Gary Greenberg

The Confidence Man

In Which the Possibility That Psychiatry Is a Diddle Is Discussed, with Particular Attention Paid to the Placebo Effect and the Talking Cure

DISCUSSED: A Great Man in a Great Way, The Destiny of Man, Mr. M’s Authorship, Omni-Balsamic Reinvigorator, Undue Mental Excitements, A Noble Lie, Narrative-Deficit Disorder, Advice from Dale Carnegie, An Original Character

“Since the world began,” wrote Edgar Allan Poe in 1843, “there have been two Jeremys.” Bentham, the Jeremy who wrote a “Jeremiad about usury… was a great man in a small way.” The other Jeremy, Jeremy Diddler, “was a great man in a great way… indeed, in the very greatest of ways.” Poe might have been biased. Jeremy Diddler was indirectly responsible for his existence. Diddler was the rascal who schemed his way into the aristocracy by winning the heart of young (and wealthy) Peggy Plainway in Raising the Wind, a comedy that opened on the British stage in 1803. By the next year, it was playing in American theaters, including one in Richmond, Virginia, in which a seventeen-year-old actress named Eliza Hopkins took the role of Peggy. Her husband, Charles, played a local named Sam, and a young actor from Baltimore, David Poe, appeared as the Plainway servant Richard. Less than a year later, Charles Hopkins died, and in April 1806, Eliza Hopkins married David Poe. The couple trouped together for four more years, Eliza Poe garnering much better reviews than her husband, who, according to one critic, “mutilated some of his speeches in a most shameful manner.” David, perhaps tired of being upstaged, left Eliza in the spring of 1810, and was never heard from again. In December of that year, Eliza gave birth to Rosalie, her third child. A year later, Eliza died, orphaning the infant along with her brothers: William, nearly five, and Edgar, who would turn three the following month.

Poe’s comments about Diddler came in an essay that appeared in the Philadelphia Saturday Courier. Perhaps in tribute to his parentage, Poe titled the piece “Raising the Wind; or, Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences.” What made Diddler great, Poe argues in the essay, is that he embodied precisely that which defines man—“as an animal that diddles.” If only Plato had figured this out, Poe explains, he would have “been spared the affront of the picked chicken” that Diogenes waved triumphantly in Socrates’s face after Socrates defined man as a featherless biped. “A crow thieves; a fox cheats; a weasel outwits; a man diddles,” Poe continues. “To diddle is his destiny.”

Poe goes on to provide a “compendious account” of diddling, describing some of the scams of man, including one that starts on a wharf from which a steamboat is about to cast off. A man hurrying toward the ship suddenly stoops and picks up something from the wharf. “Has any gentleman lost a pocketbook?” he cries. The passengers pause on the gangplank, waiting to see who will claim the treasure, and the captain tries to hurry them along. “Time and tide wait for no man,” he yells, and makes to cast off. The diddler rushes aboard and from the boat pleads with a man on the shore to take charge of the wallet and advertise it so the owner can claim it. Judging from how much money is in it, he tells the man, the owner is sure to reward him. But, the man protests, “it was you who found the book.” True, says the diddler, so if you insist I will take a small reward. He rummages in the wallet and announces that there’s no note smaller than a hundred, which is “too much to take.” The captain is fuming, the deckhands loosening the ropes. “Never mind!” cries the gentleman on the shore. He’s now rummaging through his wallet. “I can fix it—here is a fifty…throw me the book.” The diddle perfectly timed and executed, the gentleman ends up with a wallet full of paper, the con artist with fifty bucks, and the world with an object lesson in the essence of being human.

Diddling would have been on Poe’s mind, and nearly everyone else’s, in mid-nineteenth-century America, when the capitalist frenzies that possess the country from time to time were rampant. When speculation runs amok, when stocks rise and fall overnight, when financial panics are regular occurrences, when currencies become worthless in a moment, when people are shorn today of the riches they gained yesterday and head off tomorrow to do it again, when it is every man for himself and the invisible hand against all—when, in short, the American dream is taking shape and the unfettered market is frustrating and occasionally fulfilling it, you can’t be sure about whom or what to believe. After all, the trusting are the diddler’s prey, their faith the sign of their weakness. It was a diddle-or-be-done world, and it still is.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Gary Greenberg’s first published article, “In the Kingdom of the Unabomber,” ran in the third issue of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern. Since then, he has written essays for many magazines, as well as three books. He is pleased to be returning to the fold.

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