Thursday, September 27, 2007

Welcome to Weirdsville: Larceny in the Heart

What a trustworthy looking fellow

You can never be too careful.

The deal sounded good--almost too good. A parcel of land in South America, a possible gold mine, a moderate investment towards what could be an truly immense fortune. The investment might have been moderate, only $500,000, but the least he could do was ask to see Mr. Weil's backers, have their claims validated by the President of the Merchant National Bank in Muncie, Indiana. Everything seemed to be in order. The bank was refined and stately, the tellers behind their gold-plated bars professional and proficient, the rest of the bank's employees courteous and efficient. The bank manager seemed a worldly soul who was straight-forward and immensely knowledgeable about such dealings.

After the meeting, how could he not accept Mr. Weil's deal? Hands were shaken, signatures were exchanged, backs were patted. And when they parted, did immense dreams of South American profits in fill the investor’s thoughts...and the thoughts of Mr. Weil? Mr. Weil dreamed, too, of wealth but of a more respectable and present $500,000.

As I said before, you can never be too careful, and in the case of any dealing with Mr. Weil, no amount of forethought and protection would have been enough. The bank was fake, the real bank recently moved; the employees were, every last one of them, associates and fellow crooks; even the bank president was a good pal of Mr. Weil. And Mr. Weil wasn't who he appeared to be, for he was also known as the King of Conmen, "The Yellow Kid."

So what is Weil, whose moniker came from the legendary comic strip, doing in this column where I've waxed with purple prose about such things are the deadliest venom on the planet, the Wizard of War, and grand gender issues throughout history? Weil was just a man, after all--just a dapper little gentleman, often sporting pince-nez, a beaver hat, a full opera cape and yellow gloves. But this elegant little man managed to con the usually un-conable: cops, bankers, doctors, your name it. That alone, though, isn't the reason the Yellow Kid is here. Rather, it is because of his genius and...well, morals. The fake bank was but one of his brilliant skullduggeries.

One of my faves is the "Dog Con," and it goes like this: A guy walks into a bar with a very ugly pooch. Suddenly remembering an appointment, the man asks the bartender to mind the mutt while he runs out. While he's gone though a dapper gentlemen appears and proclaims the hound to be the finest example of a muttus commonous (or something impressive-sounding) and offers the bartender $500 for it. Alas, the bartender can't sell, but offers to try and get it from the owner, and so accepts the dapper man's phone number with a promise to call if he succeeds. Sure enough, the owner of the dog returns and grudgingly accepts $200 from the bartender for a dog that he believes is worthless - and it is. The dog owner is a friend of the Yellow Kid, and the dapper man is the Yellow Kid himself. With this con, the Kid and his pals managed to find homes for a lot of stray dogs and cats - as well as a lot of money. Weil's skill at cons remains legendary to this day.

Truly, his skill with hoodwinks boggles the mind. He used to travel to small towns, visit the local library, and skillfully plant fake documents, falsified newspaper clippings, and so forth, then start the con over, say, some land somewhere in South America--knowing that the interested parties would of course get down to the local library as soon as possible to check on Weil's claims. His money was as good as gone. No one was safe from the Yellow Kid's art.

To give you an idea of his persuasiveness, one time Weil was being escorted to the clink by a local cop. Chatting amiably with the flatfoot, Weil casually told him about all the cons he'd performed over the years, the thousands and thousands of dollars he'd taken from the greedy. So convinced was the cop that Weil soon after had a new partner in crime, one who stayed with the Yellow Kid for over twenty-five years.

Another cop wasn't so lucky, he was taken by the Kid for over $30,000 - while taking the Kid to jail.

A touching moment in the Yellow Kid's life came when love brushed against him in the form of a lovely young lady whom he met on a European cruise. Taken off guard, the Kid was enthralled that when she proclaimed through tears that she was tragically short of funds, he more than willingly gave her $10,000 for a pearl necklace, a legendary family heirloom. Soon after she vanished, taking Weil's money and leaving him with junk jewelry. Rather than being furious at being conned himself, Weil was beside himself: "What a team we would have made!"

But what I really love about the Yellow Kid was his sense of right and wrong. Make no mistake, Weil kept what he took, but he often boasted that he only took from those who were ruled by greed, or who could easily afford a lesson in caution. Not to mention, of course, a lesson about the old maxim: if it sounds too good to be true, then, well, it probably isn’t.

The Kid hung up his cape and beaver hat after a point, at the end of his third (and last) jail term, dedicating himself to the simple life. His Autobiography of Yellow Kid Weil was the self-confessing capstone to a remarkable career of separating people from their money. While Weil often regretted his life of crime, stating before Congress in 1956, "I see how despicable were the things I did," he more often looked sadly to the crooks of the present, who he saw as monsters and not quick-witted gentlemen: "Taking the life savings from poor old women is just the same as putting a revolver to her head and pressing the trigger."

Forger's works are considered masterpieces in their own right, and copies of Howard Hughes' autobiography fetch a fortune. Yet, as Weil proves, crime might certainly pay, but to make it an art takes real skill.

"What a magnificent dog! What will you take for him?"

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