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Kenny Boy’s Long Con


Jerome Doolittle

All along I’ve been thinking I had heard this stuff somewhere before, but the where didn’t click into focus until I came across Carol Elkin’s story the other day.

Ms. Elkin, an energy analyst at Enron for five years, told News Channel 2 in Houston that she was regularly assigned to make a show of working on a fake trading floor set up at headquarters.

“It was an elaborate Hollywood production that we went through every year when the analysts were going to be there to impress them to make our stock go up,” she said.

“They would build out the sixth floor of 1000 Smith in what I called a Hollywood set ... with big, 36-inch flat panel screens and the teleconference conference rooms.

“They would ask us to go alternately, in like hour shifts, down to the sixth floor and sit and pretend that we lived and worked there.”

The amateur cast was instructed to look busy while the rubes just in from Wall Street were paraded through. No trading occurred, however. The Enron people on the phones were just talking to each other.

It was the Big Store con all over again, something I had first come across in the seminal work in the field, Yellow Kid Weil: the Autobiography of America’s Master Swindler.

The Yellow Kid, born in Chicago in 1877, didn’t invent the Big Store, which was an extension of the older Long Con. But he brought to its fullest flower during the bull market that ended in 1929.

In the first stage of the Big Store con, the “roper” befriends the “mark” and lets him in on a sure-fire insider’s scheme for making big bucks in the market.

Then the roper takes his man to the Big Store, a busy brokerage. Professor David W. Maurer’s 1974 book, The Confidence Man, describes the scene:

“Conservative, substantial-looking businessmen, brokers with cigarettes always alight, financiers, all buy and sell stocks and securities in very large blocks ... It is a first-rate replica of a broker’s office, with the staff of brokers, board-markers, clerks, etc., and with tickers and stock-board rapidly reflecting the ups and downs of leading issues. Mr. Savage does not realize that the entire setup is fake, or that all the customers are shills, carefully made up and instructed in their parts.”

When Mr. Savage shows up the next day to collect his winnings, he finds nothing but an empty suite of rooms. The Big Store has vaporized, along with the cash he had invested in a sure thing.

Despite the similarities, though, there is a significant difference between Kenny Boy’s Big Store and the Yellow Kid Weil’s.

“I was particular,” Mr. Weil wrote in his 1948 autobiography. “I took money only from those who could afford it and were willing to go in with me in schemes they fancied would fleece others.”

The Yellow Kid’s theory was that anybody crooked enough to go into business with somebody like him “should go on trial alongside the con man and be subject to the same punishment.”

Unhappily the Kid’s notion had no legs. Like celibacy programs, Just Say No and the Golden Rule, it looked good on paper but never really caught on.

March, 2002


Copyright © 2004 by Jerome Doolittle