Beware of the Man Without Guile

Among his other feats of fantasy, Edgar Allan Poe had a keen sense for the suggestive, feinting language of clothing. I first met Poe’s interest in costume in his story “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” in which he turns through the following cycle of thoughts on pocket squares:

“…by ‘fellows who have no pocket-handkerchiefs’ the editor intends the lowest class of ruffians. These, however, are the very description of people who will always be found to have handkerchiefs even when destitute of shirts. You must have had occasion to observe how absolutely indispensable, of late years, to the thorough blackguard, has become the pocket handkerchief.”

Poe’s observation is that people often assume that anyone with money enough to buy superfluous accessories like pocket handkerchiefs must be a member of society in good standing. But the handkerchief is an easy signal to mimic, since handkerchiefs themselves are not terribly expensive. The blackguard can therefore purchase the editor’s confidence quite cheaply.

Poe twists and twirls this observation further in his 1835 classic “Diddling: Considered as One of the Exact Sciences.” The essay describes “diddling” - which Poe uses as a synonym for “swindling” - as an activity unique and fundamental to human behavior, and runs through a series of diddles, from low-level scams to longer, high-stakes cons.

It all leads up to the grandest con of all - the coup de grace. It starts thus:

“A middle-aged gentleman arrives in town from parts unknown. He is remarkably precise, cautious, staid, and deliberate in his demeanor. His dress is scrupulously neat, but plain, unostentatious. He wears a white cravat, an ample waistcoat, made with an eye to comfort alone; thick-soled cosy-looking shoes, and pantaloons without straps….There is nothing he more despises than pretense. ‘Where there is show,’ he says, ‘there is seldom any thing very solid behind’ - an observation which so profoundly impresses his landlady’s fancy, that she makes a pencil memorandum of it forthwith, in her great family Bible, on the broad margin of the Proverbs of Solomon.”

Of course, the middle-aged gentleman ends up diddling everyone in the town unfortunate enough to meet with him, the pious landlady included.

Be suspicious of any man trying to sell you a story, Poe seems to say, but be most suspicious of all of the man who says he has no story to sell.

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