reading lists

The Best Books on Con Artists, According to True-Crime Experts

Photo: Courtesy DreamWorks Pictures

Welcome to Reading Lists, comprehensive book guides from the Strategist designed to make you an expert (or at least a fascinating dinner-party companion) in hyperspecific or newsworthy topics like microdosing, cults, or North Korea. Here, we’ve rounded up the best books on legendary con artists and infamous scams throughout history.

It’s the summer of scam. New York writer Jessica Pressler exposed the shocking story of Anna Delvey; John Carreyrou’s book Bad Blood hit the best-seller list, chronicling the rise and fall of biotech start-up Theranos and its founder, Elizabeth Holmes. If you’re hungry to read more about grifters and con artists, we’ve put together a reading list of essential books by asking a panel of experts to recommend their favorites. The experts include Maria Konnikova, author of The Confidence Game; Luc Sante, author of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York; Nate Hendley author of The Big Con: Great Hoaxes, Frauds, Grifts, and Swindles in American History; T.D. Thornton, author of My Adventures With Your Money; Diana B. Henriques, author of The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust; Robert S. Feldman, author of The Liar in Your Life; a Concerned Citizen, the anonymous host of the podcast Swindled; and Dwyer Murphy, senior editor of the website CrimeReads.

Each expert shared a list of books they consider essential reading for anyone interested in famous cons. Their nominations include the tales of both 19th-century grifters who took advantage of America’s new cities and railroad transportation to carry out their tricks without being recognized, and contemporary scammers who use high-tech financial tools to swindle innocent people of out millions. We mostly only included titles recommended by at least two experts to make sure we cover the most notorious of cons, but did select a few with only one mention that we looked into and deemed essential additions to the con-artist canon.

Nearly every expert we spoke with mentioned this 1940 classic survey of American con men by linguistics professor David Maurer, who, according to Thornton, “got access … to the inner workings of America’s fraternity of grifters.” Fascinated by the language of the underground, Maurer introduced phrases like “shills” and “the payoff” to the mainstream, giving us the vocabulary to discuss con artists. Sante, who wrote an introduction to a 1999 edition of the book, called it “a rollicking study of the most ambitious cons in their turn-of-the-century golden age”; and Konnikova said it’s “a gem, bringing you into the world of the con in an entertaining and enlightening way. If you only read one book, this is it.” It also served as the basis of the Oscar-winning 1973 film The Sting.

From fake oil deals to phony horse races, Joseph “Yellow Kid” Weil is rumored to have stolen more than $8 million in his criminal career. In his memoir, Hendley said, Weil describes how he “fixed boxing matches and sold swampland (marketed as pristine rural lots) to gullible victims in the early 1900s. Weil is completely honest about his scams — and utterly without regret or remorse.” Sante also recommended this “informative” autobiography of “one of the old masters.”

Thornton recommended this “fast-paced, real-life read about a 1919 Texas rancher who attempts to chase down the swindlers who rooked him in a stock swindle.” Also one of Murphy’s top picks, The Mark Inside reveals how J. Frank Norfleet, after losing his fortune twice in phony stock deals, embarked on a journey across the country to seek revenge. He often posed as a naïve potential target to lure in con men, and adopted the grifters’ own arts of deception to ultimately bring them down.

This “almost too crazy to be true” book tells the tale of John R. Brinkley, who, Hendley said, was “a barely competent surgeon in Kansas who earned millions in the 1920s and 1930s transplanting goat testicles into men’s scrotums in a vain effort to revive their virility.” Although the procedure was useless — and often deadly — Brinkley still made a fortune off of the insecure and gullible. Of all the books he recommended, Murphy called Charlatan “the most entertaining of [the] bunch. It’s a wild set of facts and feels like a distinctly American con story — all chutzpah and self-delusion.”