“Life contains a particle of risk.”

Martin Balsam as the swindler Allardyce T.
Meriweather in Little Big Man (1970).

The swindler. The conman. The grifter. The snake oil huckster. The carnival tent preacher. These are the words for the iconic itinerant salesman who wandered the frontier selling one false cure and one false hope after another, each time moving on to a new gullible community, then circling back eventually to dupe the same people all over again. Interestingly, this icon was also pejoratively called an “innovator” back in the 19th century, which tells us something about the pervasive use of the term “innovation” in modern times in the corporate world. The wares sold by the nuclear and pharmaceutical industries are merely the large-scale iteration of the high plains swindler of two centuries ago.

The mark of a good swindler is his ability to double down and deceive again when confronted by his victims. If he had told them that a fire-breathing dragon was roaming the Oklahoma Territory and they needed to spray his patented repellent at the edge of town to ward it off, he would still have an answer for customers who later woke up to the con. If the dragon didn’t come, he could say, “See! It worked.” If the dragon came and burned down the village, he could say, “But don’t you know there are ten dragons out there now! It would have been so much worse without my patented protection!”

A memorable depiction of the swindler in fiction was in the picaresque film Little Big Man, directed by Arthur Penn in 1970, based on the novel by Thomas Berger published in 1964. Dustin Hoffman played the lead as Jack Crabb, a young man thrown into the world of the 19th century frontier with an “intersectional” identity, as he was a white boy raised by the Cheyenne who was then bounced back into the white settler world in his teen years, then sent back again to live with the Cheyenne. Berger took delight in sending up every cliché and trope of the Western genre: the gunslinger, the buffalo hunter, the buffalo soldier, the sadistic preacher, the hypocritical preacher’s wife who becomes the fallen woman enslaved in a brothel, the noble savage, the card cheat, and the itinerant snake oil salesman. With a story element later used in Forrest Gump, the fictional Jack Crabb crosses paths with historical figures and narrates the story as if he was the factor that determined history—for example, setting up General Custer to be slaughtered at Little Big Horn.

In order to survive after running away from his adoptive parents (the preacher and his wife), he takes up with a swindler, Allardyce T. Merriweather, playing for him the role of the anonymous man in the crowd who was magically cured by the snake oil being promoted by his partner.


Dialog from Little Big Man (00:34:13)  

Jack Crabb (narrating): After starving for a while, I took up with a swindler by the name of Allardyce T. Merriweather. After Mrs. Pendrake, his honesty was downright refreshing. Merriweather was one of the smartest men I ever knowed, but he tended to lose parts of himself. When I joined him, his left hand and left ear were already gone. During my years with Merriweather, he lost an eye as a result of a fifth ace dropping out of his sleeve in a poker game. It didn’t phase him, though. Deception was his life’s blood, even if it caused him to get whittled down kind of gradual like.

Mr. Merriweather: You’re improving, Jack, but you just can’t seem to get rid of that streak of honesty in you. The one that ruined you was that old Indian, Old Tipi.

Jack Crabb: You mean Old Lodge Skins.

Mr. Merriweather: He gave you a vision of moral order in the universe, and there isn’t any. Those stars twinkle in a void there, boy, and the two-legged creature schemes and dreams beneath them, all in vain. All in vain, Jack. The two-legged creature will believe anything, and the more preposterous the better. Whales speak French at the bottom of the sea. Horses of Arabia have silver wings. Pygmies mate with elephants in darkest Africa. I have sold all those propositions.

Jack Crabb: Maybe we’re all fools and none of it matters.

Mr. Merriweather: Aaah! You stay with Allardyce Merriweather, and you’ll wear silk.

Jack Crabb: What I don’t know is do I want to wear silk…

Caroline Crabb: Seven folks are dead because of this precious medicine. What’s in it?

Mr. Merriweather: Nothing harmful. I assure you…

Mr. Merriweather: We got caught, Jack. That’s all. Life contains a particle of risk.

Jack Crabb: Mr. Merriweather, you don’t know when you’re licked.

Mr. Merriweather: Licked? I’m not licked. I’m tarred and feathered. That’s all.

Allardyce T. Merriweather: Martin Balsam, Jack Crabb: Dustin Hoffman, Caroline Crabb: Carole Androsky


Mr. Merriweather appears once more toward the end of the story at Jack’s lowest moment. He passes by now with his right leg missing, reminding Jack, “Life contains a particle of risk, my boy.”

While I was searching the internet for the correct spelling of “Allardyce,” the name appeared in an opinion piece written for Cleveland.com, “the premier news and information website in the state of Ohio” owned by Advance Local Media.

That idea of the writers, Rob DeWitt and Charlie Tercek, was similar to mine here. They took Allardyce T. Merriweather as the emblem of the iconic frontier swindler, then compared him to several contemporary political figures, coming up with a list of “hornswoggler nominees” for the year 2022.

What I find odd about their reference to Merriweather is that they focus on the capacity for the two-legged creature to believe any idea that a con artist sells to them. The focus is on the false premise believed by the gullible and not on the criminality of the swindler. The targets of Rob DeWitt and Charlie Tercek are all prominent Republicans who have some crazy beliefs such as the following:

  1. Sea levels are rising because of rocks falling into the ocean.
  2. California wildfires were caused not by climate change but by lasers from outer space.
  3. President Joe Biden’s election victory was the result of an international conspiracy tied to former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who’d been dead for more than seven years.
  4. Donald Trump was the greatest president America ever had.

They write as if the politicians they like, or anyone for that matter, don’t have their own irrational beliefs. I could make a very long list of examples here, but I refrain.

They also miss the obvious point that the target worthy of criticism should be the deceiver rather than the deceived. Their targets have some strange beliefs, but their beliefs are not tied to any substantial snake oil they are trying to sell. They are just some weird ideas that no one thinks about too seriously. For example, one of the targets, Congressional Representative Marjorie Taylor Green, does indeed believe some strange things, but she stood up for something that really matters when she decried the critical shortage of baby formula at a time when the government was pledging billions of dollars for weapons for Ukraine. The government started to move on this issue after she and other Republicans started to talk about it, so, in spite of her personal beliefs about certain matters, she arguably helped save the lives of infants. However, in the rancorous and childish partisan discourse, people prefer to constantly ridicule opponents rather than give them credit when they achieve something laudable. I’ve been a two-legged creature walking beneath the stars for sixty-three years and I have never met anyone who did not have some kind of irrational belief that guided his or her life. But sensible people overlook such differences, knowing the believers themselves don’t really take their beliefs so seriously or literally. Instead, they look for the good in people, and get on with solving practical problems of mutual concern.

I prefer to use Allardyce T. Merriweather as a lens with which to understand the hucksters and innovators in the world of corporations and charitable foundations. They indeed have proven in the last three years that the two-legged creature will believe anything, and the more preposterous the better. Nuclear energy is clean. In darkest Africa, there is an inexhaustible supply of metals for the batteries for everyone’s electric cars. Russia diddled with your sacred democracy. Masks can stop a viral pandemic. A safe and effective vaccine—for a cold virus!*—can be developed in six months, at “warp speed,” at “the speed of science.” That wasn’t Hunter Biden’s laptop. There is no going back to normal. You’ll need a booster shot every six months from here to eternity. They have sold all those propositions and more. The human body is the new frontier, Jack. We’ve struck a vein of gold like never before. Stick with me, my boy. Invest your pension savings with us and you’ll wear silk pajamas in your old age.  

In addition to the theft that the swindlers accomplish, there is the cynical, nihilistic philosophy that they spread. The cynicism darkens even their own existence, so their only comfort is the ambition to “wear silk.” Before capitalism, people believed there was a moral order in the universe, but the Merriweathers of the world have convinced the masses “Those stars twinkle in a void, and the two-legged creature schemes and dreams beneath them all in vain.” In spite of the two-legged creature getting justice once in a while by chopping of a limb from the corporate behemoth, it carries on, insisting its victims are too dumb to develop healthy skepticism and live in mutually beneficial ways.

So who would I nominate for the Allardyce T. Merriweather Hornswoggler Hall of Fame? I’ll let readers decide. Take your pick. There are so many to choose from this year.

* Dr. Stefano Montanari, March 19, 2020: “The major issue at stake is the vaccines. The regime that now encompasses the world will force the world to vaccinate—that is, to vaccinate against a virus that does not give immunity, as is the case [with a coronavirus]. If 50 years ago, at my exam of pharmacology, I had told my examining professor—who was one of the most knowledgeable pharmacologists of the time—something like that, I would have been thrown out the door, for only an incompetent can imagine a vaccine against a virus that does not give immunity and has no chance of being effective. We are talking about a virus that mutates at very fast speed and we cannot possibly run after its mutations.”