The following article is for entertainment purposes only. It is not intended as scholarly research or as a final authority on the topic.
Welcome to Freaky Friday: True Crime Edition. Today, we’re going to talk about confidence scams. If there is such a thing as reincarnation, I’m certain that in a past life I was either a grifter or in love with one. Scams and grifts fascinate me far too much.
Paper Moon is one of my favorite movies and books. It is all about the adventures of a pair of Depression Era grifters. Today’s blog will outline a few of the scams used in the movie and the book. It’s interesting to note that most of these could still work.
Before I get into the scams, I’ll share a quick overview of the movie and book.
Before Paper Moon was a movie, it was a book. The 1971 novel by Joe David Brown was originally titled Addie Pray.
The movie is very similar to the first half of the book. The only big change was that the movie took place in Kansas and Missouri while the book was set in primarily in Alabama.
The movie starred the father-daughter team of Ryan O’Neal and Tatum O’Neal.
Ryan O’Neal plays Moses “Long Boy” Pray. Tatum O’Neal plays Addie Loggins who may or may not be his daughter. The two are traveling conmen–or conpeople, I guess?
Watch the trailer:
Okay, so it’s not quite a trailer, but it should do about the same job.
Let’s get on to Moses and Addie’s scams.
(AKA Bible Salesman, Obituary Fiddle, Widow Scam)
This scam includes the delivery of a gift for which some cash balance is owed. The conman tells the mark a recently deceased relative bought this item as a gift for them. It is a play on emotions. Who wouldn’t want the last gift purchased for them by a loved one?
Watch how Moses Pray does it:
In Paper Moon–movie and book–Moses Pray found his victims by reading the obituaries. He looked for a recently deceased individual who sounded wealthy. He would note the widow’s name and address. He would set up the scam in one of two ways:
- Moses used a portable printing kit to inscribe a name—usually that of the widow— onto a new Bible.
- He would obtain a print of the recently deceased’s last portrait from a local photographer and mount it in a nice frame.
After that, he’d show up at the widow’s home and try to sell her the portrait or the Bible. Addie’s part in the role became determining how much should be charged for the phony gift.
The victim of this scam is traditionally a cashier, but it could really be anybody. The con artist confuses the mark and ends up getting more change than he is due.
Watch how it’s done on Paper Moon:
Still confused? I was. Watch this video to see the hustle broken down. Don’t feel bad if you have to view it several times. I did, too. That’s why it’s such a good scam.
How it works:
Con Man 1 buys a dollar item with a marked twenty dollar bill. The marked bill could have a corner torn off or could have a personalized message on it.
Con Man 2 enters the same store and buys another inexpensive item. He pays with just enough currency to generate change, but not enough to generate change for a twenty dollar bill.
When the cashier gives Con Man 2 the correct change, he insists he paid with a twenty dollar bill and proves it by producing the missing corner or knowing what was written on the currency.
Watch how they do it on Paper Moon:
According to Nicholas J. Johnson, Australia’s Honest Con Man, Paper Moon popularized this scam.
The Pigeon Drop
This one appears in the book but not in the movie. Addie calls it “doing business with wallets.” I thought it was fascinating and hope I can explain it well enough to do it justice.
For this scam, two con artists work together. The Catch (con artist 1) approaches the mark (aka victim) claiming he found a wallet full of cash. There might be some characteristic about the wallet to indicate the money was earned illegally and won’t be claimed as missing.
The Shill (con artist 2) pretends to have overheard the exchange and claims to know an attorney who will know the right thing to do. The Shill makes a phone call and returns with the attorney’s message: the three can split the money but must wait to do so until an effort is made to find the money’s rightful owner.
The Mark is asked to put up a sum of money as a show of good faith. The Shill and the Catch (the con artists) appear to put up the same amount of money as the mark. The money is put into a package for safe keeping.
Through some sleight of hand, the con artists switch the money package with a package full of dollar sized pieces of newspaper. The conmen then make themselves scarce before the mark catches on.
Selling Goods You Don’t Have
This one appeared in both the movie and the book. It is, in fact, the last scam of the movie.
Moses Pray steals some whiskey from a bootlegger and then sells it back to him. Unfortunately, the bootlegger figures it out.
The bootlegger’s brother is the Sheriff. The Sheriff arrests Moses and Addie. They escape with their lives but not much else.
Watch their escape:
This scam only appeared in the book. Addie (Tatum O’Neal) impersonated a little girl who was thought to be dead. The mark was the little girl’s grandmother who was thought to be very wealthy. The goal of the scam was to get the older woman to sign over her wealth to Addie.
In the end, it turned out the elderly lady had lost her fortune to an embezzler. The con artists helped the elderly lady scam her nephew out of enough money to keep her living in style for the rest of her life.
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