Arts and Culture

Tonight: Author Amy Reading explores Denver's con-artist past

In 1919 rancher J. Frank Norfleet got swindled twice by a roving group of slick con artists, who cleaned him out of $45,000 with a fake stock-exchange scam similar to the "Big Con" operation in The Sting. But rather than embrace defeat, Norfleet became the "boomerang sucker." He spent the next four years tracking down the men who conned him and bringing them to justice -- a journey that culminated in undercover work in Denver, the capitol of the Big Con.

When Amy Reading first delved into Norfleet's memoir of his "30,000-mile transcontinental chase after five confidence men," as part of her doctoral dissertation research in American studies at Yale, she assumed she was reading a clever work of fiction. She felt stunned -- and a bit conned -- to discover that the basic subject matter of Norfleet's account, if not all the embellishments, was true. Her effort to sort out the truth from the fiction ultimately led to her new book, The Mark Inside: A Perfect Swindle, A Cunning Revenge, and a Small History of the Big Con.

Denver in the 1920s was a place the bunco artists could operate with impunity, under the protection of the police and mob boss Lou Blonger -- until Philip Van Cise became district attorney and launched an ambitious investigation of the gang, as recounted in my 2008 feature "Scourge of the Underworld." Norfleet arrived in town just in time to infiltrate the gang and be there for the big roundup.

Reading herself is in town tonight to discuss her book -- which moves back and forth from Norfleet's story to a history of American con operations to ruminations on the reliability of memoirs -- and revisit that roaring era. Catch her if you can at 7:30 pm at the Tattered Cover, 2526 East Colfax Avenue.

For more information, call 303-322-7727.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast