Denver Was ''Sucker Center''
Empire Magazine, Denver Post, (no date 1950s)
Denver Was "Sucker Center"
...until the D.A. nailed Lou Blonger's bunco gang
There never was another racehorse like Deneen. Man o' War? A good horse, but he lost a race. Not Deneen. Deneen was a real sure thing.
One afternoon at Eighteenth and California streets in Denver, he won three races in less than thirty minutes. He parlayed $1,000 into $92,000 almost as quick as you can say "confidence game."
That was a typical performance for Deneen. Flying around the old Denham building racetrack, he was as beautiful a sight as you could hope to see.
But, alas, you couldn't do more than hope to see Deneen. For this incomparable horse, Deneen the Invincible, lived only in a world of make-believe - though it was an extremely profitable world for those who dreamed him up for the boobs to bet on.
Deneen was one of the gold-plated gimmicks devised by Denver's notorious "bunco swindlers" thirty years ago.
The Queen City may never see again such an assortment of rascals as the buncs on the payroll of King Lou Blonger when the 1920's began.
"The Big Store"
Denver was the Blonger gang's special sucker preserve, or, as they called it, their "Big Store." "Big Store," in the underworld parlance of the day, signified a town where the confidence game worked like a machine - where the law knew its place.
Lou Blonger was looked upon for some time with tolerance. If his boys swindled a rube tourist out of $25,000, who was going to squawk? Only a rube, and he deserved a cleaning for being such a chump. And Lou observed the code. Denver residents, by his strict order, were "off limits" to his bunco men.
Official estimates of the con man's loot ranged up to $3 million a year.
Lou Blonger, then 73, was a stocky, affable ex-bartender of French-Irish descent. As boss-fixer for the "Big Store," he had a friendly "in" with many a Denver bigshot.
Lou's right hand was Adolph (Kid) Duff, a small, wiry fellow with dark, wavy hair, whose career in Colorado Springs had made that city's police tolerant of him.
Under these two bosses were the steerers, spielers, cashiers, and tailers. Top steerers for the "Store" were Audley Potts, "Shady" Brady, Louis Mushnick and Leon Felix. The champion spieler was Arthur B. (Artie) Cooper. The cashiers were J.H. (Jackie) French and Les Randle. George (Tip) Belcher was the tailer.
There was nothing new about their game, but it worked. It was profitable enough to pay for fancy cigars and women and to keep Jackie French in embroidered silk shorts.
How did the bunco work? Consider the case of Oscar Lane, an middle-aged dirt farmer from Oklahoma.
Locating a Pigeon...
Louie Mushnick, the steerer, met Lane in the parlor car of a train on the way up from Colorado Springs. Next day Louie took Lane for a ride in his Buick. They got pretty chummy. The day after that, walking along Seventeenth street, they noticed a man scribbling something on a slip of paper.
"By gosh," Mushnick said. "I think I know that man. Excuse me, Oscar, while I say hello to him."
He addressed the stranger. "Excuse me, sir," he said, "but aren't you a friend of Judge Johnson's from Kansas City?"
"I beg your pardon," the stranger replied coolly. "You have the wrong person, I'm afraid."
"Well, I certainly could be mistaken," Louie said, "but I was sure you were the judge's friend, the one he told me had just made a killing on the Kansas City stock market."
"Well, sir..." The stranger, who was Artie Cooper, hesitated for a moment and then in an embarrassed and confidential tone he admitted that he really was Judge Johnson's friend and had cleaned up $50,000 in Kansas City. He showed Mushnick and Lane "credentials" (listing an alias), and a "bond" certificate showing that a surety company had $200,000 worth of faith in him.
He explained nervously that at all costs the newspapers mustn't learn he was in Denver, that he was telling them this so they wouldn't mention even having seen him. His Kansas City venture, you see, had made quite a splash in the headlines. His employer, a conservative man, had been distressed.
"I'm certainly sorry to hear that," Louie said. "My friend, Mr. Lane, and I could certainly use a tip from you so we could make a little money, too."
Artie rubbed his chin. "Gosh, I do know of some good things," he said, "but I just hate to take a chance. Still, I think a lot of Judge Johnson, and I'd like to help a friend of his. I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll pull off a little deal for you. Wait here."
He took a $10 bill out of his wallet and walked around the corner. Five minutes later he was back, with his own ten spot and two more. He nonchalantly handed a ten each to Louie Mushnick and Oscar Lane.
The Oklahoman was flabbergasted. "I don't have any right to this," he protested. "I didn't put up a cent."
"That's all right," said Artie. "I wouldn't want to bother you for any of your money. Anyway, it was a sure thing."
Louie pleaded with Artie to cut them in on something bigger. Artie pondered. He fretted. Then, suddenly, he snapped his fingers. "Fellows," he announced, "I'm going to do it. I'll have to use your names with the broker, but I'm going to do it."
He led them toward Eighteenth street, explaining that he knew a little brokerage office in the Denham building. He would manipulate the stocks and they would split the profit three ways.
He showed them into a second-floor suite, containing a large board showing market quotations. (On other afternoons it might be a "bookie parlor.") Artie stepped up to the cashier, Jackie French, and began "trading." Before Oscar Lane had figured out what was going on, he had "made" a fortune.
...And Plucking Him
Bales of money - real money - were pressed into his hands. Louis was dancing around the room with more money. Then, at the last moment, the cashier asked Lane and Mushnick to show proof of their good credit standing. After all, they must be able to prove they could have paid if they had lost.
Lane, of course, had no credit references in Denver. The cashier was horrified. He snatched back the bales of money and sternly told both men they must prove their good faith by showing him $25,000 worth of long, green bills.
Mushnick said his uncle in Chicago would lend him that much money. What was Lane going to do? Just what Lane did. He went to Oklahoma and got his savings ($15,000 he had mentioned to Mushnick a couple of days before) and returned to Denver. He took his money to the bunco suite and dumped it in front of the cashier.
Jackie French was amiable. Lane's profits would have to be brought over from the main office. Would the gentlemen mind waiting a few minutes?
Lane sat down. In a few minutes Louie Mushnick and Artie Cooper walked in, Mushnick carrying his bundle of bills, too. Louie decided he'd do a little "trading."
Stocks Profitable - for Blonger
Then a terrible thing happened. Louie used his own money and Lane's, too, and he "invested" in the wrong securities. The market acted; the money was lost. The $30,000 and all their previous winnings were wiped out.
Mushnick angrily blamed Cooper for a wrong tip; Cooper said Mushnick had sold when he should have bought. There was a spirited fight (in which nobody got hurt) and French ordered all three men out of the office.
Oscar Lane didn't find out for two years that the whole setup was a fake - that Jackie made up the stock quotations himself; that Jackie's telephone line led only as far as the inside of his desk drawer.
Louie's cut was 42 per cent and Artie's, 15 per cent. Jackie French pocketed 5 per cent and Tip Belcher, the tailer, who had protected Lane from "harm" while he was carrying his $15,000 along the city streets, got his 2½ per cent. The rest went to Duff and Blonger.
"Midwest Power" stock, a profitable Blonger special, always rose from a quotation of 18 to a mark of 20 whenever a sucker needed a build-up. Midwest conveniently dropped to 18 again when it was time to nick the props out from under the rube.
Then there was "Baldwin Locomotive" stock. Henry John Gray, a tent-and-awning manufacturer from England, fell so hard for "Baldwin" that he sailed all the way home to get $25,000 for the buncs. A steerer had picked up Gray at a fly-casting exhibition in Denver's civic center.
One thing bothered Lou Blonger as [summer] slipped by in 1922. It was the young district attorney, Philip S. Van Cise. Van Cise had closed down some gambling joints and bawdy houses. The boys said he was thinking about the bunco ring.
There were reports that a fellow with binoculars was staked out in a hotel room across from Blonger's headquarters in the American Bank building, Seventeenth and Lawrence Streets. Blonger investigated that one, too. Seemed some nosy gent, a hosiery salesman, had had the room but had checked out.
The buncs worried less. Hell, they'd been watching for a lion and seen a pussycat. It was apparent by this time that Van Cise wouldn't know a con if he saw one.
One night the D.A. and his staff tipped over a speakeasy on Seventeeth street, netting Audley Potts and another bunc, "the Painter Kid." The boys had all their "Big Store" papers on them - phony letters, bonds, and such.
Van Cise merely glanced at the papers and told his raiders, "These two seem to be respected businessmen. Let them go."
When the federals arrested Walter Byland, another con man, Van Cise paid no attention. Finally, with a scornful snort, Blonger bailed him out.
The Lid Went Off
Then, the last week in July, Van Cise announced he was taking a month's vacation in the mountains. Wanted a complete rest - no visitors, no telephone. The word went out quickly. The "Big Store" would open for business July 28. Lou and company had had their rest and wanted to get to work.
Leon Felix soon hooked a prospect, a small, slight mustached Texan named Mulligan. Mulligan mentioned he had some money to invest. Just looking at this innocent made Felix congratulate himself.
Spieler Artie Cooper disagreed. Mulligan was too jumpy for Artie, who advised Felix to let him go. But Felix clung tight. He even moved with Mulligan in to room 310 of the Metropole hotel.
At 7 o'clock, the morning of Aug. 24, 1922, there came a knock on the door of 310. The sound was to echo all along the bunco trail - in Kansas City, Los Angeles, Hot Springs, Ark., Miami...
Young Kenneth W. Robinson, Van Cise assistant, and a state ranger were standing outside when Felix opened up. They told him to come along. It came as a blow to the steerer that "Mulligan" wasn't Mulligan at all. He was really J. Frank Norfleet of Hale Center, Tex., a man with an enormous hatred for bunco operators. Blonger and his wolves should have recognized Frank Norfleet, even then known as "the nemesis of the con man."
It was Norfleet who had sent notorious Joe Furey to his deathbed in the Texas state pen. Furey had sheared $45,000 from Norfleet two years before, and the Texan vowed revenge on all buncs.
Soon after Felix was taken, Blonger was arrested at bunco headquarters. Kid Duff, strolling downtown from his Capitol hill flat, was picked up. By nightfall, twenty-six others were in custody.
They all expected to go to jail, but they didn't. In private cars, the buncs were hauled to an east Denver alley. They were forced down a forbidding back stairway into a big basement. The bad boys thus were corralled in the First Universalist church, East Colfax at Lafayette street.
Not a cop was in sight, but Phil Van Cise was there. He made the situation terribly clear to Lou Blonger.
Van Cise had been preparing the bunco roundup for over a year. His vacation was a trick. The D.A. and his assistant, Robinson, had communicated daily, gathering evidence, setting the trap. Norfleet, a chance visitor, was a welcome volunteer agent.
Van Cise had raised $15,000 privately to snare the Blonger ring without tipping off the wrong people. Names on his subscription list read live a Denver Who's Who: Boettcher, Cranmer, Dines, Downs, Evans, Hendrie, Kountze, Morey, Mullen, Reed, Stearns and Sweet.
Drivers of the captor cars included Robert G. Bosworth, George Cranmer, Christopher F. Cusack, William W. Grant Jr., Fred W. Hart, Cass M. Herrington, Russell Jordan, Edwin S. Kassler, Paul and William Loughridge, William D. Sanborn, Oliver Toll, J. Herbert Wilkins, Arthur D. Wilson and Earl Wright.
Six Tense Days
Van Cise had monitored all of Blonger's long distance calls, his telegrams and mail. The "hosiery salesman" Lou had spotted in the hotel across from bunco H.Q. was Andy Koehn, crack private detective from St. Louis. Andy had watched the bad boys with binoculars and listened to their conversations through a dictaphone planted in Blonger's chandelier.
And Les Randle, one of Blonger's trusted men, turned stool pigeon.
August 26, felony charges were filed against the gang in west side court. Attorneys Horace N. Hawkins, Tom Ward, Sam Crump, William A. Bryans, Mike Waldron and others lined up on the defense. Ex-judges S. Harrison White and Harry C. Riddle were named as special prosecutors.
The twenty buncs, including all the big ones, went on trial early in 1923 before Judge George F. Dunklee. A dozen victims moved in and out of the witness stand to tell the jury how the buncs had clipped them for a total of $250,000. Randle, Blonger's Judas, sang his part of the song.
By the time all the evidence was in, March 22, more than eighty witnesses had put 1,400,000 words and 524 exhibits into the record.
The jury deliberated six tense days. Denver gamblers were betting two-to-one against conviction. The jurors came in March 28. Their verdict: All guilty as charged.
Lou Blonger got seven years. In little more than a year he was dead.
Kid Duff finished his time and returned to Denver, but late in 1929 his dead body was found in his Clarkson street garage. The Kid had solved his problems with carbon monoxide.
The other buncs scattered across the country. The million-dollar bunco ring was gone. The "Big Store" was out of business.