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Saturday, March 25, 2017

"Yellow Kid" Weil: The Autobiography of America's Master Swindler


By: J. R. "Yellow Kid" Weil & W.T. Brannon 
Publisher: Nabat Books; Nabat ed. edition (February 22, 2011) (originally published 1958)
Softcover 352 pages 
Finished 3/24/2017 
Amazon Listing 










          “In those days, the police was not like the police of today. The force was not so large, and the Detective Bureau had not yet been organized. The Municipal Court was not a big organization. Most of the courts were operated by justices of the peace. We called them “Justice Shops”. Each justice had his own constables, who were the detectives of that period…. Both civil and criminal cases were tried in the Justice Shops. I knew one of the magistrates quite well- Judge Aldo. He used to send me out to select jurors. Juries were composed of six men. When I was assigned to get a jury, I was first of all, told which way the case was decided.”  
          The autobiography of one of America’s most well-known confidence men. His life of constant crime and cons spanned decades and raked in millions of dollars. According to him, he pioneered or perfected several techniques which were copied to death over the years, forcing him to continuously innovate his scams.  
           Beginning with selling snake oil in the days of horse and buggies, he moved onto pulling the fake stock swindle, staging fake illegal fights, staging fake fixed horse races, and the fake casino scam. For a lifetime of crime, he spent a total of six years in prison on three separate charges (two of which he claims he was the victim of circumstance), dying penniless in a nursing home at age 100 in 1976. 
          Like most cons of this era, Weil found it more expedient to rope his victims into a scheme where they thought they were getting something in an illegal activity. This was to prevent the victim from going to the police after they had been swindled, because then they’d have to admit their own intent on breaking the law. And in many cases this style protected Weil from prosecution. Such as in the when he worked a scam at the race track revolving around fixing a race. After he absconded with the money freely given to him what could he be charged with? Not fixing a race?
          His moniker, the “Yellow Kid” comes from his love of a comic of the same name about a bald Asian child wearing a yellow smock that bore out his internal thoughts, which appeared in Hearst run newspapers at that time (and gave rise to the phrase “yellow journalism”). There have been many other reasons given by people and biographers, but this is the one Weil sticks by. The story he gives around it is odd, but he claims it is true. 
          An easy read, the most interesting parts are the bits and pieces of how the justice system was set up in the past and the technology of the past. The last decade of the 19th century and the first two of the 20th were called the golden age of the con man. This was because the criminal codes had yet to catch up with the technology. The wire services ran all across the country, sending messages in Morse code from San Francisco to New York. Thus it was simple to tap a line to send a fake message or to simply have dummy apparatus around that appeared to be receiving a message. Thus you could claim something was happening in another part of the country and it was very difficult for the victim to check.
Original cover of the 1958 edition
          What sets Weil apart from the others, besides his innovations, was his attention to detail. He stole the identity of a mining engineer who was somewhat well known and had written several books. He had several books rebound with his picture in place of the author to prove his identity. Sometimes he would have fake articles about himself rebound into magazines, then a stooge would replace the local library’s copy with the forgery. It would slip out that he had an article about himself published and the victim would find it on their own. To Weil, the props of his scam was as important as the pitch itself.
          Weil shows no remorse for his cons. His opinion was that those who were fooled thought they were getting something through crooked means, thus they had no moral standing to be outraged. The mentality was that you cannot cheat an honest man. But he applied this mentality to himself after he was taken for 10,000 dollars by a pair of female con artists. He was even amused by the fact that he had been taken using the same techniques that he had practiced for four decades.
          His own downfall came from two parts, his spendthrift habits. He states that “money was like water in my hands.” He would turn most of his cash over to his wife who would save it. But when she died, he blew through everything. The other part is his own fame. He became too well known as a con man and his several attempts to go legitimate always ended up backfiring due to his past criminal acquaintances or police interference. Of course had he gone legit then he wouldn’t be remembered today.

W.T. Brannon and Joseph Weil (aged 75)  
         

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