Carny grift

11 Mar


Not much has been written about circus grift, says historian John Hammers, because it doesn’t quite square with the romantic picture of spangles and sawdust presented in the traditional circus history. But “the plain, unvarnished truth is that during the nineteenth and early twentieth centiures many circuses and their side shows were thoroughly crooked and infested with grift, a term that designates dishonest circus practices requiring personal contact between criminal and victim”.

Hammers was obviously writing before HBO’s Carnivale, which in some ways gives us an unusually glamour-free insight into carny grift and hardship in 1930s America. The series presents circus-style deception matter-of-factly, as a daily part of the travelling-show routine, necessary for the survival of the company. Witness the fake evangelist-healer’s show in one of the early episodes, for example, or the ‘shakes’ (anything falling out of a rube’s pocket on a ride) which the characters pocket as casually as kiss-my-hand. Perhaps, with the popularisation of carny history achieved through this show, the stars-in-your-eyes picture of old circus life can no longer be sustained.

Here, by the way, is John Hanners’ catalogue of the most common forms of circus grift:

1) Gambling

The first kind of gambling at circuses was run by managers at their employees’ expense. The managers would keep a “pie car”, usually an old railroad carriage, where circus workers could hang out after work. This car would have booths in which food and drink could be bought and eaten, “and as many gaming devices as the rest of the space would hold”. The idea was that employees would be enticed to gamble away any of their earnings, so that their salary reverted back to the management. Some circus outfits – Cole Bros. Circus during the Depression, for example – would only hire workers with reputations as heavy gamblers for precisely this reason.


The other gambling took place in an inconspicuous ‘G-top’ (gambling tent), with any number of rapid-fire gambling games running, all of them rigged: three-card monte, cologne joints, shapes-and-miss-outs, &c. A sucker would be induced to lose money fast, and if they ever complained, the G-top was long dismantled and squirrelled-away by the time the police arrived.

2) Short changing: the crimp and the slide

This grift was carried out on the rubes by any of the circus workers selling wares: ticketsellers, balloon men, popcorn and cotton-vendors. Hanners gives an example of one kind of silver shortchanging called “crimp”, drawn from the memoir of an anonymous circus grifter. “A candy butcher tells a sucker he needs some larger change, perhaps half or silver dollars. For this favor to the butcher, the sucker is promised a free cup of pink lemonade… Let’s say the sucker gives the butcher two silver dollars. The butcher gives the man in return $1.90 in change and makes him count it. When the sucker discovers the dime shortage, the butcher takes the money back, the two count it together, and the butcher admits his error. He adds the dime to the change, gives the money back to the sucker with one hand, while simultaneously handing him an overfilled cup of lemonade with the other hand. When the sucker tries to juggle the lemonade without spilling it, the butcher calmly palms all the quarters”. A good shortchanger could apparently make as much as $100 to $150 a day (!) by this technique.

The other common shortchange was the slide, carried out exclsuively by ticketsellers, “most of whom received no salary and whose livelihood depended entirely on what they could steal”. The ticket booth would be set up higher than a patron’s eye-level. “The seller never put the change directly into the patron’s hand, but spread out the correct change on a high mantle”, so the patron couldn’t reach all the paper or coins. If they later discovered they’d been shortchanged and came back, the seller would apologise and return the money, saying he’d tried to get the patron’s attention, but they’d already left. And if the sucker didn’t come back, of course, they kept the money. 

3) Picking pockets.

This was so rife at the travelling shows that some managers demanded forty per cent of everything stolen.

Circus manager Will Irwin estimated that his shows in the first decade of the 20thC earned eighty per cent of their profits from grift, a large part of which came from straight-out theft. When you consider this figure, the Carnivale lot seem positively Pollyanna-ish by comparison. And they are also presented as a kind of misfit family, all in it together, with none of this management-trying-to-dupe-the-workers with the pie-car caper that most carny outfits practised at the time. So perhaps the series presents a glamourised view of the grifters after all.


First image above is of Steve Meah (Times photo: Carrie Pratt), the old-time carny worker who educated the Carnivale team in the ways of travelling-show chicanery. For more info on Meah, see here.

Image of Cole Bros. circus wagon from the Circus World Musuem site (a classic example of the romantic view of circus history, in which any evidence of carny grift has been carefully expunged).

John Hanners, “Larceny in his soul”: The Circus Grifter”, in his “It Was Play or Starve”: Acting in the 19thC American Popular Theatre (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993): 131-46.


One Response to “Carny grift”

  1. Dave 20 April 2008 at 10:20 pm #

    I’ve been thinking of writing an academic paper about carnival life, specifically about the “family dynamics” of carnival workers. I teach psychology courses at Quincy College in Quincy, MA and will soon be teaching at Roxbury Community College in Massachusetts. Many of my young students have children and have found proxy families to compensate for absent fathers. Any suggestions?

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