The cons of caper films, in other words, so often come across as buoyant enterprisers, cut from the same cloth as the American ideal of the self-made man. That ideal, like the confidence artist himself, came of age in the middle of the 19th century. Thompson carried out his famous watch-pocketing in 1849, as the industrializing cities swelled with young transplants from rural populations. Advice manuals with titles like Young Man’s Guide and Young Man’s Friend all cautioned carpetbaggers against the moral perils of city-living—gambling, drinking, assorted forms of dissipation.
But what brought men to the city, as the scholar Karen Halttunen writes in Confidence Men and Painted Women, wasn’t the promise of city vices. It was the broad promise of the “middle class,” denoting not a mid-way point between the rich and the poor but, precisely, the freedom to be either. Every American, or so the thinking went, could fashion himself into a person of his choosing, whether a drunken gambler or a quintessential man-on-the-make. This new ethic of success propelled the nascent industrial economies, leading some to believe, like the missionary Calvin Colton, that America had become a “country of self-made men.”
That optimism drew on many aspects of the American heritage: Calvinist morality; Benjamin Franklin’s maxims for self-improvement; Thomas Jefferson’s theories of a natural elite; Ralph Waldo Emerson’s case for self-reliance. It also lent the con artist a mythic, keenly American quality. Not long after Thompson’s theft, a letter writer to Boston’s Evening Transcript declared swindlers “indigenous characters […] in our courts and cities.” Ten years later, a pamphlet titled Tricks and Traps would claim con men as “a class peculiar to the West, found operating more or less extensively in every city.” By the 1850s, the very word “Yankee” was a near-synonym for confidence tricks: It connoted the figure of the Yankee peddler, an itinerant scammer hustling his way across the country.
Perhaps no one is more equipped to embody the American ideal of self-determination than the con—the figure who, through sheer imagination, becomes any person of his choosing. At his most benign, he incarnates the “discriminating irreverence” that Mark Twain described as “the creator and protector of human liberty,” and which buoys many of his own grifter characters. But the same qualities that make for a uniquely American hero also make for a uniquely American menace. In the wake of the Thompson craze, an anonymous satirist in the New York Herald compared Thompson’s shenanigans with those of New York’s burgeoning financial elite:
Those palazzos, with all their costly furniture, and all their splendid equipages, have been the product of the same genius [as Thompson]. His has been employed on a small scale in Broadway. Theirs has been employed in Wall Street. That’s all the difference. He has obtained half a dozen watches. They have pocketed millions of dollars. He is a swindler. They are exemplars of honesty. He is a rogue. They are financiers.
This writer wasn’t merely disparaging New York’s rich as common crooks. The point—a radical one for the time—was that crooks would always be common in corporate America. That is, if confidence tricks were the stuff of petty criminals, then they were also essential strategies in a market economy increasingly based on capitalist speculation.