The Oldest Trick in The Book

I am always amazed when I cross Westminster Bridge to see the Three Card Trick in operation. In case you don’t know it, this is where three criminals con people out of their money in a rigged card game, also known as Find The Lady. One person has three cards set up on a table or box and they invite you to guess which one is the Queen of Hearts – the lady. One of the accomplices poses as a punter, who is doing well at the game and winning lots of money. The third person then befriends people who stop to watch, pointing out how much the other person is making, and persuades passers by to have a go. The card dealer then uses sleight of hand to ensure that the passer by loses as much of their money as possible, and if they protest, the card dealer claims the police are coming and ups and runs. It’s the oldest trick in the book, and I wonder how the passers by have never come across it.

You don’t have to walk far to see how long the history of this con is, to Tate Britain to be precise. In part of William Powell Frith’s 1858 painting Derby Day you can see a version of the Three Card Trick using thimbles at work. The man with the smart black boots and riding crop looks like the con mans accomplice, while to his left, in the green coat the next victim is getting his money ready. The man to the left pointing is the other accomplice – showing how easy it is to make money. He looks like he has convinced the man in the brown bowler and the farmworkers smock, he looks like an out of towner who will shortly be losing all his money if he ignores the pleadings of his wife on the far left, the only person with any sense it seems! On the far right a sheepish looking victim realises he is now penniless!

Derby Day was a phenomenal favourite at the Royal Academy Summer Show of 1858, where a rope had to be put in front of the painting to control the crowds who wanted a look. The people in the crowd would have been familiar to the viewers of the painting. Frith had worked from photographs of the crowd at the Epsom Derby, one of London’s big sporting occasions. The Illustrated London news complained of tricksters at the Derby in 1860, who set up their stall at the edge of a wood, so they could melt into the trees at the first sign of trouble. Victorian magistrates courts often dealt with Three Card Trickster, for instance three men Spires, Wright and Joseph are sentenced to three months hard labour for stealing from people with the trick in Hyde Park. While no one likes to see con men at work in London, I find it fascinating that some things never change in this city!

Find out more about Paintings of London, Tate Britain.


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