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July 2004

7/3/2004

It's in the genes, Part II

Mount Chrysolite

That's me (Craig) on top of Mount Chrysolite with my friend Thom Palmer, around 1985. The peak is near St. Elmo, Colorado.

In the Seventies I was a suburban teen, and like many of my kind I devoured movies like Jeremiah Johnson and Little Big Man. Though the Johnsons, like the the Belongers, are Midwestern born and bred, we all seem drawn to the Rocky Mountain West. Siblings Jeff and Linda have lived there for years with their families, in Boulder and Wellington, and Scott and I have visited on many occasions. I've lived there myself, a few times, though I always wind up back in Illinois.

Needless to say, when Scott first sent me the Swinbank and Armstrong accounts, I was floored. It was the genealogical equivalent of a gold mine. Scott struck it rich, and he deserved it, having spent many years documenting the family tree.

But it also gave us the opportunity to break new ground, tell a new story of the Old West. I feel as though we are "making" history in a sense — putting together a thousand old, overlooked details, and creating the larger picture in the process, reintroducing the world to the brothers Belonger and their varied legends and exploits. Fact is, if they'd done more killin', they'd be more famous, but really now, must we hold that against them?

In the mid-Eighties, I spent a summer and winter on Mt. Princeton, in the Collegiate range near Buena Vista, alone, most times, at a place called Frontier ranch. I spent the summer in this comfy little hideaway here:

Sourdough

Tiger

Do you see the cat in the Chrysolite picture? Look in the clouds, at upper left. That fall, a visitor brought Tiger to the ranch, and he stayed with me. That winter he and I had to fend off a mother bear and her two (rather large) cubs with nothing but an old Ruger six-gun loaded only with blanks. Actually, Tiger ran and hid, but I never blamed him for it.


7/5/2004

It's in the genes, Part III

I recorded this song about 1990: Don't Tread On Me (mp3)

Bad Timing In the Armstrong account, Joe is said to have been friend to Apache chief Mangus Colorado and his nephew Cochise.

Mangus did indeed have dealings with white miners and others in Arizona and New Mexico — he was brutally whipped at one time and later went to war with the whites. Mangus was killed in January of 1863.

Unfortunately, Joe was all of fifteen at the time, serving in the Michigan 25th, fighting in the South, not the Southwest. It's very doubtful Joe was in New Mexico before the war.

Cochise, who warred on the whites with his uncle, died in 1874. It is possible that Joe was mining in New Mexico in the late Sixties or early Seventies, but we have no indication that this is the case.

Geronimo, who led his people after the death of Cochise, is a more plausible possibility.

The discovery of gold in southwestern New Mexico in 1860, and the resulting tidal wave of frontiersmen, was a tipping point for relations with the Apache. Could Sam have been to the Southwest before or during Civil War? Could some stories attributed to Joe properly belong to Sam? At this point it is just as easy to assume that Sam tried his luck in New Mexico as it is to assume that Joe was just making things up. Sam had to be somewhere. Why not prospecting in NM?

Cochise is said to have worked at a stagecoach station in 1861, and Sam was driving frieght.


7/10/2004

Soapy's Wake Last night was the anniversary of Soapy Smith's death in 1898, in a gunfight on the streets of Skagway. The wake was held at the Magic Castle in Hollywood.

Great-grandson Jeff Smith was there; he even brought Soapy's original grave marker!

Jeff

Marker


Down, not out For the record, we had intense storms last night. I shut down the server for a while to avoid problems. Happens now and then.


7/19/2004

Blonger Bros. can be Relied upon for Square Drinks and for Square Meals Today a visitor informs us his great-grandfather fell victim to the Blonger boys — and that the prices at our "restaurant" are too high...


7/15/2004

Couldn't Stand the Weather Big storm on Tuesday afternoon, and didn't get power back till Thursday early AM. We're back.


7/20/2004

Assessing the Armstrong Account, Part I

Let's take a look, shall we? This essay by young Mary Virginia Armstrong is perhaps the second most important written document we have yet found, after Van Cise's Fighting The Underworld.

The essay, written in 1962, garnered Miss Armstrong the Pennebohm Award and a citation from Governor Nelson of Wisconsin. Mary heard the stories from Gene Swinbank. Gene was recalling the words of his uncle Joe Blonger, some thirty-five years earlier, when Joe had come to Wisconsin to visit with family six years before his death. And so, we have a source filtered through the aging memories of two old men, finally set to paper by a young girl. What's to trust?

The account makes no mention of Lou's shenanigans in Denver. Hardly surprising, whether left out by Joe, or in the retelling by Gene. These wounds were undoubtedly still tender, and the family probably did not spend much time on the subject. Instead, we hear a bit about Lou and Sam, but mostly about Joe and his life in the desert, befriending the Indians.

Let's look at the claims:

Out of thirteen children, four of the Belonger boys served in uniform when Abe Lincoln called for volunteers. They were Sam, Mike, Louis, and Joe.

Mike served in the Wisconsin 3rd, Joe in the 25th Michigan, and Lou as a musician in the 142nd Illinois. Lou saw no action.

It seems very doubtful Sam served. There is no evidence to indicate such, including his obituaries. But what did he do during the War? He was in Central City, Colorado in 1861, and California in 1865, but he literally could have been anywhere during the war.

During Civil War days, little Mary Dominica Belonger (later well known in Lafayette County as Mrs. William Swinbank) lived with her father, Simon, and an older sister in a cabin located on what was then called The Branch, at the foot of the hill east of where Charlie Harty's big house stands today, on the southeast edge of Shullsburg, Wisconsin.
The hill above the Belonger cabin was used for a training ground, and Little Mary was the pet of all the soldiers.

Scott and I checked it out. We may have found the place. It would be interesting to run a metal detector over the field in question.

Hilltop, Shullsburg, Wisconsin, 2003

After the war, the famous Ole Bull, then the world's champion violin soloist said: "Mike Belonger has the world beat when it comes to playing reels, jigs, and clogs, on a fiddle."

Ole Bull, a european violinist who toured the American heartland in the mid-nineteenth century, might be called the Liberace of his day. Embraced as a classical musician by Americans in the hinterlands, back home he was considered to be less than brilliant. It is quite possible that he had the opportunity to play with Michael.

Also, before the Civil War, in Galena, Illinois, Ulysses Simpson Grant, then engaged in farming, wood hauling and the leather business was heard to say that Mike Belonger was the best dance-fiddler on earth. H.B. Chamberlin, of Shullsburg, Wisconsin — an ex-soldier musician, heard Ulysses Grant say those words many times.

Grant was indeed working in Galena before the War, and father Simon Peter often worked there. It is entirely possible that he and Michael were acquainted. We have photos of Michael's fiddle. We are told that the Belonger's were a musical family, but Michael was the standout.

Sam Belonger, when a boy of 18, walked barefoot with a wagon train across the ground where Denver, Colorado now stands. There were only two cabins then.

This is a sticky one. Taking Sam's age at face value, he would have arrived in Denver City in 1857 or 1858. In 1857, the general area was home to the Arapahoe, and a few trespassing prospectors. Denver City appeared in late 1858, shortly after the establishment of Auraria (named for a town in Georgia, this would later be the name of Sam and Lou's mining company), across the South Platte. Miners quickly came, the gold played out, and then many left. In 1859, a bigger strike was made, and the town grew quickly. So the timing is roughly correct.

The problem is that Denver was, at the time, a terminus, not a waypoint on the route west. From what I can tell, if you're going through the Rockies, just go around Colorado. Unless you're going North/South, which is a possibility. He would have been in the right place and time to consider checking out the scene in the South Platte boomtowns for a time. We are told elsewhere that Sam worked he Sierra Nevadas as a teamster, but that doesn't rule anything out. Routes to California generally went through Wyoming or New Mexico.

At one time, about six miles east of where Denver's capitol-building now stands, Sam Belonger and Buffalo Bill Cody, while on a scouting trip, were chased and surrounded by a war party of eight Indians. Their only chance to survive the fight was to shoot their horses and use the bodies for breastworks. Both Uncle Sam and Buffalo Bill, being dead shots with rifles, killed all eight Indians and escaped.

This sounds a lot like a story from Cody's autobiography, and Sam wasn't there. Thirteen-year-old Cody, already experienced as a horse messenger, was in Denver prospecting in 1859, but only for two months, and not as a scout, which he would take up near the end of the War. Afterward he spent his time on the Plains and back East. Sam seemed to gravitate between Colorado and California during this period, though, again, the War years are a mystery.

Later, Sam began mining with his brother, Louis, who went west at the close of the Civil War. They made good and became wealthy. At one time they both lived on what was called Millionaires' Row on Capitol Hill in Denver.

All too true.

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. Later Sam became a peace officer while Louis remained in business.

We are coming to the conclusion that Sam and Lou, the Blonger Brothers, were indeed fairly well-known out West, having been proprietors in many towns throughout the area, and they were known as prominent gamblers as well.

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.

Sam became an A-1 Western sheriff. He served a long time in the 1870's and 1880's. Later, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he was hired as a peace officer at 750 dollars a month to clean up a bad gang of outlaws.
Sam, a huge man over 6'3" and a dead shot with both .45 and rifle cleaned up the outlaw gang without getting shot. But later, back in Denver, while arresting a bad-man-outlaw, there was gun-play and a .45 bullet, glancing from a stove, struck Sam in the left eye. As a result he lost the eye; then he quit sheriffing and went into mining again, where, in the early 1900's he and Louis operated the Forest Queen mine up in the mountains west of Denver.

Sam appears to have had a long career as a lawman and/or detective (the line can be blurry), though his time in Albuquerque is the only confirmed instance. The same is true for Lou.

Sam was City Marshal of New Albuquerque in 1882, an appointment made by the Sheriff, an elected county official. Lou was temporarily appointed his replacement in April of that year — apparently during the time the Earps and Doc Holliday were laying low after Wyatt's Vendetta ride. It should be noted that newspaper articles indicate he did, in fact, do some bad guy-cleaning.

It is quite possible that Sam had previously worn a badge in various boomtowns, as is implied by the Albuquerque Morning Journal when it says: "Mr. Blonger has had considerable experience in official work in the west." It is equally possible that Sam went on to do similar work after his stint in Albuquerque. We know he was interested in pursuing a job as U.S. Marshal, or perhaps as a detective with the Rocky Mountain Detective Association. It is also evident from Lou's later scrapes with the law that, even by the early 1900s, Lou had friends in very high places, including the U.S. Marshal's office.

We have no evidence yet of Sam's injury, though Denver journalist Forbes Parkhill tells us that Sam wore dark glasses — presumably to hide his disfigurement.

The Forest Queen, near Cripple Creek, was discovered in 1892, and made the boys wealthy.

More on Armstrong later...


7/21/2004

Assessing the Armstrong Account, Part II

Now we come to Joe's days among the Indians. It should be noted that Joe's tale, and even Gene's retelling, suggest a surprisingly progressive sensibility on Joe's part. In 1962, much less 1927, the "savage indian" was still a part of popular culture. It makes Joe seem ahead of his time, but more to the point, it lends credence to his words in a general way precisely because he wasn't telling the standard tale.

Mary's essay spends a great deal of time on Joe's relationship with the Apache and Souix, presumably because this constituted the lion's share of Gene's story as well, and perhaps the lion's share of Joe's original tale.

The most adventurous of all the Belonger men was Joe. Joe, a quiet, soft-spoken man who bothered no one, was a dangerous man to rile up. Joe shot and killed two men who tried to kill him. One was a hard-boiled desperado, and the other a close relative of Chief Cochise, the famous Apache leader. The young warrior, in war paint and feathers, was about to shoot an arrow into Joe, when Joe, snapping a shot from the hip, killed the Indian, then dragged the body and the riding gear to a nearby quicksand, dumped it all in and turned the horse loose. If they had known who killed the young Indian, Joe Belonger wouldn't have lived very long.

We'll never know, will we?

Joe served many years as a part-time scout during our Indian wars under Chief Scout Buffalo Bill Cody. He also played in many a card game as Wild Bill Hickok's partner.

The Indian Wars lasted from 1864 to 1890.

Joe was mustered out in North Carolina in June, 1865. In 1868, he filed for a military pension, residing in Illinois. He was in Stockton, Illinois in 1870.

The period between 1870 and 1880 is tougher, and most crucial. The Albuquerque Morning Journal tells us that, when Sam was finally reunited with Joe in 1882, Joe was "a brother whom he had not seen for nine years and had long since given up as dead... He left the family circle in Salt Lake City nine years ago and has led an adventurous life since." Nine years is spot on if they had last been together in Salt Lake City. So when did Joe rejoin Sam, Lou and the Livingston family? Did he do his own thing between 1870 and 1873?

From 1868 to 1872, Cody was employed as a scout and guide by the Cavalry, most notably as chief of scouts for the Fifth Cavalry. Joe could have been involved here, but he was not in the military at this time.

I do consider it probable that talk of Black Hills gold in 1874 may have enticed Joe. He was probably in the region, heard the early stories, was willing and able to go, and obviously more disposed to mining than the saloonkeepers's life. Placing him in the Deadwood area would certainly raise the odds that Joe was an acquaintance of Hickok.

This also leaves open the possibilty that Joe worked with Cody in the late 70s, but at this time Cody was more of a showman than scout — and had Joe been in the Wild West Show, he probably would have mentioned it.

By 1880 Joe is mining in New Mexico, and probably stays in he Cerrillos area until at least 1883. He also shows up in Denver in 1883. Pension filings place him consistently in New Mexico in 1885, 1887, 1889 and 1903.

By 1908 he is in an old soldiers home in LA.

So — we haven't ruled out that he hung out with Wild Bill and Deadwood, and we haven't ruled out that he rode with Cody sometime around 1870. Pretty weak.

During the Civil War, Joe received a bullet, called a Minie-ball in his left hip. He carried that bullet with him to the grave.

The ball was apparently in the hip/abdomen area, though it had originally entered through the side of his chest, piercing his arm as well. He received this wound during the Siege of Atlanta in 1864.

For years Joe Belonger was a lone gold prospector to the Arizona and California deserts. He knew and had the friendship of all the Apaches, including Cochise and Mangus Colorado — and even the treacherous Geronimo, the most feared of all the Apaches. Many times in his lone desert camps parties of Apache Indians would stop and eat beans and bacon with him, and they always brought him plenty of fresh-killed meat. The Apaches called him Joe Straight Tongue because he never lied to an Indian.

And later:

Joe always said that Cochise and Mangus Colorado were the best friends the white every had among the Apaches until certain arrogant white soldiers disgraced both the United States and their army uniforms by committing unpardonable acts of wanton cruelty against the reds which turned the two friendly chiefs and thousands of other Indians into ruthless white-man killers.
On one visit back to his old home in Shullsburg, Wisconsin, in 1927, Joe Belonger said, regarding Geronimo, the most deadly white-man-killer among all the Apaches: "In spite of all the cruelty of his Apache make up, it is only fair to say that many times when I was the only white man among a horde of red outlaws, Geronimo and his warriors treated me with respect. I could leave any of my belongings — even money, if I wanted to, in plain sight in the wickiup assigned to me, and not one Apache stole anything. And yet, maybe that very night parties of Geronimo's warriors would go out raiding and steal many horses, mules, or cows, and, in returning, would bring back four or five white scalps, and put on a scalp-dance that lasted the rest of the night."

Joe's interestingly modern approach to Indian Affairs adds a hint of veracity. That said:

Mangus was killed in January of 1863. Unfortunately, Joe was all of fifteen at the time, serving in the Michigan 25th, fighting in the South, not the Southwest. It's extremely doubtful Joe was in New Mexico before the war.

Cochise, who warred on the whites with his uncle, died in 1874. It is possible that Joe was mining in New Mexico and Arizona in the late Sixties or early Seventies, but we have no indication that this is the case. We would be more inclined to believe he was with his brothers till 1872-73.

Geronimo, who led his people after the death of Cochise, is a more plausible possibility. He spent many years in Arizona and New Mexico, deeply at odds with the military.

I think it would be safe to say that, as a long-time resident of New Mexico in the 1880s, Joe would have known some Apache. He was too late to know Mangus. If he was with Cody in the early 70s, he probably didn't know Cochise — and vice versa. Whether or not he had the acquaintance of Geronimo remains an open question.

At one time, Joe Belonger saved, single handed, a new settlement of 200 white people from massacre by Geronimo's outlaw band. Joe, alone and at the risk of capture and unspeakable torture, crept in darkness near enough to Geronimo's camp to hear the plans of the proposed raid upon the whites. At that time all the Apaches in the Southwest were on the warpath and had sworn death to all whites.
Joe, again risking capture, made his way over a mountain to the camp of his friend, Chief Cochise, who, by using Joe's scheme, persuaded Geronimo to wait four suns before raiding the settlement, till he (Cochise) received an expected message from the Great Spirit. That was Joe's clever ruse to hold off the massacre till the soldiers got there.

I don't think so.

Joe Belonger joined the gold-rush to the Black Hill in 1874, and became a personal friend of both Sitting Bull, the great Sioux wars chief, and Crazy Horse, the powerful Ogalalla chief who commanded thousands of Northern Cheyenne warriors.

Here we go again, right? Maybe not. The Black Hills present a very likely prospect for Joe in that timeframe. Add to that the type of detail found as he continues.

Joe, being quiet, friendly and honest enjoyed the good will and friendship of every Indian he met from the Sioux and Cheyennes in the Dakotas all the way down to the Mexican Border. Although a real hero of our early-day West, professional historians never heard of him because he never swaggered around talking about himself as many self-praising heroes do.
Easy going and fair dealing, Joe Belonger hadn't even a real enemy, red or white in all our great West. Only the other members of the Belonger family knew about his many brave acts of personal risk.
Joe tried to enlist to go with General Custer into the battle that proved to be his last. If there had been enough horses and mules for all who wanted to go, Joe, with many other white men would have been killed along with Custer and his regular soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry.

There is a book, Men With Custer, Biographies of the 7th Cavalry, which chronicles every officer, foot soldier, scout, Indian scout, and pot washer connected with Custer's regiment the day of Custer's Last Mistake. Joe ain't in there. That doesn't mean he wasn't there, I'm just saying...

Uncle Joe Belonger was on the Little Big Horn battle ground the day after General Custer's last fight. A great deal of controversy has been going on all these years about which Indians killed Custer and his men. Some claim it was the Sioux under Sitting Bull; others declare that it was the Cheyennes. The truth is that not one white soldier escaped to tell the story; and both Sioux and Cheyennes were so frightened at what they had done that they all scattered and ran. The few who did talk told so many different stories that no white man could believe anything they said.
To get the truth, that historians have been guessing at ever since that fatal day — June 25th 1876 — Joe Belonger questioned at least a hundred Sioux and Cheyenne children who had watched the battle in wide-eyed wonder. Those Indian children, every one of them, were Joe's friends, pals, and admirers.
Those Indian children, every one, liked and trusted the gentle and friendly Joe Belonger. So, when Joe asked those Sioux and Cheyenne children to tell him all about Long Hair's big fight, they declared to the last child, in their earnest, childish ways, that while the Sioux under Sitting Bull had planned, intended, and were waiting ready to massacre Custer's whole outfit, it happened — because of an unexpected move on the part of General Custer — that a large war-party of Northern Cheyennes, led by the Ogalalla chief, Crazy Horse, happened to be closer to Custer than Sitting Bull and his ten-thousand warriors, so, the Cheyennes, who had made no plans whatever to kill Custer, found themselves with a chance to wipe out Custer's command — which they did to the last white soldier in approximately thirty minutes. The only human being to escape that death-charge of Crazy Horse and his war party of Cheyennes, was one friendly Crow scout called Curly.
The older Indian children went deeper, by tapping their foreheads and declaring to Joe Belonger, that they felt sure the white pony-soldiers must have all been crazy when, watching wide-eyed and speechless, those children saw Custer's small command of less than 300 men, climb down from horse-back and attack the Cheyenne camp, on foot, that held at least 2000 warriors ... and worse yet, when there were at least 10,000 Sioux braves under Sitting Bull close by, ready and waiting to charge into the fight.
According to earnest words from those eye-witnesses, Indian children who had no reason to lie, Long Hair and his small handful of soldiers might well have been considered as already dead the minute they dismounted and attacked hostile warriors numbering, all told, close to 15,000.
So it was, in spite of all official reports, that the soft-spoken, unassuming Joe Belonger learned the real truth about who killed Custer.
Joe, who kept his own counsel, told no one, except certain close relatives, the facts about Custer's death. This is the first public report. Today, as this piece is being typed in 1962, Gene Swinbank, of Shullsburg, Wisconsin, is the only person living who heard Joe Belonger tell how he learned the real truth about General Custer and the Little Big Horn tragedy.

We would be most interested what anyone with a good, current grasp of the topic thinks of Joe's statements.

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.

Definitely untrue. His death certificate indicates that Joe died from a coronary thrombosis on July 8, 1933, after some four days under the care of Dr. Al Jordan. The portion of the death certificate reserved for "death due to external causes (violence)" is blank. If Joe ever had such a run-in, it apparently did not lead to his demise.

Joe's final year or two found him bedridden, incontinent, waiting to die. In July, 1933, he developed gangrene in his foot and was moved to Harborview Hospital, where he finally succumbed three days later. He was cremated and thus has no headstone.

Joe always said: "I've lived in the toughest towns in the West — Abilene, Dodge City, and all the rest, and I kept out of trouble by minding my own business and staying sober." Joe used to say, "That's my advice to all young men — mind your own business and don't get drunk."

We do know that Joe was kicked out of at least one old soldier's home because of his drinking. This one may be for the benefit of the young'uns...

On balance, the big questions I believe, are these:

Where was Joe 1870-1873? On the plains with Cody? Or in Arizona with Cochise?

Where was he 1873-1880? Prospecting in the Black Hills, hanging with Hickok, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse?

At any rate, Joe undoubtedly led a most interesting life, and yet he apparently felt compelled to make stuff up anyway. That's what tall tales are for I guess. Gene Swinbank may have had his way with the facts as well. Nevertheless, we're getting closer to the history of it all the time.


7/22/2004

RMDA I missed this somehow. It's from one of the Albuquerque articles, May 21, 1882:

Lou and Sam Blonger deserve credit for their quick work in this case, and their capture of this man proves they are in earnest in suppressing crime. They are now members of the Rocky Mountain Detective association at this place.

Till now I had considered it unresolved as to whether Sam had joined the Association. Apparently they both were members, making it all the more likely they continued to pursue the occupation elsewhere.


Scott found this tidbit today: Lou attending "High School" (Room 5) in Mt. Carroll, Illinois in 1869 — at the age of twenty, five years after mustering out of the army. Sam, Lou and the Livingstons would soon break camp for Iowa.


7/26/2004

Pride & Prejudice A descendant of one of Lou's victims raises a valid question: Are we, as creators of this site, glorifying the crimes of Lou? Perhaps more to the point, should the descendants of the Belonger family (Lou's brother Michael was our great-great-grandfather) feel remorse or shame for the crimes and misdeameanors of the Blonger Bros.?

I think it is a great question, and one we have discussed occasionally on this site and amongst ourselves. For myself, I believe that, although there are many persuasive arguments that suggest no serious culpability on our part, it feels like a rationalization to say so. It does seem a bit odd to "celebrate" Lou's crime — if only in the sense that this website regards the story of the Blonger Bros. — including Lou's career in the bunco trade — as an exciting one, and worth telling.

Should we resist? It really is a fascinating drama, stretching decades, a story still largely untold, about (primarily) two minor legends of the West — persons to which we have a personal connection. Put that way, it sounds a bit more fair.

True, it would have been better had they been heroes. Sam abused his wife, we believe. In addition to confidence games and fraud, Lou was at various times a saloon owner and a pimp, as well as being known to pistol whip the occasional miscreant. They both were gamblers, boozers, womanizers and con men. Not murderers, thankfully, to the best of our knowledge, and that is something of a relief. That would certainly make the question thornier. Nevertheless, we must acknowledge that many of these names we publish here, criminal and victim alike, have family with us today, and it is important to remain sensitive to the trauma they may have suffered. We have already heard from several people related to names posted in these pages.

And yet Sam and Lou faced danger as lawmen, doing a difficult job with some sense of duty, and had dealings with other notable lawmen of the West including Earp, Masterson and Pinkerton; they apparently did a reasonable job of bringing order to New Albuquerque, for a while. In his later years Lou was evidently considered a kind and generous man — even while collecting dirt on local politicians and running a massive bunco ring.

And lest we forget, the story also involves brothers Michael, Joe, Simon and Marvin. To the best of our knowledge, they were all good men, of danger to no one. Mike and Joe nearly lost their lives in defense of the Union, in some of the Civil War's worst battles. Their disabilities plagued them the rest of their lives.

The Wild West, a time so mythic such a nondescript moniker can suffice, inspires the imagination of millions across the globe. And yet, the central figure — the Western Hero — is inevitably a complex figure. Though the cowboy gets a lot of press, it was the gunslinger who made the legend of the West what it is. And gunslingers often had a heady resume as gamblers, con men, law officers, petty criminals and entrepreneurs. And killers, more often than not. It was a valuable skill at the time, as the taming of the West — in the name of arriving businessmen, workers, and their families — largely meant taming the wild breed of men initially attracted to the region in search of freedom and fortune. Many times, so-called outlaws were the only logical choice to carry a badge, when bold measures were needed to confront outlaws who posed a more immediate — and more local — threat. In that light, the Blonger Bros., once well known across the West, are an authentic addition to the rolls and deserve to be researched and documented, and to find a place in the lexicon of the Wild West.

And then there is the nature of the crime itself. Confidence games have a popular appeal that is enduring. The intricate plan, the suspense, the twist after twist, the drama. It's so theatrical in nature, that the only thing missing is the audience. Which explains why con man movies pepper the shelves at Blockbuster on any given day. As a young man, The Sting was a personal favorite. Again, how could we resist telling such a story?

Finally, it should be noted that some measure of justice was served; Lou died in prison. He is said to have been remorseful in the end, embracing the neglected Catholicism of his youth.

I can honestly extend my sympathies to our friend mentioned above. I am incensed when I feel that someone is trying to take advantage of me, and I would sympathize with those who are victimized by unscrupulous people. I do respect our correspondent's feelings on the subject, and I would express my condolences for the hardships undoubtedly wrought by his ancestor's misfortune, misfortune made possible by a relative of mine. I would not be happy to have an immediate member of my family engaged in such activity — the criminal nature of a con game is too easily de-emphasized if the story is compelling, and distance makes it less personal. For some, however, the experience is more immediate, even traumatic, and I do apologize if we have offended those who are kin to Lou's many victims.

On the other hand, I must confess that I don't actually feel remorse for Lou's actions. I believe that would be inappropriate. Distance makes it easier, of course. Some of Lou's close relatives undoubtedly felt shame for his crimes. The stories weren't passed along, to my knowledge. I'm sure it was a short, squat skeleton in the closet for decades.

But these are strangers to me, and I don't regard myself as responsible in any way for their actions. Should I feel remorse for any misdeed perpetrated by my distant kin? A fair question, but I am inclined to say no. However, Scott and I must take responsibility for telling this story to the world. As such, we have endeavored to be as accurate and objective as possible in our presentation of the facts — with an admittedly playful tone, at times. Perhaps that is inappropriate.

The fact is, Sam and Lou probably would have made me uncomfortable had I met them; their boldness and talent for sin are a bit outside the norm in the Beaver Cleaver kind of place Scott and I grew up, and as adults we're computer geeks. It's a bit outside our territory. And yet the story of their lives was a revelation for us, just a short time ago, the kind of discovery that truly drives the genealogical urge — a real story. And that's the key. It's a great story, and great stories often tarry on the Dark Side of human nature.

For our part, the trust of our readers is essential, if indeed we are discussing history, and particularly so in that we are discussing con men. Admittedly, the restaurant might be deemed a con — but perhaps more accurately called a practical joke. Our humor does tend to the dry. But it's kind of funny, don't you think? Blonger Bros. suggested such a typical theme restaurant that it actually inspired this website in the first place.


7/31/2004

Deputy Clarke, the Drunken Orgy, and the Mock Trial Forbes Parkhill, author of Wildest of the West, had been a star reporter for the Denver Post. He wrote numerous articles about the trial, and in fact had been tipped off the night of the arrests, finding himself, inexplicably, wandering around the Universalist Church trying to figure out what was going on.

In Wildest of the West, he relates what happened when the jury went to deliberate — the defense having rested without rebuttal, confident in their belief that the State had not proven its case:

Deciding they needed entertainment while they waited, the small army of reporters staged a mock rape trial during the absence of the judge. Their most dignified member took the part of the judge, their ugliest became the defendant and was led handcuffed into the prisoner's dock. A lovely young sob sister was the complaining witness and testified from the witness stand in detail concerning the alleged offense...
When the defendant was found guilty and sentenced to twenty-five years in the state penitentiary, he cursed the judge as he was led struggling from the courtroom. The fascinated courtroom spectators never doubted that they were witnessing an actual criminal trial.
The following day, all the newsmen and court attachés were summoned before the grand jury. Strangely enough, none of the reporters could recall the source of the refreshments that inspired the mock rape trial. The deputy sheriff who had brought the liquor for the bunco-case defendants was fined one hundred dollars.

He was referring, of course, to Lou's buddy Chief Deputy Sheriff Tom Clarke, and the bootleg liquor he donated to a little pre-acquittal party in his office with Lou, Duff, Jackie French, a few young ladies — and a few reporters. Later that night, a drunken Clarke gave Van Cise a piece of his mind, and lost his job for it.


July 2004


 

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