Grandpa Mike

For those of you who are unfamiliar with our website and version 1.0 of our blog, we’re starting out by taking a brief look at each of the Blonger brothers. In that spirit, let’s continue with great-great-grandpa Mike Belonger.

Mike and his daughter Clara

Mike and his daughter Clara

Born in 1841, Mike was the only brother of six that never adopted the Blonger spelling. He was also the only brother with living descendants – no surprise given he had nine daughters and a son, though his son was childless. Mike’s daughter Mary begat our grandfather, Orville Braley, whose daughter Charlotte June is our mother.

Mike’s primary claim to fame seems to be his talent with a fiddle. According to family lore, the famed Norwegian violinist Ole Bull, who toured the Wisconsin backwoods on several occasions, is said to have noted that “Mike Belonger has the world beat when it comes to playing reels, jigs, and clogs, on a fiddle.” Kudos to Mike for being an early proponent of World Beat music.

What’s more, Mike also had a fan in future president Ulysses S. Grant, who is said to have thought him “the best dance-fiddler on earth.” While this may seem to be a stretch, it’s more plausible than it sounds. Prior to the Civil War, Grant – already considered a hero of the Mexican-American War – was having a tough time in civilian life, and eventually went to work in his father’s leather goods store in Galena, Illinois, just a stone’s throw from the Belonger homestead in southern Wisconsin.

Mike's Fiddle

Mike's fiddle


The back of Mike's fiddle


With the outbreak of war, Mike was one of the first to enlist, joining Company I of the 3rd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry on May 8, 1861. After training on a hilltop perched above the family homestead, Mike soon found himself bound for Maryland.

The 3rd Wisconsin had a distinguished record, and we assume Mike played his part. The 3rd began its service by arresting the Maryland Legislature in September of 1861.

But here the record becomes a bit more mysterious.

In March of 1862 the 3rd made its way into the Shenandoah Valley to confront Stonewall Jackson, but the Federal plan went awry and Mike was among those routed in the First Battle of Winchester. This is from Mike’s service pension file:

“While in said service, and in the line of his duty as a soldier, at Culpepper Courthouse, Va., or near there, in August or September, 1862, the command in which he was, was cut off from communication with its base of supplies, and for want of food & nourishment he was for several days nearly starved, by reason of which he incurred disease of heart and rheumatic affection of the entire left side. For this disease he was taken to Columbia College hospital in September or October, 1862, where he remained until about the first of January, 1863. He was removed from said Hospital to Convalescent Camp at Alexandria, Va., from which he was discharged.”

The dates here, fuzzy at best, are critical. Was Mike relieved of duty after Winchester? Did he later fight with his company at Cedar Mountain, or Second Bull Run? More to the point, did he make it to the infamous cornfield at Antietam? Of 335 men in 3rd Wisconsin Infantry, over half (173) were wounded and 27 were killed at Sharpsburg.

Mike’s record only muddies the waters.

Mar. 10, 1886, Surgeon’s certificate recommending a total pension: “That he first noticed a severe pain in his heart at battle of Antietam, Vir. 1862. He was sent to hospital where he remained over 6 weeks.”

Okay. Grandpa Mike did his bit, and fought side by side with his Shullsburg buddies at one of the most horrific skirmishes in the history of American warfare. Other medical entries don’t contradict this conclusion.

Sept., 1862, Surgeon’s certificate recommending a pension: “Claims he incurred disease of the heart from exposure, hunger & hard marching in summer & fall of ’62 near Winchester, Va. He once marched 35 miles in 5 hours & again marched 3 days without a mouthful of food. Was disabled & sent to a hospital at Washington for 2 or 3 weeks & discharged on account of disability.”

Oct. 1862, Company Muster Roll: “absent sick in hospital since Sept. 20/62 place unknown”

But not so fast. Later records seem to disagree.

Dec. 1862, Company Muster Roll: “absent sick in hospital place unknown since Sept. 15 1862”

That’s two days before Antietam.

Dec., 1886, Affidavit of Michael Belonger protesting reduction in pension: “I received my breast trouble during Banks’ retreat from Winchester. I was sent from Culpepper to the hospital at Washington with the same trouble in my breast. It was Columbia College hospital, from there I was sent to Convalescent hospital near Alexandria, and was discharged as I believe for my breast trouble.”

That would be back in May, even before Cedar Mountain.

June 20, 1888, Surgeon’s certificate recommending a total pension: “In 1862 at Williamsburg, Virg., got disease of heart, later was sent to Columbia College hospital, there about 6 weeks. On his request to be sent Regiment he was sent away [sic]. Did not find Reg and was sent to Convalescent Camp in Md. and was discharged 10 days after.”

This is even stranger. Williamsburg should probably be Winchester. And what is meant by “later sent to Columbia…” Before Antietam? After? It’s also curious to hear that he both requested to return to duty, and that he was unsuccessful in doing so.

Mar. 23, 1890, Surgeon’s certificate recommending a 10/18 pension: “Contracted heart disease near Winchester, Va., on Gen. Banks retreat – did not go to hospital then but did in September November following and remained there until discharged for disability in January 1863.”

Jan. 28, 1891, Surgeon’s certificate recommending a 12/18 pension: “Contracted heart disease summer of 62 in Va. near Winchester not in hospital at that time afterward in Columbia College hospital – for six weeks – then went into Convalescent Camp and discharged on account of disability.”

These entries suggest that Mike was not immediately relieved of duty after Winchester. Currently I’m inclined to believe that Mike fought on after Winchester, even as his condition worsened over the summer of 1862. Perhaps the stress of battle at Antietam finally sent him over the edge.

Then again, from time to time I change my mind and find myself dubious that he ever fought again after Bank’s retreat across the Potomac.

Or maybe Mike just had a bad case of diarrhea.

Dec., 1893, Surgeon’s certificate making no recommendation: “Had diarrhoea in Va. in 1862, September went to Col. College Hospt., Wash. D.C., & has left me with chronic constipation.”

In any case, Mike returned home to Shullsburg, where he married and raised a family, and remained there rest of his life. We have heard his doctor prescribed two bottles of wine a day to ease his pain, and Mike complied.

Mike died in 1924, not long after Lou, leaving Joe the last of the Blonger brothers.

Little Big Joe

Now let’s talk about Joe, the Quiet One, the Lone Prospector, Joe Straight-Tongue.

Born in 1847, Joe was eight years Sam’s junior, and two years older than Lou.

Joe enlisted in the 125th Michigan Infantry just shy of his fifteenth birthday. The 125th saw more than its share of action in the Civil War, including the siege of Atlanta, and Sherman’s march to the sea.

Joe was shot at Atlanta, the minie ball passing through his arm and into his chest. We don’t know how long he was in recovery, but he did manage to hang on until the war was over, mustering out with the rest of his regiment at the end of the war. By then he had the rank of Seventh Corporal.

The bullet was never recovered, but was located by Joe’s physician in 1912.

Joe Belonger wound drawing

Joe Blonger's war wound. Note final location of bullet under ribcage.


After the Civil War, Joe went back to the Midwest for a while before succumbing to the gold bug. He is reported to have joined his brothers in Salt Lake City in 1873, and by 1875 he was in a mining camp in California.

After this, he doesn’t reappear until 1879, when he finally showed up in the Cerrillos Hills of New Mexico. Notwithstanding the occasional prospecting trip to California or Colorado, Joe would be digging in the New Mexico hills for years to come.

Joe's mines in the Cerrillos Hills

Joe's mines in the Cerrillos Hills


The Western Blongers were many things, but perhaps most of all they were mining men.  Simon, Sam, Joe, Lou, Marvin — all made their living to one extent or another by pulling precious metal from the ground. And Joe, perhaps most of all, was the quintessential Western prospector.

Which makes the stories Joe told all the more intriguing.

Back in the 1920s, on his rare visits back to Wisconsin, Joe apparently regaled his extended family with tales of the Wild West. His nephew, Gene Swinbank, never forgot those stories, and committed some to paper. Others he shared with his grand-niece, some thirty-five years after the fact, and she wrote an essay on the subject.

Both accounts make extravagant claims about Sam, but Armstrong, in particular, saves most of the glory for Joe himself.

From Armstrong:

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 have yet to place Joe in Arizona, and even if we could, we’ll still likely never know what happened to Joe out in the desert. He does, though, have more to say on the subject.

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.

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.

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.”

Will we ever know if Joe was a friend of the Apache?

On the other hand, Joe’s “hard-boiled desperado” did eventually turn up. His name was Alexander Allan, and he was Joe’s boss. Here’s how Joe described the killing to a reporter:

“For over a month past, Alex Allan, Cyrus [Silas W.] Smith and myself have worked and camped together at the Bottom Dollar mine. Everything had been pleasant among us, and while Smith and myself were working for Mr. Allan, no contract for any special length of time had been made, we were on good terms and no trouble of any kind had come up. Several days ago Mr. Allan run out of lumber and none could be gotten except from Chicago. Smith and myself wanted to come to Santa Fe until the lumber came, but to this Mr. Allan objected as he would then be left alone. We consented to stay until last Monday. On Saturday Mr. Allan came to Santa Fe and remained until Tuesday morning, when he came back to the mine, reaching there about 10 o’clock.”

“Mr. Allan and Smith then walked to Cerrillos to attend to some business and I stayed to watch the camp. They came back just before dark. I had supper ready for them, and we sat down and ate. Just as we had finished Mr. Allan asked me what I was thinking and I told him I was going over to the Bonanza mine to get a team to take me into Santa Fe, and Smith said he would go along. This seemed to anger Allan and he said we were nice fellows to leave him all alone. To this Smith replied: ‘We have to look after ourselves and if we want to go away you can’t help yourself.’ Allan jumped up from the table and drew his gun and covered us with it and said he would see if he could not keep us there. At this time Ed Andrews came up to spend the evening at the camp. Allan lowered the revolver for a moment and then threw it at Smith. It fell near me and I picked it up. Allan clinched with Smith and threw him to the ground. Allan picked up a rock and as he held it over Smith’s head said: ‘I’ll brain you right here.’ I don’t know how it happened, but I fired at Allan and the bullet struck him either in the chin or just below. Allan sprang up and ran in circles, falling as he ran. In less than five minutes after I shot him he was dead. Before he died, I went to him and told him I was sorry, very sorry that the shooting had happened. He tried to answer me, but his breathing was so difficult and the blood was rushing from the wound so rapidly that I could not understand what he said.”

“So soon as I saw he was dead, I got on a horse and went over to the Bandana mine and hitched to a wagon and drove to town, and gave myself up to Sheriff Kinsell. That is all there is to it.”

Joe was eventually acquitted.

Armstrong claims Joe scouted with Buffalo Bill, and both accounts have him hanging out with Wild Bill in Deadwood when Hickok’s brains were blown out. Evidence has been in short supply. Armstrong does  mention Joe’s war wound. True enough. “He carried that bullet with him to the grave.”

Joe’s “chief” claim to fame, though, was his supposed report with the Indians of the Plains.

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.

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 one 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.

Armstrong saves the greatest detail for Joe’s tale of the Little Big Horn.

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.

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.

What follows is apparently Joe’s account of the battle.

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.

It is a well-known psychological fact that if a grown-up person likes children, is kind to them, and treats them fairly and honestly, those children will tell that person the truth.

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.

The picture of the battle he paints is still controversial, but the general gist of his account was at odds with common contemporary perceptions. In essence, the Souix tell him that Custer’s party was dead the moment they dismounted.

Joe married once, to widow Carrie Viles, for a very short time. He had no children.

Joe was retired from the mining life around 1908. He stayed  in several veteran’s hospitals and retirement homes over the years, and eventually he moved to Seattle. In 1930, he was beaten and robbed by a young man he had taken in. As his health declined, he found himself shuffling between caretakers, until his death in 1933 of gangrene poisoning.

Let’s wrap this up with Joe’s own words.

“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. That’s my advice to all young men — mind your own business and don’t get drunk.”

How Bout Sam?

Lou’s older brother Sam was born, like Lou,  in Swanton Falls, Vermont, in 1839.

Though no photos of Sam are known to exist, it is said that in many ways he was Lou’s complement; where Lou was short, stout and affable, and prone to rely on his personality to get his way, Sam was tall and imposing, with a taciturn disposition, and a fiery temper.

The first of the Belonger brothers to go west, Sam’s early days are still something of a mystery. We know he crossed the Green River in 1859, at the age of eighteen, with a large train of seventeen wagons bound for California. By 1861 he was in Aspen, where he voted in a territorial election. In 1865 he took possession of a tract of land near Sacramento.

There were tall tales, though, that painted a more vivid picture. Brother Joe told stories of Sam arriving in Denver when it consisted of only a few cabins — which would have been a short window indeed, in the fall of 1858. He also claimed Sam scouted with Bill Cody in the hills above Denver, where they fought off an Indian attack. Sam’s obituary claimed that he hauled freight across the Sierra Nevada mountains between Sacramento and Austin, Nevada. Whether any of these stories are true, or partly true, we don’t know. What we can say with confidence is that this period in his life was surely filled with dangerous adventure.

Upon his return to the Midwest after the Civil War — purportedly via the Isthmus of Panama — Sam hooked up with little brother Lou, and soon they began their tour of the western mining camps. Over the next  fifteen years they had at least eight saloons in Utah, Nevada and Colorado, and soon became known across the West as the Blonger Bros., saloon men, gamblers and mining speculators par excellence.

In 1879 Sam ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Leadville. The Blongers had several mining claims near the town, and a theater in nearby Georgetown.

By 1882 the boys had moved on to the fledgling city of New Albuquerque — situated along the new rail line that passed within a mile or so of the old city — and shortly thereafter Sam was appointed marshal. A news account said that he already had extensive experience in “official work,” suggesting this was not the first time he had worked in law enforcement.

Sam’s tenure in Albuquerque is well-documented in the local news. His first official action seems to have been to extort a traveling peddler — who mysteriously recanted his accusation the next day. The local businessmen (who paid Sam’s salary) immediately began to question their support for Sam.

But then he got down to business. New Albuquerque was a rough young town, with more than its share of saloons and whorehouses, and the railroad was bringing a steady stream of dangerous and unpredictable men to town; a firm hand was needed to keep the peace. Sam seemed, at first, to fit the bill.

Over the next few weeks dozens of troublemakers were either jailed or sent packing, including the notorious Big Ed Burns. Along with his deputies — which included his brothers Lou and Joe, the local judge, and Earp crony Charlie Ronan — Sam faced horse thieves, pistol-packing barkeeps, and a host of gun-wielding drunks — all summarily (and peaceably) dispatched. Sam seemed to be just what the town needed.

As time passed, Sam continued his efforts to clean up the town. When the Rocky Mountain Detective Association set up an office in town, Sam and Lou joined up, and Sam even pursued an appointment as a deputy U.S. Marshal. But things were already beginning a downhill slide.

One of the local papers had taken a dislike to Sam, and what’s more, his brother Lou was not making things any easier. Lou had a brothel, and was occasionally caught cheating poker. It may well be that Sam was putting his thumb on the scale, using his position to protect the activities of some, while their competitors were compelled to move on.

Whatever the case, Sam eventually seemed to lose interest in the job, and on July 10 the local sheriff relieved him of duty.

After Albuquerque Sam and Lou parted ways for a time, with Sam devoting himself to his thoroughbreds, running horses in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, and elsewhere.

Finally, in 1888, Sam and Lou joined forces once again, this time taking Denver by storm.

In Denver they would again open a long series of saloons and gambling houses — nine at least — along with gambling outposts in policy shops, cigar stores and candy shops all across towns. Conniving with the likes of Soapy Smith, Big Ed Chase, and Bat Masterson, they fixed elections, and nurtured gangs of bunko men, who had a host of swindles but relied largely on crooked poker games run in private rooms at the back of their joints. When the police came calling, the Blongers were there to post the bail.

In 1892, Sam and Lou struck it (pretty) rich with the Forest Queen gold mine in Cripple Creek. As partners they had two present and former Denver district attorneys, who surely came in handy. The money also didn’t hurt when it came to making payoffs of various kinds. Their influence was on the rise.

In 1895, after members of Ed Chase’s gang were arrested for a swindle perpetrated by the Blonger’s crew, Sam was arrested in an attempt to pressure him into giving up the guilty parties. The case eventually fell apart, but it seems the damage may have been done. While Lou went on to consolidate his hold on Denver crime and politics, Sam largely disappears from the news after this incident.

Sam died in Denver in February of 1914.

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 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…