November 17, 2011

The term "Cheap John."

Colorado Governor Waite as a "cheap John"
Rocky Mountain News
January 7, 1894

In Alias Soapy Smith I talk about Soapy Smith starting out, just previous to entering the bunco world, as a "cheap John." This information comes from his cousin Edwin Smith who stated that on a bad day Soapy was netting $20 to $25 a day, which in 1877 was equivalent to making $568 to $710 a day in today's market.

This was the first time I had ever heard the term and at the time I had no luck finding another example except for the above political cartoon on the front page of the Rocky Mountain News. I just now Google the term and found an article in the New York Times (October 29, 1871) about some particular cheap Johns in the Bowery but the author was ignorant of the methods used by the men, in that it's not like a normal salesman pitch. The following is from my book.

A cheap John operation is the predecessor of the jam auction, which Jeff would later operate in Denver. An operator sells, usually under high pressure, practically worthless merchandise at a fraction of its value in order to excite and confuse the audience. Sometimes the items are said to be valuable manufacturers’ promotional items. First, small, practically worthless items are given away to everyone, then unexpectedly slightly more valuable items are sold to bidders for almost nothing. The procedure is conducted in a way that confuses buyers about whether they are putting up money "as a good faith gesture" that they will get back or whether they are tendering payment. When buyers are thoroughly confused, the cheap John adds the final wrinkle: the sale of almost worthless (but apparently valuable) merchandise for what seem like outrageous "bargain" prices.

The political cartoon above shows radical Populist Party Colorado Governor Davis "Bloody Bridles" Waite as a cheap John in 1894 before the infamous Denver City Hall War. The cartoon refers to Waite's plan to have gold dollars made in Mexico for a new currency. Denver's city officials and Republican party leaders are making up the crowd in which Waite is trying to sell his plans to.


A couple of nice comments came in from some recent book sales and I wanted to share them with you.

  • Jack Croad Carver wrote, “The more I read of your book the more he becomes my hero, lol…for a scoundrel he was great.” 
  • William R. Hunt, author of Distant Justice: Policing the Alaska Frontier (1987) and North of 53: The Wild Days of the Alaska-Yukon Mining Frontier 1870-1914 (1974), both of which I quoted in my book, wrote,  “I received Jeff Smith's bio of Soapy and enjoyed it very much, marveling at the extent of his research and ability to organize for effective presentation."


March 23, 2011

Cheap John: pages 27, 29-30, 32, 36, 42-43, 58, 131, 137-38, 190.

Jeff Smith


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