The Michelangelo of Con Artists - Joseph “The Yellow Kid” Weil

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

The slightly shady master brushstrokes of Joseph “The Yellow Kid” Weil.

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The Michelangelo of Con Artists

The slightly shady master brushstrokes of Joseph “The Yellow Kid” Weil

 

“Are you men going to let a parasite eat away your body - your very life?”  As old “Doc” Meriwether’s voice soared over the sea of wide-eyed yokels, they gawked back like a startled antelope herd.  When the good doctor cradled the thirty-two-ounce bottle of Meriwether’s Elixer and graphically detailed the symptoms of infestation by the dreaded tapeworm, their mouths gaped open - nearly in  unison.Several of those mouths would once again hang low after they had entered his makeshift office to witness the results of his magical cure-all. 

Once a patient had purchased and consumed the concoction, he was instructed to lie down in the outer office and wait for the purgative properties of the miracle treatment to begin.When he felt its unmistakable effect, the sucker was led into a darkened room containing a waiting basin.  As he returned to the outer office, Meriwether‘s young assistant would walk out of the room, carrying the basin.  When the doc dipped his tongs into its vile contents, his brow winkled knowingly.  “There, my  friend,” Doc Meriwether would exclaim as he dangled the despicable creature, “is your tapeworm!  Evil-looking thing isn’t it?” 

It didn’t seem to matter that the sinister critter was actually a long string of potato peel previously placed in a substitute basin.The patient could almost see it wriggling and writhing.  Inevitably, he felt a wave of disgust followed by an immediate glow of health and well being from the extrication of the hideous monster.As Meriwether’s young assistant, Joseph Weil, would later observe in his autobiography, the sucker’s relief may have been due to his having “…had a good cleansing, in more ways than one!”  While the country bumpkin smiled broadly and poked ten dollars into the hand of his savior physician, he was blissfully unaware that the only thing Doc Meriwether had removed, was the ten dollars from his wallet.

Something else though, was in fact removed by the incident - any lingering desire in the mind of Meriwether’s young assistant to pursue the hard-working honest life.  As his boss tucked the money into his wallet, he confirmed a fact that Weil would later summarize in his book:  “Much more money was being made by skullduggery than by honest toil.”No, honest toil held little interest for the young assistant…but that crisp ill-gotten ten dollar bill - now that was another thing!

Following the path set by Meriwether and later mentors, Joseph Weil would wheel-and-deal his way through the early nineteen hundreds to become, likely, the best con man to ever roam the earth.  Emphasizing the artist in con artist, he would orchestrate complex schemes involving fake banks, phony betting parlors and bogus brokerage houses.  These establishments would be fully staffed with  “tellers,” “stockbrokers” and “customers” played by gangsters, prostitutes and small-time hoodlums.  His complex scams, in fact, would become the inspiration for the plot of the 1973 movie, The Sting, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford.

The Chicago-born Weil learned from the best on the streets of the bustling city by carefully studying the established swindlers in his neighborhood.At seventeen, he took a job as a bill collector and soon observed that all of his co-workers were skimming money off the top of their transactions.  Rather than simply taking a cut of the bill-payer’s money like they did, he turned his attention toward his fellow workers.  For a modest sum, he informed them, he would not tell the boss about their misdeeds.  His intuition was flawless - they were all glad to provide Weil with a small percentage to avoid being exposed. 

It wouldn’t be long, however, before his restless mind would concoct more innovative scams.  One of his early cons involved a pair of glasses.  He had begun selling subscriptions to Midwestern farmers, for a popular rural magazine called Hearth and Home.  After making a sale, Weil would thank the farmer for purchasing the subscription and prepare to leave.  Then, as an apparent afterthought, he would reach in his pocket and pull out a pair of expensive-looking spectacles.  He had found them on the ground, he informed the farmer, as he was coming down the road. 

“Do you happen to know anybody in the community who wears glasses like these?” he would inquire.When the farmer said he didn’t know of anyone, Weil would somberly shake his head.  “Too bad,” he lamented, “If I could find the owner, I would return them.  They look like expensive eyeglasses.”  As he inspected the rims, he said they appeared to be solid gold.  Weil then held them out to the farmer who would usually try them on.Suddenly, the print in the sample magazine Weil had given him, stood out bright and clear.“Probably,” Weil later reasoned, “he’d been intending to get a pair of glasses the next time he went to town.” 

When Weil told the sucker-to-be that he really didn’t have time to go from house to house to find who they belonged to, the farmer inevitably offered to cough up two or three dollars to keep the glasses and search around for the owner.  “Of course,” Weil explained, “he had no intention of looking for the owner - any more than I did.”  Once Weil was on his way with the newly acquired dollar bills in his pocket and the farmer excitedly informed his family of his good fortune in acquiring the glasses with solid-gold rims, everyone was happy.  They were all happy, that is…until the farmer learned he could purchase the same spectacles with their painted rims and magnifying-glass lenses, for twenty-five cents in the local general store.

As his scams grew more complex, and he raked in more money, Joseph Weil would begin to engrave his name into the annals of con-artist history.  His name would nearly always be followed by his nickname, The Yellow Kid.  He received that handle in the late 1800’s from one of his early…and typically shady acquaintances, Alderman “Bathhouse John” Coughlin.  The alderman noticed young Weil chuckling over the then-popular  New York Journal’s comic strip, “Hogan’s Alley and the Yellow Kid.”The Yellow Kid character was always trying to pull something over on someone else in the strip.  “You know, Joe,” Coughlin observed, “you’re just like that character, always pulling capers on people.”  From then on, young Joseph Weil, the up-and-coming conman, would also be known as The Yellow Kid.

During the years to come, Joseph Weil would fashion his career with the meticulous attention-to-detail of a fine craftsman.  His far-reaching schemes would eventually require props like counterfeit brochures, letterheads and postmarks to convince suckers they were dealing with an honorable man from an established company.  As he turned his attention toward creating the props, no detail escaped Weil’s scrutiny.  For phony international correspondence, he acquired stamps from foreign countries at a local stamp store and had postmarking machines made for every large city in the world.  He hired an old-time hand-engraver to engrave and print letterheads, stock certificates, letters of credit and all the other bogus documents his schemes would require.  No, if he was going to be caught…which he eventually would be, it would not be for lack of forethought.

Year after year and scam by scam, Weil would ply his trade, polishing and tweaking his cons to near perfection.  Near perfection, however, was as close as he would get.  During his career, he would see the inside of a jail cell over forty times  - his longest sentence lasting nearly two years.  But even his intermittent incarceration didn’t slow down Weil's creative juices.  During one prison stay, for instance, he volunteered to work as a medical aide.  His venture into health care didn’t exactly spring from a hidden desire to help humanity.  Instead, the position provided Weil with a familiarity of medical terminology which he put to good use in his next swindle, which called for him to portray a medical doctor.

His wide-ranging schemes would require Weil to assume a number of roles throughout the years Like a seasoned character actor, he adeptly donned the outfit and characteristics of the “leading actor” in whatever scam he was producing.  Those productions would involve everything from peddling pills that could turn water into gasoline, to convincing backers to invest in his plan for a French cemetery for jockeys.  “I have often marveled,” Weil would reflect, “at the number who seem to be waiting for someone to come along and take their money.”  The motivation for their enthusiasm, he was well aware, was their desire to make an instant fortune by expending little or no work.  “I never cheated an honest man,” Weil would declare, “only rascals.”  “They wanted something for nothing,” he added, “I gave them nothing for something.”

One of his most novel methods of providing the mark with “nothing for something,” included two partners - one of the four-legged canine variety.  The other partner was Weil’s long-time cohort, Fred “The Deacon” Buckminster.Weil would saunter into a local bar with a well-groomed and richly perfumed dog at the end of a stylish leash.  During his conversation with the bartender, he mentioned several profitable contests the dog had recently won…and casually displayed it’s pedigree papers.  Then, as if stung by an electric shock, Weil suddenly grabbed his solid-gold watch.  “Great Scott!“ he exclaimed, “I’m late for an urgent business meeting.”

After talking the barkeeper into accepting a ten-dollar tip to watch his dog while he attended the meeting, Weil scurried off.  Before long, Buckminster casually wandered into the bar and ordered a drink.  His eyes eventually lit on the dog and he cried out, “Oh my Lord!  I’ve been looking for this breed of dog for five years!”  Yanking a fifty-dollar bill from his wallet, he begged the bartender to sell him the animal.  When he was told that another gentleman owned it, he said he would gladly pay three-hundred dollars to acquire such a fine canine specimen.  Slapping fifty bucks on the bar, Buckminster left the phone and room number of the nearby hotel where he was staying.  “Call me as soon as you can persuade the owner to sell,” he instructed the bartender, promising the other two-hundred-and-fifty as soon as he showed up with the dog.

The stage was now set for Weil’s return.  This time, however, he was not in high spirits as before.  Instead, he appeared crestfallen and distracted.  A high-stakes deal at his business meeting, it turned out, had backfired and left him virtually penniless.  He sadly informed the bartender that he had been wiped out and didn’t even know where he would find money to live on.  Then Weil dropped his head pitifully and waited for the inevitable offer to buy his dog.  As the sucker silently calculated the ten dollar-tip, the fifty-dollar deposit and the two-hundred-and-fifty bucks of sure money waiting just down the street at the hotel, he would usually offer a couple hundred dollars to take the valuable pooch off Weil’s hands and provide him with enough money to live on. 

Following a phony grieving process about leaving his beloved purebred behind, Weil reluctantly pocketed the two hundred and, slump-shouldered and depressed, wandered on his way.  As he subtracted the total of sixty dollars that he and Buckminster had invested in the scheme from the two hundred in his wallet, his shoulders immediately straightened and an impish grin replaced his dismal frown.  Interestingly enough, the exact opposite reaction came over the face and shoulders of the bartender as the desk clerk informed him that nobody with the name written on his card had checked into the hotel.  Meanwhile Weil and his partner were already busy visiting the dog pound to pick another stray to wash, groom, perfume and attach to the expensive leash…for a visit to another bar. 

As innovative as the dog scam was, it would eventually pale in complexity to future deceptions as the Yellow Kid’s creativity kicked into high gear.  Near the top of those schemes was his Muncie, Indiana bank swindle.  After learning that the city’s Merchants National Bank had recently moved to new quarters, the impish grin returned to his face.  He rented the building, Weil wrote, “which was complete with all the necessary furnishings and fixtures for a banking venture.”  Keeping everything in place, he instructed his cohorts to visit the new Merchants Bank and secretly carry away stacks of blank withdrawal and deposit slips, counter checks and all the other documents that would soon make the new fake bank seem legitimate. 

A busy bank, of course, would also need to have plenty of money.  No problem - Weil simply gathered all the Merchant’s Bank moneybags he could locate.  “I couldn’t get enough,” he recalled, “so I had the name of the bank stenciled on fifty salt bags.”  Although some actual money was scattered around for appearance sake, the bags were filled with steel washers the size of silver dollars.  The roles of tellers, bank officials and security guards were quickly filled, as usual, by cons, thugs and streetwalkers.  Spruced up in their Sunday best, they would fill the bill for the busy staff and customers who would inhabit the bustling bank.To play the roles of the uniformed messengers who would routinely carry out sacks of cash, Weil recruited off-duty streetcar conductors.  “They wore their regular uniforms,” Weil disclosed, “but left the badges off their caps. “Day-by-day and hour-by-hour the silent old bank building was preparing to take on the appearance of a healthy and hectic financial institution.

Throughout the weeks before the grand re-opening,  Weil’s old partner, Fred Buckminster, groomed the mark - a  multi-millionaire investor in Chicago.The opportunity of a lifetime awaited, Buckminster had informed him, in Muncie, Indiana.  The president of the Merchant’s Bank in that city (to be played by Weil) had just gained control of oil-rich government land at a fraction of its value.  And it just so happened that he was Buckminster’s personal friend and might consider selling the deeds to some of the precious real estate.  Buckminster said he couldn’t guarantee the sale, but if the investor would pack a brief case with cash, he would try to convince the bank president to let him in on the deal.

Following a trip from Chicago and a chauffeur-driven ride from the train station, Buckminster and the potential investor strolled into the busy establishment.  Unfortunately, the bank’s president was tied up with business deals and wouldn’t be able to meet with them for a while.  This delay, like every aspect of Weil’s schemes, had a hidden purpose.  As the mark sat waiting, he witnessed furious activity all around him as customers deposited fistfuls of money, bank executives dragged sacks of currency into a brimful vault and the messengers lugged bags of silver dollars out the door.  Obviously the president of such a successful operation was indeed a brilliant and trustworthy businessman.  By the time the poor dupe was called into the president’s office, he never stood a chance…he couldn’t get the cash out of his briefcase fast enough to try and obtain the treasured land certificates.

Weil, however, acted disinterested and aloof as he casually shuffled through bogus oil surveys that proved the hidden value of the federal land he had supposedly purchased.  “I’ve got a lot of friends here in Indiana to take care of,” he stated flatly.  He motioned to Buckminster and said he wouldn’t even consider including the Chicago investor in the deal “if it weren’t for my good friend Harry here.”  Reluctantly, he finally agreed to sell some of the valuable land to the fortunate fellow.  He would not, however, be able to sell quite as much as the hopeful investor wanted to buy.  Weil soaked him for about fifty-thousand dollars worth of the fake land deeds but left several thousand dollars in his briefcase.  Weil knew this would convince him of his honesty.  “Never be greedier than the mark,” he cautioned.  Immediately after the deal and a chauffeured ride to the train station, the thriving bank was rapidly transformed back into an empty building. 

And so it went, scam after scam, as Joseph Weil conned his way through the early decades of the 1900’s.  Finally, by the mid-1930’s, he had become so well known by law enforcement - even with his various disguises, that he was forced into semi-retirement.  Living off his swindled fortune, he wrote his memoirs and kept his skills polished with occasional small cons. 

He had plenty of time to perfect those cons, since Joseph The Yellow Kid Weil would eventually live to be a hundred.  Apparently the years didn’t significantly alter his lifestyle.  On his 99th birthday, celebrated in a Chicago nursing home, Weil was given a party attended by the other residents as well as local media.  “When the party was over, and he thought nobody was watching,” a Chicago newspaper reporter noted, “the Kid swiped the extra box of candles."

 

I hope you enjoyed the story.  If you have time, please leave a comment.  Thank you!


Submitted: July 26, 2020

© Copyright 2022 Dennis L. Goodwin. All rights reserved.

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