January 16, 2023

How Soapy Smith's gang obtained their victims at the Denver's Union Depot.

Barbour County Index
June 11, 1886.

(Click image to enlarge)

Details of one method they used to obtain potential victims at Denver's Union Depot.

     The details of the methods and tactics used by the confidence men to gain the trust of their intended victims are as interesting as the final swindle used upon the victims. 
     In researching for my book, Alias Soapy Smith: the Life and Death of a Scoundrel, I found that the two primary methods used by Soapy's gang in acquiring victims to swindle in Denver, Colorado, especially in the early days of his pre-empire career there, necessitated going out and finding them. The first and probably best, involved searching the "At the hotels" section of the local newspapers, which gave good information on out-of-town visitors registering at the hotels, including name, occupation, traveling companion(s), hometown, and whether the trip to Denver was one of business or pleasure. The boosters would choose a potential target and "accidentally" come upon the intended mark and claim surprise, "recognizing" a fellow hometown neighbor, knowing their name and facts about the town in which they hail from. Once the victim is fooled into believing that the sharper is a trustworthy peer of his hometown, the booster would encourage the man to go with him to one of numerous locations ready and waiting for the return of the booster and his prey. The second involved the boosters going to Denver's Union Depot and picking out complete strangers for the plucking. Most books, regarding this topic describe a typical case of  mistaken identity in which the booster would approach an intended greenhorn addressing them as if they know the target, but using the wrong name. Naturally the victim would state that the con man is mistaken, and with an apology, the sharper begins into a conversation geared towards finding out as much information as he can. After apologizing again, the con would excuse himself and pass off the gathered information onto the next booster, who would then approach the gullible individual pretending to know him, but this time using the correct name, etc. The details of how they might have done this has been left up to one's imagination. My book goes into a detailed fictional example of such a scenario. 
     Recently, I uncovered a newspaper article that exposed one method used by a bunko gang in New York and I bet the same tactic was used across the nation, including in Denver. The following was published by the Barbour County Index, June 11, 1886.

The Dumb Alphabet Rapidly Growing in Favor Among the Crooks.

[N. Y. Sun.]

      “The rising generation of bunco steerers,” said a detective yesterday, “has improved on the rackets of the old-timers. Everybody knows that they work in pairs, and when they meet a greeny one braces him, gets his name and town from which he hails, apologizes for mistaking him for Mr. Smith or Jones, of Cohoes, or Kenaka, and goes back and posts his pal, who usually waits around the corner for him. The pal then tackles the hayseeder, after consulting his guide-book, getting the population, bank presidents’ names and the names of a few leading merchants of the town the ‘hayseeder’ came from. It often happened that the countryman grew suspicious as soon as the first bunco man left him, after getting his name, and when the second tackled him shortly afterward chock-full of knowledge about the town he came from, would laugh at him, and if he knew any slang at all would remark. Too thin!
     “The new game is apt to prove more successful. Two men working together now learn the dumb alphabet before they start out. The first man to strike the stranger throws his left hand behind his back, and with the dumb alphabet telegraphs the stranger’s name and whatever else he has learned to his pal, who is close behind him. In this way the second man is able to brace the stranger before the first man has done shaking hands with him, and there is no room left for him to believe that the men are acting together. Then the first man apologizes and walks away and the second man works the stranger. If he can, on the envelope, lottery or saw-dust game.



Obtaining victims: pages 65-69.

"Gambling in itself is bad enough even when the game is square (honest); but your professional gambler never plays the game that way. He is an expert with cards. His seemingly innocent shuffle of the pack gives him a full knowledge of where every card is located. He deals you a hand good enough to induce you to make dangerously high bets, but not high enough to win. He lures his victim by small winnings to destruction in the end. He uses cards so cleverly marked on the back that he can read the values of your hand as well as if he were looking over your shoulder, and governs his play accordingly."
—Harry Houdini, The Right Way to do Wrong, 1906.

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