A con man, or confidence man, is a swindler who works by gaining the confidence of the person they are going to swindle. He has been a popular figure in literature and media for more than a century, and is often portrayed as an anti-hero or at least somewhat charismatic villain.
The term con man was first used in the mid-19th century at the trial of William Thompson. Thompson used a very simple con, where he would literally walk up to strangers and ask them if they had the confidence to lend him their watch. When they did, he would leave with the watch. This seems incredibly straight-forward, and a bit ludicrous, to think about, but in fact many swindlers have used such direct techniques to reap enormous profit.
It has been said that there are as many types of con as there are types of people, and if that’s the case, there are as many types of con man as well. He or she may be anyone from a dashing figure, bedecked in rich clothes and seeming to want for nothing, to a decrepit old man, tattered and in rags and seemingly blind. One cornerstone of the con artist is that he or she rarely looks untrustworthy.
The con man was common during the 19th centuries, particularly in England and America. Famous con men include Lou Blonger, who organized an entire gang to harass people of Denver at the turn of the century; Walter Scott, who worked in the Death Valley region and conned people into purchasing shares in his mining endeavors, praying on their desire to be a part of the gold rush and eventually built an enormous ranch that was known as Scotty’s castle; Charles Ponzi, who created the infamous Ponzi “get rich quick” scheme; and Victor Lustig, who was most famous for a scheme in which he sold the Eiffel Tower to scrap metal dealers.
Perhaps one of the most famous con men in the modern age is Frank Abagnale, who had his life turned into a Hollywood movie, Catch Me If You Can. Abagnale was a master forger and impostor, who conned his way through more than two million dollars worth of checks, and pretended to be a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, and an airline pilot during his career.
The con man is an incredibly popular figure in cinema, with larger-than-life con artists often making up central plots in movies. Movies containing con men from hits of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s include The Rainmaker, The Producers, and The Sting. During the 1980s, the popular A-Team TV show featured a con artist as one of the main characters, and Frank Oz directed both Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Vanishing, two films revolving around con men. The 1990s saw an increase in movies with con men, with hits such as The Talented Mister Ripley, The Spanish Prisoner, Six Degrees of Separation, and The Grifters. In the early-21st century, a huge surge of con movies and TV shows appeared, with blockbusters like Oceans Eleven, Heist, The Score, Catch Me If You Can, Lost, The Real Hustle, and The Riches.
Many criminal elements hold a great deal of fascination to the popular imagination, but it seems that perhaps none are as popular as the con man. Perhaps it is the idea that anyone can be swindled, or maybe the fact that most cons, in spite of having very real victims, involve no physical violence and are undertaken by the most charismatic of people. Whatever the reason, the con phenomenon is unlikely to go away anytime soon.