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