June 10, 2016

A glimpse of the Denver underworld, October 1895: Part 1

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art one:
A glimpse of the Denver underworld, October 1895

Because of their attack upon saloon proprietor John Hughes, Bascomb Smith is in jail and Soapy Smith absent from Denver, Colorado. The Blonger brothers have taken his place as one of the cities main crime bosses.
     An expose’ from the Rocky Mountain News on October 17-18, 1895 clearly shows that the bunco crime world of Seventeenth Street did not end with his departure. The article on the 17th exposes that the bunco men are working the city unmolested by the police. The following day a reporter is sent out to Seventeenth Street, only to find that the two bosses have called a halt to street activities, at least until the newspaper reporter went away.
     Following is a condensed but wonderful version of the Rocky Mountain News article published on October 17, 1895 exploring the two main bunco gangs of Denver managed by "Big Ed" Chase and Lou Blonger, including some of the top named members of the gangs and details of their methods. Games described include a prize package racket, the top and bottom dice scam and the "big mitt" friendly poker game swindle. Text in bold are important names.

Bunco Man and Police. 

“Soapy” Smith’s old game of the large bill in a wrapped package worked openly on Seventeenth Street. Fakirs of every stripe victimize people under the eyes of officers. Two losers reported, one at bunco candy stand and the other at “T B” [Top and Bottom] game.

     Before the gray of the morning had cleared away yesterday the bunco steerer, the human type of the spider, was to be seen Seventeenth street. The candy man sold small bars of chocolate and licorice for $1 each and told the crowds who gathered about him that there were $10 bills inside the wrappers. His work was exactly similar to that of “Soapy” Smith and yesterday he gathered in at least $300...
     … One of the Mexicans in the delegation went by Senator Barcin from Trinidad lost $50 at the “T B” game.
     Carl Johnson of Dubuqus, Ia., lost $15 at the candy stand at the corner of Seventeenth and Market streets.
     Victims are numbered by the dozens and the aggregate of the money lost cannot be estimated. In the lower part of the city there were two bunco joints, one at 1731 Market street
, the other at 1750 Blake street..

Considering the rivalry between the Smith and Blonger brothers, it is a wonder that Lou Blonger did not find a way to move into the old Tivoli Club location. The street numbers changed but it appears that Blonger opened his base of operations north of the old Tivoli Club at Seventeenth and Market Streets, perhaps in the old George Fisher saloon on the northeast corner of Market and Wazee Streets. Ed Chase operated on Blake Street east of Seventeenth Street.  

Blonger [Lou Blonger] runs the Market street joint while Chase’s ["Big Ed Chase] men steer their new acquaintances into the little store room on Blake street.
     The bunco men at work for Blonger are “Little Duff” Cline, “Long and “Shorty” Washburn, “Red” Gibson, and Jim Thorton. Chase’s bunco staff is composed of W. H. Jackson, formerly the right hand man of “Soapy” Smith, “Buck” White, “Rev.” Wilder, so named on account of the penchant he has for trapping preachers and religious men, and Harry Lester.
Worked Openly.

     All these men were upon Seventeenth street yesterday, engaged to their nefarious work and the police mad no efforts to round them up....
     … The secrets of the bunco business have been divulged and the revelations are of a startling character. Blonger pays his steerers 30 percent of the amount they secure from their victims. Chase gives his steerers 40 percent of their earnings. Part of the money left after the steerer is given his share is reserved for the “inside” men and “expenses.” The headquarters of the bunco men at 1750 Blake and 1731 Market are called the “Big Mit” joints. These places have been used for the purpose named for the past six months.
     The games, all of the “sure thing” variety, carried on by the bunco men of Denver, are the “Big Mit,” the “T. B,” and the “Lock.”

How the “T B” Is Worked.

     The “T. B” was the trick by which the steerers earned most of their cash yesterday. The game is played with dice and it is invariably successful in case the “sucker” puts up his money. Under one of the hundred or more pretexts which the steerer has at his command the “sucker” is taken into a saloon. Not long ago a traveling man was bilked of a large sum of money in trying to beat the “T. B” and his case will serve to explain the method of the expert crooks in relieving innocent persons of their cash. The steerer met the traveling man on Seventeenth street near the Union depot and asked to be directed to Lawrence street. The traveler said that he was a stranger in the city. The pair walked together up Seventeenth and the steerer stopped at a saloon and invited his victim to step inside with him.
     “I am looking for a man named Captain Jackson,” said the steerer, “and I was told that he spent most of his time here. If you’ll wait we will look about the town a while.” They entered and the steerer inquired at the bar for “Captain Jackson.”
     “He’ll be back in a few minutes,” answered the bartender, who was previously instructed regarding what he should say. The steerer than ordered the drinks. At this stage of the proceeding there entered the barroom from the rear an accomplice of the capper. The accomplice was what the sports call a “poppy lookin’ guy.” He wore chin whiskers and a long sweeping linen duster and carried a satchel in his hand.

Working the Sucker.

     Without deigning to notice the two men he shuffled to the bar and pulling a roll of bills from his vest pocket, called out:
     “give me a little drink; I’m going on the next car and dern if I ain’t feelin’ putty dry.” He place a $10 bar on the bar.
     “I haven’t change for that,” said the bartender.
     “Take a drink with us, old man,” interrupted the bunco steerer. The “old man” showed intense hesitancy but the bunco sharp was ready to take up his lines.
     “Then let’s shake dice for the drinks.” Proposed the steerer. The bartender thereupon produced the dice cup and ivories and the steerer started to threw the five dice. The “old man” gazed with wondering eyes upon the dice and finally acknowledged that he did not know anything about the game.
     “Well, we’ll try something easier—an old army game called Twenty-one.”
     “I wanted to see a feller here a minute,” interrupted the “old man,” “but I’ll be back directly.” He left the barroom, remaining outside for about five minutes. While he was away the steerer convinced his real victim that the aggregate of the numbers upon the top and bottom of three dice, no matter how thrown, would always be 21.
     Upon the return of the “old man,” the steerer said:
     “I’ll bet I can throw twenty-one every time, counting the top and bottom numbers.”
     “I don’t believe it,” declared the “old man.”
     “Why,” he said, “you kin as well tell me that you can count the hairs on my head as tell me that you kin throw the same number counting the top and bottoms of them dice every time!”
     Waxing bold the “old man” shouted exhibiting the roll of greenbacks.
     “I’ll lie you down that I kin skin you at that guess game. I don’t allow that nobody can throw the same numbers every time.”
     The money was placed in the hands of the traveling man. The dice were thrown and the steerer, of course, won the bet.
     Calling the traveler aside the steerer said in a low tone: “Take $5 out of the $10. You were with me and you ought to get half.”

Here’s Where the Sucker Bites.

     This was a scheme to ascertain the size of the suckers “roll.” Innocently the victim pulled out his pocket book, well filled with bills, from his inside pocket and gave the steerer $5, taking the $10 offered. The “old man,” of course, did not see this act, and from all appearances he was very angry over his loss. The steerer and his friend walked up to the bar again and more drinks were ordered.
     "I’ll bet you fifty you can’t do that again,” said the old man,” shaking with excitement. The steerer, of course, told the “sucker” that it was sure money and told him to put up the cash. The traveler readily puts up the money and the stakes held by the bartender. The steerer again throw the dice and the number thrown was twenty-one, as before, but the steerer took the dice, one by one, and pushed them across the bar in order that the “old man” might see the count. With a movement of the fingers almost imperceptible the steerer turned one of the dice and counted the top and one side, making the aggregate number twenty-four.
     The bet was paid to the “old man” who at once skipped out, leaving the “sucker” and ‘steerer” to morn their loss. In this case the “steerer” said that he will make good the loss as soon as he received money from his father, and the traveling man did not discover that he had been tricked by the “steerer” until the father failed to appear at the saloon with the money as he agreed to do.

The “Big Mitt.”

     The “Big Mitt” is stud poker in which a deck of cards [missing] picked by the [missing] who plays the [missing] hand is good. The “steerer” takes his victim into a saloon and under the pretense of looking for some man, conducts him into a rear room where two men are seated at a table playing cards. The “steerer” is told, of course, in answer to his questions, that the man wanted is not in but that he will return in a few minutes. “What are your chips?” asked the steerer. “Five cents apiece—a dollar a stack,” answers the dealer. The “steerer” buys a stack and starts to play. He wins a number of stacks and the “sucker” will probably suspect that something is wrong. To all appearances, however, the “steerer” and dealer and the “cold” hard man are strangers to each other. As a general thing the “sucker declines the first invitation to take a hand, but a simple trick is used with effect to get him into the play. Perhaps a dozen stacks of chips are before the “steerer,” who, apparently by accident, overtures a couple of stacks. There is a vacant chair at the side of the stranger. The “steerer,” who assumes great interest in the play, casually asks the “sucker” to stack up the chips which have fallen, and nine times out of ten the “sucker” sits down in the chair to arrange the fallen chips. Then the dealer at the next deal throws out cards to the “sucker,” which appears at the time to be a very usual mistake. “But I don’t want to play,” insists the “sucker.” “Oh, play some of my chips,” interrupts the “steerer,” as he gives the stranger a stack. This generally starts the real game, but the “big mitt” is not called into use until the “sucker” has won a goodly amount of cheap chips. The “steerer” also plays in good luck, and the dealer, whose duty it is to produce the “big mitt at the proper time, begins to get angry. He complains bitterly of his ill luck, and during his talk the “steerer” whispers something in the ear of the “sucker.” The moment the attention of the victim is diverted the dealer takes the “cold” deck, exactly similar in appearance to the deck in use from the open drawer. The deck used throughout the game is slipped into the drawer and cards are dealt again, the “sucker” being given a high hand. Being assured of success the “sucker” generally all of his chips and money and the result shows that the man who plays the “still” hand wins and the money goes to the house.

Getting the Victim Quieted.

     The victim may complain, but the cards show for themselves that he is beaten. The “steerer” then kindly offers to bear part of the loss of his new friend and starts out with him to see “dad.” They find the individual upon the street where the trick was turned. “Dad” is usually a venerable gentleman with a fatherly appearance. The “steerer” asks him for money, saying that he lost all that he had.
     “What, have you been gambling again?” asks “Dad.” I won’t give you a cent till we get home again. In case the destination of the “sucker” is Chicago the steerer tells him that his home is in that city. The steerer has a few words with “Dad” but the latter positively refuses to give his “son” the money until he reaches home. In cases where a big bust is made by the bunco man the game had been carried to the extent that “dad” and the steerer boards the train with the “sucker.” When the train reaches the suburbs and slows up at a crossing the bunco men jump off, leaving the “sucker” in his seat. Frequently the man who is fleeced demands back his money and while the row is in progress a man dressed as a police officer enters. He informs the “sucker” that in Denver persons found gambling are subjected to imprisonment and heavy fine. Upon threats of imprisonment the victim weakens, fearing the attending publicity of the affair.

Victims Who Fought.

     In a saloon om Lawrence street some time ago the “T. B” was played upon a strapping farmer who lost $20. A scrap followed a demand on the part of the farmer for the return of the money and it required the united strength of six men to throw the kicker out of the place. The resurrection of the “Soapy” Smith practices in Denver yesterday was a great surprise to those acquainted with the tricks of swindlers.
     “Why is this game allowed?” was asked a policeman at the corner of Seventeenth and Market streets, where a fat man was swindling dozens of “suckers” last evening.
     “That man has a license,” sneered the policeman. “They told me at headquarters to let him alone, that he was given a license to sell.”
     The fat man, who is a new addition to the bunco fraternity of Denver, stood upon a wagon which he had engaged at an adjoining livery stable. His stock in trade consisted of a black satchel and a quality of licorice and chocolate cut into small square bars. After the manner of “Soapy” Smith he wrapped some of the bars in two dollar and others in $10 bills. He then placed another wrapping of paper upon the bars and threw the little packages into his satchel. Picking up two or three of the packages he would offer to sell them for $1 each. Carl Johnson, an innocent Swede bought fifteen packages and secured nothing for his trouble but a lot of cheap candy. Another man lost $10 and others lost larger amounts while the fakir was stationed at the Market street corner. The man worked all day upon Seventeenth street and neither police nor detectives appeared to be aware of his presence. There were “cappers” attending him who always won at the game. When the fakir quit work about 6 o’clock he retired into a saloon at the corner with Lou Blonger. He will doubtless be around today unless the police see fit to stop the swindle. ...


"Smith had a bright sense of humor. Although a desperado, his deeds of kindness would have done credit to any man. A man in want was never turned down by Jeff…. He often risked being thrown in jail to help a pal out of trouble."
—Henry “Yank Fewclothes” Edwards
Alias Soapy Smith, p. 592.


1776: The Continental Congress appoints a committee to write a Declaration of Independence.
1801: The North African State of Tripoli declares war on the U.S. The dispute is over merchant vessels being able to travel safely through the Mediterranean.
1806: The New York Commercial Advertiser becomes the first newspaper to cover the sport of harness racing.
1851: John Kirkpatrick and eight others kill 24 Indians at Port Orford on the southern coast of Oregon, on what is called Battle Rock. Stories vary from self-defense to murder.
1854: The U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, holds its first graduation.
1856: Frank Jackson, a Sam Bass Gang member, is born in Llano County, Texas.
1857: First Lieutenant George Crook is wounded by an arrow as he leads the 4th Infantry against Indians in Pitt River Canyon, California.
1858: The Army takes control of Fort Bridger, Wyoming Territory.
1859: The Comstock Load is discovered in Utah Territory (Nevada). Over $300 million in silver and gold is taken out of the ground over the next 20 years.
1865: John Keene is the first person hanged on the "hanging tree" in Helena, Montana Territory.
1877: John Good, a Texas cattle rancher is accused of being a horse thief by a man named Robinson, who attempts to shoot Good, but his revolver gets tangled in his clothing and Good shoots and kills Robinson with four shots.
1881: The James-Younger gang robs the Davis and Sexton Bank in Riverton, Iowa, of $5,000.
1885: Salina, Kansas celebrates the arrival of the Missouri-Pacific Railroad.
1889: Jim Masterson, brother of Bat Masterson, and five others are tried for the murder of J. W. English, shot during the “Battle of Cimarron” in Kansas. All are acquitted.
1898: U.S. Marines land in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Bad man Soapy Smith previously created a private militia and offers it for service in the war effort.

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