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Modern Television Conmen and The Yellow Kid

on Wed, 08/31/2011 - 00:00

In the season four episode of the TNT drama Leverage entitled “The Boiler Room Job,” the cast find themselves up against the fictitious grandson of real life con artist Joseph “The Yellow Kid” Weil. “Quite possibly the greatest grifter of all time,” Sophie Devereaux explains in the installment, while Greg Sherman—the supposed descendent of the Yellow Kid—remarks, “My family invented most every con that you’ve ever heard of.”

Born in 1875, Joseph Weil was indeed the preeminent conman of the early part of the Twentieth Century. It was during this time period that such intellectual criminals flourished, creating elaborate ruses that originated from the simple Three Card Monte to the famed “wire” that served as the centerpiece of the 1975 Paul Newman/Robert Redford film The Sting, to even elaborate ponzi schemes and stock market deceptions. Although the Yellow Kid may not have invented every single con known to man as Leverage claims, he nonetheless mastered them during the 50 years that he was a professional charlatan.

In 1948, at the age of 70 and finally retired from a life of crime, Joseph Weil co-wrote his memoirs with W.T. Brannon. The resulting Autobiography of America’s Master Swindler was reissued in 2011 by Nabat Books and the entertaining story of the Yellow Kid features numerous stories of his adventures and elaborate money-making schemes. Just as the early part of the Twentieth Century saw the rise of the modern day conman, however, the early part of the Twenty First Century has seen a growing number of fictitious practitioners of the trade on the small screen. In addition to the team of former thieves on Leverage—who utilize elaborate cons to bring down corporate criminals—there has been James “Sawyer” Ford on the ABC drama Lost and Neal Caffrey from the USA Network series White Collar. Any one of these contemporary figures could easily be a direct descendent of Joseph “The Yellow Kid” Weil.

“During these years I discovered many things, but most important I learned about people, their strong points and their weaknesses,” Weil writes in his autobiography in regards to his time as a grifter. “Especially their weaknesses. All the people I swindled had one thing in common—greed, the desire to acquire money. But that was not always enough. In numerous cases there was some other factor, some small desire that helped me to clinch a deal. Trivial matters often meant the difference between success and failure for me.”

Each of the previously mentioned television characters are also a master at understanding human nature. At the start of each episode of Leverage, for instance, mastermind Nathan Ford and his group investigate the background and interests of each of their targets while looking for that additional “desire” that goes beyond mere money, whether it’s the acquisition of a rare art piece or the respect of someone’s high school classmates. Sawyer from Lost likewise exhibits an uncanny ability to determine the vulnerabilities of his “marks,” from the search for adventure in the case of Cassidy Phillips to the need for a trustworthy comrade in regards to prison mate Munson. Many of Sawyer’s comments about his craft likewise reflect those of the Yellow Kid, including:

“Everybody’s scared. The thing they’re scared of most is a missed opportunity.”

“It works by getting someone to ask you to do something like it’s their idea. But it’s not their idea, it’s your idea.”

“It’s all in the details.”

According to Joseph Weil, the most important element of any con is the initial set-up. By first convincing the intended victim of the conman’s fictitious credentials and gaining their trust, it simplifies responding to any potential difficulties that later materialize. The team on Leverage likewise goes to great lengths to legitimize their personas, often finding ways to “borrow” the office or workplace of an actual professional that they are attempting to impersonate. This is the same strategy that Weil utilized as well.

In an attempt to fleece a potential mark named Mr. Kahn in a horse racing scam, for instance, the Yellow Kid pretended to assist the person acquire the rights to a concession stand at the track. “I led him into the office of Sheridan Clark, who was secretary of the Association that operated the track,” Weil explains. “Clark, of course, did have charge of the concessions. But there was one thing about his office that Kahn did not know. It was always open. Jockeys, trainers, and owners were constantly going in and out on routine matters. And I happened to know that, at that particular time, Clark was not in the office. When we walked in, a man was seated behind Clark’s desk. It was Bob Collins, my confederate. ‘Mr. Clark,’ I called, ‘this is Mr. Kahn. I’d like you to see what you can do about getting the red-hot concession for him.’ Collins stood up and shook hands. ‘Glad to know you, Mr. Kahn,’ he said. ‘Any friend of Joe’s is a friend of mine.’ He walked out from behind the desk. ‘Let’s go have a glass of beer and discuss this further.’ That was a pretext to get us out of the office. We didn’t know when Sheridan Clark might return.”

The cast of characters on Leverage are all former criminals—grifter, hitter, hacker, thief, to be exact—who now operate outside the law to bring justice against corporate big-wigs that have unfairly invoked hardship against every day Americans. Although Joseph Weil conducted his own cons strictly for profit, he was as equally selective in choosing his “targets” as those on Leverage. “The men I swindled were also motivated by a desire to acquire money, and they didn’t care at whose expense they got it,” he states. “They were seldom concerned with human nature. They knew little—and cared less—about their fellow men. If they had been keener students of human nature, if they had given more time to companionship with their fellows and less to the chase of the almighty dollar, they wouldn’t have been such easy marks.”

Numerous times throughout his career as a professional conman, Joseph Weil attempted to forgo his mischievous ways and make a clean living instead. In each attempt, however, he failed. A major reason for this was the old adage “guilt by association,” in that Weil still kept acquaintances with the criminal persuasion and the police failed to believe that any business venture of the Yellow Kid could ever be on the up-and-up. Although Neal Caffrey from the USA Network drama White Collar has likewise traded in his criminal past by consulting for the FBI—albeit in exchange for a semblance of freedom—he likewise finds himself accused during various episodes of being the actual culprit that his law enforcement colleagues are attempting to arrest. Joseph Weil and Neil Caffrey also share a taste for fine clothes, expensive cars, rare wines and attractive women. And while “smooth talking” is an integral part of any hustle, the two notorious conmen likewise exhibit a sophisticated and uncanny ability to transform the craft into something else entirely.

“A lie is an allurement, a fabrication, that can be embellished into a fantasy,” Weil maintains. “It can be clothed in the raiments of a mystic conception. Truth is cold, sober fact, not so comfortable to absorb. A lie is more palatable. The most detested person in the world is the one who always tells the truth, who never romances.” Needless to say, both Joseph Weil and Neal Caffrey are romantics at heart.

Although a lot has changed during the 100 years that have passed since the Yellow Kid first began his life of scheming ingenuity, the ploys and misdirection that he perfected during his time as a professional conman have basically remained the same. From James “Sawyer” Ford luring unsuspecting marks into fake business investments, to the team from Leverage devising an elaborate scam, to Neal Caffrey and his FBI counterpart conducting “the wire” in order to snare a Detroit mobster, the modern day conmen of contemporary television are in essence following in the footsteps of Joseph Weil.

In this sense, Greg Sherman was wrong when he claimed to be the grandson of the Yellow Kid during season four of Leverage, for in reality it is the other characters on the series—as well as the likes of James “Sawyer” Ford and Neal Caffrey—who are the true descendants of America’s Master Swindler.

Anthony Letizia

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