The frame of that social encounter was so strong that the mark would hand over the watch, maybe internally mystified but not wanting to call out this account as strange. Then the confidence man would saunter off with the watch.
The word "confidence" became an instant meme, as we'd call it now, a catchword for what had been happening for centuries.
Q: Swindles had been around for a long time?
A: You can trace it to early modern Europe. A swindler is a particular kind of thief who steals by engaging in someone's trust. It's definitely something that bedeviled the commentators and philosophers of the day who are concerned about what this means for the conditions of trust in society.
Q: You tell the real-life story of a rancher who was swindled in an elaborate con with multiple players and scenes, a lot like the movie "The Sting." How did cons get so complicated when they used to be just one guy asking for another's watch?
A: It goes from being a one-act play to a three-act play with a script and sets and actors, and a particular way of hooking the mark. It's an outgrowth of the gambling impulse and a somewhat more respectable impulse to invest via speculation, on margin.
Q: How would it play out?
A: It never begins with an all-out pitch for the mark's greediness. We're all on guard for something for nothing. So the swindler would invite the mark to help out with a gesture of friendship or philanthropy; it isn't initially a call to join something illegal.
The more the mark gets reeled into the con, the more there are these winks and nods about the legality or morality of the situation. The more he drawn in, the fewer chances he has to speak up and ask questions.
At some point, the mark is invited to join something that he thinks has been rigged in his favor and he can't possibly lose. It's done so gradually that it's never seen as magical or impossible money. It's got to seem rational or plausible.
Q: What makes this swindled rancher so interesting to you?