Beware the flim-flam man: History’s famous (and weirdest) frauds

A painting by Hieronymus Bosch that depicts what seems to be a magic trick, but is actually fraud and shows how people are fooled by lack of alertness and insight
“The Conjurer” by Hieronymus Bosch, 1475–1480. Via:

Compiled by A. Nora Long, Associate Artistic Director

Fast Companyby Carla Ching (playing at Lyric Stage March 4–27, 2016) tells the story of a family of con-artists. Beware the flim-flam man! These famous cons may have been around forever but, in the words of P.T. Barnum, “a sucker is born every minute.”

Do you recognize any of these famous frauds?

Pig-in-a-Poke: dates from the Middle Ages, and refers to being offered an item in a manner that conceals its actual value (which is probably very little). The original scam involved selling an unsuspecting mark a bag (poke) with an alleged suckling pig inside. Once money changed hands and the buyer got the bag home, he would discover his dinner was actually a cat, or other less valuable meal. This con gives us the idiom “let the cat out of the bag.”

The Spanish Prisoner: “One of the oldest and most attractive and probably most successful swindles known to the police authorities,” or so said The New York Times in 1898. An advance-fee scam, the mark is implored either directly, or through a known party to bail a wealthy remote relative out of a Spanish (or other foreign nation) prison, for the promise of a larger reward once he is freed. Of course, complications arise, and the reward never arrives.

A copy of an old newspaper from the 1960s called the call
This 1905 San Francisco Call front-page spread details the arrest of a Spanish prisoner swindle gang. Via:

The Badger Game: is an extortion scheme in which a man is lured into a compromising position, usually by a woman, only to be “discovered” and blackmailed by her accomplice. The term either originates from sport badger-baiting, or from the cons origins, Wisconsin (the Badger State).

A bunch of glass eyes of varying eye colors
Would you pick this up on the street? An optometrist’s selection of glass eyes. Via:

The Glim Dropper: relies on the greed of the mark and an accomplice with one eye. The one-eyed man claims to have lost his glass eye (the “glim”) and offers the mark a significant reward if returned. Later, an accomplice claims to have found it. The mark is set-up to “con” the accomplice, offering him a smaller amount of money than the promised reward in exchange for the lost eye. Of course, the one-eyed man will never be found again, and the mark is out money with only a creepy eye to show for it.

About Fast Company

The Lyric Stage loves stories that focus on family, but wait til you meet Blue and HER family in Fast Company. Blue’s mom, Mable Kwan, is a tough cookie and the best grifter who ever lived . . . and she raised her kids to be just like her. Son Francis is the top roper around and H is the number one fixer. But it’s Blue — the outcast of the family — who surprises everyone by putting together the score of the decade. Fast Company is a fast, funny, and dangerous theatrical crime caper that will keep you guessing about who’s on top and who’s getting conned. As playwright Carla Ching wrote, “I could say that Fast Company is about grifts, game theory, and magic. And it is. But at its essence, it’s about family.”

Tickets available now at

Sources: The American Heritage Dictionary of idioms.“An Old Swindle Revived.” The New York Times, March 20, 1898. “Do the Hustle: Three Classic Cons Explained” Wired.Co.UK, May 20, 2010.