Tuesday, December 25, 2007


One of the most famous (or infamous) con men in history was Chicago native Joseph "Yellow Kid" Weil. As we know, every self-respecting crook or mobster must have a "professional" middle name, and Weil acquired his from the notorious turn of the century Chicago alderman, Bathhouse John Coughlin, who owned the most prestigious brothels in Chicago. At that time there was a popular comic strip called Hogan's Alley and the Yellow Kid. Weil was working with a grifter named Frank Hogan, and Coughlin associated the pair with the comic strip.

Incidentally, Coughlin was an interesting guy himself. He acquired his nickname "Bathhouse" because in his younger days, he worked in a massage parlor as a "rubber" (he gave rubdowns--this is a family blog!). As boss of Chicago's First Ward, along with his shady partner Hinky Dink Kenna, he ran the First Ward Ball, an annual fundraiser, which attracted safecrackers, prostitutes, politicians, businessmen, gamblers and others, until it was shut down in 1909 by a reform mayor. Coughlin was accused by a major newspaper of corruption, and he demanded a retraction, not because he was accused of graft, but because the paper falsely claimed that he was born in Waukegan, Illinois.

Getting back to our main story, Yellow Kid Weil was born in Chicago in 1875 to hard working German immigrants, Mr. and Mrs. Otto Weil who operated a grocery store. An honest living was not for Yellow Kid, and he left school at age 17 to work as a bill collector. He noticed that his co-workers were skimming small sums for themselves, and he started his first racket by threatening to turn them in unless they shared the profits with him.

He moved on to learn the con business, working under a veteran confidence man named Doc Meriweather, selling the public an "elixir" of which the main ingredient was rainwater. Yellow Kid learned his lessons well and soon graduated to bigger and better scams. As far as anyone can tell, the only times he ever earned an honest buck was in the process of developing his big scams. Over the course of his career, he was belived to have earned over $8 million from his scams, which was a lot of money in those days.

Weil's modus operendi was to concoct get rich quick schemes to separate bankers and businessmen from their money. For example, posing as a Dr. James Warrington, he induced an Ohio executive to invest $38,000 in a Wisconsin paper mill by representing that the investment would be pooled with others, including the President of Standard Oil of New Jersey (now Exxon), who was claimed to be Warrington's (Weil's) good friend. To make the scam work, Weil doctored articles from well-known publications and books which hailed his philantropic and business successes around the world. The two men went to Chicago to a Loop brokerage firm where Weil, posing as Warrington "appeared to be well and favorably known there." According to the executive, Weil pulled out stock certificates and obtained $20,000 cash in return. The brokerage firm was actually an elaborate set up. Newspaper reports said Weil represented that "a fortune would be obtained by buying hidden stocks of big corporations at unusually low sums and reselling them to J.P. Morgan and other brokerage houses. It appears that little has changed in the last 100 years.

Weil would set up phony betting parlors and even phony banks, hiring people to pose as "customers" and "executives" to impress gullible investors. The Academy Award movie The Sting with Paul Newman and Robert Redford was based on one of Weil's schemes. In his autobiography, Yellow Kid said that a con man is like a Hollywood producer. He hires drunks to pose as telegraph operators, cons to pose as fellow customers and even cons to serve on the jury of his peers should trouble arise. He then plays the part by renting suites of offices and dressing impeccably. The next day, the whole operation vanishes into thin air.

Other Weil scams included phony oil deals and fixed horse races. In one, he posed as a chemist who discovered how to copy dollar bills. In another, he was Dr. Henri Geuel, a geologist who claimed to be a representative of a big oil company, inducing his hosts to "invest in fuel." He even devised a scheme to establish a cemetery for jockeys in France.

"I never cheated an honest man, only rascals," declared Weil. "They may have been respectable, but they were never any good. They wanted something for nothing. I gave them nothing for something." Or to paraphrase W.C. Fields, "You Can't Cheat an Honest Man".

Weil was a student of human nature who instinctively understood human vices--greed and gullibility--and exploited it. Most of the marks who were scammed by Yellow Kid would have scammed him if they were smart enough to do so.

He once demonstrated a machine that cooked a chicken in 30 seconds. While the investor was distracted, a man under the table switched the uncooked bird for a roasted one. A University of Chicago professor attempted to invest in the machine, but the Yellow Kid, in a rare show of compassion, declined to accept the money, saying it was set up as a joke.

Weil was jailed approximately 41 times in his career, the longest being a 27 month stretch, ending in 1941, in the Atlanta federal pen for mail fraud in connection with the sale of phony oil leases. Weil finally had to retire because every cop in the country knew what he looked like, despite his many disguises.

His autobiography, Con Man: A Master Swindler's Own Story, was originally published in 1948, but has been updated in a new edition, with an afterword written by Nobel laureate Saul Bellow, who had once interviewed him.

On his 100th birthday in 1975, Weil said "I didn't consider anything we did phony, it was imaginary." "The most gullible of all were bankers and lawyers," Weil reminisced, because "they felt so secure in their knowledge that they didn't think anyone would dare sell them a bill of goods."

Weil died broke in a Chicago nursing home in 1976, shortly before his 101st birthday. His longevity was not attributed to "clean living".




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