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Alias Soapy Smith

Denver & The Big Store.

Lou spent the last thirty-five years of his life
building a vast network of highly organized confidence games.

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The Blonger Blotter

The late nineteenth century was a golden era of con, from mail order scams, to patent medicines and therapeutic gadgets, to fixed foot races and pigeon drops. According to Hustlers and Con Men, the big store con, sometimes called the rag, a Blonger Gang specialty, first came to Denver in 1863, years ahead of Lou.

Lou & Sam were well-known professionals gamblers, and have been mentioned numerous times in books on gamblers and con men. Van Cise tells a great deal about Lou's tenure as the Denver gang's Fixer. In his later years, this role kept his hands relatively clean, several steps removed from the actual crime. But did Lou ever actually grift, and what cons did he play? How did he become Denver's Bunco King?

Whether as peace officers, gamblers or saloonkeepers, the Blongers rubbed elbows with the criminal element of every town they briefly called home. By definition, the boom towns frequented by the Blongers overflowed with greedy men, honest and otherwise, and there was no shortage of suckers, or booty. Roping in customers to play rigged games in a saloon, like a barker at a carnival, was a con in itself. Moreover, the strange kind of lawman/gambler/entrepreneur/swindler hybrid that the Blongers represent was not an uncommon animal at the time. In fact, the list of confirmed bunco artists, both famous and obscure, with connections to Sam & Lou is a long one indeed, including the Earps, Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, Doc Baggs, Ben Marks, Con Caddigan, John Maybray, Billy Nuttall, Soapy Smith, Big Ed Burns — the list goes on and on. And that's not to mention the lengthy roster of Denver "hoodoos" from Lou's Denver days, like the Painter Kid, Jackie French, Tip Belcher, Artie Cooper, Leo Kelley, Denver Ed Smith, the Christ Kid, Kid Duff and so on...

The bottom line, perhaps: a man who lives by gambling — the turn of a card, the spin of a wheel — is not going to be sympathetic to your whining when he gets your money into his pocket, regardless of how he did it. In a place so saturated with wagering of all sorts, how to prove in a court of law that the game you lost was crooked? That might as well be how the West was won.

Simply put, the convergance of temptation, opportunity and knowledge were a daily occurence in the old west, and any traveler with a silver dollar in his pocket had best be careful, because there would be many anxious to have that coin themselves, by gun or by guile. So what's new?

But just what do we know about Lou's early days as a swindler?

1882: Lou cashes a check for Ben Meyer, who promptly loses half of it in a game of stud poker. Claiming he'd been swindled (good guess), he goes to the bank and orders payment stopped on the check, claiming that it had been stolen. Lou brings suit against Meyer for the amount of the check. He is expected to win the case.

1890: Swedish immigrant Peter Anderson loses $275 in Blonger's Denver gambling house and complains to the police, but is eventually threatened with arrest on gambling charges when he insists on accusing the police of being complicit.

1892: Sam and Lou are arrested at their saloon, the Tourists Club, for swindling C.I. Tolly out of $100 and threatening him when he refuses to pay.

1892: The Blonger Bros.' gambling house at 1744 Larimer street is closed by the fire and police board.

1892: Not long after, the brothers open a saloon on Market street between Sixteenth and Seventeenth streets.

1895: Mercury, a weekly publication of the period, launches a campaign against the Blonger Bros.' saloon.

1895: Soapy Smith, recently returned from Creede, rampages through town with his brother Bascomb in an attempt to intimidate the Blonger Bros. and restore his control over the lucrative bunco racket. Smith is nearly shot in the back by Lou as he enters the Blongers' saloon, but is convinced to leave by the local cops. An assault committed that night by his brother would eventually force Smith to leave Denver forever or face prosecution.

1898: A small-timer named John Weaver cons Lou into writing him a check for $1000. Later, Weaver refuses to give it back. Lou cries bunco and sues the guy, but Lou's reputation is already so well-established that the cops and the press all have a very hearty laugh. In fact, they were still laughing about it years later. But Weaver probably never worked in Denver again.

1901: Lou is tried for allegedly cheating an englishman named Ritter out of $300 at cards, even though the victim admitted losing on a hand he dealt himself.

1910: Van Cise says in Fighting The Underworld that Lou managed to evade implication in the federal trial of Council Bluff, Iowa's Mabray Gang. The Colonel tells us Lou accomplished this feat through the timely intervention of an unnamed lawyer, partner of a United States District Attorney, and his anonymous companion, a United States Marshal.

1915: A British army officer, in Denver to buy mules and horses for the war effort, loses $90,000 playing the wire, a wire-tapping scheme like that portrayed in The Sting. He thought he was betting on a horse that had already won. Lou is implicated by papers found in the suite of offices used in the con.

One can imagine that the Blonger boys did not suffer suckers lightly. Lou had a reputation as a generous and friendly man — gamblers are not generally known as tightwads — yet it appears he spent his long life taking as much money as he could from the stupid, the avaricious and the inebriated.

Conspicuous by their absence here are the tales of the classic cons — three card monte, the nutshell game, the Magic Wallet, etc. Neither Lou nor Sam seemed to fit the Johnny Hooker paradigm, though they were protectors of those who did. Mostly, they would find a way to get their hands on your money, and then just challenge you to do something about it. Hubris would be the word. And between Sam's size and temper, Lou's slick demeanor, and their many powerful friends, it worked quite well for them for many, many years.


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Sam and Lou's Saloons in Denver

Before he became a "fixer," Lou Blonger (and to a lesser extent, Sam) were saloonkeepers, so it's important to take a look at their business history.

The Armstrong account makes the following claim:

Sam and Louis, well known all over the West in the seventies, eighties and nineties as the Belonger Brothers, started the Golden Eagle Saloon. In every corner of each square foot of the big floor-space was inlaid a twenty-dollar gold coin. Soon, however, they found that the gold pieces were too soft to stand the wear of many hobnailed shoes and boots. They removed the gold pieces and replaced them with silver dollars and renamed the saloon The Silver Dollar.

There certainly was a Silver Dollar Saloon in Denver, but here either Joe Belonger or those who recounted his story got the facts mixed up.

The Silver Dollar Saloon was on Lawrence Street near 17th. Its proprietor for many years was Billy Duncan, who came to Denver in the early 1870s. The saloon was indeed famous and did have silver dollars embedded in the floor. It survived until 1954, when the American National Bank expanded into the building.

Lou Blonger's obituaries appear to tell a more accurate story. In the mid-1880s, Lou and Sam's first saloon was at 1644 Larimer Street in the Croff and Collins Building, which was next to the Cheesman Block on 17th. This saloon would have been behind, and perhaps even directly in back of, the Silver Dollar Saloon. They owned this saloon, for which we still have no name, until at least 1895.

Their second Denver establishment was the Elite saloon on Stout near 17th, next to the Equitable Building. The obituaries say the Elite was "the flashiest saloon in town" and "the finest bar in Denver at the time." It goes without saying that the Blongers' saloons were also gambling houses. We'll definitely be looking for more information about both of these places.

So far we've been unable to find out anything about the Golden Eagle Saloon mentioned in the Armstrong account, but it is possible that the story is accurate, except that the Blongers are not a part of it.


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Lou's Cherry Orchard

As Lou Blonger finally became rooted in Denver and started developing his clientele, he branched out into real estate. He had mining claims, of course, but he also began to develop agricultural tracts. His most famous holding was the Beehive cherry orchard. On this land, the obits and Van Cise report, Lou grew the cherries that he used to grease the wheels of justice and otherwise treat his friends. Supposedly the entire crop was given away every year. That's a lot of cobbler.

The orchard was located west of Denver in what is now the suburb of Lakewood, at the southwest corner of Colfax and Kipling streets Though the area was turned into a subdivision many years ago, the original house is still located at 1290 Kipling, on the east side of the street. A small reservoir used to irrigate the crops also stands on the property.


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Lou's Mistress and the House on Williams Street

Lou Blonger had been separated from his wife for many years at the time of his arrest in 1922. Well, not exactly. According to Fighting the Underworld, he and his wife lived together on weekends, while on weekdays Lou shacked up on Williams Street with his mistress, who Van Cise called "Berna Rames."

Her real name, Iola Readon, was revealed in the Denver Post shortly after the trial in a divorce suit filed by her step-father against her mother. Post sob sister Frances Wayne penned a maudlin interview with Nola Blonger, Lou's forlorn mate, who had known about the arrangement for twenty years. According to both this interview and Van Cise, Lou had met Iola at an early age, perhaps as young as 15. By the time of the arrests she was 36 years old.

A little bit of Iola's background can be pieced together so far. She was born in Kansas, but her father's name is still unknown. By 1900, she was living in Denver with her mother, Prudence, and step-father David W. Bush, in the 2400 block of Larimer Street. In the 1900 census, Iola is listed as Blanche Bush, one of the aliases mentioned in the expose that was printed after the trial. Though she was only 14, she was recorded as working as a saleswoman. The 1920 federal census shows Iola (misindexed as Ida Readon) living in a multi-family residence at 1575 Lafayette Street, in the same general neighborhood as the house on Williams Street (and coincidentally, less than a block from the Universalist Church where the gang was later jailed). Iola gave her occupation as "artist," and that seems to match Van Cise's statement that Lou gave her a musical education.

The step-father who filed the divorce suit, George B. Suter, obviously married Prudence sometime after 1900, but probably shortly thereafter, if the following statement from the initial news article is to be believed:

[Suter] charges further, in his complaint, that the alleged relations between Blonger and his wife's daughter began when the latter was 15 or 16 years of age and that when he remonstrated with Mrs. Suter over the alleged conduct of her daughter she flew into a fit of temper and insinuated he should get into the bunco game.

It is not known what became of Iola Readon after Lou Blonger was sent to prison and died. The 1930 census lists Iola Reardon [sic] at 1475 Humboldt, a couple of a blocks away from the mansion Blonger built for her.


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Trial of the Bunko Men (1923)

Details of the investigation, arrest, and conviction of Lou Blonger and his "million-dollar bunco ring" are covered in meticulous detail in Fighting the Underworld, written by Philip Van Cise, the district attorney who spearheaded the attack on organized crime.

A special section of this Web site contains news articles and other items relating to the trial.

The Trial of Lou Blonger


 

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