Amy Reading on Focus 580

Amy Reading, whose new book “The Mark Inside” has been the subject of several posts here, will be interviewed on Illinois Public Radio tomorrow (Wednesday, April 25).  If you happen to live in central Illinois like we do, you can listen live on WILL, AM 580.  Elsewhere, you can listen in almost real time to the stream (click the “LISTEN” link). Either way, you can call in if you have a question. The hour-long show starts at 10 am Central Time.  If you happen to miss the live event, you can replay the show from the archives on the same page.

Happy Blonger Day!

Nine years ago today, April 22, 2003, I walked into my office at work with an idea. The previous night I had discovered that my great-great-grandfather’s long-lost brothers had apparently used the surname “Blonger” instead of the family spelling “Belonger”. Using that clue, I’d also been able to find them in census records in several western states, where they appeared with occupations such as “miner” and “saloonkeeper.” Things were getting exciting! But as I’d made the discovery late at night, I did not think of Googling the name “Blonger” until the next morning. Honestly, I didn’t really expect to find anything – at least not anything interesting.

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know the rest of the story, up to now. But maybe you were wondering how the story will end.

When I sold Craig on the idea of setting up this web site (it was an easy sell) and doing extensive research, with an eye toward eventual publication, we knew it would be a long and drawn-out process. Within a few months it became clear to me that, since we both live in the Midwest and have full-time jobs, it might take until retirement to visit all the places we’d like to visit, but there was plenty of other research that could be done in the meantime, and for six years that was fine. But over the last three years my attention has wandered, my efforts have dwindled, and Craig has essentially held down the fort singlehandedly.

A recent turn of events has set me back on course. Craig has already made mention here of a new book by Amy Reading called “The Mark Inside.” If you are interested in the Blongers, or con men in general, you need to buy it. Amy’s writing skills are first-rate (how else are you going to get published by Knopf?) – but it’s her research and analysis that really stand out. In the last third of the book, Amy digs into some of the lingering questions that Philip Van Cise, in “Fighting the Underworld,” couldn’t answer – for instance, how did Lou (and Sam) consolidate power in Denver during the 1890s and wrest control of the underworld from Soapy Smith and Ed Chase? And how then, after the turn of the century, did the Blonger gang advance so rapidly from penny-ante cons to the genius of the “Big Store”? Amy gives convincing explanations for all of this. And she knows her Denver con man lineup, too, going back to the beginning – something Van Cise, who was essentially writing an autobiographical account and not a history – did not pretend to do.

Amy’s effort made me realize I still have a job to do, and I had better get back in the game. Reacquainting myself with the mountains of research we’ve done has been a daunting task, but as I work my way through it all again I am beginning to patch together the outline of a book. Until now I have not given much thought to the final product, convinced I still had years of research ahead. But I’ve been encouraged to write by a number of colleagues who remind me that I will never have all the information I want. In the case of the Blongers that applies more forcefully than most: there are huge gaps in the timeline that will never be filled, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the story can never be told. And, my friends remind me, there is such a thing as a second volume.

And so, faithful readers who have made it to Blonger Day 2012, I have renewed hope that I might produce a manuscript in the next year or two. I’m back on task, and that’s good not only because we’d all like to see something in print, but it might mean I get to spend my retirement doing something else! – SJ

(Wait! What about Craig? He’s a writer, too, right? I will let him explain his project in his own time.)

A Word From Our Sponsors

It’s curious we have so few advertisements for the various joints owned by the Blonger Bros. Grouping together their saloons, gambling halls, theaters and whorehouses, we count six businesses confirmed  before their arrival in Denver (but probably twice that number or more), and at least ten in Denver alone, not counting policy shops, cigar store candy stands and various and sundry other enterprises.

And yet, to date we have found only eight actual newspaper ads in graphic form. That’s why it’s a privilege to add two more examples today.

This first one is for Walker & Blonger, a modest little joint the boys owned in 1898-99, with longtime Denver saloon man Sam Walker.

Walker & Blonger

Walker & Blonger saloon

Here’s what the building looked like many years later:

Walker & Blonger (1863 Larimer)

Walker & Blonger (right), 1863 Larimer

The second is a bit of a mystery. Here it is:

Blonger Bros. Saloon

Blonger Bros. Saloon

For one thing, it’s nice to see J.W. get his props here; John McCulloch’s the man who bought his eighth-share of the Forest Queen from Lou for twenty barrels of the good stuff.

There are two odd things about this, though. At this time, in December of 1896, we know of a saloon referred to as “Lew Blonger’s place” at 1644 Larimer, and the magnificent Elite Saloon, at 1626 Stout. Though this ad has the place across the street at 1625 Stout, the lunch menu is pretty convincing evidence they are referring to the Elite. But why not use the name Elite? Especially if there was another place of theirs that didn’t?

Killer Kate Fears For Her Life

First of all, I’d like to mention for the record that, although Scott agrees with me that Sam’s second wife Sadie Wilson, and gun-slinging prostitute Kate “Kitty” Blonger, are likely the same person, he cautions, correctly, that this is not the only possible conclusion. But at present it remains the most obvious one.

Which brings us to Deputy US Marshal Edwin H. Davis. You may recall that we finally connected Kate and Sadie on the following basis: 1) after divorcing Sam in 1893, Sadie quickly married barkeep Henry J. Domedion; and 2) while transporting a prisoner from Denver to New York that same year, Marshal Davis was reportedly accompanied by a woman known in Denver as both as Kate Blonger AND Mrs. Hank Domedion.

Our knowledge of either woman is scant. We have some colorful details about Kitty’s murder trial in 1882, but not much else of a personal nature. We know even less about Sadie, except that she divorced Sam after just four years, having suffered months of physical abuse at his hands. And, of course, her later liaison with Marshal Davis.

WIFE FEARS THAT FORMER MARSHAL WILL MURDER HER

Fast-forward to 1907. Sadie has been married to Marshal Davis for about a year, after “a courtship extending over nine years” (and making her, at the very least, Mrs. Sadie/Kate/Kitty “maiden name” “Blonger” Wilson Blonger Domedion Davis). She is noted as the “proprietress of the Claire hotel, 1641 Arapahoe street.” The context suggests she is still in the brothel business.

Davis, it seems, had returned from a trip and confronted his wife at the Claire, threatening to kill her and all her “friends.” What’s more, he “applied opprobrious epithets to her.” Now Sadie wants a divorce and a restraining order.

 All told, it sounds like it sucked to be her. Taking a few liberties, I would describe it thus: Kitty was a prostitute under Sam and Lou’s protection in 1882, and perhaps prior. Maybe after, as well.

In 1888, while working at Somerset’s in Peach Springs, Arizona, Kitty shot Charles Hill when he busted in on her with another client. She was tried, and acquited.

Then, in 1889, Sam divorced his first wife and immediately took Kitty as his bride. By that time she was referred to as Mrs. Sadie Wilson.

In May of 1893, Sadie divorced Sam after a series of brutal beatings, claiming a longstanding pattern of abuse. In October of the same year, she was seen traveling with Marshal Davis. At this time she was already being referred to as Mrs. Hank Domedion, and noted as running a “rooming house.”

By 1906 they were calling it a “hotel.” That year, after a “nine year” courtship, she married Davis. And within a year, Davis was ready to commit mass murder.

Burglars, Umbrellas & Punchbowls

A few new odds and ends:

LOST AND FOUND

September 1, 1914, Denver Post. This day the Lost and Found column had two curious items in a row.

The first concerns a pearl pin, duck-shaped, with diamonds, lost at Tabor’s Grand Opera about 8:00 pm on Saturday night, and belonging to Lou’s old friend, Harry Tammen, co-publisher of the Post.

The second is from Lou himself, requesting the return of an umbrella shamelessly appropriated “from the iron bench in front of Scholtz drug store.” The culprit was obliged to please return it to Bert Davis’ cigar store — Lou’s name was engraved on the handle.

BURGLARS TAKE WOMEN’S DRESSES

July 12, 1909, Denver Post. Lou was the victim of a serial thief most interested, apparently, in women’s clothing, including dresses, shoes, and undergarments. Detectives thought it likely the thieves were women, “their identity, however, remains a mystery.”

AN ARTISTS CREATION

December 26, 1894, the Denver Post reports that there is “great admiration” for a punch bowl being exhibited by Sam. The work of Miss Birdie Atwood, the bowl is described as hand-painted with grapes, leaves, spiders and webs, with a gold stem. “The entire effect, designed by Miss Atwood, is charming and is highly creditable to the artist.”

BURGLARS DRIVEN AWAY FROM RICHES

November 22, 1912, Denver Post. Burglars again, this time breaking a window to get into Sam’s house, 1125 Clarkson Street, while he and the wife were away on vacation. Fortunately a private watchman arrived just in time to scare them off.

Problem is, they were still apparently out of town when this was published. The Post only made it worse with the following:

Blonger and his wife are out of the city, and, had the burglars not been interfered with, they would have been at liberty to ransack the house from top to bottom. 

Sounds like a dare to us. The Post reported the potential booty to be “thousands of dollars’ worth of Oriental tapestries, curios gathered from around the globe and silverware in abundance.” Thanks guys.

WOMAN UNDER THE HEELS OF RUNAWAY COLT

Mrs. Susie Orr

 

March 22, 1906, Denver Post, front page. Mrs. M.J. Orr was badly injured when one of Sam’s horses bolted. The colt was pulling a sulky up Sixteenth Street when workmen began using an electric riveter, sending the animal into a frenzy. The driver attempted to keep the horse under control, but when the harness broke the frightened animal took off at a gallop in the direction of Stout Street.

When the driver finally convinced the colt to turn in to the side, he kept charging, trampling Mrs. Orr on his way across the sidewalk and through the plate glass window of Fitwell’s clothing store. Both Mrs. Orr and the pony sustained nasty but non-lethal injuries. The sulky was a wreck.

TAX SALE

Several Salt Lake Herald listings from 1889 indicate Sam’s property at lot 4, block 28, plat G was to be auctioned in light of Sam’s delinquent tax bill, amounting to a measly $.75, all of three quarters.

In 1891 Sam bought back the same lot, and lot 1, from the county. Four months later he and wife Sadie signed the property over to Lou.

Via Con Dios, Sam Blonger

Finally, here’s Sam’s obit en español, from Estrella (Las Cruces, N.M.), February 20, 1914:

Samuel H. Blonger, uno de los más notables hombres de sport del oeste, y residente de Denver por más de treinta y cinco años, murió en su casa en Denver.

That is:

Samuel H. Blonger, one of the most remarkable men of sport in the west, and a resident of Denver for more than thirty-five years, died at his home in Denver.

The Widow Viles

Carrie Viles

Carrie Winsor Viles Blonger Hume

We’ve long known that Joe’s only marriage to widow Carrie (Winsor) Viles didn’t last long. A new article from the Albuquerque Daily Citizen, by way of the Las Vegas Optic, colorfully describes just how short it was.

UNLUCKY NUMBER

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

This is of particular interest in that we have recently been corresponding with Carrie’s grand niece, Sara Winsor Johnson (no relation to us).

Sara informs us that Carrie is remembered in the Winsor family as something of a dingbat. Sara’s grandfather recalled having to bail her out after her first husband died, and then when she and Joe split up. When her third husband, Ben Hume, died, she was on her own.  For what it’s worth, Joe is recalled as the best of her three husbands. Not sayin’ much, I guess.

According to Sara, the Winsor family — Windsor in some branches — can trace its roots back to William the Conqueror, and first came to these shores in 1638. Carrie, if I recall, was born in Vermont, just like all the Blongers.

As for those “herediments,” the story is a confusing one.

In March of 1892, Joe traveled far up the Pecos valley, north of Cowles, NM, to a place still barely accessible today. There he claimed 160 acres straddling the Pecos River as a homestead. (Just days later Sam and Lou would strike it big on the Forest Queen claim on Ironclad Hill, outside of Cripple Creek.)

Joe then went on to prospect in Colorado, Nevada, and Cochiti, north of Albuquerque. This is curious considering that a homestead claim must be occupied and developed to be retained. So how could Joe claim a homestead, and yet continue his itinerant ways?

In June of 1895, Carrie’s first husband, Charles Viles, passed away, and three months later she purchased Joe’s 160 acres. In 1896 she had a small cabin built.

In 1897 Joe was in Bonanza, and he bought property in Santa Fe. Carrie bought an additional piece of land in the Pecos valley. Then, in January of 1898, Joe finally recorded his 160 acre homestead.

In August Joe shot and killed Alexander Allan, operator of the Bottom Dollar Mine in the Cerrillos Hills, after Allan brandished a gun and threatened to kill Joe’s fellow miner Silas Smith with a rock. His trial was December 22, 1898, and he was acquitted.  About that time Carrie sold 140 acres of the land.

Joe continued mining around Cerrillos and Santa Fe. Then, in 1902, he finally married Carrie.

Less than three months later, they divorced, and Joe went back to the desert mountains of Cerrillos. The question then becomes, did they marry to somehow settle the rights to the land? Was Joe just doing Carrie a favor? Or was it truly love gone bad?

As for the land itself, it was eventually developed it into a dude ranch known as Mountain View.  In the late Seventies it was bought by the government, and is now just a meadow.

Mountain View

Mountain View Ranch

The Mark Inside on WILL

Sounds like Amy Reading will be doing another interview about The Mark Inside, this time in our old stomping ground, Urbana, on WILL-AM, the local NPR affiliate. Listen in on April 25th, or check it out afterward on the net.

Amy says her recent interview on NPR’s Saturday Edition was much longer than what was broadcast, and discussion of Lou got cut. Oh well. The WILL interview should be an hour, I’m thinking, so it should be well worth a listen.

Great New Photos

Amy Reading came up with a few photos for her book that are new to us. These two photos, for instance, of Blonger gang members Adolph Duff and George Belcher.

Adolph Duff

Kid Duffy didn't realize it was picture day

“Kid Duffy” managed the big store for Lou; as a matter of fact, Lou tried to throw him under the bus at trial, claiming they mostly just shared an office.

George Belcher

Tip wishes he'd gotten that haircut

“Tip” Belcher was the Blonger gang’s muscle, on hand when the touch came to make sure the money was safe even if the swindle went south.

I’m guessing both these photos were taken the day of the arrest, maybe even in the church basement that was used as a makeshift jail. Neither man seems yet reconciled to his fate.

This next one is “Big Joe” Furey, the leader of the gang that took rancher J. Frank Norfleet for $45,000. Furey worked Denver during the summer under Lou’s protection, but he could be found across the country, from California to Texas to New York to Florida, working the same game. I have long wondered what he looked like, but always thought he had the greatest name among a host of great monikers.

Joe Furey

Big Joe Furey looking dapper

Finally there’s this photo of Lou. We already had version, but this one is much better.

Lou Blonger

Another mugshot of Lou

Amy Reading on NPR

Amy more than held her own with Scott Simon last Saturday. You can listen in here: http://www.npr.org/2012/03/24/149148112/the-big-con-if-you-cant-avoid-it-avenge-it

True, she didn’t get around to Lou (it was only a seven minute segment), but we forgive her. Great job, Amy!

We’ll have more to say on her book, The Mark Inside, soon.

The Mark Inside

Looks like Lou will be coming soon to an NPR station near you.

The Mark Inside

Author Amy Reading will be on Weekend Edition with Scott Simon this coming Saturday, March 24th, to talk about her new book The Mark Inside (Random House Digital, Inc.).

For what it’s worth, she will also be on a Denver noontime TV news show on Wednesday (don’t have the details), and signing books at Boulder Bookstore on Thursday, March 22, at 7:30. 

Reading’s book focuses on Texas rancher Frank Norfleet’s quest to bring every member of the Furey gang to justice after they swindled him — twice — for a total of some $45,000. That would be some half-million bucks today. In the end his obsession brought him to Denver, then the epicenter of the American con, just in time to help Philip Van Cise spring his trap and bring down Lou’s machine in flames. District Attorney Van Cise convinced Norfeet to reprise his role as a sucker to help gather information on Lou’s Denver operation.

We first heard from Amy back in 2009, when her research led her to our site. In time she shared a few interesting items with us, including a depostion by Lou where he tries desperately to distance himself from his Big Store manager Adolph Duff.

My copy of the book is currently enroute, but Scott has had a look, and he is very suitably impressed — as is David Mamet, I might add, who wrote “Most scholarship reads like a trip to the dentist. The Mark Inside reads like a trip to the track.” Amy has really gone through the Denver archives with a fine-toothed comb, something we still hope to manage someday.

We will have more to say later; we justed wanted to give folks a heads up for this week’s interview.