Pronouncing the Name

When we first saw the names Belonger and Blonger, we assumed, as you may have, that they were pronounced like the word “longer“. It’s hard to tell because the name is very nearly unique, but the evidence suggests three options:

We use what we believe to be the Americanized pronunciation, which rhymes with conjure.

If you’re feeling French, give it that continental sound, blohn-zhuh.

Or if you’re a cheesehead, you may say like some still say Belonger in the old home town, be-lahn-jee.

Meet Lou Blonger

Born in 1849, he enlisted in the Union Army at age 15 as a fifer. He only served a few weeks, until a fall injured his leg, which left him with debilitating “varicose veins” that served as a good excuse for a lifetime of avoiding real labor.

Lou Blonger

After the war he hooked up with his older brother Sam, who had just returned from high adventure in California and Colorado. They then embarked on a tour of the western mining camps, opening saloons and prospecting in Salt Lake City, Dry Canyon, Stockton, Virginia City, Cornucopia, Tuscarora, Silver Reef and by 1878, Salt Lake City again.

By this time, the pair were well known by prospectors, gamblers and hangers-on all across the West as the Blonger Bros. In 1878 it has been said that they sat across the table from the likes of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and Bat Masterson in the gambling halls of Dodge City.

By 1879 they made their way to the Leadville/Denver area, and opened the Novelty Theatre in Georgetown. Sam ran for mayor of Leadville.

Venturing on to New Albuquerque in 1882, Sam became marshal, and often enlisted Lou as his deputy. In between running his brothel and gambling with the guys, Lou helped Sam chase horse thieves, shoot it out with drunken bartenders and arrest various miscreants. When Earp and Holliday passed through town after their Vendetta ride — still wanted by the Arizona authorities — Sam was out-of-town, and Lou filled in as marshal during the two weeks the posse was in town.

After Albuquerque, Lou spent time in Deming, New Mexico, and had another saloon in San Bernardino, California. In 1888, one of his former prostitutes shot a client in the head, and found herself in an Arizona jail. Lou came to the rescue in nothing flat, and she went free.

Next stop was Denver, finally. Over the next few years Sam and Lou opened a series of saloons and gambling houses, which were also used by their affiliates to run crooked poker games. Over the years they branched out into the policy shop business and are said to have owned a number of these. At election time they helped coordinate elicit voting activities in the tenderloin district, and over time came to control thousands of votes.

Over the years the other bosses, like Soapy Smith and Big Ed Chase, faded from the scene, but Lou grew in influence. The more money he made, the more money he had to spread around, to judges, cops, deputies, district attorneys, mayors and more — and the more he spread around, the more he made.

Through the early years of the Twentieth Century Lou disappeared from the news as his circle of protection grew stronger. And his protection extended to the men who bilked visitors to Denver out of increasingly large amounts — $10,000, $20,000, $50,000. His cut of the take, in turn, meant more money for more protection. By 1920, Denver was the bunko capital of America, with dozens and dozens, even hundreds of grifters plying the Denver streets and giving Lou his sizable cut.

Denver became a laboratory for the confidence man’s unusual science, and his minions developed some of the most interesting methods for separating a sucker from his cash that the world has ever known, including a con known as the Wire — which was portrayed with great authenticity in the 1976 film The Sting.

Lou BlongerIt wasn’t until 1922, with the anomalous election of reformer Philip Van Cise to the office of District Attorney, that Lou’s fortunes began to change. Hiding his efforts from the police and sheriff’s departments, Van Cise conducted an unusual investigation that resulted in the arrest of over thirty Denver bunko men, and Lou as well. They were eventually tried as one, and despite Lou’s best efforts to hang the jury, all were found guilty.

Lou died in a Colorado penitentiary a few months later, at the age of 74.

The Blonger Bros. Investigation Continues

A few words of introduction to new readers:

Lou Blonger

The previous incarnation of this blog began in 2003, shortly after we first discovered our connection to history: great-great-great-uncle Louis Belonger, from rural Wisconsin, had grown up to be the notorious Denver gangster and confidence man known as Lou Blonger.

Blonger’s arrest and conviction has been extensively documented, primarily in Philip Van Cise’s Fighting the Underworld, but also in a host of other books, about confidence men, mostly, and scholarly papers on the psychology of the swindle. And most of those are largely based on Van Cise’s work.

But that particular story only encompasses the last few years of Lou Blonger’s life. He died in a Colorado prison at the age of seventy-four.

In fact Blonger had a good seventy years of adventure before that final chapter, and his brothers were no slouches either. The story so far, in a very compact nutshell:

  • Five of the Belonger brothers, Simon, Sam, Joe, Lou and Marvin, went west from Wisconsin in search of adventure. Only Mike, crippled in the Civil War, remained behind.
  • Known out west by the name Blonger, the five brothers were, in various combinations, soldiers, scouts, teamsters, saloon men, showmen, gamblers, lawmen, detectives, prospectors and miners, politicians and fixers, grafters and grifters, gunmen, cheats, pimps and killers.
  • Their story stretches from the beginning of the Pikes Pike gold rush through the Roaring Twenties.
  • They ran with the likes of Bill Cody, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, Bill Pinkerton, Big Ed Chase, Soapy Smith, and an army of less notable but no less colorful characters. Those they claimed to know were as eminent or more — U.S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln, George Custer and Wild Bill Hickok, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Geronimo too.
  • They ranged the country in its entirety, from Vermont to Seattle, from San Bernardino to Miami. They lived in an incredible variety of locales, and always seemed to be where the action was, from Pikes Peak to Salt Lake City, Sacramento, Tuscarora, Virginia City, Deadwood, Dodge City, Santa Fe, Leadville, New Orleans, Albuquerque, San Francisco, Cripple Creek and Creede, Denver, and beyond, from Honolulu to the Isthmus of Panama to Havana.
  • Finally, and most importantly, no one, it seems, had ever before tried to truly document the astounding lives of Lou Blonger and his brothers – beyond Lou’s well-documented final chapter in Denver.

 

Uncovering this great story of the West has been a buzz. We hope you enjoy our efforts.

Interested parties can visit the old version of this blog to see how the many interesting pieces of this puzzle have come together over the years. Or just persuse BlongerBros.com for all sorts of intriguing stories, pictures, maps and more.

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We, by the way, are brothers Scott and Craig Johnson. We live in Illinois with our beautiful wives, and we both work in IT. We are joined on occasion by younger brother Jeff, a programmer who lives in Boulder.

Hello Twenty-First Century

We’ve finally made the obvious move and created an actual blog. Please subscribe, so you’ll know that something new has been posted! All new information will appear here.

Just for the record, though our updates have been few and far between of late, our work continues. and — most importantly — we’ve been doing some writing. This story isn’t over yet…