January 3, 2010

"Doc" Baggs, Denver, part V

(Click image to enlarge)
The Denver office of Charles "Doc" Baggs
showing the infamous fake safe


Confidence man Charles L. "Doc" Baggs is known for certain to have operated in Denver, Colorado between 1880-84. We know from newspaper accounts that he operated in the same location of Seventeenth and Larimer Streets that Soapy Smith later would control.


To “Doc” Baggs all phases of life were pretense, sham and deception. He was an adept student of human nature, and made the most of the fact that a man’s first impression is a lasting one.

With this point in view, shortly after the building of the first union station in Denver, “Doc” Baggs operated a bunco shop on lower Seventeenth, near the old United States mint. He occupied the upper floor of a two-story block, the stairway to his “offices” leading from the Seventeenth street sidewalk. Here, in rooms at the head of the stairway, he installed the most sumptuous headquarters he had yet had in Denver.

To all appearances it was a suite of offices similar to those occupied in other parts of the city by prosperous brokers and real estate men. But “Doc” Baggs’ place was a pretense and sham, built up for the sole purpose of creating that first, lasting impression on the visitor. ~Denver Times


One of the all-time great stories coming from Baggs’ time in The "Queen City of the Plains" revolves around an early arrest for bunco-steering, the common term for swindling a victim with a confidence scam.


... But there came a time when “Doc” Baggs mixed with the law. Michael Spangler, who was sheriff at the time, stepped in over the lax authority of the chief of police and announced that Baggs and his band of confidence men must go. A complaint issued from the district attorney’s office charged Baggs with being a bunco-steerer and he actually spent a part of one day in jail before he secured bail.

That trial is still fresh in the memory of those county officials who still are Denver residents. Baggs much to the surprise of every body, especially to his friends, elected to act as his own attorney. Judge Victor A. Elliott presided at the trial. The courtroom was at Fifteenth and Lawrence streets over the post office. Baggs, dapper and smooth, objected to the wording of the complaint. It charged him, he said, with being a “bunco-steerer.” No such term appeared in the statutes defining criminal acts, he averred, and a man could not be found guilty on a charge not prohibited by the statutes. He also produced a big dictionary to prove that it did not contain the term “bunco-steerer.”

The court accepted his views and quashed the information.

... Sheriff Spangler adopted a strategic move to rid the town of Him. Mr. Spangler selected Emil Auspitz, a widely known German, a deputy in the sheriff’s office at the time, and instructed him to follow Baggs during his waking hours and to orally warn every individual whom Baggs approached of the latter’s identity. It kept him busy, but the deputy for days on carried out the instructions.

"Do you know the man you are talking to? Auspitz would inquire of a stranger. "If not, let me inform you that he is ‘Doc’ Baggs, the most notorious confidence man in town."

Baggs at first took the matter as a huge joke. The warning "cooked his business," to be sure, but it afforded him opportunity for much amusement. His assortment of disguises exactly fitted the occasion. It was Baggs’ delight to come down town of a morning made up in such a costume that the deputy would fail to recognize him. At times the surveillance would be off for hours. Then Baggs, surfeited with the sport he was having, would make himself known and the good-natured deputy, faithful in the performance of his duty, would continue to sound his warning to all strangers seen talking to Baggs.

To vary the sport Baggs, when lost from his "shadow," would induce a friend to give the deputy a false tip as to Baggs’ identity and many a citizen was thus overhauled by Auspitz, much to the merriment of Baggs. The jolly confidence man even went around the streets inquiring about his "shadow," as he termed Auspitz.

As the days lapsed into weeks the situation became less amusing to Baggs. He could do no "business" because of Auspitz’s warnings, his men were arrested on vagrancy charges, and he finally decided to move on. Gathering his confidantes about him one evening he boarded a southbound Rio Grande train and quit the city, as it proved, for good.

“I well remember that occasion,” commented Mart Watrous. “I was a city detective at the time and, as it happened, boarded the same train, taking a prisoner to a Southern city. Later, in the chair car, I recognized the faces of several of Baggs’ men, but did not see Baggs. I wasn’t looking for him, remember. As the train was nearing Pueblo, a sedate-looking passenger, passing down the aisle of the car, stopped a moment in front of my seat, just long enough to attract my attention. He raised the point of a false, white beard he was wearing slightly, but far enough for me to recognize him. It was ‘Doc’ Baggs in one of his ministerial disguises. He rejoined his men without saying a word. There was no criminal charge against him. It was just a little piece of bravado on his part.




Sources:

Rocky Mountain News, 07/08/1884
Denver Times, 08/08/1915



To be continued...









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