No. 583
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
November 29, 2022

The Sawdust Game

The "sawdust game," was a confidence scam that only swindled those who deserved to be swindled.
January 10, 2012
...
...

Tag: Insanity

Crazed by Politics.

Lendall Pratt, and aged Long Islander, kills himself while in a political frenzy.

11/7/2016

She Liked Her Lager Beer.

A Murray Hill belle, with a fondness for the Teutonic beverage, sets up a keg in her boudoir.

8/24/2015

A Terrible Scare.

7/8/2014

Undercover Lunatic.

5/26/2013

Insane Criminal Escapes.

1/27/2013

Cursing In Church

Westfield, Ohio, October 23, 1887 - The Sudden Insanity of Rev J. R. Young. He uses profane language in a Sunday school at Westfield, Ohio.

12/20/2011

Cursing In Church

12/20/2011
Fifteen-year-old Jody Randall of Long Beach, California, was in most ways a typical suburban teenager.  The one thing that set her apart was a passion for antiques which was unusual for someone of her youth.  As a result of spending all her available free time (and her parents’ money) on her hobby, she eventually amassed some impressive pieces, including a doll collection noteworthy enough to
More...
Strange Company - 11/28/2022
`
Shell and Pea Game on the Trail"Sketched from life by M. W. Newberry"San Francisco ChronicleApril 10, 1898(Click image to enlarge)    UNKO MEN AND THEIR TRICKS      A wonderfully detailed description of the modus operandi of Soapy Smith's three shell and pea manipulators along the Chilkoot and White Pass trails. Witnessed and reported by Joseph D. Barry, and published in the San Francisco
More...
Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 11/21/2022
Working as a domestic servant in 19th century New York City had plenty of challenges. Sure, servants received room and board in addition to their wages, and they usually had at least Sunday afternoon off. But living in another family’s home was isolating and lonely—particularly if you didn’t speak English or weren’t accustomed to urban […]
More...
Ephemeral New York - 11/28/2022
On this date in 2002, Pakistani Mir Aimal Kansi, Kasi, or Qazi was executed by lethal injection in Virginia, U.S.A. “Real angry with the policy of the U.S. government in the Middle East, particularly toward the Palestinian people,”* Qazi on January 25, 1993 revenged himself on Central Intelligence Agency commuters queued for a left turn […]
More...
Executed Today - 11/14/2022
Museum of the City of New YorkWilliam Howe and Abraham Hummel were the most successful criminal lawyers in Gilded Age New York. With a combination of skill, showmanship, and unethical practices, they defended most of the city’s significant criminals and many of its murderers. Whether they won or lost, Howe and Hummel made every trial sensational. Here are a few of the many accused murderers
More...
Murder By Gaslight - 11/26/2022
Wishing you a happy and bountiful Thanksgiving Day! Lizzie is thankful for turkey and all the trimmings – and no mutton broth in sight!
More...
Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 11/22/2022
An article I recently wrote for the British online magazine, New Politic, is now available online. The article, “The Criminal Origins of the United States of America,” is about British convict transportation to America, which took place between the years 1718 and 1775, and is the subject of my book, Bound with an Iron Chain: […]
More...
Early American Crime - 12/17/2021
The Cardiff Giant | The Astor Place Riot

The Sawdust Game

Counterfeiting was an extremely lucrative crime in the nineteenth century, but it required skilled craftsmen and an intricate distribution network—it was not for amateurs. However, the "sawdust game," a confidence scam spawned by the success of counterfeiting invited amateurs. And it had the additional appeal of only swindling those who deserved to be swindled. 

The sawdust game (also known as the “green goods game” or the ”boodle game”) was usually played in rural areas. A “circular” was printed up and mailed to men who were known to be attracted to lotteries and other get-rich-quick schemes. The form letters would flatter the recipient and mark him as a man well positioned to handle the goods in question, then provide a thinly veiled description of said goods:

“My business is not exactly legitimate, but the green articles I deal in are safe and profitable to handle. The sizes are ones, twos, fives, and tens. Do you understand? I cannot be plainer until I know you mean business, and if you conclude to answer this letter.”

If the mark responds to the letter he is directed to meet the writer at a specific address, it may be a disreputable saloon in his own town, or he may be directed to a hotel another city. There he will be met by a steerer who will lead him to the signatory of the letter. He is taken to another location, the “factory,” which could be in another city altogether. Here he is shown a sample of the ”goods,” which will not actually be counterfeit but consist of crisp new legitimate bills. The mark may protest that they will not fool anyone, but inwardly he is amazed at how real they look. The “counterfeiters” make him an offer that, depending on the quantity, could be as low as six cents on the dollar.

Charles-Smyth
"Doctor" Charles Smyth
A notorious sawdust man.

The mark agrees and pays cash for his green goods, the bills are counted in his presence, bundled, and put into a bag. While they celebrate the transaction with a drink, and discuss future deals, one of the gang will switch the bag of cash for another. As he leaves, the mark is warned that, for everyone’s safety, he must not look inside the bag until he reaches his destination.

Of course, when the bag is opened, it is found to contain nothing but blank paper, or enough sawdust to give it the proper weight. He is left with no recourse; only a fool would tell the police he was swindled while trying to buy counterfeit money. In the words of Alan Pinkerton:

“It is safer than almost any other system of swindling, because it is practiced upon men, whose cupidity overcomes their judgment, and who in their desire to swindle others, become dupes themselves. For this reason the “sawdust swindler” invariably escapes punishment, as in order to arrest these men the victims are compelled to acknowledge their own dishonesty.”

In spite of the reluctance of victims to come forward, by the end of the century, sawdust game and its players were well known to police. This, however, did not seem to have any effect on the number dupes it attracted.


Sources:

  • Byrnes, Thomas. Professional criminals of America. New York, N.Y: Cassel, 1886.
  • Pinkerton, Allan. Thirty years a detective: a thorough and comprehensive exposé of criminal practices of all grades and classes, containing numerous episodes of personal experience in the detection of criminals, and covering a period of thirty years' active detective life. New York: G.W. Carleton & Co., 1884.