Simanaitis Says

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WHAT FOLLOWS is a meta-review. That is, a review of reviews, in this case of The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, one of only a few books coming to mind that have unexpected hyphens in their titles. There’s Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, 1880. There’s Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick: or, The Whale, 1851. And, coincidently also by Herman Melville, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, 1857.

Herman Melville, 1819–1891, American novelist, short story writer, and poet. Oil painting, 1870, by Joseph Oriel Eaton.

Wikipedia says Melville’s writing “draws on his experience at sea as a common sailor, exploration of literature and philosophy, and engagement in the contradictions of American society in a period of rapid change.”

His years of Polynesian adventure, 1839–1844, led to Melville’s first two novels. Both Typee, 1846, and its sequel Omoo, 1847, are familiar to crossword puzzle fans. Or at least their titles are.

Image from

This meta-review is in two parts today and tomorrow, touching on the etymology of the term “confidence man,” summarizing the novel and sharing some assessments, both in its own era and in our own.

The Original Confidence Man. Though it’s likely humans have been scamming each other for millennia, the term “confidence man” is relatively recent. It dates from 1849 and a fellow named William Thompson. This American ran a scam in 1840s New York City that sounds incredibly simple-minded to modern sophisticates like us.

Or maybe not.

Thompson would gain the mark’s trust in conversation and then say, “Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?”

By the time Thompson was nabbed, a goodly number of watches had not been returned to their original owners. His trial made nationwide news, and the New York Herald dubbed Thompson a “confidence man.” The term stuck, ofttimes shortened to con man (or, what with equal rights and all, con woman).

Melville’s April Fool. Within a decade, on April 1, 1857, Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade was published by Dix, Edwards & Co., 321 Broadway, New York. Before the end of the year, Dix, Edwards & Co. would go out of business. And the book was to be Melville’s last novel published during his lifetime, Billy Budd, Sailor not appearing until 1924.

As we’ll learn tomorrow, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade was not particularly well received back in 1857. However, these days, given the spate of confidence men in action, the book has indeed gained appreciation. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018


  1. jlalbrecht64
    May 14, 2018

    I’ll put this on my list to read, thanks. In an earlier life segment, I actually knew a con man. I personally did not lose any money (or if so it was only small sums stolen from my flat), but I know quite a few people who lost hundreds and thousands of Euros before he was outed and left town. Last I read he was finally nabbed for grand theft in Florida. It makes for an interesting story…maybe after I retire.

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