February 25, 2010

Charles L. "Doc" Baggs: Part 6

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A Few Hands With the Devil

Before my computer took one of its famous dives in [date] I was about to post part 6 of my research on confidence man Charles L. “Doc” Baggs, the predecessor of Soapy’s underworld reign of power in Denver, Colorado. Without further fanfare I publish the final installment to the story. Here are the previous posts for those who missed them: Part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5.

According to the Rocky Mountain News of 1915 Baggs had made trips to Denver in the 1870s however I could not find anything on him in Denver that early. Perhaps he might have been there in the very late part of the 70s but most certainly he had arrived by 1880. He continued to travel around the country while residing in Denver. I found him in Omaha, Neb. and Minneapolis, Mn., in September 1882. From there it is believed he went to Chicago where he opened a “big store” operation before returning to Minneapolis, then Brainerd and St. Paul in 1883 (source: St. Paul Daily Globe, April 11, 1883).

In May he returned to Omaha (source: Omaha Daily Bee, June 2, 1883).

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Baggs disguised as a young man about town

“While ‘trimming a sucker.’ To use his own parlance, he was a man of many parts. His disguises were numerous and varied for the occasion at hand. He could be a ranchman, stockman, miner, banker, minister or laboring man, with equal faculty.

His two most famous disguises old timers say, were in playing the part of a stockman or a clergyman. As a stockgrower, just in from the country on business first and sight-seeing later, he not only dressed the part, but reeled off phrases of the cowboy and ranchhand. As a minister, with high silk hat, long Prince Albert coat, white tie and black gloves, he walked the streets as sedately as would any gentleman of the cloth.

His wardrobe of disguises would have been the pride of any theater property man.”

(RMN Aug 8, 1915)

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"Doc" disguised as a prosperous stockman

1884 was Baggs last hurrah in Denver. The following are 1884 newspaper excerpts regarding Baggs.

“We would like to know why “Doc” Baggs doesn’t run for alderman. He posses peculiar fitness for the position, and if he could secure a Republican nomination his election would be a foregone nomination in any ward of the city if he will only pay the price.”

(RMN Feb 27, 1884)

Doc Wins

"'Doc’ Baggs had the novel experience of getting the law on his side yesterday, the jury in the County court in the damage suit against W. B. McCrary & Co., bringing in a verdict in the doctor’s favor for nearly $300 damages. The defendant commission merchants will take an appeal to the Supreme court. Thirteen witnesses were examined in the case, and the worthy doctor displayed nearly as much talent and shrewdness as his attorney, General Montgomery. Judge Harrington had never met the doctor before and gave it as his private opinion yesterday that the so-called ‘M.D.’ was a very smart man. ‘Doc’ Baggs has evidently mistaken his profession. He should have been a lawyer.”

(RMN March 27, 1884)

Baggs Bothered

He is Put to a Trifling inconvenience on Account of Bunkoing a Man Out of $1,000. A few days ago there arrived in Denver from San Jose Cala., a nice smoothly dressed, middle-aged gentleman named J. A. Moultrie. He stopped at the Windsor. Moultrie is an ex-prosecuting attorney and an ex-judge, and had evidently seen and heard enough of the world to know enough to take care of himself under ordinary circumstances. But the contrary appears. Yesterday morning he fell in with “Doc” Baggs, and Topper and Robertson, his friends. It was soon developed that Moultrie had money. He was induced, without any very great degree of persuasion to visit “Doc’s” rooms and try his luck in the famous old-time method of winning it at lottery. At first great luck was his. Then the system switched, and in a very short time Mr. Moultrie had lost $1,000 in good Uncle Sam greenbacks. At first he failed to tumble to the racket, but after he had thought over the matter for a short time, it began to dawn upon him that he had played a great engagement as a sucker. Then he became very warm and wrathy, and sought Sheriff Graham, to whom he related his grievances. Together they proceeded to Justice Jeffries and had issued warrants for Baggs, Topper and Robertson. About half an hour later the sheriff had the satisfaction of meeting “Doc” Baggs and placed him under arrest. He was not under arrest very long however. As is usual in such cases a compromise was effected, Moultrie receiving the most of his money and “Doc” being allowed to go free, as Moultrie would not prosecute. Thus ended another of the daily occurrences of confidence games in our city.

(RMN July 1, 1884)

Eight days later on July 8 Baggs was in the newspapers again for being accused of running the lottery racket against a victim for $400. However the police had a different view.

“The police say that they do not suspect “Doc” Baggs as having any connection with the affair and do not believe that it was any of the gang that “skinned” the victim. There appears to be a number of new bunko men about town just now and they do not appear to all belong to one gang either. … “Doc” was very stylishly dressed yesterday morning-a new gray summer suit and a white plug hat and carrying a new silk umbrella..."

(RMN July 8, 1884)

In 1884 the infamous bunco gang of Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith had risen to become the chief rival of Baggs so it is likely that the “new” bunko men about town” were members of the Soap Gang.

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Larimer Street, Denver.

"Doc" Baggs, the Denver bunko steerer has been indicted by the grand jury of Arapahoe county, and he is to be tried at the present term of court, for swindling and wholesale robbery.

The Tribune-Republican is waging war on the variety theaters, the bunko-steerers, and places of iniquity in general about Denver. It is furnishing a series of biographical sketches that is not very flattering to the individuals written of, or to the police force and members of the City Council who permit this class of people to prey upon every susceptible stranger who comes to that city. The gang of blacklegs that hover around the Union Depot in Denver should be given an application of turpentine and run out of the city, and any City Council flavored with any instinct of decency would see that their absence fill a "long felt want."

(Fort Morgan Times (Fort Morgan, Colo.) November 20, 1884.)

The Denver Tribune-Republican prints the following in bold faced type, under the head of "Warning to Strangers" and below it gives a biographical sketch of the principal operators in confidence games, including "Doc" Baggs, Ed Chase (Soapy Smith’s partner) and John Bull.

Denver is infested with bunko thieves and confidence men. The ordinances of the city forbid their presence and forbid their plying their nefarious occupation, but these ordinances are not enforced and no attempt is made to drive their violators out of the community. You are warned not to make the acquaintance of men who accost you in the hotels or on the street, and who desire to show you the town. Many of them are "cappers" of bunko houses and thieving gambling dens. You may see them in conversation with policemen and police officials. This affords you no guaranty as to their standing, for these men and their practices are well known to the police and to the city officials, yet they are not interfered with, but are permitted, unmolested, to rob and swindle.

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Those wicked games...

The following day Baggs was in a Denver courtroom where he tried the previously successful tactic of quashing a case against him for running a confidence game “on the grounds that the charge of practicing a confidence game was not specific enough in its character, a particular case not being set forth. His request was denied and trial was set for December 4 (source: RMN November 21, 1884).

Bags days in Denver were numbered. The outcome of the December trial is unknown at this time but by the end of the month Baggs was reported in Texas.

“Doc” Baggs, he of bunko fame, has been arrested at Fort Worth, Texas for fleecing a “sucker out of $1,000.

(Fort Morgan Times (Fort Morgan, Colorado) December 25, 1884.)

By 1885 Baggs was on his way out of the game heading towards retirement, leaving Soapy Smith the opportunity to step into the position of becoming Denver's criminal underworld king.

Baggs was such a well-known fixture to the Denver residents that during one trip away from town it was rumored he had been killed. On January 9, 1885 the Denver high school held a moot court for the pretend trial of his murder entitled, Baggs’ Body (source: RMN, January 8, 1885).

It is not known if Baggs ever returned to Denver. In March 1885 it was published in the Rocky Mountain News that he and partner, Clay Wilson, were jailed in South Carolina for selling a gold brick for $3,000 (source: RMN, March 7, 1885).

As late as 1890 the RMN expected Baggs to show up in Denver and resume his operations there (source: RMN July 10, 1890).

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Three-card monte

“Doc” Baggs had not long been away from Denver until reports began reaching here from various parts of the country of his operations in his wider gold-brick field. Associated with him in the greater number of these deals was Clay Wilson, who created a great Denver sensation in 1881 by shooting and killing Jim Moon, the police terror and gambling house proprietor.

Prior to quitting Denver, Baggs was not known to have disposed of more than one gold brick. That one he sold to H. M. Smith, a Leadville banker, for $20,000. Cal Somers aided him in turning that trick.

The carbonate camp [Leadville] was new then and every man was intent on money making. The game of selling a gold brick, playing entirely on a rich man’s cupidity, was not an old one in those days.

A Mexican, it was represented, living in a shack at the foot of Chestnut street, had in his possession a gold brick which, long years ago, had been stolen in a stage robbery while being transported under guard from a Mexican mine to a coast city. The stage holdup was captured, but not before he had buried the treasure. A few days prior to dying in prison, he had confided his secret to a fellow convict, who, on leaving the prison, dug up the plant and was then in Leadville ready to dispose of the gold at less than half its value. Such a long period had elapsed since the robbery that none of the principals still lived; the mine had been abandoned and its owner had left Mexico.

Banker Smith was willing to pay $20,000 for the gold if he were permitted to do his own testing of the gold’s value. This he did. He sawed into the brick in various places, carefully wrapped the filings in a piece of newspaper and took them to an assayer. The gold was as represented, the money paid over to the Mexican and the brick placed in the bank’s vaults.

“Doc” Baggs was the Mexican and Cal Somers his go-between. Somers had deftly substituted genuine gold particles wrapped in a piece of newspaper, for the filings that Banker Smith had taken from the brick, at some time before the filings reached the assayer.

It was two years later that Banker Smith took the brick to the mint and the fraud was exposed.

(RMN 1915)

In 1891 Baggs and Clay Wilson at the Hotel Coronado in California, swindled an Eastern man out of $80,000 by the same Mexico robbery story, and before the details became public they had caught Tom Fitch, who afterward became known as the “silver-tongued orator of the Pacific coast,” and I. R. Howard of the Cedros Island Mining company, for another $15,000. The only variation in the game was that Baggs, in this case, personated an Indian who couldn’t speak a word of English, and an interpreter had to be secured.

Not known for certain is what became of Baggs after his release. One story states he pulled one last sting coming away with $100,000 (use inflation calculator) and retired (RMN 1915). Another story states that “as late as 1930…, Baggs was in good health at the age of ninety-three, living quite comfortably under another name on an estate located near New York City.” Amazingly upon his “disappearance,” no known criminal charges hung over him.

Members of the Baggs gang who stayed behind in Denver after “Doc” Baggs left town included “Troublesome Tom” Cady, Gene Laughlin, Cliff Sparks, Tom Daniels, Joe Armstrong (alias George Millsap), Cal Somers, George Wilder, John L. Bowers, J. B. Parmer, Bill Kelly, and Con Sullivan. Daniels reorganized Baggs’ outfit under his own leadership. Some stayed with him while others applied for membership in Soapy Smith’s gang. By the end of 1885 Soapy was recognized as Denver’s new underworld boss.


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