November 21, 2022

BUNKO MEN AND THEIR TRICKS. San Francisco Chronicle, April 10, 1898

Shell and Pea Game on the Trail
"Sketched from life by M. W. Newberry"
San Francisco Chronicle
April 10, 1898

(Click image to enlarge)

     A wonderfully detailed description of the modus operandi of Soapy Smith's three shell and pea manipulators along the Chilkoot and White Pass trails.
Witnessed and reported by Joseph D. Barry, and published in the San Francisco Chronicle on April 10, 1898. Besides this article, Barry played an important role in Skagway history, as an official witness and jury member in the May 31, 1898, inquest into the death and robbery of prostitute Ella D. Wilson. Below is the transcribed text of the article, complete with my additional comments.  

Many Are at Work on the Trails.

Weary Plodders Often Taken In.

Klondike Pilgrims and their Wealth Separated.

The Old Pea and Shell Game Finds Many Victims Among
the Climbers of the Chilcoot Pass.

SKAGWAY, March 27, 1898.—Since the grass has begun to grow short for them in town, some of the confidence workers who still remain have taken to the trails, where they continue to set snares for the dollars of unwary Klondikers. On the Skagway trail the sure-thing gambler seldom goes higher than the foot of White pass summit. Half a dozen or so of his tribe usually travel together, sharing at the close of the day the profits of the tricks they have turned.
One of the party is chosen as active operator. His necessary qualifications are a capacity to judge human character and a tongue that is gifted with glibness. The successful confidence game operator is best described by the expressive term “spellbinder.” His confederates, the steerers carefully disassociate themselves from him whenever a possible victim is in sight.
The better to disguise his wolfish character the steerer frequently dons the sheep’s clothing of a packer. It is no uncommon incident on the trail to see two or more notorious bunko-steerers faring along, one after the other, apparently heavily burdened with packs, which if investigated would prove to be nothing more substantial than straw or chips in canvas sacks.
The "sheep's clothing of a packer"
description perfectly fits the methods of soap gang member Van B. "Old Man" Triplett. According to his newspaper obituary, he was born about 1841 in Virginia and was the originator of the gold brick scam. A con man of forty years, he joined Soapy's entourage in 1894, going to Skagway where he impersonated a stampeder complete with pack (said to be filled with feathers), working three-card monte at the Skaguay entrance to the White Pass trail. It was Triplett who operated the three-card monte game against John Stewart, stealing his gold, which directly resulted in Soapy Smith's death at the hands of the vigilantes.
A little ahead of them always is the operator, equipped with a small, portable table, three shells and the elusive pea. When the first one reaches the manipulator of the ancient but to the “sucker” ever new game he stops, watches and listens, and finally lays down his pack, as if to rest, Steerer No. 2 follows his example, as do the other in turn. By the time the prospective victim arrives he finds a spurious Klondiker just winning a bet from the shell game player, amid the half envious congratulations of his confederates.
“Well, well, this is my unlucky day,” says the man with the table, “but I’ll give some other gentleman a chance to win on the little pea.” Back and forth and round about go the shells again, a glimpse of the pea being given the watchers at seductively frequent intervals. Another steerer guesses its location and wins a greenback or two.
“You fellows are hitting me too hard,” dubiously comments the operator. “I must size up my roll before I take any more bets.” He opens a well-lined pocketbook, and while his attention is taken up with its contents one of the steerers slyly raises the shell under which the pea is hidden. That catches the outsider, unless he be invulnerable against the temptations of bunko. Laying his finger on the shell indicated to him he offers to bet $10, $20, $50 or a higher sum that it covers the pea. His bet is taken, the shell is lifted and the pea proves to be somewhere else. Usually the victim makes a second and perhaps a third bet in the hope of retrieving his loss, always with the same result. A witness to one of these episodes tells of having seen a prospector who had lost $90 sit upon his pack and burst into tears. He said that his last dollar had gone on the game. Still higher up the trail that same day a man who runs a tent restaurant bet and lost $20, but the shell-game player was glad to disgorge it when the victim’s wife, a 200-pound lady of German nativity, seized him by the coat collar and screamed lustily for help.
It is also related that a man in clerical garb, said to be a missionary, dropped $100 in a single bet. He immediately picked up his daintily bound pack and resumed his journey. Without uttering a word of regret or complaint.
Yesterday a woman who said she was going to the Klondike in the interest of the Smithsonian Institution complained to Captain L. A. Matile that confidence workers were so annoying on the trail that she feared to continue her journey. She is traveling alone and had called at the Regular Army encampment on her way out of town. Captain Matile, who commands the troops here, sent an escort of two soldiers with her as far as the northwest mounted police post at Summit lake.
After working one point on the trail thoroughly the confidence workers scatter, to reappear at another point under like circumstances some time later in the day. On the Skagway trail the shell game is not in operation regularly. The men engaged at it are supposed to be a detachment of “Soapy” Smith’s gamblers. Those who operate in Dyea, Sheep Camp and along to the base of Chilcoot are under the leadership of “Tom” Cady, a notorious Colorado mining camp confidence man.
While it is true that the con men operating in Dyea and the Chilcoot (spelled Chilkoot) trail were under the leadership of Tom Cady, it is believed that Cady reported to Soapy Smith. Thomas P. "Sure-Shot" or "Troublesome Tom" Cady was a member of the soap gang in Colorado, operating the shell game for Soapy. Cady, known for his nasty temper and habit of carrying a 12-inch dirk, followed Soapy from Denver to Creede, Colorado, in 1892 and back to Denver, where he b
ecame a prime suspect with Soapy in the 1892 shooting death of gambler Clifton "Cliff" Sparks. He accompanied Soapy to Mexico in 1894 and likely followed Soapy to Alaska, becoming Soapy's manager of operations in Dyea.
Other devices for catching “suckers” besides the pea and shells are heard of occasionally. The salted-mine man is one of the most recent additions to those who seek to get something for nothing. J. T. Jones, president of the Guarantee Title and Abstract Company of Juneau, yesterday saved a Dyea merchant from falling into the clutches of one of this variety. The merchant told Jones that he had a chance to buy a placer mine for the very low price of $500. It was a new strike, only five miles outside of Dyea, and the locator, being out of funds, was willing to sacrifice his claim. Jones was then shown specimens of gold from the placer, it being in shot and smaller particles.
In the afternoon the miner accompanied Jones and the merchant to his claim, where he panned samples of the dirt. The specimens obtained looked genuine, but feeling dubious, nevertheless, the Juneau man to-day had them tested. They proved to be a composition of copper, zinc, bismuth and tin.
As a United States Deputy Marshal Cudihee is now the sole guardian of the peace for Skagway and Dyea, it is almost impossible to keep sure-thing gamblers and others of their ilk off the trails.
Amazingly, I do not have much on U.S. Deputy Marshal John Cudihee other than he was in Soapy's May 1, 1898, parade in Skagway.



Shell and pea game: pages 8, 10, 15, 27, 51, 53-55, 58, 64, 72, 78-80, 92, 99, 110, 112, 115, 141, 205, 210, 229-31, 248, 250, 256, 308, 351, 362, 368, 465-67, 471-72, 475-77, 482, 492, 498, 505, 535, 548, 594.
Joseph D. Barry: page 506.
Ella D. Wilson: pages 506-512.
Van B. "Old Man" Triplett: pages 90-92, 471, 475, 526, 554, 564-67, 575-79, 595.
Thomas P. "Troublesome Tom" Cady: pages 79, 210-11, 229, 250-51, 253-57, 260, 264, 362, 450.
 Clifton Sparks: pages 79, 250-59, 263, 268, 289, 291-92, 502, 507, 529.
 U.S. Deputy Marshal John Cudihee: page 500.

"With spots quadrangular of diamond form, Ensanguined hearts, clubs typical of strife, And spades, the emblems of untimely graves."
—William Cowper