Sam’s Life Box

Hot damn, a new mystery!

In June of 1902, a journalist in Buffalo, New York decided he needed to put in a good word for his old pal, Bat Masterson. Only weeks before, Masterson had left Denver under a dark cloud, and now he was making a go of it in New York City. New bunco charges weren’t far behind, of course, and then a weapons charge that led to the confiscation of his prized pistol. Things weren’t looking good for Bat, and people were talking. They were saying he was a bad man. A con man. A killer. Twenty-eight notches! And he misses his gun, his “best friend”.

So, to answer the critics – and to have some fun at Bat’s expense — the author reprinted an article from the Butte, Montana Inter-Mountain, recounting the words of a local old timer.

Buffalo, New York Enquirer, June 18, 1902

IS NOT SUCH A BAD MAN AFTER ALL

Bat Masterson’s Western Career Reviewed by a Man Who Knows Him Well—Lives Up to the Biblical Orders and Is a Quiet, Peaceable Man.

Once upon a time, Bat had, in fact, surrendered an earlier “best friend” without nary a whimper, and that gun was still in the possession of one Jack O’Ferral. The article continues:

Bat Had A Fright.

That was back in the days when Sam Blonger was a city marshal in the Southwest, and Jack was his assistant. Sam wears smoked glasses now and can’t see half way across the street. In those days he carried his gun on a hook and Bat was one of the boys who did the curfew act as soon as the sun went down and Sam hit the main trail of the village.

It happened one day that Sam pulled another fellow’s gun down instead of pushing it up. That ’45’ is still somewhere in Sam’s life box.

While the marshal was stretched out ruminating on the folly of pulling a gun toward him, it fell to Jack O’Ferral to run the town. Though his record showed Jack looked good to the bunch, and such fellows as Masterson, Tom Cannon and Al Skelly woke up and started after suckers. Cannon’s dead, Skelly is a police captain and Bat’s in jail.

Cannon’s funeral expenses were paid by O’Ferral and Skelly was cared for by the same samaritan until he got well. Bat developed the yellow streak which has made him famous since and handed his gun to the little killer before O’Ferral could pull the trigger for the third time.

The tale goes on to describe other miscellaneous Bat stories, reffing a prize fight in Denver, killing his first man, yada, yada…

First and foremost, this story doesn’t seem to be about Albuquerque, where we know that Sam was marshal. The details are all wrong – Sam, for instance, didn’t get shot in 1882.

So what southwestern town? When he was hired, the news stated that he had experience in “official work”, though we have no more information. At any rate, identifying the town could potentially open a big new spigot.

OK, now, let’s unpack this typically cryptic summation of the “facts”.

The glasses we’ve heard about on a few occasions, always hearsay. Sunglasses, basically, to hide a disfigured eye, shot out by a bullet ricocheting off an iron stove during a bar fight. No place, no date, but still pretty cool, and mentioned in multiple sources. It’s also kind of cool he wore his gun on a hook. I don’t know how unusual that is.

I don’t know what he means by “Bat was one of the boys who did the curfew act as soon as the sun went down and Sam hit the main trail of the village” but the context suggests Bat was a local troublemaker, out and about at night doing no good.

It happened on day that Sam pulled another fellow’s gun down instead of pushing it up. That ’45’ is still somewhere in Sam’s life box.

This took a bit of parsing. Scott found one other reference to a “life box”, and it appears to mean torso. So, Sam tried to disarm someone, screwed it up, and got shot, the bullet still residing (presumably) within the confines of his skin — just like his brother Joe, who carried the minie ball he met during the siege of Atlanta in his gut for sixty years.

While the marshal was stretched out ruminating on the folly of pulling a gun toward him, it fell to Jack O’Ferral to run the town. Though his record showed Jack looked good to the bunch, and such fellows as Masterson, Tom Cannon and Al Skelly woke up and started after suckers. Cannon’s dead, Skelly is a police captain and Bat’s in jail.

Cannon’s funeral expenses were paid by O’Ferral and Skelly was cared for by the same samaritan until he got well. Bat developed the yellow streak which has made him famous since and handed his gun to the little killer before O’Ferral could pull the trigger for the third time.

Intentionally obtuse? The gist of it seems to be that, while Sam convalesced, O’Ferral attempted to arrest Masterson, Cannon and Skelly on bunco charges. Cannon ended up dead, Skelly wounded, and Bat gave up his gun without a fight. O’Ferral then paid for Cannon’s funeral and nursed Skelly back to health. What a guy!

And he still has Bat’s gun.

 

Mysteries at the Museum, Part II

It was great to see the show. Lou has been written about many, many times over the years in non-fiction books on confidence games, famous criminals, criminal psychology and the like. He’s even made an appearance in several works of fiction, always the slimy, obese mobster. But never on the screen, big or small. So, cool.

In a nutshell, the 10-minute segment describes how Lou and his gang made lots of money bilking Denver tourists with a fake stock exchange (just as they did with fake betting parlors, as seen in The Sting), and how District Attorney Van Cise bugged Lou’s office as part of his investigation. This was 1922, making it one of the earlier examples of electronic bugging. Cutting edge stuff.

And now, by my right as one of the world’s two living experts on the Blongers, I will pick some nits. This is the fun part.

1) Pronunciation. Come on, folks. The proper pronunciation of the name Blonger is spelled out phonetically on our homepage, and we even have a page dedicated to the subject. In short, it rhymes with “conjure”. Not “longer”. Not “wronger”. It’s French; that “g” sounds like a “j” (or “zh”, if you want to get picky)

2) No way in hell would the fastidious Philip Van Cise show up for work with several days stubble on his face.

3) At one point, Van Cise is shown with a tape recorder, apparently reviewing the recordings. Sorry. Magnetic tape recorders didn’t exist in 1922, and wouldn’t see widespread use for at least a couple more decades.

4) The show seems to suggest that Lou and his crew created the Big Store con in the 1920s, when in fact the concept was in widespread use by that time. That said, the Blonger gang may have made better use of it than anyone before or since.

Mysteries at the Museum, Part I

Lou has finally made his television debut, and here he is:

Lou on Mysteries at the Museum

(The actor looks familiar, but I can’t seem to find a credit for the part.)

A few months ago Scott and I were contacted by the staff of Mysteries at the Museum, a Travel Channel program that examines the history behind various historical objects — in this case, a dictaphone in the collection of History Colorado Center in Denver.

The dictaphone itself, apparently, has no actual significance, except as a stand-in for the machine used by DA Philip Van Cise in his investigation of Lou and his gang. The show’s producers were aware of our website, and contacted us in search of images they could use. While we certainly had plenty to offer, they were really only in need of pictures of Lou and Van Cise. They could have gotten these from a copy of Fighting The Underworld, of course, but we were happy to help, and got a screen credit!

The half-hour format of the show features three unrelated segments, each detailing a different artifact. The show in question is titled Metal Winners, the Big Con, and Operation Babylift. It aired on December, 8, 2016 on the Travel Channel. (We weren’t aware of the air date, or we would have mentioned it sooner. I just found out it has already aired.)

It’s available for viewing in several places, including iTunes, where I accessed it for 3 bucks.

More to follow…

The Cabinet Saloon, Deming, NM

I’ve been sitting on this for a while.

A few years ago, our colleagues down New Mexico way sent us a little gift. The husband and wife team of Bob Alexander and Jan Devereaux were engaged in their own research — in this case, regarding the husband and wife team of Frank Thurmond and Carlotta “Lottie Deno” Thompkins, gamblers of the Wild West and associates of the Blongers — when they came across a photo they thought might be of interest to us. Here it is.

The Cabinet Saloon

This is the Cabinet Saloon, in Deming, New Mexico, if I recall correctly. The year is indeterminate; we can see electric lighting, with wires strung rather haphazardly over the bar; to the left there is what appears to be a vending machine. Some of the clothing appears to post date the Wild West. Turn of the century, perhaps? 1910? I’d like an expert opinion.

But the big question is, who are these men? Specifically, who are those four gentlemen at the bar? Let’s have a closer look.

4 Guys

The elephant in this room, of course, is the short gent with the cigar. Could it be? Scott is dubious, but I’m inclined to believe it’s Lou. Wishful thinking?

First off, Lou was well acquainted with southern New Mexico, not to mention Thurmond and Thompkins, who eventually settled in the Deming area. They were all renowned sports and professional gamblers in the style of your Earps, your Hollidays, your Mastersons, and frequented the same locales  — that is, anywhere that miners, cowboys and tinhorns would gather to throw away their cash.

What’s more, in a pension document dated 1887, Lou told the government the following:

Since 83 until the present time here resided with Frank Thurmond at Silver City, Deming and Kingston New Mexico.

We assume that when he says he “resided with” Thurmond, he means in the hotel Thurmond ran at the time.

And he certainly seems to share Lou’s sartorial sensibility.

So what can we glean from the minimal information we have to go on? Perhaps a comparison is in order.

4 faces

The picture on the left might represent Lou in his forties or fifties, the second two are Lou in his seventies. We have no photos of Lou earlier than that on the right, taken about 1915, when he would have been 66.

This is hardly science, but let’s see what happens if I gradually lay Lou’s mugshot over the face in question.

Lou comparison

Interesting, but inconclusive. I’m biased, but I don’t see any glaring physical discrepancy between the two.

But what about the others? To my eyes, the young man in shirt sleeves appears to be an employee; no jacket, garters on his arms, his tie tucked in, he appears to be taking a break, from a gaming table, perhaps, to pose with some visitors. Guests of some celebrity?

The fellow on the left of the saloon photo is a bit more interesting. Honestly, if cigar man wasn’t in this photo, I could easily be persuaded that HE was Lou. Here’s another comparison:

Lou and Joe

See what I mean?

In my dreams, here’s what I see…

Lou, Sam and kid brother Marvin visit the Deming area, and drop in to a local saloon for a visit. A picture is taken, with a croupier anxious to pose with the Famous Blonger Brothers.

Marvin? We have no photos of him. It’s easy to imagine, though, that Marvin resembled Lou. And Sam? Again, no photos (such a shame). We know he was a fairly imposing man, and perhaps as tall and lean as Lou was short and hefty.

It’s an enticing possibility. As I said, Scott takes a more factual approach. I’ve always been more inclined to conjecture — but then, I love to do it. And where’s the harm?

Ain’t Life Wonderful!

Truss

Dr. James

ad_Indica_SDU_08-25-64

Sacramento  Daily Union, March 23, 1864

Stroud Theatre, Phoenix, 1883

Another piece of the puzzle — Blonger & Co. goes to Phoenix.

We have reams of information on Sam and Lou in 1882, when Sam was marshal of New Albuquerque, and the brothers had numerous and varied exploits, dutifully chronicled by the town newsmen.

The years that directly follow have been a bigger mystery. The brothers left Albuquerque sometime around the end of 1882. But to where?

Over time a few details have emerged. In 1884, Lou owned a saloon in San Bernardino, California. For Sam’s part, he raced his ponies in Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico in 1885. A later Supreme Court case(!) revealed testimony that Sam lived in Dodge City, Kansas that same year – bolstering earlier rumors of a Blonger visit to that town.

And then there’s the pension document Lou filed in 1887, from Deming, New Mexico, in which he stated:

“Since 83 until the present time here resided with Frank Thurmond at Silver City, Deming and Kingston New Mexico. And here been treated in that time by Dr. Innes, Kingston New Mexico and by Dr. McGuire, of same place present Post Office address Kingston Sierra Co New Mexico”

Now this:

Ira Stroud

According to the Phoenix Weekly Republican, in February of 1883 Ira Stroud sold a city lot to Gus Ellis & Co. The buildings on this prime piece of downtown property, a saloon and theater, were slated for destruction.

Strouds

The lot itself, on the northwest corner of what are now Washington St. and 1st St., was at one time the location of the first store building to be erected in Phoenix, Hancock’s Store, opened in July 1871. It served as the town hall, county offices and general meeting place of early Phoenix.

Curiously, a week later, there were still performances at Stroud’s Theatre, and in March James Allen was busted in Stroud’s saloon for firing his weapon “in a promiscuous manner”. His prosecution was noted as the first of its kind in the territory. He got 6 months and fined $250.

Strouds gunplay

And finally to the point. In March and April, more ads for the theater were run, but this time with new proprietors – Blonger & Co.

Strouds-Blonger

Was this Lou? Sam? Both? Neither? Surely not the latter.

In his pension request, Lou doesn’t mention living in Phoenix (or San Bernardino, for that matter). But what about Sam? He did spend time in Arizona during this period. Sold a racehorse to Earp nemesis Johnny Behan in March of ’83, so there you go.

Anyway – a new star on the map, a new advertisement or two for the gallery, and a new joint for the list, a theater, no less. That’s a good day.

P.S. – Soapy Smith was in town that year as well, hawking his soap. Small world.

Sam and the Austin Stage

Details of Sam’s exploits during the Civil War years are few and far between, which is a real shame. The California Trail! An infant Denver! Driving a stage over the Sierras! And that’s just about all we know.  Imagine the epic story that’s just out of reach!

And then consider how much more Sam went on to experience. Puts every one of us to shame.

Anyway, we’ve always taken Sam’s stage driving stint with a pinch of salt. Sam’s obituary had him driving to Austin in 1860-61, which is possible, as far as we know — but Blonger obits have proven to be less than reliable.

Then came news, via Kenny Vail, that he’d come across two slight but revealing references to Sam, dated 1864 and 1865. To wit:

Reese River Reveille, November 24, 1864

Wadleigh & Wilson’s Stage. Arrivals from Virginia – D. Guion, Sam. Blonger, Mr. Shengler.

Reese River Reveille, February 28, 1865

By the Fast Freight – Left for the West. – H. A. Kelly, J. M. Irvine, H. B. Meredith, B. F. Gliddon, S. N. Blonger, Mr. Kamack.

So, Sam rode into Austin from Virginia City — recent home of reporter Sam Clemens and a young Calamity Jane — or perhaps from Sacramento, stayed three months, then went back across the desert and the mountains, and on to his mysterious dealings in Sacramento. Not much to go on, and yet…

Foremost, this is our first sighting of Sam in 1864, so that’s handy. It may now be safe to assume that he spent part of 1864 in Sacramento and/or Virginia City.

Second, this places him on a damn freight wagon heading into Austin, quite specifically, and as suggested by his obit — though in 1864, rather than ’60 or ’61. As Kenny Vail said:

I noticed on your website it says Austin boomed in ’62. This is not accurate. It really boomed in ’63, but was still drawing the sporting fraternity, San Francisco capitalists and Eastern investors well into ’64.

Thus, I found the likes of John Bull, Langford Peel, James Earp, Carberry, Spiker and a host of others gunmen not so well know – all there in ’64 before Blonger came on the stage. Even Frank Leslie and James Vogan made appearances in ’64.

And while we’re name dropping:

BTW, Austin was the Holy Hell coming out party for Jimmy Earp, who was about two years younger than Sam. Earp remained there for a total of 13 or 14 months, going to Idaho in fall 1865.

So what was Sam doing? His obit said he drove freight, but these notices aren’t explicit on that point. Kenny again:

In regards to the story of Sam driving a stage between Sacramento and Austin, allow me to set a backdrop for his Austin arrival that I found.

There was an alternative in transportation from the big-time Overland Stage & Mail Company, which blew half way across the continent, and then back on a daily basis. West-bound from Austin to Virginia City was a Fast Freight & Express Co. (also passengers) with proprietors Guion, Wadleigh and Wilson. Those were the three names usually advertised. Sometimes it was called “Guion, Wadleigh & Wilson’s Stage.”

They also ran the same business from Virginia to Sacramento. Daniel Guion was the oldest in the group (Born 1818 in England) and I believe he actually lived in Stockton where his wife and family were set up. I give you the following example because now I am wondering if Sam Blonger was connected with them:

“THE EXPRESS. – The Fast Freight express arrived yesterday evening, bringing a large lot of apples, peaches, new potatoes, cabbage, onions, also a lot of live domestic chickens and pigeons, which can be found for sale at the proprietors of the line, Guion & Wadleigh, on Main street. The express will leave at 8 o’clock this morning for Virginia, connecting with the Fast Freight Lines there.” [Reese River Reveille – Aug. 2, 1864]

Sam was traveling with one of the firm’s owners. Riding shotgun, maybe? A backup driver? We don’t know, but at least we now know where he was.

But more to the point, how much skepticism is required to doubt he gambled, drank, scouted, prospected, fought and rode, encountered Native Americans, and villains, real Western bad guys, and heroes and adventurers. He was himself a pioneer, traversing the Rockies by wagon, on foot or horseback, over and again, like he was going to the beach. I’d like to write that story.

Soapy Gets All The Breaks

Except maybe that one time in Skagway.

Ridley Scott’s Klondike starts Monday, January 20 on the Discovery Channel. The miniseries follows two young men into the heart of the Yukon gold rush.

Ian Hart plays Soapy. If we’re lucky the writers will throw us a bone and have Soapy say a little something about Denver. Sam and Lou may not have run Jeff out of town, exactly, but I suspect they were happy to see him go. One less competitor, after all.

Besides, the Smith boys were starting to give bunko men a bad name in Denver, beating the crap out of people (including the chief of police), and then coming into the Blonger place looking for trouble. And then Bascomb, in jail for the assaults, agrees to testify against Sam (to no avail). Thanks, bro.

The Blongers preferred a lower profile, anyway. Smith loved to be the center of attention, and it bit him in the ass, a couple of times. Lou on the other hand, increasingly kept his head down, all but disappearing from the news of the day, toiling on in the shadows, and on, and on, all the way to the bank…

And yet here we are, adding another to Smith’s long list of movies, tv shows, books, video games, cartoons, action figures, lunchboxes and collectible plates. Not to mention all the extant artifacts, like a match tin Soapy just found from the Tivoli Club. He comes across stuff like that all the time. The Blongers must not have been big on promotional items. Jeff Smith (the current one) did recently come across a tiny token for the Elite Saloon, but it was issued by subsequent owners, not the Blongers. Sigh.

Though jealous, I will be watching. Congrats, Soapy. Lucky bastard.

Blonger Day, cont.

As you may know, Blonger Day also includes the ritual “airing of grievances” – no, sorry, that’s Festivus – rather, it includes a recounting of the past year’s events (as bountiful or scanty as they may be), not to mention a peak at the year to come.

The Mark Inside

In April, author Amy Reading gave an interview on WILL about her new book “The Mark Inside.” Although the conversation never turned to Lou Blonger specifically, it was a great interview and a good plug for the subject of humbuggery in general.

The Mark Inside

Sam’s Grave

April also led us, finally, to Sam’s resting place. While we had thought Sam was in an unmarked grave in Denver’s Fairmount Cemetery, where both Lou and Sam’s wife Virginia are interred, he turned up on the Find-A-Grave website, resting quietly in Riverside Cemetery. We’ll visit this summer.

Sam Blonger's headstone, from the north?

This discovery inspired Scott to create a virtual Blonger cemetery plot. Here it is:

http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=vcsr&GSvcid=286063

Sam’s Bad Habit

Friend of the show Kenny Vail forwarded an interesting item regarding Sam. Seems he was a fan of the opium pipe, which isn’t a shocker, really, but still news to us.

An Interesting Day at Wittmore’s Justice Mill.

The cases against the Chinese opium joint proprietors and their patrons, who were “pulled” on Monday night by the order of Coroner Linton were arraigned…. The Chinese fined were Ah Joe, in $100 and costs; Sam Hing, in the same; Ah Wee, Su Quie and Ah Gee, in $50 each and costs. Then there were the white men who had been taken at the Arapahoe street joint for smoking. They are Sam Blonger, G.S. Howard, George Perkins and J. Kennedy. They were fined $50 each and costs. Another man named W. Hutchins was not fined… The costs in each of these cases was $7.50.….

Denver Rocky Mountain News – Oct. 13, 1880, p. 3

Bee Hive Blizzard

April also gave us the story of a spring snowstorm that stranded a train near Lou’s Bee Hive orchard in April of 1920. Students of the Colorado School of Mines weathered the storm at Lou’s house, dining on roast pork, and pushing on to Golden on foot the next day.

The Drunken Orgy

August brought us this editorial cartoon from the Denver Times, March 27, 1923. Scott photographed it on a recent trip to Denver. The original clipping was found in the papers of Robert Maiden, part of the collection at the Denver Public Library.

 

The Drunken Orgy
Lou, Duff, French and Dep. Tom Clarke have a toast to Mayor Bailey

 

The sketch depicts Lou Blonger, manager Adolph “Kid Duffy” Duff, bookmaker John Homer “Dapper Jackie” French, and Sheriff’s Deputy Tom Clarke, king of Denver’s West Side Criminal Court. They are all singing the praises of Lou’s old pal Mayor Dewey Bailey, who had been questioning Van Cise’s entire operation, suggesting it was plot by the city’s stock brokers to legitimize their own racket and crush the competition in one fell swoop.

As the jury began their deliberations at the trial’s end, the primary defendants – those wealthy enough to post bail – were anticipating the revocation of bail and the prospect of spending at least one night in jail. To make the most of their last night of freedom (at least until their ultimate victory) with a celebration hosted by Clarke, who procured several bottles of illegal spirits, and a few young ladies for good measure. Meanwhile, one floor below, Van Cise and his team worked on the case into the night.

Unfortunately for Clarke, the party did not escape the prosecutor’s notice, and the next day a grand jury was convened. Clarke lost his job, and the papers buzzed about the “drunken orgy” in the West Side Court.

Poor Wee Willie

August also brought news – again via Find-A-Grave – of yet another heretofore unknown Blonger; young Willie, son of Marvin, buried in Shoals, Indiana in October of 1879 at the tender age of 9 months.

Coming Attractions

As for the year ahead, we will be heading to Denver this summer, and though we won’t be doing research per se, we should have something to say, including, I’m sure, some photos and video.

Finally, work on a screenplay about the Blonger boys continues. Not gonna say too much about this one, except perhaps that it’s gonna to be epic, of course…