When I was growing up in a small South Carolina town, my father was the local law. He started out as a flat foot and ended up as the Chief of Police. I was proud of him. In fact, I learned a lot about criminology from my dad, things he had learned while at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia and others he picked up along the way.
Once he told me that burglars invariably do two things once they have broken into a home. They use the toilet and they look in the fridge. I can’t remember if he said they ate anything, but apparently knowing the habits of a thief helped what substituted for CSI back in the day.
Another thing I learned from Daddy served to make me aware of people who came through our town as opposed to the more permanent ones that lived out their entire lives many times in the same house they were born in.
Every now and then, Daddy would come home for lunch (we called the mid-day meal dinner in those days) and say that the Gypsies had arrived and were set up on the edge of town out on Highway 301. They were traveling people with dark skin and traditionally lived by seasonal work, itinerant trade, and fortune-telling, of course. Mama loved getting her fortune told, but others in town shied away from the Gypsies for fear of being hoodwinked or “gypped.”
There was a remarkable man who claimed to be a traveling evangelist whose name I can never forget because it tickled me. Sweet Daddy Grace. When Sweet Daddy came to town it was a big deal including an entourage following behind his long black Cadillac limo. His advance team came several days ahead intent on getting folks excited about Sweet Daddy’s upcoming visit, so by the time the great man rolled into town in his limo, he owned the flock of people waiting to welcome him.
Sweet Daddy was the founder and first bishop of the predominantly African-American denomination called the United House of Prayer For All People. He was also a contemporary of Father Divine and Noble Drew Ali. At the revivals Daddy Grace begged for donations to further his ministry and the people shelled out even when it meant less food on their table. His followers lined up to hail him because they needed to believe in him.
He came to town, cleaned them out and left. A few remained loyal to him while others recognized him for what he was: a huckster who found a way to defraud poor people into thinking he was their last, best hope.
The Flim Flam Men were a bit different but not much. They used dishonest behavior in order to take money or property from whoever appeared to be a good mark. They told the mark what he needed to hear whether it was the truth or not. Daddy was always on the lookout for Flim Flam Men when they came through our town. He was a modern day Con Artist cheating or tricking people by gaining their confidence and in the end exploiting it for his own gain.
I don’t remember Snake Oil Salesmen while I was growing up although when I think of the slight of hand carnival barkers I have to wonder. According to Webster, a Snake Oil Salesman is someone who knowingly sells fraudulent goods or who is a fraud, quack, or charlatan. I have a picture in my head (probably from a movie) of a man standing on the flatbed part of a truck or wagon selling snake oil he claims will cure everything from constipation to consumption. In my head I see people digging deep in their pockets for money to buy the liniment which was likely made up of turpentine and red pepper.
People back in the Forties, Fifties and Sixties and people today are not so different. We all want to believe in hope, in expectations that this year, the next few years can bring about good changes for everyone. It’s a need we share.
So when Sweet Daddy Grace comes into your living room via television and promises you a bright new future, will you believe him? Will you buy into whatever he promises because of your need to dream the dream? Or will you listen to his words critically and sensibly before hanging your hopes and your future on someone else’s ambitions?
It’s up to you. It’s always been up to you.