Confidence Men

G-Men movie ad, Province, 6 June 1935

Ad for G Men, one of the top grossing movies of 1935. Vancouver Province, 6 June 1935

The American crime wave that ushered in the era of G-Men, gun molls, and dirty rats didn’t stop at the 49th parallel. Vancouver had its own resident criminals, but it also attracted crooks from south of the border. The worst year for organized criminal activity during the Depression was 1933, when a Reno-based gang of con men was working in Vancouver. The G-Men got them in Nevada in 1935, but by then numerous victims had already been suckered out of more than $2 million. For its part, Vancouver became known as one of the best cities on the coast for bunco men to operate.

As dramatized in the movie The Sting, the 1930s were a heyday for highly organized “bunco” or “confidence games,” fraud schemes that were carried out with elaborate set ups and which often played out in more than one city. Typically the “mark” was bamboozled out of a large sum of money after being persuaded to invest in some get-rich-quick scheme.

Local confidence men could also do well for themselves. Fred Somers from New Westminster was convicted of conning $32,500 out of three different prairie farmers who “were impressed by the possibilities of increasing their savings by a high-pressure sales talk.”

J. Edgar Hoover wrote that Vancouver was “one of the three worst cities on the continent” for bunco games, and that “my files contain many instances of confidence men picking up their men in your vicinity (Vancouver) and riding them out to other cities.” Another memo from the Bureau of Investigation (forerunner to the FBI) revealed that

All Federal Officers, U.S.A., were definite in their opinion that Vancouver, B.C. was one of the worst places on the continent from the point of view of police administration. That they, the Federal officers, could never get any assistance or cooperation in Vancouver, B.C. and that it was one of the safest hide-outs for con men on the continent.

A Mountie visiting from Montreal echoed his American counterparts: “When I was in Vancouver,” he wrote, “these confidence men were a cursed nuisance, but very few, if any, were convicted. I suppose you know the reason by now.”

J. Edgar Hoover

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and friend.

As part of the “war on crime” that was declared in Vancouver in 1935, the police department was purged and a new policing regime took over, with Colonel WW Foster at the helm as the new chief constable, and a bunco squad was established.

Shortly after taking over, Colonel Foster reported on how bad things had become in Vancouver:

To such an extent has the system of protection for white slavery, bootlegging, gambling, dope and confidence rackets developed that Vancouver has become the international headquarters of a revolting type of vice and the natural refuge for criminals of dangerous character.

In 1937, he reported that known cases of bunco games since 1929 totalled

between 40 and 45, involving about three million dollars. From our present knowledge of the bunco game it is quite apparent that this sum forms a small proportion of the amount actually swindled from victims in British Columbia, as many who are swindled in this manner do not report the case to the police, being too ashamed of themselves for their part in the game. This would apply particularly to men who have been ‘taken’ for very large amounts. There can be no doubt that the presence of this class of swindler in British Columbia has had a very bad effect upon tourists of standing.

There are, however, plenty of reasons to question how extensive the bunco problem really was. Colonel Foster claimed to have virtually eliminated organized confidence rackets through police department reforms and his crackdown on crime, but bunco cases were rarely mentioned in the newspapers. There is also little in the police department records at the Vancouver Archives to suggest con games required substantial police resources. The Police Museum has a red “Bunco Book,” a notebook scrawled full of names but with little else to shed light on the issue. If any police officers were colluding with bunco men, as the above quotations from J. Edgar Hoover and a Mountie imply, none were charged. In fact, the officers purged in Colonel Foster’s shake-up were eventually exonerated. Finally, extant files from the secret intelligence unit that Foster claimed was set up to handle bunco cases show that it was more concerned with communists than con men, and was eventually named the “Communist Activities Branch.”

Colonel WW Foster, Vancouver Chief Constable, 1935.

Colonel WW Foster, Vancouver Chief Constable, 1935. City of Vancouver Archives, photo# Port P246

It was much easier to muster political will and public support for beefing up the police department to fight crime than it was to justify large expenditures to fight communists and striking workers, especially under the severe budget constraints of the 1930s. The extent of confidence rackets, and the so-called crime wave generally, appear to have been exaggerated in Vancouver and other North American cities for the purpose of extending the long arm of the law by giving police increased intelligence capabilities, machine guns, fast cars, more police, autonomy, and legitimacy.

In a sense, the “war on crime” was itself a confidence game inasmuch as people were misled into believing that a massive increase in police power was necessary to stem a major spike in criminal activity. In fact, only petty property crimes had noticeably increased since the onset of the Depression, according to a study by James P. Huzel.

In a 1935 radio speech, Mayor McGeer claimed that the “war on crime” under Colonel Foster was so successful that he was “quite certain that by now we would have a crimeless city” if fully half the police force hadn’t been diverted to policing relief camp and waterfront strikers. By the end of that year, the Vancouver City Police Department’s budget had bloated by more than $100,000 due to its fight against the red menace. There was a crackdown on crime in 1935, but nothing close to proportionate to the anti-crime rhetoric that made underwriting the war on communists and striking workers possible.  

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