Soapy Smith, the bunko king of Denver, was a hero of the City Hall War to those at city hall, anyway but a night of violence threatens his future in Colorado, and tips the balance to the Blongers.
In the early 1890s, Denver had its many gambling clubs and policy shops, and various bunko gangs plying the river of tourists streaming through the growing city. Various men controlled their own interests in these ventures, but Ed Chase was known as the king of local gambling, and the bunko gangs moved to the tune of the brash, fiery, charismatic Soapy Smith.
These men and their associates, including Bat Masterson, and the Blongers Bros., had the money and manpower to influence elections, the administration of the city, and the local courts, creating a climate regulated to maximize their profit and effectively eliminate the risk. The Blongers were particularly flush from their 1892 strike at Cripple Creek, the Forest Queen, and had the cash to make friends and plenty of them. At times, reform would wash across the political scene, but the wave would always recede in short order, and business as usual would promptly return.
One such wave, of historic proportions, was the siege of Denver City Hall, ordered of Gov. Davis H. Waite in 1894. Waite, elected as a populist, had decided to break the gambling franternity's hold on local justice by replacing the police board with his own appointees. He sent in the militia to see to the installment of his board, but the boys at city hall had fortified the place. The police, sheriff's police, city officials and firemen were joined on the ramparts by over a hundred "special deputies" sworn in for the occasion.
Many were local gamblers and petty criminals, recruited by Smith and other vice lords, and Smith played a visible role in the defender's effort to intimidate the militia, which was successful. The siege was eventually ended by the Colorado Supreme Court.
The pols and gamblers lost their fight in the courts, and the police board, along with much of the police and fire departments, were booted out. Gambling went underground, for a time, but still thrived. Smith, for his part, had earned capital among those who had defended the hall, some of whom would live to graft another day, but his moment would soon pass, and by 1896 he was off to Alaska, and his fate.
And the Blonger Bros. would take his place, a throne Lou would retain for over twenty-five years.
But why, with high standing and influence in Denver, did Smith abandon such a resource for the gold camps of the Klondike? Had Colorado become too civilized, too fond of ordinances and rulings and little children? Did some circumstance force his departure? Had the market dried up?
More to the point, did the Blongers force him out? It's a fair question; it is apparent at this point that however diverse Denver's bunko gangs may have been at one time no matter how many fixers might have been fixing, including Chase, Smith, Masterson and a host of others by 1920 Lou Blonger had complete control of the machinery, at least according to DA Van Cise, Police Chief Armstrong, reporter Forbes Parkhill, Harry Tammen of the Post, and others. He was The Fixer, and Denver was known to grifters across the country as the Big Store of America.
It's a subjective argument, to be sure, that he was in complete control. They say that those who did not follow Lou's rules, the rules that brought such prosperity to so many, or did not render unto Caesar his due, might be pistol-whipped, then surely driven in a squad car to the edge of town, where Lou would personally kick your ass to Cripple Creek. And you'd better not come back. That's what they called a right town, and Lou's Denver was the rightest.
But when did it get so right? In 1896, after Soapy's departure? Or did it take decades to assemble the machine? We don't really know. The Blongers in later years were often shielded from publicity by friends at the papers, including Tammen, so their presence in the press was minimal during that time. In the early days, though, they had less influence. In 1890, its plain they aren't yet masters of their domain:
Rocky Mountain News, March 20, 1890
SOLD LIKE CATTLE.
Voters in Spring Election Handled Like Herds of Hogs.
CHARLEY CONNOR TESTIFIES.
The court was next treated to a genuine surprise when the name of the witness was called.
Charles Conner took the stand. The witness was in town on last April election day, and was at the Eighteenth precinct polling place. He kept a saloon at the corner of Eighteenth and Lawrence then. Mr. Pence then drew a plan of the neighborhood and asked the witness how far his saloon was from the polling place. He did not know. Connor was in the saloon on election day. The witness was asked what he was doing there. He hesitated a long while and then said he refused to answer for fear it might incriminate him.
Judge Allen instructed the witness to answer under the protection of the law. He also told the lawyer to confine his questions solely to what was material in this case.
Witness was doing something in connection with the April election. With others he was furnishing slips with names and residences to men who voted on them. The witness thought Sam Emrich had written them. Sheeney Sam had delivered him forty-five at one time, forty-six at another and ninety-five at another in cigar boxes. That number they had when the polls opened in the morning.
Connor then drew on a piece of pad-paper a plan of his saloon with considerable care. He explained this to the jury. The front door was not ajar while the polls were open. The side entrance he knew had been open on election day. During the course of the day he was in the back room of the saloon and sometimes in the parlor. Men were furnished with slips of paper of this kind to vote on. Sam Emrich and a man named Jackson were inside furnishing names with him. There was a doorkeeper inside. They had a couple of doorkeepers. The men who were to vote came in sometimes three and sometimes five at a time. The doorkeepers acted under his direction some of the time. A man named Anheirer was the doorkeeper and this man stood up in the court room for identification. The man who attended to the other door was called Red Town, he did not know his proper name. Sam Emrich sometimes gave orders to the doorkeeper and other times he and Jackson did. There might have been 400 or 500 names furnished voters that day by him and others. There were more than 300 furnished. They were given straight Republican ballots and led out by men whom they had employed for this purpose. These men were Sam and Lon Blenger [sic], Jerry Guyon, a man by the name of Allen and a man by the name of Hamm, and there were others whose names he had forgotten. He had begun this work before the polls opened. The witness quit at 6 o'clock. Then he had gone to the polls in the Seventh ward to vote. At times he was out in the hall where plenty other men were. The witness did not know the names on the slips. He had used the larger batch of names first. Connor had used copies of the registry book made by Sam Emrich.
Within a few years, the Blonger saloons and gambling halls were regularly closed down, along with Smith's Tivoli, Johnny Hughes' Arcade, and others. The Blonger saloons were noted bunko joints.
Boulder Daily Camera, Sept. 26, 1891
Closed by the Police.
DENVER, Sept. 25.The police board to-day ordered the gambling house of Blonger Bros., 1744 Larimer street, closed. The place is said to be a bunco joint, and the board wishes it understood it is after that sort of thing.
Forbes Parkhill states that Lou was big in the policy shop game, a lottery swindle, and big business in Denver. In 1895 Mercury, a weekly publication of the period, launched a campaign against the Blonger Bros.' saloon, a series would would love to see.
And then one night in 1895, Soapy Smith and his brother Bascomb went looking for trouble.
Rocky Mountain News, April 22, 1895
STRUCK THE CHIEF.
Latest Achievement Attributed to Soapy Smith
Forced His Way Into a Room Where Goulding Was.
And the Chief Found Himself Thrown in a Corner.
Tom Sewall, the Chief's Companion, Badly Battered Over the Head.
Usual Sunday Row Furnished by the Chief of the Police Department.
The sensational actions of Jeff Smith and his brother, Bascom, Saturday night brought into prominence the actions of certain members of the police force in a somewhat scandalous light. According to the stories whispered among the men at the police station, the whole affair started in a Market street house run by Jennie Rogers. Chief Goulding and two well known saloonkeepers were in a room. The two Smiths came into the house and inquired for certain frequenters of the house. The inquiry was met with the information that the persons in question could not be seen. At this the Smiths became enraged and started for the room where Goulding and his friends were closeted. After a few knocks with the butt of a revolver the door was cautiously opened and the Smiths forced their way into the room. Tom Sewall and the chief of police jumped to their feet and started to eject the intruders.
Guns Were Used.
Just what happened then is hard to explain, but in a very short space of time the chief was on the floor in
the corner of the room and Sewall was staggering to a chair, the blood flowing from a number of severe wounds on the top of his head where one of the Smiths had hit him with a gun. The actions of the third man in the room are not explained by the inmates, but it is believed that he escaped through a window.
The racket inside the house, added to the screams of the women, drew a big crowd to the sidewalk. Among them were two patrolmen, one of them being Officer Alexander, it is said. Just as the officers decided upon entering the house the chief and two Smiths appeared and walked away as though nothing had happened to disturb the peace of the neighborhood. The
officers, seeing their chief with the two men, saluted and awaited orders, but none were issued, the party continuing rapidly down Market street.
Looking for the Smiths.
Just how the chief managed to square the matter inside the house is a secret, but after taking the men to Eighteenth and Larimer he left them. Sewall, whose head was badly damaged, was taken to the police surgeon's office by a friend. Here he met Captain George Duggan and anxiously inquired whether the two Smiths were under arrest. He was told that they were not.
"Why didn't Goulding bring them in?" asked Sewall in surprise.
The captain assured him that the chief had not yet arrived. Still Sewall was not satisfied and demanded that he be allowed to look into the chief's private office. This privilege was granted and a search was even made under the chief's big desk, but no Smiths were found. Sewall hinted to the captain and Sergeant Jones, who had just come in, that he had been injured by "Soapy" Smith, and that the chief was mixed up in the affair. He said, sarcastically, that he wanted to bail Smith out, and afterward told the officials that in case any inquiry was made they should say that the wounds were caused by a cable car accident.
Would Kill Smith on Sight.
Quietly, however, it is said, he told Captain Duggan that he would kill Smith on sight and his actions seemed to warrant the threat.
While this was going on at the city hall, however, the two Smiths were not idle. Officer Kimmel met the chief and Detective Connors with them at Nineteenth and Larimer. From here he followed them down to Eighteenth, thinking that in case the Smiths gave any trouble he would be on hand to help. After Goulding and Connors left the Smiths the latter went into Blonger's place on Larimer near Seventeenth. Here they said they were looking for trouble, and became quite noisy. Officer Kimmel went into the place and told the Smiths that the noise must stop at once or there would be two arrests. This settled the Smiths to some extent, and they retired from the place, muttering maudlin apologies to the officer. They next stopped at the Arcade. Here they had a quarrel with John Hughes and Charlie Lorge, battering them both over the heads with their revolvers. Hughes received one cut over the nose that will probably mark him for life, while Lorge is said to have had serious injuries inflicted on his head. Just after this little fracas Officer Kimmel went into the place and asked what was up. He was assured that nothing was wrong, and left.
Afraid for His Life.
The bartender afterward explained that he was afraid to tell while the Smiths were in because he thought Smith would kill the "whole works." Kimmel afterwards learned of the affair, and started out to find the Smiths, but they had disappeared. He called up the station, however, for instructions, and Sergeant Jones at once went to the officer's beat and gave the necessary orders.
Just before daylight Chief Goulding came into the station and asked Captain Duggan whether any of the reporters had "caught on" to the affair. On being assured that
The News had the facts, the chief at once made up his mind to leave the city. He stated to the captain that he was going to Canon City to "visit the penitentiary," and did not know how long he would be absent. This was the last seen of the chief of the force, and it is presumed that he took the first train out of the city, fearing to stay to meet the scorn of the people who depend on him for protection from the very persons he was associated with when the unfortunate affair occured.
Owing to the misrepresentations of the persons who gave out the news at the police station Sunday morning,
The News stated yesterday that the affair had taken place at the Side Line saloon, and when the true facts were ascertained, it was too late for correction. The connection of the two men who were with Goulding in the room at the bagnio with the proprietorship of the Side Line saloon was sufficient to justify the belief in the story that the affair had occured at that place.
So, the Smiths beat bartender Tom Sewall and the chief of police, in a brothel. An unnamed barkeep escapes. Despite the ruckus, the Chief appears with Soapy at the door, claiming everything is fine. Sewall has his head sewn up while promising revenge on the Smiths.
The Chief parts with the Smiths, who set upon Blongers place, but are conviced by a vigilant cop to move along.
Next, in John Hughes' Arcade, they pistol-whip Johnny and Charlie Lorge, or Lord. Chief Goulding, in the meantime, leaves town when he learns the papers are onto the affair.
So what just happened here? What could possess them to physically attack their colleagues and competitors? The world between Market and Larimer, from 16th to 17th, was a small one. And the chief of police, too? What were they thinking?
The Denver Times had a different take:
Denver Times, April 22, 1895
SMITH'S WAR PAINT
JEFF AND BASCOM AND THEIR RAMPAGE SATURDAY.
Pretext for Throwing Mud at Chief of Police Goulding, Who Was in Jennie Rogers' Place on Market Street on City Business Bascom Smith Arrested, Also the Elder Brother True Facts of the Case.
Jefferson R. and Bascom Smith went upon a wild rampage on Saturday night and advantage was taken of this event to throw mud upon Chief of Police Goulding and other police officials.
Shortly after midnight Chief Goulding and Detective John Connors went down upon Market street to see if the new police regulations for the government of the resorts were being properly observed. The police had just received a telegram from Inspector J. D. Sheehan, of Chicago, in regard to the record in the Windy City of a girl named Donna Dare, who is now an inmate of Jennie Rogers' restore, 2005 Market street. The chief, in pursuit of his duty, went into this house, and, as he was standing in the hall making inquiries of Miss Rogers, he heard noises produced by a scuffle in one of the parlors, and in the next moment Tom Sewall appeared, followed by Jeff Smith and Bascom Smith, who had their guns drawn. The chief at once stopped the fight, and as Tom Sewall would not agree to prosecute the warlike Smiths for assaulting him the chief had to allow the belligerent brothers to depart, Jeff Smith promising to go home at once.
These are the facts upon which the sensation of a morning paper was based. Jeff Smith made an attempt to strike at the chief, who was in 2005 Market street performing duties for which he draws a salary from the people.
The fight on Market street seemed to arouse the fighting blood in the veins of the two Smiths, and instead of doing as they promised to they proceeded to terrorize Larimer street. In Lew Blonger's saloon, 1644 Larimer street, they attempted to pick a fight with some gamblers, but Officer Kimmel heard the loud talking and entered the saloon and ordered the Smiths out. Next they went into the big Arcade saloon, and there they made an attack on Charlie Lord and struck him over the head. John Hughes interfered and tried to make peace. Bascom Smith then made an unprovoked attack upon him, and struck him with his gun, cutting his nose. Officer Kimmel heard of the row, but when he appeared the row was over and he was assured that nothing had happened. The bartender afterward explained that he was afraid to give the Smiths away, as he greatly valued his head.
Bascom Smith was arrested this morning by Officer Kimmel on a warrant sworn out in Justice Howze's court by John J. Hughes. Jeff Smith was also arrested for assaulting Charlie Lord. The charge is assault to kill.
So the Times insists that Goulding, at midnight, was in Jennie's place on official business, seeing after the welfare of a poor little whore named Donna Dare.
Denver Evening Post, April 23, 1895
HIT AT EVERY HEAD
The Smith Brothers Run Amuck Through the City.
Hughes, the Gambler, Tom Sewall and Several Other Men Come in Contact With the Butt End of the Guns of the Smiths Warrants Sworn Out for Their Arrests Chief Goulding's Part in the Affair.
Jefferson Runnymeade Smith and his brother Bascom started out on a drunken spree Saturday evening and made a desperate effort to get even for all of their injured feelings for the past year, by beating up the heads and lacerating the features of their enemies.
On Market Street, in the resort of Jennie Rogers, they encountered Tom Sewall and made short work of the Sixteenth street saloonkeeper. Tom was knocked to the carpeted floor by a stunning blow straight from Jefferson's shoulder. He struggled to his feet and in the effort Jeff's devoted brother delivered a second punch that for a moment dazed Tom and sent him toppling against the wall. The noise of the scrap aroused the house and frightened females in scanty attire were soon running frantic through the building.
Their appeals to the three combatants did not tend to shorten hostilities for with the Smith family's second blow Tom braced himself against the satin embossed wall and reached for his gun.
This belligerent effort called for immediate action on the part of Jefferson and little brother Bascom, and in an instant their guns flashed in the air and descended with considerable force on Tom's cranium. A second blow from Jefferson's 45 sent Tom sprawling to the floor with the blood spurting from a deep gash over his left eye and two long scalp wounds.
The appearance of the life-giving fluid sent a thrill of horror through the congregated females, who viewed the encounter from a safe distance on the stairway, and two of them were soon in the throes of hysterics.
The victim of the assault lay bleeding on the floor and Jenny Rogers, the mistress of the notorious bagnio, rushed to his side and put an end to the murderous assault. She ordered the Smith family to leave her house, which they did without further ceremony. Chief Goulding and Detective Connors arrived at the Rogers resort a short time after the assault. The chief was making a tour of the "row" and all night saloons and went into the Rogers resort to deliver a telegram he had received in Chicago in regard to one of the inmates of Miss Rogers' resort. The telegram was as follows:
Donna Dare is O.K.; her reputation for honesty is very good. JOHN O'SHEA.
The above telegram was in answer to a telegram sent to Chicago at the request of Miss Rogers, who suspected the woman was not what she purported to be. The chief called to deliver the telegram, and was not present, as was reported, when the trouble between Smith and Sewall occurred. Chief Goulding and the detectives, on learning of the affair, started out in search of the murderous pair. They found them about 1:30 o'clock on Sunday morning, but not soon enough to prevent them beating up two other citizens.
After leaving the Rogers house Jefferson and his brother went to the Casa Bianca saloon and then down Larimer street to the saloon of the Blonger brothers. Here they attempted to create a disturbance, but were persuaded to desist by Officer Kimmel. They left the Blonger saloon and then crossed the street to the opposite side to the Arcade.
In the Arcade they found that they could no longer suppress their liquor-crazed brains and after taking a fresh wad of "fire water," started after "Sheeney" Clarkey [Charley is probably meant here], the barkeeper. He was no match for the pair, and relinquished all efforts to defend himself, when he was knocked to the floor by Jeff's big 45.
Johnny Hughes, one of the proprietors of the saloon, happened in about this time and attempted to quiet Jeff, who was still on the rampage and searching for gore.
Jefferson resented Hughes' interference and turned upon him like a demon. Swish, bang, and the wealthy gambler lay bleeding on the tile floor with three dangerous wounds on his head. Satisfied with their evening's bloody labors Jefferson and Bascom left the saloon and started down Larimer street towards Sixteenth.
Near the corner of Sixteenth and Larimer streets, Chief Goulding and Detective Connors appeared on the scene and placed the pair under arrest.
At the corner of Fifteenth and Larimer Office Kimmel put in an appearance and told his chief that none of the assaulted men would swear out a warrant for either of the Smith's arrest and both prisoners were released and promised to go home.
This morning John Hughes changed his mind and swore out warrants for both Jefferson and Bascom's arrest on the charge of assault to kill.
At noon to-day Bascom was arrested at 1928 Market street by Officer Kimmel.
John Hughes to-day at his home, 3236 Arapahoe street, was in serious condition. The outer table of the skull is fractured and he has a jagged cut across the forehead between the eyes, and the bridge of his nose is fractured. Hughes' condition is critical on account of the serious wound in the head and is confined to his bed.
Hughes this morning gave the following account of Saturday night's trouble:
"Jeff and his brother came into the Arcade for a drink on Saturday evening and were soon engaged in a heated discussion with "Sheeney" Charley. I was in the dining room reading the paper and the loud talking disturbed me and I came out into the barroom.
"Jeff was accusing Charley of being a cheap stud dealer when I interrupted him and asked him to be quiet. My remarks appeared to anger him and he started to call me names and ended with accusing me of being nothing but a cheap waiter and "hasher." I then ordered him to leave the saloon and he and his brother went at me with their guns. They clubbed me across the head and face until friends separated us. I was unarmed or Smith would not have escaped as he did.
"I have sworn out warrants for their arrest and will prosecute them to the full extent of the law."
Dr. H. H. Martin dressed Mr. Hughes' and "Sheeney" Charley's wounds a short time after the assault.
Dr. Martin entertains strong hope for Mr. Hughes' recovery, but considers the wounds extremely serious. "Sheeney" Charley has a deep, jagged gash on the left side of his skull, but it is not considered serious.
Tom Sewall's wounds were dressed by Police Surgeon Mack.
Interestingly, Goulding now does not arrive until after the ruckus, a beating given in "a desperate effort to get even for all of their injured feelings for the past year." In this account, the Chief arrests the Smiths as soon as he tracks them down.
Rocky Mountain News, April 23, 1895
EVERY BAD MAN A DEPUTY.
Chief Goulding Complains of the Sheriff.
WORST ELEMENTS CARRY GUNS.
Explanation of the Sunday Morning Disturbance and Why There Were No Arrests at the Time All the Bad Men of Denver are Deputy Sheriffs Who Carry Guns, Says the Chief of Police.
Chief of Police Goulding said yesterday: "On Saturday night I went out as is my custom, in company with an officer I never go alone to visit various downtown places and see for myself how they are running. After visiting Wisch's and some other places, I said to Detective Connors, who was with me, 'I'll go over to Jennie Rogers', as I want to see her on some business.' I had telegraphed for her to Chicago about a girl, and I wanted to tell her that the girl was all right and could stay. When I went into the house I entered a parlor to the side of the door and was in no other room. In a little while I heard a row and came out. I was told that Jeff Smith had beaten Sewall over the head with a gun. I did not see Smith, nor did I have any trouble with him. I said to Connors: 'We'd better pinch these fellows.' We went out to look for them and found them in the Casablanca saloon on Larimer street. I started for the city hall with them and got as far as Fifteenth street on Larimer, when Sewall and friends overtook us in a carriage and called out that there was no use taking them any further, as Sewall would not prosecute. I then released them. I had not then heard of the Hughes affair. As soon as I heard of it afterwards I had warrants sworn out and Smith was arrested. He was released by the justice on $500 bonds. I asked the district attorney to have the bonds increased."
No Case Against Them.
The chief was asked why he did not take the prisoners to the station, especially in a case of this kind, when the facts were almost of his own personal knowledge. "We had no case against them," he replied. "If they were arrested and the case fell through it would only make them uglier and harder to deal with, and they are hard enough now."
The chief went on to outline his position. He said: "I am completely opposed to men of this kind. I do not believe that Soapy has been doing any business lately, and he will not be allowed to do so. I propose to run all confidence men, thugs and vagrants out of town. There is no man who would be more pleased than I if Smith had to leave the city. If he should ever try to hit me with a gun he had better hit hard the first time. I am handicapped with a small force, but we are doing as well as possible. As an example, I send men in plain clothes on Fifteenth and other streets to catch the women. The court has held that the officer must be actually approached, so it is hard to get testimony, but Fifteenth street is in better shape than it was a few months ago. My policy is to drive all these women to the 'row' and to keep them there under proper restrictions. I tell them that if a man wants to spend his money there all right, but if I hear of him being robbed they must look out. The other morning I sent officers to lower Seventeenth street to catch the steerers who have been laying for the passengers on the early Santa Fe train, and we got seven of them. I want to say positively that there is no gambling going on in the regular gambling rooms. We have put an end to the begging of men in the residence quarters by vagging every one caught at it. There is no more of that going on."
The Toughest Customers.
The chief spoke of his troubles and referred particularly to a crowd which he says hangs around Arnett's saloon on Eighteenth street. Said he: "One of the worst things that we must contend with is that every bad man in the city seems to have the commission of a deputy sheriff, and thus to be entitled to carry a gun. This causes us a great deal of trouble." The chief said that he would especially show no mercy to those men who live off the earnings of women. He denounced the pool rooms, but remarked that City Attorney Williams had not yet given his opinion on their legality. Altogether, the chief declared that his administration had been productive of results with which he is well satisfied.
The chief states his case, and looks much better this time. It seems the Smiths had stirred the pot, and the chief had to protect his back. Bascomb was in jail, and Soapy would be persona non grata.
And for what? We don't know. We are told 1896 was already a tough year for the Smith brothers. Perhaps they were trying to make a show of force. This excerpt from The Reign of Soapy Smith: Monarch of Misrule in the Last Days of the Old West and the Klondike Gold Rush (1935) adds detail to the story we can't corroborate:
Back on Seventeenth Street, Soapy resumed his normal practices, but soon another disturbing element entered into the situation when two clever and powerful rivals invaded the Denver bunco field in the persons of Lou and Sam Blonger. The brothers Blonger were the most menacing type of confidence men, soft-voiced, quiet, quick-thinking, extremely intelligent, and unrestrainedly dangerous. Lou, suave and bland, was an organizer of considerable ability who always used the velvet hand rather than the mailed fist to attain his ends. Sam was a taciturn individual who never discussed his business or his plans with anyone except his brother and possessed a face extremely hard to read, particularly as his eyes always were hidden behind a pair of blue goggles.
He was told that the brothers were not "greenhorns" and that they had a powerful friend in Bat Masterson, who was now in Denver and had known them in Dodge City. But Soapy was never one to heed advice of this nature, and he set out, singlehanded, for a conference with Sam Blonger which had no objective of peace. A policeman saw Smith enter the Blonger place and, sensing that trouble was ahead, hurried after him. He caught up with Soapy just as he was heading for the card room. He stopped him at the door, argued with him vehemently and, after some parley, induced him to leave without carrying his warlike plans, a timely intervention which undoubtedly saved Soapy's life. Shortly afterward it was revealed that Lou Blonger, gripping a double-barreled shotgun, had been crouching behind the cigar counter, prepared to fire the moment Soapy opened the card-room door.
Soapy made no more open efforts to settle matters with the Blongers, but clashes between members of the rivals were frequent in the early days of the Blonger invasion. In time, a species of armed truce was established, but no friendship ever was wasted between the two camps.
As time passed, the Blongers developed into a pair of the most proficient con men in the country, their profits running into tens of thousands. They became the normal successors to Smith after the latter left Denver for the last time, which he did the following year.
Sam's blue goggles, of course, covered the fact that his eye had been shot out. We'd still like to know how that happened.
The New Eldorado: The Story of Colorado's Gold & Silver Rushes by Phyllis Flanders Dorset put it this way:
Not all of these enterprises were controlled by the suave Soapy Smith. During his absence in Creede and in Old Mexico a portly, oily man with half-mast lids from beneath which peered reptilian, gray eyes slid into the throne Soapy had vacated. Lou Blonger's bulbous nose sensed the right moment for a takeover, and in a short while, from the plush office of his gaming and drinking establishment, he ruled Denver's underworld. With the help of his brother, Sam, the wily Lou built an empire of confidence schemes that threatened to gobble up Soapy's profits. Smith stood the infiltration of Lou and Sam Blonger just so long and then one day he decided to assert his rights on the basis of seniority. Warned that the Blongers were no tinhorn pushovers Soapy nevertheless tucked his derringer in his pocket and headed for his rival's club. As he was about to enter, a squad of police, tipped off by Soapy's men, arrived to persuade the thimblerigger to give up his notion of having it out with the Blongers. Soapy protested loudly and mightily but allowed himself to be conducted away from the Blonger stronghold. As Soapy left, Lou Blonger, who had watched the proceedings from behind the cigar counter inside the front door of his club, carefully put away the loaded double-barreled shotgun he held ready in his hands.
And so, later writers have attributed more to this brouhaha than at first meets the eye. Was it a battle of wills? A show of power? Or two brothers on a bender? Bascomb went to jail for pistol-whipping John Hughes that night. The actual nature of the arguments that attended the affair are perhaps lost, or perhaps clues survive in Smith's letters.
But were the Smiths and Blongers bitter enemies, as the incident might suggest? Did Soapy ever find himself in the distasteful position of having to pay Sam and Lou? Did the Blongers ultimately drive Smith from town?
As to the latter, probably not. Soapy and Bascomb were in enough trouble over assault charges, and Soapy was forced to lay low. The Blongers, however, were under no such prohibition, and flush with cash.
Which brings us to Bascomb Smith's letter, written from the county jail almost seven months after his arrest.
Denver, Colo. Nov. 18, 1895
Dear Bro Jeff,
I thought I
would write to you / I have
writen Severl times but
never got aney ancer / I gest
Received a letter From
Emie and Eava / it is to
bad Bob Emies Husband
has lost his mind and is
in Jail at Beltan and
our too Sisters are
in a very bad fix / if I was
out or ever get out I could
help them to get along
Som way for Criest sake /
if you can go there or can
do any thing for them do
it for they are in a bad
fix / if I had aney money
I would Send it to them
if it was the Last I had
but I have not got aney
money not one cent
and in a very bad fix
my self / but I may get
out some time and if I do
I will go to hard labor
Rether and to see my own
Blood Suffer for aney thing /
I have lernt a very dear
leson but I think it will
be a good thing for
me / I Saw Mr. Clay
and he said he got
a tellorgram from you /
he said he would do
aney thing he cold to
get me out but you
know how that is / that
may be the last of it /
the Grand Jury found
another Bill agent
me / I will go out to
plead not Saladay [guilty?]
to Salt and Entent
...[to] Kill / I don't Know
how I will come out /
Every thing goes wrong
and it would not
serprise me if I get
in the pen before
they get thrugh with
me / old Deneson was
fired out of office a
day or two ago / he...[won't?]
have the pleasur...[e of]
proscuting me any
way / I said to Clay
that I herd you was
coming back / he said
he would be glad
to see you…[again?] /
the Grand Jury found
a bill agent Sam
Blonger for obtaning
stolen goods / it was
about a check I got him
to get the money
out for me
when you had the
Joint over Solmons
Pawn Shop / the check
was for Six Hundard
dollars / Sopose you
rember it / Bowers and
Jackson won it so they
want me for a witness /
what would you do
if you was around /
I dont Know of aney
more to write so
I will close / from
your Bro Bascom
Cor County Jail
Denver, Colo. Nov. 18, 1895
Dear Bro Jeff,
I thought I would write to you. I have writen Severl times but never got aney ancer.
I gest [just] Received a letter From Emie and Eava. It is to bad Bob, Emies Husband, has lost his mind and is in Jail at Beltan [Texas], and our too Sisters are in a very bad fix. If I was out, or ever get out, I could help them to get along Som way, for Criest sake. If you can go there, or can do any thing for them, do it, for they are in a bad fix. If I had aney money I would Send it to them, if it was the Last I had, but I have not got aney money, not one cent, and in a very bad fix my self.
But I may get out some time, and if I do, I will go to hard labor Rether and to see my own Blood Suffer for aney thing. I have lernt a very dear leson, but I think it will be a good thing for me.
I Saw Mr. Clay, and he said he got a tellorgram from you. He said he would do aney thing he cold to get me out, but you know how that is. That may be the last of it.
The Grand Jury found another Bill agent [against] me. I will go out to plead not Saladay [guilty?] to Salt and Entent [assault with intent] ...[to] Kill. I don't Know how I will come out. Every thing goes wrong, and it would not serprise me if I get in the pen before they get thrugh with me.
Old Deneson was fired out of office a day or two ago. He...[won't?] have the pleasur...[e of] proscuting me, any way.
I said to Clay that I herd you was coming back. He said he would be glad to see you…[again?]
The Grand Jury found a bill agent [against] Sam Blonger for obtaning Stolen goods. It was about a check I got him to get the money out for me when you had the Joint over Solmons Pawn Shop. The check was for Six Hundard dollars. Sopose you rember it. Bowers and Jackson won it so they want me for a witness. What would you do if you was around?
I dont Know of aney more to write so I will close.
From your Bro,
Wow. Not the Bascomb I thought I knew. Touching, really.
So, what's it all mean?
1. Where's Soapy? Has he left for the Yukon?
2. Who is Dennison? Son of Ohio governor, partner of Sam and Lou in the Forest Queen claim, DA and judge in Denver.
While running for mayor of Columbus, Ohio in 1879, he was noted as being supported by "the most disreputable bummers, as well as the entire gambling fraternity, their cappers, and the gin-mill combination." He lost.
A Chicago Trib article of 1882 describes the plight of Dennison's poor family, left back in Ohio after the Colonel's journey west, uncared for, living off the generosity of Dennison's parents, his wife forced to perform on stage to feed her children.
"She has four children, ranging from 4 to 9 years of age, and a husband living in Denver, who neither writes nor sends her a dollar, oblivious to her existence and to his four children. Gentlemen returning to Columbus who have seen him in Denver report that he makes money fast, and, in his princely style, anybody can share it with himexcept his wife and children."
But why would a corrupt son of a gun like Dennison, a partner of the Blongers and corrupt politician friendly to the bunks, be looking forward to prosecuting Bascomb? A grudge, perhaps? Certainly not out of moral indignation.
3. What about Bowers and Jackson? "Reverand" John Bowers and "Professor" Turner Jackson were members of the soap gang. Jeff tells us they were both involved in the Stewart robbery in Skagway, the robbery which ultimately led to the shooting death of Soapy.
Greeley Tribune, December 29, 1892
"Soapy" Smith, "Joe" Bowers and "Dr." Jackson, three of the slickest con men in America, have left Denver for a short season. We have no doubt but they will return in time to assist the ladies of capitol hill in redeeming Denver at the election next springjust as they did last fall.
4. But what about Sam and the $600 check?
The Grand Jury found a bill agent [against] Sam Blonger for obtaning Stolen goods. It was about a check I got him to get the money out for me when you had the Joint over Solmons Pawn Shop. The check was for Six Hundard dollars. Sopose you rember it. Bowers and Jackson won it so they want me for a witness.
So Bowers and Jackson "win" a check, give it to Bascomb, who takes it to Sam, to "get the money out for me." As a party to the transaction, the state wants Bascomb as a witness in the case against Sam, or against Bowers and Jackson not sure. One more to research.
When did this transfer occur? It had to be before the Hughes assault months prior, as Bascomb went directly to jail. Additionally, Bascomb suggests Soapy might "rember" it, indicating it had been a while. This may mean that the Smith's relationship with the Blongers may have soured prior to the night of the assault, but it nevertheless does assert that there was a working relationship between the two camps in the recent past.
And what kind of transaction was it? All we can say with relative certainty is that Sam gave Bascomb cash for a check that was probably the payoff from a swindle.
But did Sam cash the check for Smith, who would have had trouble cashing it elsewhere at the time? Jeff Smith favors this interpretation.
Or did Sam buy the "Stolen goods" at a discount as a way to launder the transaction? This would insulate Bowers and Jackson from prosecution, and make some cash on the side the role of a fixer. In this case, it got him into trouble. We will have to find out more.
We saw this scenario before in the Otero con in 1882. Doc Baggs took a check for $2400 from New Mexico businessman Miguel Otero in a fake lottery scam. Baggs then sold the check to Pliny Rice at a discount, after which Rice intended to cash the check for its face value.
But Otero's son, also named Miguel, and a future governor of New Mexico, demanded justice. Baggs, of course, simply confessed that he didn't have it, so the younger Otero pursued Rice, who attempted to sell the check back for $1000 and then produced a fake check to complete the deal! On a second try, the real check in hand, Rice was arrested by an honest Denver cop recruited by Otero.
So, you're swindling some tourist. Will you take a check? You bet! How better to get at all that money he has back home in the bank much more than he would carry while traveling. Once I have his check in hand, the next order of business is to pass it off. Cons can be very difficult to prosecute as it is, but if the evidence is no longer in your possession, it's even harder.
An associate buys the check, say fifty cents on the dollar. The grifter gets cash, trading value for liquidity and anonymity, and the buyer makes 100% profit if he can get the check cashed. It didn't always work, obviously, but I guess it worked often enough to be worthwhile.
Notwithstanding some comments above, the Smiths were never known to work for anyone, the Blongers included. With the heat turned up, and his brother in jail, Smith would thereafter have difficulty doing business as usual. Eventually, it was undoubtedly just time to move on, leaving Bascomb to his fate. And where did the money go? The money from the gambling joints, the con games, the cut? Easy come, easy go.
In the end, Smith may have been too hot, too loud, too much trouble. The long con, never a favorite of Soapy's, required patience, a sizeable investment, and lots of time. The payoff, though, was exponentially larger than street cons, perhaps tens of thousands of dollars for a few days effort, and that cash its way down into many pockets. The Sam and Lou Blonger could keep that kind of operation together, and did for twenty-five years, with the full cooperation of criminal, elected official and city employee alike.
So who are these men within the Blongers' sphere of influence?