pleasure.

SIMON: And so, how did this man, J. Frank Norfleet, who would grow to be admired for his intelligence and enterprise in seeking revenge, get swindled out of his cowboy boots?

READING: He got swindled partly because of his intelligence. He was a 54-year-old self-made man. He had gone from being an itinerant cowhand to owning his own cattle ranch. And the way that he grew successful was to do business with a handshake with other honest, straightforward men. And those were exactly the qualities that the swindlers who encountered him in Dallas - when he went there on a land deal - used to take him for everything that he was worth.

SIMON: So, when he met this guy named - and we'll hear this name a lot - Big Joe Furey, it was in a his moral radar that was off?

READING: Well, no. I think what happened was when he met Joe Furey, Furey represented himself as a broker on a stock exchange, someone with inside knowledge of this arcane financial world that was very different to Frank Norfleet than the world of cattle. So, it's not so much that his moral radar was off, as that he thought he was vaulting up into a new plateau of financial savvy. And they flattered his knowledge and his intelligence.

SIMON: Well, I ask because of course there's a theory that a con like this works because the man being conned - if he's not exactly dishonest - he's at least maybe looking for a little edge.

READING: Yes, and that is something that conmen are always quick to point out; that you can't swindle an honest man, but a dishonest man has it coming. And there's certainly truth to that, but that's not the whole story. People are conned not only by greed and dishonesty, but also by qualities like friendship and altruism.

And in Frank Norfleet's instance, he actually thought that he was helping his newfound friend. So it's not quite as a black and white situation as only bad people get conned.

SIMON: When did he realize he was swindled?

READING: Quite late. He realized he was swindled not after the first time they took a pile of money from him, but after the second time. He was absolutely devastated. He was worse than broke because he had borrowed some of the money he had just lost, and that's where his story gets unique. He could not bear to go back home and just swallow his losses.

SIMON: He publicly avowed to avenge his swindle and he set out on this quest to find the guys and bring them to justice. What were some of the poses that he wound up going through?

READING: He posed as a cotton grower from Ferris, Texas. He posed as a celery farmer from Sanford, Florida. Very quickly on, he learned the con game as well as or better than the con men themselves.

SIMON: And then, in the story, what followed was a chasing that Hollywood would find it hard to set up today - a high-speed train chase.

READING: Yes. So when he finally catches up with Furey in Florida, he's got guns on his side and he's got Furey in handcuffs. But Furey is a man who does not like jail. So, they're taking him across country by train. And at one moment when Furey has them all distracted, he simply puts his hands together and dives through the plate-glass window of the train out onto the tracks.


READING: And then Norfleet does the same, because what else is he going to do? He's going to get his man. And so then there's this absolutely ridiculous chase back down through the train tracks on various cars that they've each hijacked, until...


READING: Well, maybe I shouldn't spoil all of the story. But he does catch up with him at some point.

SIMON: I got the impression in a couple of instances in the story that J. Frank Norfleet actually, in a way, grew to admire a successful con.

READING: I think we all do, don't we? I think he's no different from many Americans. By the time J. Frank Norfleet was ensnared in the con in 1919, it had been evolving for several decades. So it was a very well-designed piece of stagecraft. And there is one moment - without spoiling too much of the book - where he's sitting down face-to-face with his nemesis, Big Joe Furey. And they absolutely hit it off. And they start to exchange the secrets of how they each tried to swindle each other. So, there they are. Two old hams sitting down as equals, and that tells you a lot about what you need to know about Norfleet.

SIMON: You know, I'm very pleased to do this interview, although I must tell you, I don't need to do this for a living. Because just a few days ago I got an email telling me I'd won $200 million in the Luxembourg Lottery. All I have to do is collect. Which raises the question: is there anything new about these cons?

READING: What I think is that the con never dies. It just changes costume. We all know how Ponzi schemes, and Nigerian 419 schemes work and yet they continue to make somebody an awful lot of money. And that gives the lie to something that certainly experts in the financial field would love to believe, which is that if you only know the structure of a con and how its mechanisms work, then you'll be inoculated. I think we can see that's not the case.

SIMON: Can you be fooled?

READING: Me, personally?

SIMON: Yeah.

READING: Well, yes. Yes, I can. I think anyone can. But actually, personally, I operate my life - I, maybe this is dangerous to say on public radio - but in complete trust of people. Because if you act as if everyone is potentially conning you you'll be shut out from the business of life.

SIMON: Did you think, by the way, this interview was going to be on the radio?


SIMON: It's a joke.

READING: Did you think I had a Ph.D. in American Studies?


SIMON: OK. You win.


SIMON: Amy Reading, at the studios of Colorado Public Radio in Denver. Her new book, "The Mark Inside: A Perfect Swindle, Cunning Revenge, and a Small History of the Big Con." Thanks so much.

READING: Thank you. I appreciate it.


SIMON: And you can visit NPR.org to read about J. Frank Norfleet's fatal first meeting with Big Joe Furey.

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