by Michael Buozis
The food court at the Sands Casino in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania lies off of the betting floor. You don’t show your ID to anyone to get in, but the Formica tables and steel tube chairs are closer to the gambling action than even the diamond store on the other side of an ATM behind a wall of thick, spotless glass 40 feet away from the turnstiles admitting gamblers. If you’re in town for an event at the Sands Bethlehem Event Center – say a Beach Boys concert – you enter the food court through the hotel and then a shopping mall.
The mall contains a high-end children’s clothing store, another retail outlet with gauche souvenirs of the American flag-draped bald eagle snow globe variety, and the immaculate diamond shop. The rest of the storefronts are empty. The glass walls glitter over polished white marble floors and silently rolling escalators.
“I’ll take the Triple Play with spaghettis and two meatballs with sauce and a salad. Don’t forget the garlic roll.”
The Italian restaurant in the food court serves all of its dishes a la carte. The woman ordering the Triple Play wears a white linen shirt with the cuffs of its sleeves unbuttoned to relax the flab under her arms. She watches the young man behind the glass buffet counter spoon her food into a foam tray before he hands it to a shorter young man behind him in front of a microwave. The short guy will heat her food for her. She wants to be sure they give her all the spaghettis she is due.
The Triple Play comes with a 32 ounce soft drink. You can substitute a 20 ounce water. One of the many paradoxes of the casino is that soda is cheaper than water. Another is that you cannot bring any beverages, not even the 20 ounce water, from any section of the casino complex into any other section. A casino employee will confiscate your water as you enter the Event Center, wherein you can buy another water for three times the price.
The backlit menu above the heads of the workers at the Italian a la carte place lists only eight prices. The Triple Play is $10.99 and combo meals 1 through 7 range in price from $8.99 to $12.99. None of the individual items sitting under heat lamps and smudged glass are priced. Rare is the brave diner who orders an individual item. Most order the Triple Play. Gamblers lose their love of risk off the maroon carpet.
I follow suit. But it turns out the square of lasagna I was eyeing is not considered a pasta dish in the Triple Play deal. Live and learn.
“Nice. They got a diamond shop right there so you can cash in all your chips and buy a ring for the girl who blew on your dice at the roulette table.”
“There are no dice on a roulette table.”
Enough beating around the bush. I’m running late for the Beach Boys concert. The food court offers quick, convenient dining. I don’t want to miss a moment of Mike Love’s wooden dance moves or Brian Wilson’s Adidas training pants falling down as he walks to his white piano.
Something about the whole casino complex reminds me of a massive con. The place is a black hole, sucking tourists in for the entire duration of their stay in this faded steel town. Why would you leave the premises of the Sands Bethlehem Casino and Hotel and Event Center when you’ve got a bad hip and the food court serves Basset’s ice cream and mozzarella and spinach paninis and bitter iced coffee and you can buy your grandkids new clothes and a bird house with a mildly racist, greatly patriotic aphorism stenciled on the side? You would not leave the premises. Not if you’re the bald brute in the striped polo shirt rubbing his shiny scalp and checking hidden sections of his wallet for cash and cards. Not if you’re one of the Chinese ladies sitting at one of the food court’s tables staring away from your companion in silence. Not if you’re celebrating your 50th wedding anniversary with Henrietta, happy to be wearing khaki shorts and tall white socks in the air-conditioned early spring.
In November of 2010, in the parking lot of the Sugar House Casino overlooking the Delaware River in Philadelphia, not long after midnight, two men robbed a 31-year-old woman and stole her winnings before they jumped into a 2001 Pontiac Bonneville and fled the scene. One of the men pistol-whipped the woman to subdue her. She was treated for her injuries at Temple University Hospital.
In October of the same year, the casino’s second month in business, two armed assailants followed a man from Sugar House to his home in Cinnaminson, New Jersey. There the men pistol-whipped the victim, knocked him to the sidewalk, and demanded his $2000 winnings. The man wrestled the assailants to the ground and shouted for a neighbor to call the police, before the bandits ran away and fled in their car. They collected none of the gambler’s $2000 in cash.
In July of 2011, Nikale Mitchell, 21, stole $5000 worth of chips from the casino’s tables. In August, casino security apprehended him for stealing another $3 worth of chips and matched his distinctive tattoos to footage of the original theft captured by security cameras. Next time young Nikale will wear long sleeves.
According to Casino-Free Philadelphia, 2 crimes were committed each week, on average, on or adjacent to the Sugar House Casino, in its first year of operation. This figure does not include off-site crime, such as the attempted robbery in Cinnaminson. The Pennsylvania State Police patrol the casino grounds 24 hours a day.
Gamblers lost $232,034,168 at Sugar House in that first year. $116,017,084 of that total came from the pockets of Philadelphia residents. The City of Philadelphia received only $11,479,868 in taxes and fees from the casino. This represents a 10 to 1 ratio of loss for residents of the city and gain in revenues for the municipality.
Investors in Sugar House made $54,185,333 of the first year of operations. $34,136,759 of this went to Chicago businessmen Neil Bluhm and Greg Carlin.
A “large percentage” of Sugar House’s customers visit the casino 3 to 5 times per week.
This all sounds like a big con perpetrated on a willing populous, something the government might find in its own best interest to protect the residents of Philadelphia from. And all the talk of pistol-whipping stinks of the Old, Wild West. Not the new Old, Wild West of the housing bubble (though parallels exist), but the old Old, Wild West of free vice towns, mineral prospecting and land grabs (not to mention complex and opaque stock market speculation with whiffs of default swaps and derivatives).
It turns out the Wild West is none too distant in place, time or spirit from present-day Philadelphia or an increasing number of towns and isolated resorts across the country, not to mention an increasingly maligned Wall Street.
Amy Reading opens her new book, The Mark Inside: A Perfect Swindle, a Cunning Revenge, and a Small History of the Big Con in Dallas, Texas. There, in November of 1919, the Furey Gang conned J. Frank Norfleet, a prosperous 54-year-old rancher from the Panhandle, out of the equivalent of $1.66 million in today’s currency. The gang, headed by Joe Furey, one of the most accomplished and inventive confidence men of his time, managed to sucker Norfleet into increasing his investment in a shady enterprise, convincing him to return home at one point and borrow a further $45,000 from his bank. Furey, posing as a broker for a major bank, offered what he claimed was insider information, and with a few bundles of cash, made Norfleet believe he could grow his wealth eightfold and cover a debt on nearby pastures he owed to a neighboring family back in the Panhandle. This was just the endgame in a con that involved Reno Hamlin posing as a hick rancher to draw Norfleet into the con, W.B. Spencer pretending to be a young, polished banker and real estate man who could fix all of Norfleet’s land problems and even throw in with him on Furey’s privileged investment opportunities, and finally Charles Gerber and E.J. Ward playing the parts of stock exchange floor manager and disgruntled trading regulator. It sounds complicated, and it is. The big con works by sucking its mark into a world full of complications where only the con men can help set things right. The criminal is always doing the victim a favor, and with each new twist of the play, the favor just keeps on getting bigger.
Before continuing Norfleet’s story of redemption and transformation, and in further interjections later in the book, Reading gives readers a history of cons and con men, a profession and practitioner so engrained in the spirit of America as to seem essential to the young nation’s formation and the source of its own tragic defeats. From the social climbing of Benjamin Franklin, to the imaginary products of the financial industry, the swindle, the art of inspiring confidence in non-existent prospects is an essential element of America. In love with this idea, Reading’s portrait of these men, and their victims, is a little too rosy. Though in The Mark Inside they are romanticized, the con artist is the most anti-social of all criminals. They fool the most susceptible of marks and coopt otherwise innocent people into criminal practices. The confidence man is the entrapper of the crime world. Very few social implications of speculation, a legitimized confidence game, are explored herein. We never see the worker who is exploited and robbed of the fruits of his labors by high finance, only the more obvious mark, the greedy sucker who chooses to invest his money in often questionable ventures in the hopes of moving further up that social ladder. We do see the parallel between the insidious foisting of financial schemes on unsuspecting but willing people and the self-delusory enjoyment of sideshow oddities in the long lines to see an obviously fake mermaid skeleton promoted by P.T. Barnum.
Reading, however, hits her stride when she returns to Norfleet’s post-con story. Though he has his doubts all along, Norfleet only realizes he’s been duped for certain after returning to his Panhandle ranch, where he is unable to contact any of the men who he believes owe him a massive amount of money. Unlike most suckers, J. Frank Norfleet is not too proud to admit his foolishness or the wiliness of his swindlers. As a young man, he pulled himself up by his bootstraps, forging his own successful ranching business after many years of working other men’s cattle. He tells the sheriff what’s happened. He comes clean with the bank from which he borrowed some of his investment money. He tells the newspapers. Norfleet will not rest until the Furey Gang is locked up, each and every one of them. As a boy, he followed his father on a long chase to extract rent money from a tenant, and this instilled in little J. Frank a sense of the means and ways of justice in the hinterlands of the United States. It’s the same ethos Norfleet used to acquire his wealth. If you want something done, you better be willing to do it yourself.
The Texas Panhandle, especially in the early part of the 20th century, is no base of operations for a criminal dragnet, and the ill-tailored clothes and unfashionable bowl-cut hair of a hick cattle rancher are no visage for catching the sharpest of perps. So, Norfleet hops trains to Palm Beach, San Antonio, San Francisco, Denver, and every shady hamlet and metropolis in between to search for the five men who stole his money. He takes on a number of different personas, to ease his movement through the transit of depots, hotels and trading floors he knows will bring him to his prey. Employing the same tricks the con men do, he cons a different gang into thinking he’s a foolish mark. This is a vital part of Denver District Attorney Philip Van Cise’s ingenious and massive raid on the infamous Lou Blonger network of racketeers. These adventures lead Norfleet into perilous territory. He’s nearly poisoned in the dining car of a train, almost hanged and dropped into the ocean by thugs in Florida. In his memoirs, and in a never-released silent film directed by and starring Norfleet, he tells of his exploits with relish and flamboyance.
Reading is right to draw the parallel between the Furey Gang’s elaborate and dramatic staging of their big con, and Norfleet’s fantastic and unbelievable tale of catching them and playing an indispensable part in destroying other rackets. This is the American way. You make up your story as you go along. If reality doesn’t work, you create something that does. Sure, it’s ironic that for even the sharpest, most sophisticated of con men, the only way to catch them red-handed is to con them into a trap. You’d think a good swindler could smell a con when it was being foisted on him. But the big lesson here, is that we’re all willing participants in this elaborate game of deception. Reading contrasts the fall of Blonger’s empire in Denver with the deplorable spread of the sucker, under the banner of risky investment, through middle class America.
The smoky trading floors of the cities and towns Norfleet visits look a lot like the monitors of today’s investment banks and hedge funds. They’re both too opaque. The presence of legitimate gambling in Denver and many other Old West cities only encouraged stronger forms of vice. We’re learning these lessons again, for what will certainly not be the last time. Though the cons committed on the plush carpeted floors of the Sands Bethlehem and the Sugar House might be more prosaic, they are no less insidious. One will undo you as good as the other.
I wish I could say, in the end, J. Frank Norfleet returns to the simple life of a Texas cattle rancher, but instead, he is reduced to a dotage of good-natured cons, telling his fantastic story for money and exploiting the hunger of the public for tales of revenge and deception. The mark becomes the con man, and the two roles lose their distinction.
Discussed in this essay:
The Mark Inside: A Perfect Swindle, a Cunning Revenge, and a Small History of the Big Con, by Amy Reading. Alfred A. Knopf. 2012. 290 pages. $27.