No. 653
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
May 27, 2024

The Old Shell Game

July 18, 2011
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The archives of the Humble Oil & Refining Company are about the last place where you’d expect to run across a first-rate poltergeist account, but it just goes to show that we live in a funny old world.  In 1948, a folklorist and historian was browsing through the company’s papers when he came across a letter that had absolutely nothing to do with oil.  It read:Jan [illegible] '
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Strange Company - 5/27/2024
Included in yesterday’s trip to Fall River was a stop at Miss Lizzie’s Coffee shop and a visit to the cellar to see the scene of the tragic demise of the second Mrs. Lawdwick Borden and two of the three little children in 1848. I have been writing about this sad tale since 2010 and had made a previous trip to the cellar some years ago but was unable to get to the spot where the incident occured to get a clear photograph.  The tale of Eliza Borden is a very sad, but not uncommon story of post partum depression with a heartrending end. You feel this as you stand in the dark space behind the chimney where Eliza ended her life with a straight razor after dropping 6 month old Holder and his 3 year old sister Eliza Ann into the cellar cistern. Over the years I have found other similar cases, often involving wells and cisterns, and drownings of children followed by suicides of the mothers. These photos show the chimney, cistern pipe, back wall, dirt and brick floor, original floorboards forming the cellar ceiling and what appears to be an original door. To be in the place where this happened is a sobering experience. My thanks to Joe Pereira for allowing us to see and record the place where this sad occurrence unfolded in 1848. R.I.P. Holder, Eliza and Eliza Ann Borden. Visit our Articles section above for more on this story. The coffee shop has won its suit to retain its name and has plans to expand into the shop next door and extend its menu in the near future.
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Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 2/12/2024
When these photos from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York were taken at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery at the end of May in 1899, Memorial Day didn’t exist. “Decoration Day,” however, was an established holiday celebrated every May 30. The idea was to visit the final resting places of thousands of […]
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Ephemeral New York - 5/27/2024
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: […]
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Early American Crime - 12/17/2021
John Wesley Elkins.11-year-old John Wesley Elkins was slight of stature—four feet eight inches tall, weighing 73 pounds. He was intelligent and well-spoken, and he had never caused trouble until the day he murdered his parents. At 2:00 am, on July 24, 1889, while his parents were sleeping in their Iowa farmhouse, he shot his father in the head and then beat his mother to death with a club.
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Murder By Gaslight - 5/25/2024
CHIEF OF CONSThe Morning Times(Cripple Creek, Colorado)February 15, 1896Courtesy of Mitch Morrissey ig Ed Burns robs a dying man?      Mitch Morrissey, a Facebook friend and historian for the Denver District Attorney’s Office, found and published an interesting newspaper piece on "Big Ed" Burns, one of the most notorious characters in the West. Burns was a confidence man and
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Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 4/2/2024
Youth With Executioner by Nuremberg native Albrecht Dürer … although it’s dated to 1493, which was during a period of several years when Dürer worked abroad. November 13 [1617]. Burnt alive here a miller of Manberna, who however was lately … Continue reading
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Executed Today - 11/13/2020
“I’ve Taken Poison, Maudie!” | The Swindling Beggar

The Old Shell Game

Shell Game

America - The shell game is the oldest and simplest of the short cons.  Known for centuries in Europe, if it did not come to America with the pilgrims, it certainly arrived soon after.  In the classic shell game, a pea, or other spherical object, is placed under one of three walnut shells or thimbles. The shell man shuffles the shells around a flat surface, trying to confuse the player. The player wagers on which of the three shells contains the pea. The miracle of the shell game - from the conman’s point of view - is that everyone knows the game is crooked, but everyone thinks he can beat it.[more]

The most important fact pertaining to the shell game is that it is not a game. It is a tiny bit of theatre, a magic show presented at your expense.  If you see someone picking the correct shell, or if the player chooses wrong but you, as an observer, can always pick the correct shell, you are not watching a real player. The shell man and the shill are putting on a performance to make you feel confident enough to bet. When it is your money on the line, you can’t possibly win. The shell man palms the pea early on and can make it appear, or not appear, under any shell he wants. The shell man and the shill, and maybe one or two others-whose job it is to watch for the police and to make sure you stay interested-will split the winnings.

Three-card-monte

Three Card Monte

The most common form of this game in the United States is three card monte, in which three playing cards are used instead of shells and a pea.  The dealer will show three cares-two black aces and the queen of hearts, or two red deuces and the ace of spades, etc.-and he will toss them back and forth across the table. When the dealer is not trying to conceal its location, a careful observer can follow the money card, but when a real bet is placed, a simple flick of the wrist will swap the cards, unnoticed by the player. The selected card is turned over and amazed player is now a little bit poorer.

George-Devol

George Devol

Three card monte allegedly originated in the California gold fields in 1849 and spread rapidly across America. Though notoriety was not something a monte dealer would actively seek, by the end of the 19th century there were several whose names would forever be associated with the game. George Devol was a gambler on Mississippi riverboats. Contrary to the romantic image, a professional riverboat gambler was not a well-dressed, but adventurous, gentleman, in pursuit of lady luck; if he made his living gambling, he was a cheater. Only two types of men gambled on riverboats; cheats and their marks. When there was time, Devol would organize a crooked poker game; when there was not he would play three card monte. He did this for over forty years.

Canada-Bill

Canada Bill

Some said the best three card monte man was Devol’s longtime partner, Canada Bill Jones.  Though famous for his good heart and habit of giving away his winnings to those in need, Canada bill is also famous for saying, “suckers have no business with money, anyway.” Herbert Asbury described Canada Bill this way:

"The greatest Monte thrower on the Mississippi was Canada Bill Jones, probably the cleverest operator who ever “pitched a Broad,” and one of the few men who could display the Monte tickets and, in the very act of tossing them on the table, palm the queen and ring in a third ace, thus reducing the sucker’s chances to minus nothing."

He was also known as the worst dressed gambler on the river, wearing clothes that were too big, and looking more like a hayseed than a card sharp. No doubt that helped him succeed.

Soapy-Smith

Soapy Smith

Others say the greatest three card monte man was Soapy Smith. Jefferson Randolph Smith earned the nickname “Soapy” by selling soap in mining camps (he was portrayed in the recent television series, Deadwood, as the annoying little man always hawking “soap with a prize inside.”) He became one of the greatest American conmen, with one of the largest bunko gangs in history. But three card monte was his passion. He would be constantly working the crowds and when a crowd didn’t exist he created one. In 1892 he exhibited the body of a petrified man, known as McGinty, in Creede, Colorado,  with the express purpose of playing three card monte with those standing in line. Soapy Smith was killed in the Klondike in 1898, by a man who did not want to pay his three card monte losses.

As incredible as it seems, three card monte, and the old shell game, are still found on the streets of America’s cities. The fact that this particular hustle, despite frequent and persuasive debunking,  has thrived in our cities for over a hundred and fifty years, is pretty much all you need to know about America.


Sources:

  • Asbury, Herbert. Sucker's progress: an informal history of gambling in America from the colonies to Canfield. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1938.
  • Devol, George H.. Forty years a gambler on the Mississippi. Cincinnati: Devol & Haines, 1887.