Home > Uncategorized > On the special hell that is the Spanish Prisoner con

On the special hell that is the Spanish Prisoner con

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.

  1. June 9, 2021 at 8:39 pm

    No, those would be equivalents of “Atlantis Prisoner Con”.
    As in, the “smart” (well, at least sufficiently literate) audience knows full well that Atlantis does not even exist. Yet… in the end they voluntarily give the con man their money.
    Of course, this raises many fun questions.

    • Richard Grenville
      June 10, 2021 at 3:11 pm

      there are plenty of real-world examples. We tend to give the ones that eventually succeed a free pass, assuming that the early investors were engaging in rational risk-taking, but it’s not so easy to tell the difference, while the scheme is in play, between an expedition to find the northwest passage (inherently doomed) and one to colonize space by first making a universal online store (Amazon). One can object that these efforts are sincere and therefore not cons, but that’s importing our after-the-fact information into the decision making process.

    • Skerples
      June 10, 2021 at 3:45 pm

      There’s also an element of voluntary social pressure / kayfabe. Mulder’s UFO poster doesn’t say “I believe”, it says “I want to believe.” People know, on some level, that this sub expedition won’t find a the mythical technology of lost Atlantis but they want to believe that it will. People play along with the story because they are interested in the world the story implies. It’s very difficult to argue that people who voluntarily play along with a proposition were lied to or tricked.

      • Richard Grenville
        June 10, 2021 at 5:03 pm

        I just saw these other comments. The thing about wanting to believe, or even building an identity around kayfabe belief, seems to me complex and probably indicative of some deeper things that deserve to be explored. Many Flat Earthers, allegedly, know the Earth is not flat but position themselves as skeptics of that widely-touted fact. Actually getting to the bottom of why they might do this is… research on the level of therapy.

  2. Skerples
    June 10, 2021 at 4:16 pm

    Going to try reposting this without a link, to see if that gets past the filter.

    I think that there are 4 possible responses to being forced to lie. “Forced”, in this case, by the structure of the con you’re pulling. “Forced” by your job selling cell phone plans to the bewildered elderly. “Forced” by a lack of other choices. People tend to respond some mixture of all 4 options.

    1. Contempt of Others
    You aren’t lying to real people. Not people like you, at least. /They/ are suckers. Dumb sheep. Marks. People who haven’t got it figured out. You’ve got it figured out. You’re one of the wiseguys, the people on the take, the house, the inner ring. You are one of the people whom the law should protect but not bind; /they/ are the people the law should bind but not protect. They don’t count. Sneering, mockery.

    2. Contempt of Self
    You’re lying because you’re a bad person, and, having accepted that, you can continue to lie (or self-destruct). On the outside, everything seems normal. On the inside, you’re rotting. Bitterness, cynicism.

    3. True Belief
    You aren’t lying. As you’ve said, you’ve “fallen in love with the lie” because it’s better than reality. People want to maintain the belief, at all costs, that they’re a good person doing good things, and this is an easy path. Anything that challenges that belief must be suppressed. Tension, anger.

    4. Abdication of Responsibility.
    You are lying because you are being forced to lie; someone must be forcing you, and the moral consequences are on them. You didn’t decide what the press release should say, you just had to write it. You didn’t write the press release, you just read it. It’s your boss. It’s the board. It’s the plan, and a plan once made cannot be altered. You didn’t want to pull the con, but in this economy, with the rent due, and the rising cost of living…

    If there’s any tip, it’s to try to avoid placing yourself in a situation where you’re forced to lie. It never ends well.

  1. June 10, 2021 at 4:01 pm

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