Ten Years After

Ten years after

Ten years ago today I made a surprising discovery.  While making my first foray into the new world of online genealogy, I found that my great-great-grandfather’s long-lost brother, Lou Blonger, had reigned for 30 years as the criminal kingpin of Denver, Colorado.  I also determined that no one else in my extended family knew anything about our distant uncle’s checkered past, and that even though he was once a household name in Denver, he was all but forgotten now.

That sounded like a good research project to me.

And a long one.  I knew that right from the start, even after roping my brother Craig into the deal, and sometimes brother Jeff.  There were five Blonger brothers who went west, after all: saloonkeeper Lou and his partner-in-crime Sam, itinerant prospector Joe, and mining men Simon and Marvin.  And with so many twists and turns in their stories, it seemed like many years of research – part-time, of necessity – would be involved.  Ten years down the line, we’ve learned so much, but have so far yet to go.

On this anniversary day I wanted to share a brief recap of some of the red-letter days of our search and pass along my thanks to a few of the many wonderful friends we’ve made along the way.

Here’s how it all happened:

April 22, 2003 – The key to finding the five lost Belonger brothers, missing since the 1870 census, turned out to be embarrassing simple: they had changed the spelling of their name to Blonger.  When a Google search revealed a Web site that mentioned Lou Blonger’s career as a criminal fixer in Denver, my jaw dropped.  The hunt was on.

May 10, 2003 – We made our first contact with Carolyn Salsman, a second cousin once removed.  As a family genealogist, she had plenty of information on our cousins but knew nothing of Lou Blonger’s criminal career.  Carolyn’s only information on Lou and his brother Sam was an account written by another distant cousin, Mary Virginia Armstrong, that described how they went west and became millionaires in the mining business.  The Armstrong account is based on interviews with Joe Blonger, and the colorful, sometimes unbelievable stories he told made us wonder whether he was a reliable witness.  But we were ready to check them out.

July 2003 – The late Joe Swinbank, the last remaining grand-nephew of the Blonger Brothers, sent a transcript of a family Bible with complete birth dates and places of the Blongers and their immediate family, including four brothers and sisters who died in childhood and were previously unknown.

July 30, 2003 – A previously planned trip to Colorado morphed into Blongermania.  Our first stop after arriving was Lou Blonger’s gravesite.  Then, at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Denver, Gavin and Mary Mallett gave us our first glimpse at memorabilia from Lou ‘s arrest and the treasure trove of newspaper clippings that awaited us, if a microfilm reader and several weeks’ worth of free time could be found.

August 16, 2003 – An inquiry to the Foothills Genealogical Society introduced us to Jack Davidson, a dedicated researcher who helped us locate dozens of Blonger articles and documents over the next few years, including Lou’s divorce record and the precise location of his Beehive Ranch in Lakewood, Colorado.

January 30, 2004 – Lou Blonger’s military pension file arrived in the mail.  The hundreds of pages of documentation confirmed many details of Lou’s life, including his marriage to Emma Loring, but many more questions were raised.  In particular, Lou’s exact whereabouts between 1882 and 1888 remain unclear to this day.

March 4, 2004 – Craig took the bull by the horns and hired a genealogist to investigate the claim made in Sam’s obituary that Sam was the marshal of Albuquerque in 1882.  It turned out to be true, and led to a flood of information about the five months when the Blonger Brothers ruled New Albuquerque with an iron fist.

March 30, 2004 – After an inquiry on a Wild West bulletin board, we heard from Western researcher the late Mark Dworkin, who informed us of an article linking Marshal Sam, or Lou, or both, to Wyatt Earp and his posse as they made their way out of Arizona after the “Vendetta Ride.”  The ensuing research led to membership in the Western Outlaw-Lawman History Association, a trip to the national convention in Santa Fe, and many friendly exchanges with Mark, Chuck Hornung, Allan Barra, Gary Roberts, Bob Alexander and Jan Devereaux, all outstanding Western historians.  We followed up with a thorough comparison and analysis of the two “Otero letters“.

May 19, 2004 – An email arrives from Jeff Smith, who had been perusing our Web site with great interest.  Jeff is the great-grandson of Jefferson “Soapy” Smith, the Wild West con man and Lou Blonger’s most important rival in Denver just before the turn of the century.  In the midst of writing a book (Alias Soapy Smith) about his famous ancestor, Jeff provided us with all kinds of information from his research.  Together we deciphered a letter from Soapy’s brother Bascomb and mined the Gale database of digitized Denver newspapers for further clues of Blonger and Smith affairs.  This research finally led us to the exact location of the Blongers’ Elite Saloon and news of its hasty demise. Recently Jeff provided us with a century-old token from the Elite.

July 16, 2005 – We met up with mining historian Bill Baxter in the Cerrillos Hills area south of Santa Fe.  Bill took us on a guided tour of some of the abandoned mine sites and presented us with a complete record of Joe Blonger’s mining claims and activity in the area from 1879 to 1887.  He also supplied us with water, without which the city boys from back east might not have survived the trek.

July 10, 2007 – Our old friend Judge Larry Bohning, who bought several copies of our reprinted cover of  Fighting the Underworld in 2004, met us for dinner in Denver with an idea: putting the name of District Attorney Philip Van Cise, who brought Lou Blonger to justice in 1922, on the city’s new jail.  A long campaigned ensued, led by Van Cise’s granddaughter Cindy Van Cise and her husband Simon Peter O’Hanlon, with considerable support coming from Denver reporter Alan Prendergast.  After the city council rejected the proposal, Mayor John Hickenlooper rode to the rescue and the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center was dedicated on April 14, 2010.

July 18, 2007 – We heard from Merideth Hmura after a family member tipped off about our Web site.  Merideth is related to Carrie Viles, who was ever so briefly Joe Blonger’s wife.  Three months later,  Merideth traveled to Bloomington, treated us to dinner, and offered a meticulously researched collection of Joe and Carrie’s days at the Mountain View Ranch in Cowles, New Mexico.  She too has a book in print (Mountain View Ranch).

July 23, 2007 – During the Blonger Convergence Tour stop in Cripple Creek, Craig rooted up a detailed history of the Forest Queen Mine written by Jim Jackson, grandson of one of Lou and Sam’s partners.  That led to an email exchange with Mr. Jackson, who graciously donated correspondence from the Blonger brothers and their wives, the only personal items we have so far been able to locate, as well as historic photos of the mine and maps of its interior.

November 6, 2009 — Amy Reading got hold of us regarding a new book she was writing about Frank Norfleet, the Texas rancher who, while tracking down the con men who had swindled him a year earlier, became a willing victim in the sting that brought down the Blonger gang.  The second half of The Mark Inside, published by Knopf in spring of 2012, deals extensively with Lou Blonger and his criminal enterprise, putting the Blonger name back into the national consciousness for the first time since the 1936 release of Fighting the Underworld.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been ten years since this started.  As is evident from the timeline, the first five years were a whirlwind, with new leads being developed practically every month.  The pace has slowed considerably in the last five years as the best sources have been exhausted and other priorities have arisen.  I will greatly miss the friends we made who are no longer with us.  But fear not, Blonger friends and family — the search will go on, for as long as it needs to, for as long as we can.  Thanks for sticking with us.

SJ – 4/22/2013

The Drunken Orgy

To commemorate the Great Raid on the Blonger gang, we present this cartoon from the Denver Times, March 27, 1923. Scott photgraphed 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.

Maiden was working for the Federal Narcotics’ Bureau in Kansas City when Col. Van Cise recruited him to assist in the Blonger gang investigation. Maiden worked with Andy Koehn and A.B. Cooper in surveilling the gang, and the collection contains notes, newspaper articles and other items related to the case.

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.

By all accounts, the three main defendants were feeling good about their chances as the jury began their deliberations. Things seemed to be going their way; three of the jurors were bought and paid for, and in a pinch they’d been told they could expect a favorable result on appeal.  

On the other hand, in all likelihood Lou, Duff and French would be spending the night in the county jail, and maybe longer than that. While some of the smaller fry never made bail at all — which Lou would later regret — the three principals had been free since their arrest, but no more; with the jury out they would be guests of Dep. Clarke…

But their cozy cells, across the “Bridge of Tears” to the county jail, would have to wait. Instead they were sequestered in the Grand Jury room as they waited (prematurely) for a verdict. Clarke procured several bottles of whiskey, and a few young ladies for good measure, fans of Mr. French, no doubt. Meanwhile, one floor below, Van Cise and his team worked on the case into the night.

Both Van Cise and Forbes Parkhill tell this story in their books, from different perspectives. Parkhill recalls that the press pool had been at the bottle as well, and at one point conducted a mock rape trial as curious bystanders in the gallery were supposedly unaware of the charade. 

Van Cise recounts how the drunken Clarke had burst into his office, bellowing and blustering, incensed that the Colonel would try to give him orders in his own court. The jury had just retired for the night, and the prosecutor had ordered the defendants be taken to their cells. Clarke would have none of it.

Unfortunately for Clarke, Van Cise could see a whiskey bottle in his back pocket, and the next day a grand jury was convened. Clarke lost his job. The papers buzzed about the “drunken orgy” in the West Side Court.

As for the rest? They endured five more days of deliberation, when the final juror broke, and Van Cise got his convictions. Lou and his pals would soon be on their way to the penitentiary at Canon City.

Blonger Day, Belated

Now that Scott has had his say, I’d like to add my two bits.

In past years (though I missed last year) I’ve taken this opportunity to review the finds of the preceding twelve months, and talk a bit about the future. Back to it.

Good Old Mountain Dew

In 2011 I got my first taste of McCulloch’s Mountain Dew Whiskey. John W. McCulloch’s whiskey, known as “The Whiskey Without a Headache,” was well known around the turn of the last century, but the distillery ceased production with the onset of Prohibition.

Green River Whiskey ad

J.W. famously bought his eighth interest in the Blongers’ Forest Queen mine with twenty barrels of the stuff.

Now his descendants have picked up the baton, and returned several of their famous products to the shelf. The bottle is long empty, and it’s time to reorder. And no, it didn’t give me a headache, though I can’t say it blotted out ALL my troubles.

Shootout at the Fashion Saloon

We found that Sam was witness to a shooting in Aspen’s Fashion Saloon in 1885. His testimony:

Was sitting with my back to the bar; heard a gunshot; jumped to my feet and saw deceased in the actof falling; his gun flew out of his hand to the floor; a man came in the side door and shot; he was taken out by several parties; deceased was on his hands and knees with his head toward the floor when shot.

It seems Frank Jones had been drunk and causing trouble, and when Special Officer James Fitzpatrick came to arrest him, Jones pulled a gun. He got off a shot to no effect, and Fitzgerald put him to the floor and whacked him with his pistol. As Jones struggled on the floor, hoping to get off another shot, Bernard Riley put a bullet in him and ended the fray.

San Bernardino

We have long believed Lou when he stated in a pension request that he spent the years 1883 through 1887 in the Deming, New Mexico area, staying in the hotel of gamblers Frank Thurmond and Carlotta “Lottie Deno” Thompkins. Then we found him running yet another saloon, in 1885, in San Bernardino, California.

George Creek

We also believed Joe to be in the Black Hills in the early 1870s, when he supposedly was communing with the Sioux and Cheyenne, and playing poker with Wild Bill. While he may indeed have spent time on the Plains around this time, we now know he was in California in 1875, at a place called George (or George’s) Creek. While he was listed in voter rolls as a farmer, this area in the eastern Sierras sounds more suitable for prospecting.

Joe’s Face

Now we finally know what Joe looked like. What a treat.

Joe Blonger

Joe Blonger


Who Was Kate “Kitty” Blonger?

An article from 1906 seems to have solved a lingering question — by suggesting that two important characters in our long narrative may in fact be one and the same. Yes, the pistol-packing prostitute from Albuquerque with the Blonger name, who shot Charles Hill in the head in 1888, may have also been Mrs. Sadie Wilson, who married Sam in 1889. Their marriage would end just four years later, with Sadie detailing a long history of savage beatings at Sam’s hand.

The 1906 article, which details the scandalous behavior of a Denver city detective, paranthetically implicates one Kate Blonger — also known about town as Mrs. Hank Domedion, the man “Sadie Wilson” would marry after she divorced Sam. Domedion was another bartender, by the way, and the same article suggests that “Mrs. Demedion” was keeping a “hotel” of suspect character.

A few years later Kate/Sadie would be in the news again, when her latest husband, the aforementioned city dick, threatened to kill her and all her “friends.”

The Mark Inside

Amy Reading’s new book came out, and there will be a short review soon to follow, but I’ll say this: Reading has given us the first new look at the trial of the Denver bunko men in many years, with a broader perspective than any previous author, including Van Cise. Not only does Reading outline the evolution of the American con, she makes a pretty good case that “humbug” is more central to the American way of life than we want to admit.

The Elite

We also found this ad for Sam and Lou’s ill-fated palace of spirits, the Elite Saloon.
Elite Saloon ad

Joe & the Widow Viles

Finally, there was this article, finally revealing just how short Joe’s only marriage actually was.

Couple Were Married in Room Thirteen of a Hotel.

The Pecos Valley Correspondent of the Las Vegas Optic says:

Thirteen is a sure unlucky number. Some time about the middle of April Joseph Blonger, an old miner and a Grand Army man of Santa Fe, led to the hymeneal altar in the Plaza hotel at Santa Fe, Mrs. C. A. Viles. The solemn obligation that bound them together as man and wife was performed in room 13.

Hardly two moons had passed over the fair contracting parties till Blonger concluded it was a good deal more economical and not near so hard work to hold down a miner’s cabin, so he gathered up his bed, bid the fair bride of less than sixty days good by and again picked up the pick and shovel, departed for Cerrillos and gave all his right, title, and “herediments” back to the fair one, shook the dust of the Pecos from his feet anl [sic] left.

Albuquerque Daily Citizen
July 16, 1902

What Tomorrow Brings

As for the future — things are looking up. New stuff has been popping up like dandelions, and we’re feeling anxious. Scott’s begun the process of putting a book together, there are still places to go and and articles to uncover, and yes, there is a script in the works, for what it’s worth. We started thinking about it years ago, of course, but things are proceeding now. Frankly, we know it’s a long shot, but what the hell? This material aches for it, and we’re happy to oblige.

Beehive Ranch

Speaking of Lou’s cherry orchard, the Beehive Ranch, here’s Lou outstanding in his field in 1917:

Beehive Ranch

This picture of Lou seems to have made other appearances over the years. You decide:

Lou with Marshall



Amy Reading on HuffPost

Amy has an article on huffingtonpost.com about great American con men, including Lou…

Mystery Mary

Of the Blonger graves listed on Find-a-Grave, that of Mary (Mollie/Mattie) M. Blonger remains a mystery. We’re not sure who she is, but it’s tempting to think this might be the Mollie Blonger accused of running a brothel in Albuquerque in 1888, just a few days after hooker Kitty Blonger killed Charles Hill in Peach Springs, Arizona.

We assume Mollie (a common variant of Mary) took her surname from either Lou or Sam (or both), as Kitty did, when the boys apparently served as their pimps in Albuquerque in 1882 – and elsewhere, for all we know. At any rate, the Blonger name undoubtedly came from either Sam or Lou, but apparently without the benefit of marriage…

Desperately Seeking Sam

Sam Blonger's headstone, from the north?

Sam Blonger's headstone, from the south?

Do you have an eye for detail? Then you might like this puzzler.

We recently discovered Sam Blonger’s gravesite online, thanks to these photos from Scotti McCarthy. From her Find-a-Grave post, we know that Sam is buried in Section 20 of Riverside Cemetery. I think it will be easy enough to find Sam’s grave when we visit it in person this summer, but I’m impatient. I want to know exactly where he’s buried, and I want to know right now. Can we figure out the precise location of his final resting place using information posted on the internet, and nothing more? Why, I think we can.

Section 20, from the south

Section 20, from the north

Take a look at the photos of the headstone and notice the details in the background. Then click on one of the aerial photos of Section 20 (from Bing Maps “Bird’s Eye View”) to open up a higher-res version. Compare the details and tell me if you can spot Sam’s headstone. I think I found it, but I’m interested to see what others think.

Give it a try! It isn’t as hard as counting penguins from space.

Slumber Party at the Bee Hive Ranch

The Mining School boys didn't count on an April blizzard.

On Saturday, April 17, 1920, the Colorado foothills were hit by a spring blizzard that covered the tracks of the interurban line that ran through Lou Blonger’s cherry orchard, the Bee Hive Ranch, in suburban Lakewood.  After the three-car train stalled, it was quickly covered with snow.  Luckily the passengers were evacuated to Lou’s place, where they were greeted and fed by Mrs. Anna Brooks, the caretaker.  There is no mention in the news report of exactly how many people ended up at the Bee Hive, but if the report is accurate, at least two women and 20 students of the Colorado School of Mines must have spent the night.  The two women helped Mrs. Brooks feed the stranded travelers and the work crew of 75 that came out the next day to dig the train out of the shallow, quarter-mile-long cut. Actually, it might have been the Bee Hive’s biggest party: roast pork for everyone, after a dressed pig was purchased from one of Lou’s neighbors.

It took almost two days to free the train, but by then the mining students were long gone. On Sunday, they decided to hike the seven miles out to Golden, a decision that could easily have proven fatal.  They all made it, but many of them suffered from frostbite and exposure.  Dedicated students, indeed.

Still, that was not the biggest news in the April 20 edition of the Denver Post.  Just below the story of the blizzard was a brief account of an incident that would change the course of world history.

What’s With The Shades, Sammy Boy?

Speaking of Sam’s demise in 1914, we have yet another item of interest to share on Lou’s older brother.

Correspondent Kenny Vail — who, by the way, says he has a trove of information on numerous Blonger confederates, including Charlie Ronan, Con Caddigan, and Billy Nuttall — recently contacted us with an article he came across in the Rocky Mountain News. It seems Sam was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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

We’ve heard the Blonger name occasionally linked with the odd Chinese opium den, but this is the first time we’ve caught one of them red-handed. For shame, Sam. For shame. This would have taken place while the boys were hanging out in Leadville, not long after Sam ran for mayor.

Amy Reading’s Interview on WILL

You can listen here. A review of her book will be forthcoming in this space.