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May 2004

5/2/2004

Blonger of the Month Andy Roddick shows what he's really made of:

RODDICK OKAY AS FIRE AT ROME HOTEL KILLS 3
By Associated Press
Published May 2, 2004
The thing that struck Blanche Roddick, at home in Boca Raton, was how calm her son sounded.
It was early Saturday in Rome, and Andy Roddick was standing on the balcony of his burning hotel, speaking into his cell phone and describing in a newsman's measured clip the chaos all around him.
Guests at the Grand Hotel Parco dei Principi were trying to escape the flames by jumping onto the wraparound balcony outside Roddick's sixth-floor suite. He heard screaming outside his door.
By the time it was under control, the blaze killed three.
Blanche suggested that Andy - in Rome to play in this week's Italian Open - wet some bathroom towels and stick them under his door.
"Mom," he said, "it's way beyond that."
Roddick, the reigning U.S. Open champion and the No.2-ranked player in the world, awoke around 5 a.m. to an acrid smell. He found the front door, swung it open and was assaulted by billowy black smoke.
There were people in the hallway, groping for fresh air. Some were hysterical. Roddick, 21, pulled almost a dozen people into his spacious room and herded them onto the balcony.
There they huddled, awaiting help. Soot was falling and bodies were landing on Roddick's terrace. Roddick caught Sjeng Schalken, a 6-foot-4 fellow player, who had jumped from his room on the seventh floor. Schalken's wife, Ricky, was another of the half-dozen people Roddick guided to a safe landing.
At one point, Roddick told his mother, "I have my head about me. It's amazing how calm I am."
On the floor below Roddick, an American tied bedsheets together to make a rope. James Lawery, 58, of Georgia, tried to shimmy to safety from his balcony. He fell to his death.
Bernice and Paul Busque, a Canadian couple in their 60s, were the other casualties. They died of asphyxiation.
Roddick told his mother there were two dozen people jumbled together, waiting to be rescued.
Roddick was still on the phone with his mother when the emergency vehicles stopped in front of the building and firefighters spilled out. She had to laugh at what she heard him say next.
"Hey," Roddick cried out. "You guys with the ladder. If you come over here, I'll buy you pizza!"
Before they hung up, Blanche Roddick could hear Andy delivering instructions to the people around him. Then she heard him say, "I'll be the last one down."
In time, Roddick made it to the ground floor. Several people he recognized were standing outside. The 200 guests who were evacuated included Mike and Bob Bryan, the No.1-ranked U.S. doubles team. They were barefoot and dazed.
Two young American female tourists were questioned by police over the origin of the blaze, which started in their room, gutting it and another.
No players were injured, said Nicola Arzani, communications director for the ATP Tour. The Italian Open starts Monday.
In Rome for the Italian Open, Andy Roddick helps fellow hotel guests to safety during a fire that claims three lives.

We had originally assumed that the South Dakota Veteran's Home was the only game in town. Of course, we now know that Joe was in Battle Mountain Sanitarium, also in SD. Joe's Battle Mountain file should be at the NARA facility in Denver.

Also, Joe's census from 1890 lists his post office address as San Pedro, NM. We skimmed over this previously.

This is curious in that Scott came across this town a few weeks ago. An article from 1891 mentioned an "S. Plonger," or "S. P. Conger" — the author couldn't decide, apparently — who went to Milwaukee to talk to the shareholders of the mine, and then returned to find his mine (the San Lazarus in the San Pedro mining camp) had been taken over.

A NERVY MINER.
He Secures Possession of a Mine With a Revolver.
DENVER, Oct. 27 — A special from Albuquerque, N.M., to the Republican, says: The mining camp San Pedro is in a state of excitement. About two weeks ago S. Plonger discoverer of the San Lazarus mine, was in Milwaukee, Wis., and attended a meeting of stockholders of the mine. Observing that they intended ousting him, he pulled a pistol and compelled the members to vote in about the way he wanted. He then started for New Mexico, but before reaching San Pedro, the Milwaukee stockholders telegraphed Newberry, bookkeeper at the mine, to take possession and hold by force of arms if necessary. Conger has been watching for an opportunity, and yesterday, after forcibly disarming a guard, he drove Newberry and his force off the premises at the point of a revolver. Newberry is awaiting instructions from Milwaukee and more trouble is looked for.

San Pedro is fairly close to Cerrillos, where Joe was mining in 1883, about 40 miles east of Albuquerque, and it's also close to Chilili, where the remaining miners on the page from the 1890 census are from.

The "Plonger" thing may just be a coincidence; the article gives the impression that Conger may be the correct name, but now it really bears checking.


5/9/2004

Where to?

It's been an interesting year, no doubt, but what's next? Our impressions of Sam, Lou and Joe are becoming more robust, but there are still so many mysteries, and so many sources to explore.

At the moment, we are inclined to seek out period photos by Ben Wittick, a prominent Albuquerque photographer who is renowned to this day. I would dearly love to see an image of Sam, pistol on his hip, star on his chest. It's not too much to hope for.

We are also confident there is more to find in Denver and Leadville about Lou's glory days, 1890-1922. Lou's saloons were probably not big advertisers, but there may have been occasions where Lou just couldn't keep his name out of the news. Sam and Lou were also big in racing at the time. They may have been mentioned now and then in the sporting news.

Scott and I may be attending a gathering in Tombstone in October, an annual commemoration of the gunfight at the OK Corral. We'd get the opportunity to meet some of our recent correspondents, perhaps learn something about the new evidence concerning Earp and Holliday, and maybe even check out the Silver City area in New Mexico, Lou's home for a few years in the late 1880s.


5/10/2004

Received the New Mexico 1885 census films tonight. Joe appears in Bonanza, rather than Cerrillos — one of the few remaining inhabitants of this very short-lived boomtown. Bonanza is very close to San Pedro, south of Golden (which is still on the map), about 30 miles east of Albuquerque.

San Pedro, of course, was the 1891 home of "nervy miner" S. Plonger/Conger mentioned below on 5/2.

Meanwhile, neither Lou nor Emma show up, as expected, in Silver City, Deming, or Kingston, New Mexico. Lou claimed in his pension papers to have lived in this area from 1883 to 1887.


5/16/2004

Sam's military record should arrive within the week. Assuming it is our Sam, we hope it will shed some light on one of the more intriguing mysteries extant. Sam enlisted in the 25th Michigan, of that we're pretty sure, but then he vanishes — which is to say he is not listed in certain sources we thought would be more enlightening. His absence from these records is tantalizing. More on this coming soon.


Regarding the analysis of Joe's VA records:

Joe was basically an invalid from the time of his admission to Sawtelle in 1908 until his death. During the period 1908-1916 he lived with his brothers or at the Colorado State Veterans Home. During his furloughs he probably went to live with relatives, including the period in 1927 when he gave his account to Gene Swinbank. We also know he was in Wisconsin in August, 1917, according to newspaper accounts — so not all the furloughs are recorded on this document.

Interestingly, I cannot find Joe in the 1920 census. He is not among the 10 pages of veterans (maybe 400 or so) listed at Battle Mountain.

It is also worth noting, in the interest of full disclosure, how wrong the Armstrong account was about Joe's death: "He met his death, an old man in his 90's, when a young Mexican bad-man stabbed him with a Bowie-knife in Seattle, Washington, and robbed him of [?]8,000 dollars in big bills that he had sewed inside the lining of his vest. The woman that Joe hired to sew the bills there told the Mexican about them."

Nowhere near the truth. Who made this up? Obviously not Joe. But thank goodness many of the other items in the account are factual.

—SJ


5/17/2004

Mike Hurtt of CrippleCreekHistory.com has been to Sam & Lou's Forest Queen mine, one of a handful of mine sites still standing in Cripple Creek.

He passed along the following quote from the book Guide to the Mines of the Cripple Creek District by Bill Munn (1984):

Forest Queen Gold Mine

"The mine received some notoriety in 1899, when the wife of Lou Blonger, a prominent Denver underworld figure, forced her husband to default on a $2000 mortgage she held on the property. Production continued from 1905 through 1912 and from 1917 to 1927 with the Queen Metals Company working the mine from 1927 through 1930, when the Oston Leasing Co. took over. Ore was shipped in 1931 and from 1930 to 1939, when the Lark Mining Co. leased the property. Shipments were made from 1942 to 1944, with the last production recorded in 1952."

He is of the opinion that the mine's longevity — it was producing till 1952 — is a good indication of what a rich strike the Blonger's had on their hands.

Unfortunately, he also reports that the mine site may soon be destroyed, if that is not already the case, in the interest of more extensive mining in the area.


5/19/2004

Soapy Smith: Today we said hello to Jeff Smith, great grandson and namesake of one of the most famous confidence men of all time, Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith (1860 — July 8, 1898), who supposedly instructed the world to "Get it while the getting's good."

Smith's moniker came from the soap swindle he introduced, wherein bystanders are led to believe that some of the bars in a pile of soap have $10 or $20 bills wrapped around them. He evidently plied various cons, and wielded some political influence as well, from Albuquerque to Denver to Skagway, Alaska, where he was shot in 1898.

His relationship with the Blongers appears to be fact, and may have been a very long relationship, though we have no details on the subject, only a bit of commentary.

Mr. Smith indicates he is well-versed in the Denver underworld of the late nineteenth century, and has info on the Blongers to share. We're looking forward to it.


5/24/2004

Got some catching up to do!

Day at the races: Scott found a little gem today in the July 12, 1890 Chicago Tribune racing results. In the "Free-for-all pace" at St. Paul, with a purse of two thousand dollars, "Blonger Bros. b. g. Uncle Jack" placed with a time of 2:26½. (b. g. stands for "bay-colored gelding")

Purple Heart: Scott sent this a long time ago and I forgot about it.

Joe Belonger wound drawing 1912

This drawing accompanied pension request paperwork sent to the Department of Veterans Affairs in 1912, detailing the injury Joe received during the siege of Atlanta.

Buda Buda One of many intriguing figures in Fighting The Underworld was a con artist named Buda Godman, aka Helen Strong. A photo in the book depicts her outside a cabin, one foot up on the porch and her outstretched arm aiming a pistol. Paramour of the flamboyant Blonger bookmaker Jackie French, she also dabbled in blackmail, jury tampering, grand larceny, and the odd "badger game."

This anonymous note came Scott's way today:

Helen Strong [Buda Godman] was also known as Helen Smith. Sometime after the fun in Colorado, she went to NY & hooked up with a gang there. She tried to sell Stoneham some jewels that other members of the gang had stolen. She was instructed to get a certain price, she asked for $10K more than that. Stoneham stuck with her anyway, but his influence couldn't get her out of the mess. Helen ratted out the guy who gave her the jewels to sell. He was Sam Entratta. He was convicted. While out on bond pending an appeal, he came to Helen's apartment, and killed — himself. Oh well. Helen went to trial even though she ratted out Entratta. She got 4 to 8 in Auburn prison in NY. She got parole in 1935. I don't have a clue what happened to her after that.

Charles A. Stoneham was then owner of the New York Giants. A NY Times article Scott subsequently found bears out our correspondent. There may be more to that story...

Soapy Smith: Last, but not certainly not least, a couple of long emails from our new friend Jeff "Soapy" Smith.

First of all, if you are curious how we happened to connect, it's worth noting how valuable the message boards on genealogical sites can be. Jeff posted a note to Ancestry.com, under the topic of crime and outlaws. He stated that he was the great grandson of Soapy Smith and wanted to talk. A Google search on "Soapy Smith" popped him right up. Magic of Technology.

It seems there is an annual wake in Hollywood on July 8th, 106th anniversary of poor Soapy's death in a Skagway, Alaska gunfight. That'd be fun. Long way from Illinois, though. And Tombstone, I believe is our next destination.

Soapy's name has come up several times in our research, peripherally. After a point it became clear that he was perhaps better known than the Blongers at that time, the 1880s and 1890s, and is certainly much better known now. He is an oft-cited example of the classic American con man. And yet, the citations regarding Soapy that we have encountered seem a bit unclear on the man. Which gets right to the heart of our current big question: What about those early days in Denver?

What about those early days? Though we believe the Blongers spent a fair amount of time in Denver all through the mid eighties, the year we believe they finally settled in would have to be 1888. They would soon open the Elite Saloon, but they were also, evidently, very much in the bunco game, and getting in deeper. Was Sam a major player? He didn't figure at all in Van Cise's account, but then he had been dead several years by the time of the Colonel's election. Who did Sam and Lou work for/with? Van Cise is fairly clear about Lou's organization as it existed in the Twenties, but less so on Lou's rise to power.

One person who could answer these questions would be Jefferson "Soapy" Smith, a Denver con man and fixer before Lou. And if one person knows what might be known of what old Soapy knew it would be Jeff "Soapy" Smith, I reckon.

Jeff Smith is an author, currently writing about his sporting forefather, and accuracy is his stated goal. Maybe we should form our own association, The Grafters Club, named for one of Lou's Denver hangouts. Just a thought. Get the Reameys and Van Tassel's in too.

Jeff wanted to say that many of the references to Soapy we have come across, and have quoted on this site, appear to give Soapy short shrift, and I am inclined to agree. He is sometimes cast, in these articles that pertain more specifically to the Blongers, as the lesser con who ran things till they showed up. Jeff's research seems to easily refute this characterization.

Jeff describes a Denver underworld composed of various bunco gangs, one of which was under Soapy's control. He mentions the Rocky Mountain News calling the Denver criminal underground "The firm of Smith, Londoner and Farley" ("Soapy", the mayor, and the police chief).

My suspicion is that Soapy's reputation easily suffers at the hands of lightweight writers because of the thing that makes him most memorable — the nickname "Soapy." It strikes me that the simple con he made famous, the (nonexistent) bonus bill wrapped around a random cake of soap as an inticement to buy, makes such a quaint description of a classic short con that it is oft-cited — but has the unintended side effect of overshadowing the man's other talents and enterprises.

Jeff says that Soapy was only twenty-five when he came to power around 1885. He had "false front businesses, stock markets, policy shops, discount ticket, and real estate agencies, all with friendly poker games going on in a back room just waiting for a dupe." Payroll notebooks in Jeff's possession (what a great find) make no mention of the Blongers. Jeff believes they may have worked in competing gangs. I believe the assumption would be that, some time after Soapy's departure for Alaska, Lou managed to consolidate the various gangs and basically took a cut to provide protection and the facilities needed to execute the various cons. Soapy is said to have reigned in Denver till 1895.

After leaving Colorado, Smith followed the call of the wild and joined the Klondike gold rush. He is remembered today for his exploits in Alaska as well as his days as a Denver con.


5/25/2004

Scott points out, and rightly so, that the racing results mentioned yesterday constitute the first actual printed reference we have where the boys are called Blonger Bros. From Salt Lake City, the only other similar reference actually refers to them as Blonger & Bro.

Mike Jackson is our Buda Godman correspondent, an interested reader.


5/26/2004

Here's a funny thought: a visitor arrives by train in the heart of Denver, and strolls out of Union Station to see the sights. As he begins walking up Seventeenth Street, stranger after smiling stranger tries to engage him in conversation, asking him where he's from, and what he does, and would he like to take in the city together? To the traveling businessman, Denver must have seemed the friendliest — or most obnoxiuous — town on earth.

Van Cise, with his own literary priorities at heart, described Lou's operation in monolithic terms, and that may have been greatly true in 1922, but in the heady Denver days of the 1890s there were apparently several bunco gangs in operation, controlled to one extent or another by various figures like Lou, Soapy Smith, and the infamous Ed Chase. Imagine swarms of jovial steerers from rival gangs trying to beat one another to a tempting target.

I think, step one, we need a chart, a chart of the Denver underworld throughout this period, starting with Chase, maybe, up through Lou's successors. This will not be an easy chart to make. That's why Scott will probably have to make it.

There is reason to believe that Lou's greatest talent may have been his ability to forge an extremely stable, durable criminal organization that made millions of dollars, employed hundreds of freelance criminals, and was immune to prosecution for over thirty years. His approach was not unlike the idea of franchising — to provide services to roving gangs of bunco artists, including protection, of course, rented offices and such, and a cetain degree of coordination, all in return for a healthy cut.

Just one rule: Don't take a local. Break the rule, and you will feel the barrel of Lou's pistol across your noggin, and probably be escorted, by Lou, to the edge of town in a squad car.

And yet, these same gangs also operated in other cities, under the auspices of some other kingpin like Caddigan in Council Bluffs. That suggests to me a certain honor among thieves on this particular branch of criminality that may suggest why we view the con through rose-colored glasses. In con lit, the gang can always be trusted, even (and especially) when it looks like you can't. Transgressions are rewarded by losing the money and taking the rap.

It also suggests, in no uncertain terms, that the Denver city officials and police were crooked like corkscrews, but we knew that. Bottom line, everybody seemed to know what side their bread was buttered on, pretty much, and they all made a lot of money for many years. The mountains brought 'em in, the bunks sucked it out.

Then came Colonel Van Cise...


5/27/2004

Battle of Bull Hill When we came across an article in the Colorado Springs Weekly Gazette about Lou as a detective on the case of the "Tarsney Outrage," our primary interest was in Lou's career in law enforcement. On second look, I wonder if there is more to the story.

In 1893-94, and again in 1903-04, labor disputes brought disruption and violence to the Cripple Creek mining district of Colorado. During this period organizers were busy recruiting for the Western Federation of Miners (W.F.M.), and having some success. The first strike was over an eight-hour day, as opposed to nine, and three dollars pay. The sheriff's department, acting in the interests of the mine owners, clashed with the unionists in a siege called the Battle of Bull Hill. The state militia was finally called in to encourage a settlement.

The second incident sounds nasty, but I'll have to find out more. There are only two references on the net to the Battle of Bull Hill, and one ends like this (the author seemed to have been short on time):

The war in the Cripple Creek District was on! For almost a year the conflict continued. From August 10, 1903 to August 1, 1904, the situation went from bad to worse. It started out with petty crime, beating of men, intimidation of women, threats to assassinate. Then it grew into actual assassinations, murder, boycotts, persecutions, and bombings.
This was followed by martial law enforced by the state militia, the absolute rule of a military dictator, imprisonment, the exile of guilty as well as innocent men by force, and the crushing of organized labor, then at last, came peace.

So, there was chaos in Cripple Creek, evidently. Of some kind.

And come to think of it, Sam and Lou owned two gold mines in Cripple Creek, the Forest Queen and the New Port. As mine owners, the Bros. would surely be interested in the failure of union interests in Teller County, and elsewhere, wouldn't you think?

Parties interested in the Cripple Creek labor situation included the Mining Association, the unionists, non-union workers, ore proessors and transporters, not to mention area merchants, the governor (first strike with the miners, second strike with the owners), with the militia at his disposal, the sheriff's department (owners), a contingent of ex-cops and firemen from Denver (deputized by the sheriff's dept. and paid by the owners), and the Pinkertons too. Why not Sam and Lou? Profit at stake, AND a taste for pistol-whipping pinkos?

The "Tarsney Outrage," by the way, was the tar-and-feathering of the militia's commander by unionists a few weeks after the strike. This makes me wonder if Lou's role as "detective" in this case may mean "tough guy with a gun, a star, and his own profits at stake, looking for the guys what did it."


May 2004


 

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