Archive for May, 2021

On the special hell that is the Spanish Prisoner con

May 17, 2021 6 comments

Usually I take a good day to write a post. I chase down links, I look for the right illustrations, I rewrite at least twice.
This post is not like that.

There are many cons. I’m reading The Big Con right now, to try to get a feel for the form.

But it seems to me that the Spanish Prisoner con is one of the cruelest, both for the mark and for the con man, because it hinges on imagining a better world, and then short-changing that vision in order to grab some quick cash.

Here’s how it works: I have a friend, a nobleman, who has been taken prisoner in Spain (it’s the 17th or 18th century: it is credible that Spain is a world power and also that justice there is sufficiently arbitrary that my friend might be wrongly imprisoned and/or arbitrarily freed if we can get him some money). So if we can just help my friend get free, then he will reward us all. Endless summer, drinks by the pool, envy all round.

So the con is, I need some seed money to get a big payout. Oh, dammit, the Spaniards snaffled the seed money – I need more. A bit more. OK, this time for sure. Yeah, more so we can get the friend clear. And so on.

The mark has to imagine a better world. The con has to sell them a better world. And then consistently fail to deliver.

Now, if I were in the novel-writing business, I would write this as a perfect set-up for a tragedy. Because the con has to be convincing, it’s best if it’s based in something true. So then inevitably the con man falls in love with the lie – because they have to forcefully imagine the better world and then impress upon the mark how much better it is that reality. Specifically better than the tawdry reality where the mark is having pocket money siphoned off them by some low-life storyteller.

The “prisoner” can be any great thing that would measurably improve life – prison for Trump, or free energy, or faster-than- light travel, or a cure for global warming. The con man can even be well-intentioned. They actually might be unconsciously conning the mark. They just have to sell it.

And it’s a hell because we, the smart audience know that it can never be fulfilled. Dramatic irony. The sheer attractiveness of the idea slowly eats away all resistance. We can watch those fools slowly get drawn into a false belief in redemption. We can see them sacrifice their money, their opportunity costs, their lives and loves for this one big love. The prisoner that can never be released.

Thank god we’re safe and warm here in our skepticism.