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Alias Soapy Smith

The Underworld Organized.

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Excerpted from Fighting the Underworld, by Philip S. Van Cise (1936)

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Fighting The Underworld

In 1922, the evil genius and dominating power in [Denver's] underworld was Lou Blonger, a short, heavy-set, affable fellow of French-Canadian descent, who came to this country from Canada in his early boyhood, and settled in the Western mining camps. He first appeared in Denver in 1880 with his brother Sam as a bartender, then became the proprietor of a saloon with all the early-day accessories of a dance-hall and the necessary girl attendants, roulette wheels, and all kinds of gambling. As society became more respectable in the West, the girls were first eliminated, then the gambling, until only the saloon was left.

Accustomed from the early days to paying the police for protection and special privileges for his own place, and owing to his native shrewdness and innate knowledge of police conditions, Blonger gradually attained a position of affluence in the community. In the late eighties he became a "fixer" and the friend of the Chief of Police, and in large measure determined what protected crooks should operate in the town. This power once attained was pushed to the utmost, so that, as time passed, he gradually "got something on" various aspirants for, or those holding, public office, until his will and money were powerful factors in the political field in the Rocky Mountain metropolis.

At one time, while Blonger was operating a saloon, a private telephone line ran directly from his office to that of the Chief of Police, and upon his orders men were arrested or turned loose. He was the king of the Denver underworld.

In the early nineties Soapy Smith came to town. Soapy was then known throughout the West as a slicker, or con-man, and his method of operation was rather open and aboveboard, simply setting up a wagon with flaring gasoline torches and a large number of packages of soap wrapped in paper, standing by a little table giving the "ballyhoo" talk to get a crowd together, and then offering to sell soap with five- or ten-dollar bills in it for one dollar a cake.

He would pick up several bars and apparently wrap a five- or ten-dollar bill with each, then carelessly throw the cakes on the table with the others, mix them up, and sell them at one dollar apiece, or bet any amount with any of the spectators that they could not pick a package with the case in it. The money, of course, he would always palm, although once in a while a sucker, as victims were called, would get a cake to stimulate trade. Soapy would harvest from fifty to a hundred dollars a night. Blonger got half his share for keeping the police away.

In those days the gold-brick artist flourished and every circus carried its quota of pickpockets, shell-game experts, and other grafters. When they came to town, all called at Blonger's office to get permission to operate, and one of his men would be on the job to get his fair share of the cut.

By 1898, so notorious had Blonger become that in that year the Rocky Mountain News carried a front-page article about his having been trimmed by an even cleverer rascal. Its headlines read: "Got caught — Lou Blonger complains that he has been buncoed. Strange news for the police."

And then it went on to state:

Lou Blonger has been buncoed. This is about the most startling piece of news the police department has received in a long time. It was not hard work to find it, either, as Blonger "yelled" louder than the backwoodsman from Indiana who bought the gold brick. It was a long time before Blonger could induce the detectives to take the "yell" seriously.

Yesterday evening Blonger appeared at the police station much excited and exclaimed that he had been buncoed. All the detectives were taken with a fit of laughter. Their mouths stretched and their sides shook. Tears rolled down their cheeks and it was fifteen minutes before they could compose themselves. They were listening to Blonger's tale of woe.

Blonger has the reputation of being a bunco-man himself and for years had everything his own way on lower Seventeenth Street, where he successfully managed a gang of the shrewdest confidence-men in the country. This was the reason the detectives laughed so heartily when Blonger said he was buncoed.

Two years later Dick Turner, a deputy sheriff from Weld County, came to Denver and stopped at the Albany Hotel. Shortly afterwards, while in the lobby, he was "picked up" by a con-man who tried to swindle him, but Turner was too shrewd, and got away. He then went to the police, secured a detective, and went back for his man. This fellow was still there, looking for another victim, and as he was being arrested Lou Blonger came in.

"What's all this fuss about?" demanded Lou.

"Nothing much, except one of your boys is running a little wild," responded the detective.

Quickly getting the details, Blonger turned on the man and said: "You were recommended to me as a first-class bunco artist, and the first thing you do, you damn ——, is to pick up a deputy sheriff. What the hell are you tackling the Law for, anyway? Don't you have sense enough to let Colorado people alone in Denver? I paid your transportation to Denver and put you to work. Now you walk back, and start now."

And getting a hack, Blonger, the deputy sheriff, and the city dick accompanied the disconsolate crook to the city limits, where, under Lou's caustic tongue, he started the hike east over the railroad ties.

Lou also liked the ladies. In his early days he had married a successful variety actress, who was a high-class woman, but as he grew older they drifted apart. They were never divorced and he spent some of his time with her. But his real romance arose out of an arrest. Two of the city detectives were not in the good graces of Mike Delaney, Chief of Police in 1904. So, one evening, when they were having dinner with two girls, the patrol wagon backed up to the door, and under Delaney's orders all four were arrested and thrown into jail. The officers made bond and got out at once, but Mike refused to release the women.

One of the men then went to Blonger and told him about the girls, and Lou at once telephoned Delaney and ordered him to let them go. He did, and the next day they called on Blonger to thank him for his help. Immediately he was attracted to the younger one. She was only about nineteen. He gave her a musical education and lavished money on her until her marriage a few years later.

Shortly afterwards, however, she divorced her husband, and from then on was Blonger's mistress. She called for him in the evening, drove him out to his farm, and was constant subject to his beck and call. Her name in this book is Berna Rames.

In 1921, Blonger built a beautiful bungalow for Berna on Capitol Hill, at [—] Williams Street, right across the alley from the fashionable Ascension Episcopal Church. It cost thirty thousand dollars. Nothing was spared in its construction, and only the best material was used.

A large garage was in the high-ceilinged basement, with a covered roof over a walled-in entrance way. Small windows enabled the occupants of the house to see what visitor was calling before opening the door for his car. And at night prominent politicians, with side curtains drawn to hide the occupants, drove to the garage entrance, there to be identified and admitted for their private business. An adjacent large billiard room, with cozy fireplace and comfortable chairs, was the setting for the conferences.

Note: Van Cise was wrong about Lou Blonger's nativity. There is absolutely no doubt that Lou and all of his brothers were born in Vermont, not Canada. Berna Rames was a pseudonym, of course. Her real name was Iola Readon.


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Chapter Two: Running for Office

In the primary campaign of 1920 Philip S. Van Cise became a candidate for the Republican nomination for District Attorney of the City and County of Denver. He had been practicing law for eleven years, had been an officer in the Colorado National Guard for five years, six months of which were spent on strike duty in the coal-fields, and had been a lieutenant colonel of infantry during the War. As such he saw service in France with the First and Eighty-First Divisions, and was on the General Staff of the American Expeditionary Forces. As assistant chief of staff, and G-2 of the Eighty-First Division, he was in charge of enemy intelligence.

In his campaign he was opposed by two principal candidates, one backed by the City Hall machine, the other by the Republican United States Senator. Largely because the politicians were split into two camps he was successful in his race and received the nomination, but at the same time incurred the enmity of the City Hall gang, the politicians, and the underworld. So bitterly was his selection disliked that caricatures of him were posted around Republican County Headquarters and a branch office of his Democratic rival was opened across the hall, and on election day automobiles, ballots, and workers for his opponent went out under the direction of the Republican County Headquarters. He was anathema to the established ways of politicians and their underworld allies.

A few days after the primary, Leon Dean, a former inspector of police and at that time the proprietor of the largest private detective agency in the city, called at his office.

'Congratulations on your nomination,' he said. 'Now I've come over to help you, and I have a friend who controls at least fifteen hundred votes and he wants to meet you. I think I can line him up solid, and he can do more to elect you than any man in Denver.'

'Thanks, Dean,' rather curtly responded the lawyer. 'I'll be glad to meet him one of these days'; and turned to speak to someone else.

The detective did not state who his party was. Dozens of politicians had been making extravagant claims as to the votes they owned, and the candidate was beginning to be bored with that line of talk. Besides, he did not like Dean, and made no further effort to get in touch with him.

But Dean was persistent and wanted to establish a contact. So he went to see Samuel J. Sackett, an influential attorney who had strongly backed the Colonel's candidacy.

'Sam,' he said, 'you've been boosting Van Cise for District Attorney. If you teach him some manners, and a little politics, he might be elected.'

'What's the trouble with Phil?' said Sam.

'Why, he hasn't any political sense at all,' he replied. 'I went over to help the fellow and he got high-hat at once, as if he didn't care for my support at all. And I have a friend I want him to meet who can get him a pile of ballots. You tell him to 'phone me and I'll fix him up, and we'll elect him yet.'

So Sam said, 'That's awfully nice of you, Leon, and I'll get after him.'

When the detective left, Sam telephoned: 'Say, Phil, did Leon Dean come around to see you?'

'Yes, he had some cock-and-bull story about a guy with a pocket full of votes, and that's just building himself up for a stand-in. I'm not interested.'

'Now look here, soldier. You're asking for votes, not giving orders. Votes are votes, and his kind count just the same as anybody else's.'

'I know, Sam, but I'm going to get my votes on the Hill, and you tell Dean and his friends I don't want their support.'

'Don't be crazy. It may be on the level. You go to his office, see his man, make friends with him, and get his support if you can. You don't have to make promises to get votes. just be sociable.'

'Oh, all right, Sam. But I'm not keen about it.'

Fake stock exchange in the Denham Building
Fake stock exchange used by the bunko gang

As a result, Van Cise called Dean and made an appointment to be at his office at nine-thirty the next morning. And Dean still retained the name of the man with the votes.

When the candidate arrived, there was Lou Blonger. The Colonel had met Blonger before when he was a newspaper reporter, and knew his reputation as the head of a gang of some sort operating against tourists and suckers on Seventeenth Street, but had no idea as to its method of operation.

'Here's where I'd better keep a poker face,' said the visitor to himself, while he did all he could to keep from laughing at the play which he saw was just ahead.

Blonger had a softly modulated voice and pleasing manner, and started in at once to make his guest feel at home. He was then seventy-one, and schooled in the art of guile over a long life spent at the game. After some preliminaries, he said:

'Colonel, I am a veteran of the Civil War. I wear the same G.A.R. button that your father did. I have marched in Memorial Day parades with him before his death, and he was a grand old man. Now his son's following in his footsteps and has been in the War. Do you know, we old soldiers feel mighty proud of you young fellows.'

The old man was asking no questions, so the candidate let him talk.

What's the matter with these politicians, anyway? Aren't you the only candidate on either ticket who saw service in France?'

'Yes.'

'Why, the veterans should be on both tickets, and all the jobs given to them. We G.A.R.'s had them for almost fifty years. And here you are the only one. It's a damn shame. Got any practice?' he asked.

'Not much. You see I gave up my business when I went to training camp in May of 1917, then I have been campaigning the past three months, and clients want someone who is on the job.'

'How about money?'

'Oh, I've still got a little. Enough to see me through, I guess.'

'Say, do you know how much it costs to get elected District Attorney in this town? Have you any rich friends who are putting up for you?'

'No, I don't know anything about it. I've paid my own way so far, but it shouldn't cost more than two thousand dollars.'

'Two thousand dollars! It'll cost twenty-five if it costs a cent. It's the most expensive campaign to run for in Denver outside of the Mayor.

'Now look here. I'm serious about this. I guess I am a sentimental old fool, but I've recently made quite a clean-up in some mines. I like your style, and I want to help you, and because you are the only soldier on any ticket, I'll put up that twenty-five thousand. You can either have it now, or call on me as you need it, and you don't owe me a cent. I'll make some of the boys down at the Hall chip in to help me out. What do you say.

That poker face was having an awful time staying put, but it did. The candidate studied Blonger a long time, as if pondering over the matter, then replied:

'I can't tell you how much I appreciate that offer, Mr. Blonger. This is the first time I ever ran for office, and I don't know much about the game. I don't need your money now. I want to get through without any outside help. But I may need it, and if it costs as you say it does, I will certainly call upon you. I don't know just how to thank you.'

The old rascal beamed, and stalled along for a while on the weather. Then he got down to business again, and stated that most of his old friends had died off, that their sons were now well along in years, and in turn their grandsons had reached young manhood, and were out in business for themselves.

'Why,' he said, 'you know how it is. Some of these boys sometimes sell people oil stock or mining stock, or something like that - perfectly legitimate transactions, but the purchaser gets scared and runs to the District Attorney's office and makes a complaint. Now, the District Attorney does not have time to investigate, so he swears out a warrant and throws the man in jail.

'The boys then come to me and want me to make bond for them, and I have to go to the trouble and expense of taking care of something that turns out to be nothing, because the District Attorney always dismisses their cases. Now, Phil, what I would like to have you do is to agree with me that whenever I have to go on a man's bond, you will fix it at a thousand dollars. Then I can just have a regular arrangement with a bondsman and not have to bother at all.'

Here was the pin-down for the candidate. How should he answer?

'Blonger,' he said, 'I have had no experience as District Attorney, and practically no criminal practice, and so I don't know anything about bonds; but my hunch would be that the safe rule to follow is to fix the bond at double the amount which the defendant is said to have stolen. Then there would be no question about his appearance at the trial.'

Blonger seemed to lose interest in the soldier candidate then and there, and as the conversation lagged, the lawyer got up and left. As he went away he wondered how much of a boob Blonger thought he was. His con-men could swindle a victim out of $25,000, and if by some chance they were arrested and the bond was fixed at $1000, the overhead cost of business would not be very great; $25,000 from the victim, $1000 forfeited on the bond, a certain amount lost for 'gravy,' and the balance pocketed by the gang.

On election night at the Republican Headquarters, the candidate and his wife were watching the returns. The early ballots from the downtown districts were strongly Democratic, and he was running far behind his ticket. Blonger, Hal Crane, the chief deputy sheriff, and the Republican County Chairman, were closeted in the latter's office and were jubilant.

About eleven o'clock the returns from the residence districts began rolling in, and they showed that a new District Attorney had been elected. At midnight, visibly disturbed, and cursing loudly, Blonger and Crane left.

The end of December, 1920, and a few days before taking office as District Attorney, the newly elected official telephoned Blonger and asked him to come to his office. He did not know that a man of Lou's age could move so rapidly, because it seemed as if he had hardly hung up the telephone before the old man arrived, probably hoping that the long-expected touch had come.

Although the District Attorney-to-be knew that Blonger was no longer a gambler, and had little, if any, interest in any gambling establishments, he decided to make him believe that he thought he was mixed up with that line.

The fixer looked at his host, and the latter looked at Blonger, and there was utter silence for several minutes.

Finally the younger man spoke. 'Lou, what is your honest opinion of that conversation we had in Dean's office last September?'

Again the visitor sat still, trying to make up his mind as to what was behind the question, and finally said: 'That was the damnedest fool stunt I ever pulled in my life.'

The lawyer answered: 'You're right; we might as well understand each other right now.

'Blonger, you arc running the Quincy Club [this was a protected gambling-den two blocks from Blonger's office] and other crooked gambling-joints, and I am going to close them and shut you up on these gambling activities.'

To put it mildly, Blonger was astounded, and vigorously denied the charge.

Observation post used to monitor Blonger's office
Observation post used to monitor Blonger's office

'Why,' he said, 'I haven't anything to do with the Quincy Club. I haven't run a gambling-place or saloon for years. I am in mining and investments. There isn't a thing wrong with my business. If you don't believe it, ask any bank in Denver as to my credit standing and you will find my unsecured note is worth a hundred thousand dollars at any of them.'

'Well, Lou,' was the reply, 'I just wanted to give you notice to quit while the quitting is good. I intend to smash these protected gambling-houses in Denver, and then I am going to get the real owners and send you to jail along with the rest of them.'

'But, Colonel, I haven't a G--- d--- thing to do with them. If you think I have, go ahead and raid them. You don't care if I go down to Hot Springs, Arkansas, for the races, do you? You do what you want to with the gambling-joints while I am gone.'

The prosecutor-to-be said, 'Go where you please, but don't run any gambling-dens around this town while I am District Attorney.'

And Blonger left, a somewhat mystified man.


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Twelve years after Lou's death, Prosecutor Van Cise recalled in Fighting the Underworld his last conversation with Lou. A few days before going to the penitentiary, Lou asked to see the Colonel, who had the ailing octegenarian brought from the county jail to his office.

What a contrast to all those other meetings! No longer alert, no longer confident, no longer powerful, but broken physically, shattered in nerves, a wretched old man, the former czar of the underworld was to beg a favor like a mendicant of the streets! His meandering tale was nearing its end.

Asthmatic, feeble, tottering, Blonger sank into a chair and gasped for breath. His clothes hung loosely on his shrunken frame, and his cheeks were haggard.

'Colonel,' he said, 'I am an old man. I am seventy-three. I am in terrible physical condition. I have a bad heart, bad stomach, bad lungs, bad kidneys, all my insides are gone. Seven years, three years, one year, is death. Surely you don't want me to die down there [Cañon City Penitentiary]? I'll go there for two months. But then, for God's sake, get the Governor to pardon me.' He held out shaking hands, a fifty-year criminal, now fearful of his doom.

This time the younger man [Van Cise] was silent, while Blonger waited as the minutes passed.

Finally the prosecutor said: 'Blonger, this is not an easy matter to pass upon, especially when the applicant, like yourself, is sick. But when a defendant has been convicted and asks for leniency, the reasons for its granting must be given. You seek a pardon because of your physical condition. You ask for a release because you do not want to die in the penitentiary!

'Neither your sickness nor your impending death should be considered. What are your deserts? What leniency have you shown to others? What God have you worshiped except the Almighty Dollar?

'When you stole preacher Menaugh's trust funds, did you hesitate? When, overwhelmed with shame, he committed suicide, did you give any aid to his family? When you took the life earnings of old man Donovan of New Orleans, and reduced him from comfort to penury, what did you do to ease the last moments of his life?

'You have been a criminal from the time of your youth. You have been the fixer of the town. You have prostituted justice. You have bribed judges and jurors, State, City and police officials. You have ruined hundreds of men. With that record, tell me why a death sentence is not your due?

As to your plea for parole, I say no, emphatically and for all time no. Before the king of the underworld is pardoned, the penitentiary doors should be torn from their hinges and all other occupants be first turned out. They would be less dangerous than you. You have met your day of judgment and the death sentence is your due. I will fight to the last any attempt to give you leniency of any kind or description.

'I guess that's the end,' said Blonger, and the last conference was finished.

Things you won't find in Van Cise


 

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