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Meet Bernie Madoff’s ancestors!

March 23, 2012, 1:57 PM UTC

Our Weekly Read column features Fortune staffers’ and contributors’ takes on recently published books about the business world and beyond. We’ve invited the entire Fortune family — from our writers and editors to our photo editors and designers — to weigh in on books of their choosing based on their individual tastes or curiosities. In this installment, editor Scott Olster reviews Amy Reading’s The Mark Inside, an account of con artists and their victims in early 20th century America.

Americans love a good con. Whether it’s the unauthorized sale of the Brooklyn Bridge to naive tourists (yes, this happened, many times), the exhibition of an “authentic Feejee” mermaid in the American Museum (thank you, P.T. Barnum), or even a successful ad executive living large under another man’s name (the fictional Don Draper of Mad Men), there’s a little bit of entertainment in just about every swindle.

Unless, of course, you happen to be the unwitting punch line of an expensive joke (Bernie Madoff, Allen Stanford, Enron, Worldcom, the list goes on).

Amy Reading’s The Mark Inside is a skillful exploration of the development of con artistry in America and how it came to embody both the benefits and costs associated with the nation’s explosive economic growth between the 19th and 20th centuries.

Reading tells the story of the American con by tracing the odyssey of a self-made, straight-shooting Texas rancher named J. Frank Norfleet. In 1919 Norfleet was fleeced of his savings and dragged into debt by a gang of five confidence men led by Joseph Furey, a man who faked his own death, possibly twice.

The con that decimated Norfleet’s bankroll was far from extraordinary. In fact, as Reading tells it, the routine had been practically perfected by November 1919, when Norfleet strolled into the St. George Hotel in Dallas to find his swindlers already waiting for him. Reading describes this particular con — a ruse that methodically convinces a sucker (or “mark”) that they can make a huge bundle by taking advantage of inside information on stock trades — as a play in nine acts. With each successive act and every new person the sucker encounters, he gains more confidence in the deal and the prospect of making an easy fortune, until he surrenders his savings to the cause. Norfleet lost $45,000 and wound up $90,000 in debt, no small sum in 1919.

Once he realized that he had lost just about everything he had, Norfleet vowed vengeance against his swindlers. Using Norfleet’s two autobiographies, newspaper archives, and court documents as guides, Reading traces the mark’s cross-country quest to put his five con men behind bars. It’s a journey replete with assumed identities, fortuitous discoveries, briberies, courtroom theatrics, double crossings, and gunplay. Reading spares few details in her description of Norfleet’s movements, sometimes to a fault, as he summons the help of police officers — some honest, others not so much — district attorneys, the media, and the public to aid his mission.

What becomes quickly apparent is that our no-nonsense, salt of the earth Texan is not as straight a shooter as he has claimed to be. The same man who apparently banned gambling on his own land claims that he funded his mission by betting on horses. In pursuit of his prey, Norfleet dons disguises and plays the sucker to swindlers across the country. He also develops a flair for fanciful storytelling and a keen desire for media attention. At times, Reading catches inconsistencies in his story compared to other accounts and records. So even Norfleet, the man who eventually gained national hero status for his con-catching efforts, adopts some of the swindler’s swagger.

Reading puts this swagger in its historical context, arguing that in Norfleet’s time it wasn’t uncommon for upwardly mobile Americans to adopt the mannerisms of confidence men. Why rely on the strength of your actual character when you can develop a personality that will sway others to your cause? (That notion has fueled many, many business and self-help books since Norfleet’s time.)

As the U.S. economic pie grew, more Americans wanted to get their slice. For many, living off your land and buying only what you could afford didn’t seem as exciting as the prospect of scoring a quick fortune. Coupled with generally weak law enforcement, these desires created ideal conditions for rampant speculation — in gold, oil, land, railways, you name it — and its disreputable cousin, swindling.

“If organized crime exploits the opportunities created by a weak central government,” Reading writes, “confidence artistry profits from a strong economy, by filling in the uncharted terrain that opens up when business innovation gallops ahead of legislation.”

Con artistry didn’t just leech off the U.S. economy. Instead, Reading argues, it fueled its growth. When currency was scarce in the west, counterfeiters brought the supply. When more Americans wanted in on the stock market, bucket shops delivered the market to their towns. “The new nation would never have prospered without imposture, speculation, and counterfeiting, because America was, from its inception, a confidence trick,” Reading writes.

Interspersed with Norfleet’s tale are a series of essays on the history of confidence artistry in the U.S., with cameos by P.T. Barnum, Benjamin Franklin, Franklin Roosevelt, and Charlie Chaplin, among others. The Mark Inside is certainly not short on detail. At times, some of the specifics clog the narrative. We don’t necessarily need to know everything about the evolution of fraud as a U.S. legal doctrine, for example. With that said, many of Reading’s side narratives and contextual notes are illuminating, giving us a more refined sense of what it felt like to live in an America that was developing at a breakneck pace.

After a mark has been swindled, conventional wisdom holds that he or she emerges sadder but wiser in the ways of the world. J. Frank Norfleet certainly fits that mold. Yet Norfleet seems to have retained a certain optimism despite his travails. “Norfleet never possessed that hard carapace of skepticism that the experts of his day tried to instill in the American populace,” Reading writes.

Norfleet’s naiveté gave him just enough hope and gall to think that he could track down his tormentors and many other con artists to boot. Sure enough, he caught all five of his con men plus scores of others. Reading poignantly suggests that this balance between credulity and savviness captures the American spirit of the time. She writes: “Norfleet came to represent the personality type that best fits American modernity: the sophisticated sucker.”

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