Larry Harnisch reflects on Los Angeles history
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Incredibly, Old Con Game Still Works
The name of the game is “pigeon drop.”
And, like pinochle, it generally requires three players.
Unlike pinochle, however, two of them must be equipped with glib tongues. The third player -- in the parlance of those dedicated to its perpetuity -- is the pigeon.
The game itself is so broad, so base, so obvious, that it should never work. But records of its success date back hundreds of years.
It has become a classic among con artists. They like it because it requires no elaborate plans or equipment, no special locale.
It can be played on a street corner. Any street corner.
First, find a pigeon. Somebody with money (at least a few hundred bucks) and a desire for more.
The pigeon can’t be 100% morally honest or the game won’t work. But you’d be amazed at the number of people who considered themselves pillars of their communities until they joined the growing list of victims.
The initial step is for one of the con artists to “find” a wallet or a purse loaded with money. (This can be achieved by flashing a “Chicago bank roll” -- a $20 or $50 bill wrapped around a wad of ones.)
Frequently, the purse is “found” in the presence of the pigeon. But whatever the circumstances, the con man always insists that the sucker is, by virtue of his presence, entitled to a share.
Here’s where the “good faith” clause comes in. The pigeon is asked to prove that he’s a respectable citizen. He must show that he has assets. Cash assets.
If the victim has no large amount of money on his person, he’s asked to draw a few hundred or a few thousand dollars out of the bank, with assurance that his own money will never leave his sight.
Variations in the plot are limitless, but generally, along about this time, the second con man joins the game. He’s a “respectable businessman.” He’s approached by the first con man and the victim to “hold” the purse while the victim gets his “good faith” money.
Then, through an envelope switch, a quick “phone call to make” pitch, or any of a dozen other ruses, the pigeon and his money parted.
The “pigeon drop” is vicious, not so much in its execution, but in its selection of victims. Invariably, the victims are the elderly -- people whose moral standards can become easily confused. The con artists will tell the victim, for example, that the money was found with a pair of race track tickets -- and obviously was won gambling -- and therefore it’s all right not to return it.
A few weeks ago, at 54th and Broadway, a pair of women, one about 30, another about 55, used a similar approach on a 69-year-old housewife who had stepped out to do some shopping.
The housewife had suffered a stroke not too long ago and was, according to her husband, still easily confused.
The pair offered to let her share in $9,000 they claimed to have found, and by the time they were through with her a couple of hours later, she had drawn out her entire life savings of $7,700 and was left standing on the fourth floor of an office building at 9th and Hill Sts. Waiting for a fictitious “Mr. Adkins.”
They, of course, were long gone with her $7,700 by the time she realized what had happened.
Hard-Earned Savings Gone
“Since before World War I, we’ve been in the small restaurant business,” the victim’s husband told me yesterday. “We worked hard all our lives -- 20 hours a day. Now we’ve lost everything.”
Christmas, 1959, passed by their house unnoticed, he said.
“Our nerves are gone,” he told me. “We’ve just gone haywire. Christmas Eve we stayed up, but honestly, we were so confused we thought it was New Year’s Eve.”
The man asked me not to mention his name.
I won’t. But I am mentioning the case, because maybe somebody else who’s a little confused might benefit from the reminder that the pigeon drop, old and unbelievable as it is, still works.
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