Joe "Yellow Kid" Weil would have to be considered the world’s biggest liar if his some of his most notorious cons weren’t on record. Public record. But for the most part, he eluded the long arm of the law, and often when he was caught, he had a judge in his pocket.
Surprisingly, Joe was born to a rather ordinary family, the son of an earnest German grocer. History has paid little attention to his antecedents, but it’s a matter of note that Weil himself lived to be 101, was married apparently happily, and made all of his money, millions by his report, conning his fellow man. If he ever turned an honest dime, it would have been only by way of developing his next big scam.
According to him, and we have only his word for it, the Yellow Kid got his start selling worthless junk door to door, then moved on to the racetrack scene and moved onward and upward from there. Contact with men who were hooked on betting taught him early on that there’s no limit to human greed. By conning men who were prey to their own vices, he rarely got a comeback. Most everyone who was scammed by the Yellow Kid would have scammed him if they’d had the smarts to figure out how to do it.
To pull off a good con and attract the big fish, you have to go about it in a professional way. There are con industries producing panoramic photos of swampland mocked up to look like Beverly Hills, and faux machinery that can “tap wires” or do whatever else the sucker might require. In fact, it’s pretty much like the movies depict it, if Weil is to be believed. The con artist is just that, like the director of a Hollywood production. He hires drunks to pose as telegraph operators, fellow cons to act the swell, and track-oholics to serve on the jury of his peers should trouble arise. He rents suites of offices and always dresses impeccably.
Weil had to be a fast thinker, too – if a scam fell through he had to figure out a counter-scheme on the fly, always with the object of parting the patsy from his money.
One has to doubt Weil’s figures – millions seem a little much for one man to have fleeced, but he did have longevity on his side. And not a few of his former victims have admitted proudly to having been taken by an expert – after all, it makes them look less idiotic to have been tricked by a famous swindler instead of some ordinary flim-flam man.
One thing that isn’t in doubt – this is a delightful book, written in the argot of the times, a gentler time if one may judge from the gentlemanly way that Weil plied his nefarious trade. Brannon, a journalist who died a few years back (this is a reprint) has done a good job of making Weil both likeable and frustratingly elusive. Cinematic stuff.