Secrets of a 19th Century Con Man

Hannah Benning, the heroine in HANNAH’S VOW, was the daughter of a master thief and confidence man–and in her youth, a student of his trade–so of course, I had to show her in action at some point throughout the book.  I located the help of the most famous detective at the time, Allan Pinkerton, who’d written a book chronicling his thirty years of experience dealing with the criminals who kept his agency thriving throughout his remarkable career.

With the exception of modern technology, I suppose there’s not much difference between the thieves of then and now, so I must ask–do not try this at home.

THE PICKPOCKET – One scenario describes a ‘mob’ of four men who would target victims as they entered, then left a bank.  One ‘stall’ would watch the bank patron to ensure he withdrew a wad of cash,  and seeing that he’d placed the cash in the inside pocket of the right side of his coat, follow him outside.  His accomplices bided their time until the unsuspecting target entered a busy thoroughfare, a side street, or a narrow hallway of a building.  Two of the stalls would move in front of the victim, a third (the ‘hook’) slightly ahead, then signal with a cough when the  time had arrived.  The first two would suddenly halt, forcing the victim to do the same.  The hook, with a coat over one arm to conceal his hand, would delve into the bulging pocket and quickly lift the cash, while the fourth stall jostled him on the *left* side to distract him.  The first two men show no interest in the heist and merely resume their walk, and by the time things settle down, the victim is unaware he’d been robbed.

THE MOLL-BUZZER – This is a thief who steals a lady’s pocketbook.  Thieves of this type owe their success to wearing a loose sack-coat in which the pocket had been cut open.  Since the coat’s lining hangs free at the bottom, he is able to slip his hand completely through.  In addition, he always keeps a handkerchief in the pocket.  His target is the lady seated in a streetcar, always crowded and jostling.  From outward appearances, he sits (or stands) with his hand in his pocket, yet he manages to pull up her overskirt enough to reach her pocketbook, then catching hold of the bag, draw it up his own pocket then step away.   If she feels the movement of his hand against her person, he merely pulls out the handkerchief and makes a show of wiping his face, and no one is the wiser. 

WEEDING A LEATHER – For the most expert of thieves, this entails dipping two fingers into the lady’s pocket and opening her pocketbook, hooking one finger and clearing out its contents without even removing the thing.  Imagine the speed and dexterity you’d need to do that!

I’ve managed to infuse several more examples throughout HANNAH’S VOW.  Let’s read one below:

Set-up:  After her father’s death, Hannah flees to a monastery to escape her sins and seek the peace she craves.  But a late night visit to a nearby penitentiary goes horribly wrong, and she’s kidnapped by one of the prisoners,the hero,  wrongly accused Quinn Landry.  Worse, he’s deathly ill, and she must save both him and herself.  To do that, she must call upon old skills, the very ones she’s vowed never to use again, to survive.

Excerpt:

A sturdy lock kept her from the contents.  She returned to the rig and searched for the key, her fingers skimming over the floor, up the sides, under the seat.

But, of course, she didn’t find one.  Fenwick wasn’t that stupid.

She sat cross-legged on the ground, the box in front of her.  It was made of tempered steel, too solid to jimmy apart without the proper tools.  She studied the lock and recognized its make.  A set of bar-keys wouldn’t work, even if she had them.

But a widdy would.

The knowledge came rushing back in a torrent too powerful to stop, memories of skills she’d learned under her father’s watchful eye, tricks she’d vowed never to use again.

But tonight, she had to.  To survive.

Hannah returned to the carriage again, retrieved Fenwick’s umbrella, and opened it.  She bent one of the wires, wiggled it back and forth until the metal snapped, then tossed the umbrella aside.

She sat on the ground again and fashioned a loop on one end of the wire.  All she needed next was a length of fine cord.

She hesitated.

The cord stringing her rosary beads would complete the widdy, but to destroy something so sacred to burglarize another man’s belongings . . ..

Mother Superior would be mortified.

But Hannah assured herself that if the abbess were cold and hungry and holed up in the middle of New Mexico Territory with an accused murderer, she’d do the same thing.  Surely, this was all part of the test?  Finding a way to survive?

Hannah removed the rosary from her waist and broke the cord; the beads slid off into a pile in the grass.  She formed a tight knot on the unlooped end of the wire.  At last, the widdy was finished.

And it was perfect.

Keenly aware of the deepening cold and rapidly fading light, Hannah slid the knotted end into the lock’s mortise.  Closing her eyes, she worked the tool, allowed a portion of the cord inside.  She felt her way and knew just when to pull the cord taut.

The lock snapped open.

She flipped the box lid up and gazed in wonder at the contents inside: a scattering of gold coins and bills; a miniature bottle of whiskey; a pearl handled derringer; laudanum; a pocket-knife, cheroots; and a box of matches.

Only then did Hannah remember it was Christmas night.

And Fenwick couldn’t have given them finer gifts.

To buy HANNAH’S VOW for your Kindle, click here

Now I’m curious.  Have you ever been robbed before?  Wronged by some smooth-talking con man?  Taken in by some scam?

I hope not!  But if you have, we’d love to hear about it!

Pam Crooks
Pam looks forward to the release of her first contemporary western romance with Tule Publishing in January, 2019. She has written 14 western romances, most with Harlequin Historicals. She has recently re-released four titles by ebook, individually and in a boxed set titled IN THE ARMS OF A COWBOY. More releases are HER MOTHER'S KILLER, a romantic suspense, and THE SPYGLASS PROJECT, Book One of her new Secret Six series, historical suspense set in the 1920s! THE BREWER'S DAUGHTER, Book Two. Next up - KISSES LIKE WINE, Book Three! www.pamcrooks.com
Updated: April 11, 2012 — 10:02 am

16 Comments

  1. About 20 years ago we went to Florida and stayed with my folks for a Spring Break vacation. We decided to spend the day at the beach. While we were frolicking in the water someone broke into my dad’s car trunk and stole my mom’s purse, my dad’s doctor bag and my husband and my camera, with case and extra lenses etc. We were all quite devastated! Around the same time, friends of their’s lost their wedding rings and other jewelry as they were robbed returning to their hotel room in the Miami area. (at gunpoint)

  2. Oh, Laurie! 20 years later, this would make me mad! On the one hand, you probably realized you shouldn’t have left the stuff in your car, but on the other, it’s still a crime against YOU, and an expensive one at that.

    I always wonder how thieves get away with stealing in broad daylight.

    My sympathies for the friends robbed at gunpoint. I’d need therapy after that one . . .

  3. My husband and I were taken in on a scam about 20 years ago. A good friend (former classmate) had gotten involved in helping a businessman launch a miracle drug (which shall remain nameless.) The businessman had some impressive literature and claims to research. My friend’s family investigated him and were so taken in they invested some of their retirement to help him.

    So my friend was all excited and convinced they were all going to get rich, and that got us excited, too. Dh and I added $1,000 to the fund (money we could NOT spare) and when things were going so great, we added another $500 later, just to increase our return when the stocks turned profitable.

    Needless to say, we were pretty disgusted at ourselves when the State of Colorado arrested the bum for the scam.

  4. Doug and I have always considered ourselves conservative, intelligent people, but when our trust in my friend clouded our thinking, we got took.

    Never again has that happened. 🙂

  5. Fascinating blog, Pam. I’ve had a few small things stolen, but nothing worth fretting over. I’m still mad at myself for getting conned into a five-year contract with an alarm system company. The folks who came to my door had shirts from the brand of my old system and said they were here to “update” it. Never again. I’ve learned my lesson. Never do business with anybody who knocks on your door.

  6. Wonderful blog, Pam! They only time I can remember being fleeced is when I noticed a charge on my credit card for nose hair clippers. Luckily, it was an easy fix, but they tracked the charge to a guy in Pakistan of all places. I called the company who sold the clippers and it was the nicest lady her reaction “I wondered why a gal from Montana was buying a guy in Pakistan clippers.” If you wondered, maybe you should have called. But after all was said and done my friends and I laughed about off all things I get taken by some guy who needs his nose hairs trimmed. :o)

  7. hi Pam, great post, and I learned a ton. Fortunately we haven’t been scammed or robbed, and I cannot imagine being held at gunpoint like Laurie’s friends. I don’t think I’d ever go outside again!

    Looking forward to reading your books. xoxo

  8. Elizabeth, don’t be too hard on yourself. The shirts would’ve hooked me in, too. In fact, anytime a repairman comes to the door, I look for ‘the shirt’–and a vehicle with the same name in the driveway.

    But yeah, five years is a long time.

  9. Speaking of salesmen who knock on the door – remember the Fuller Brush Salesman? Or the Kirby vacuum cleaner salesman?

    Gah! What a tough way to earn a living. But they were part of many of our childhoods!

  10. Oh, gosh, Kirsten! LOL! Now that’s a new one. Pakistan?? Nose clippers?

    You can’t make that stuff up, can you?

    Thank you for sharing!

  11. I know, Tanya. No innocent citizen should have to experience looking at the wrong end of a gun.

    Ever.

    I’d have nightmares for months.

  12. Just last night, a co-worker told me he’d been car-jacked over the weekend. He’s a shorter man, and one of two men taller than he came up from behind him, and hooked an arm around his neck just as he was about to get into his car late at night. My co-worker managed to jam his thumb into the thief’s eye, which loosened the man’s grip and is how my friend got away, but they threw him to the ground and took off in his car.

    I felt horrified for him. It could happen to any of us.

  13. Pam,
    I LOVED Hannah’s Vow. And this is really a pretty cover, too! This was really interesting to learn the terms and ploys of con men. Two things have happened in our lives that fall into this category. The first one was that we got up one morning and Gary started out the garage to go to work (we had left one of our cars parked in the driveway, locked, overnight) and the car was gone. They found it 2 weeks later, burned up in a field. I was glad–I wouldn’t have wanted it back, even if they’d recovered it–who knows what had taken place in it? The second thing was, we had hired a company to come in and do some re-modeling and painting in our house. Very nice people. EXCEPT, the guy they had working for them doing the painting was a thief. He cleaned out my jewelry box, stole some keepsakes that had been my deceased father’s (binoculars, a pellet gun, etc.)Turns out he had done this at all the places where they had him painting for their company and I had to go to the pawn shop where he’d pawned the stuff and PAY to get it back! My lesson was from that–don’t be so trusting. He seemed like a “good guy”, about my daughter’s age…we’d left him a couple of times when he was painting because of the smell–we’d go get the fixtures or other supplies that would be needed for the remodeling–but the couple that owned the business had trusted this guy too, and they were just heartbroken that he had almost wrecked their company and proven to be so worthless after they’d been so good to him.
    Cheryl

  14. Cheryl, thank you for always being so sweet. And thank you for sharing your stories. I really hope you got an even nicer car after yours was stolen–and burned to a crisp no less. How unfair is that–but you’re right. I wouldn’t want to touch anything ‘he’ touched. Ugh.

    It’s just not right you were a victim twice with your painter–having to pay to get your stuff back. Just not right.

  15. Pam
    Great blog on con men. Who knew? The research on this subject must have been eye opening! We have had identity theft and hacking stuff happen but have gotten money stolen back. Luckily it wasa small amount. Great book cover!

  16. Pam, I loved reading this. I’m working on a book with a Pinkerton operative and I’m amazed at the dexterity of con artists, especially during the 19th century.

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