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THE grossest fraud that ever masqueraded as a gambling game was three-card monte, which took more fools for their cash than any other card game. George Devol and three other smart Ohio and Mississippi rovers, Canada Bill Jones, Tom Brown, and Holly Chappell, teamed up to play it for four years during the 1850s and, engineered enough money away from the chumps to be able to divide a million dollars by the end of their partnership. During those four years they ate the best food, drank the choicest wines, and, between trips, enjoyed the charms of the costliest bordello ladies in New Orleans.
The three-card monte thrower operated with one or more confederates (cappers), all pretending to be strangers. It was the capper's job to induce suckers to watch and bet. After the supper tables were cleared, the first night on board a steamboat, the cheats would gather in the social hall. The gambler began his game by throwing three cards, face down and making leisurely passes on a table near where travelers were standing. The cappers, apparently attracted by what the gambler was doing, came forward, and other travelers, drawn by natural curiosity, also moved in.
The gambler showed the crowd the queen card and boasted that nobody would be able to pick it out among the three cards he laid face down and shifted around. He made certain this shifting was slow and easy enough for a spectator to follow, so one of them would step forward and turn up the queen. The cappers led the spectators in laughter at the gambler's expense.
The gambler threw the cards again and bet a small amount of money that -nobody could find the queen this time. If the spectators turned wary at the sight of money, a capper stepped up, turned over the queen and collected. The spectators were impressed and showed real interest, but the cappers might have to win several bets before any bystander was willing to try. Usually the smart monte operator threw the cards honestly for the first spectator who succumbed to temptation. The card thrower then showed signs of ruffled pride, swore "Win or lose all!" and threw a large sum of money on the table. He defied anyone to find the queen on the next play.
If he laid $1000 on the table, one of his cappers would take $100, but the gambler would refuse to throw the cards for less than the whole $1000. So the capper swapped taunts with the card thrower to divert his attention from the table long enough for another capper to lean over and bend a corner or mark the queen card with a pencil. Grinning, he showed the bent corner or mark to the crowd before the gambler turned around.
The gambler picked up the three cards, shifted their position again and invited the spectators to pick out the queen for $1000. The onlookers, seeing the marked card on the table, could not wait to get their money down on a sure thing. Frequently one of them selfishly tried to hog the entire bet.
When the bets were placed, the bettor confidently turned over the card with the bent corner. It was always an ace, never the queen. The slick gambler had straightened the bent corner or erased the mark and transferred the telltale to another card.
According to John O'Connor, writing under the pseudonym John Morris, a New Orleans sharper named Phillips was sent to prison for two years in New Orleans when he wan $700 from one bettor, the authorities terming his way of winning larceny. This precedent made cheating three-card-monte throwers liable to arrest and imprisonment, so for a while they made themselves scarce in Louisiana.
Later they began playing their fraudulent games in ramshackle saloons and gambling dives in the section known as the Swamp. From here they spread along the New Orleans waterfront. Their victims were generally transients, unlikely to complain to the police and stay around while the wheels of justice turned slowly. The throwers grew bolder when they found that the world was full of suckers and justice slumbered. Soon they were to be found in high-class saloons and at public balls and fetes. Curiously enough no record is found of this particular swindle in other parts of the Union till after the war with Mexico.
California was rife with three-card-monte men during the gold rush. Light-fingered American and English adventurers joined Mexican sharpers in throwing cards in the gambling hells and even in the streets of San Francisco and Sacramento, and at all the diggings of any consequence. Later, when California legalized gambling, monte and thimblerigging were classed as criminal and the state practically cleared of three-card sharpers.
After the Mexican War the throwers took to the steamboats without fear since the captains (it was believed that they collected one third of the profits) let them operate unmolested. Sharpers soon outnumbered the regular professionals four to one.
George Devol, an especially expert three-card-monte thrower, considered it his patriotic duty as a citizen to trim thieves and absconding bank tellers. He also "always enjoyed taking in detectives, for they think themselves too smart to be caught." On a trip to St. Louis on the Missouri Pacific Railroad, Devol and a fellow gambler named Tripp trimmed a United States detective bound for Washington out of $1000. The victim complained to St. Louis's Chief Detective Harrigan, who replied, "You must have expected to win or you wouldn't have put up a thousand dollars," and curtly told him to chalk the loss up to experience.
In Devol's experience the passion to bet on a sure thing was universal, embracing even ministers. One of his typical gambling encounters took place on the crowded steamboat, E. H. Fairchilds, bound for Louisville from New Orleans. A poker game, started Saturday night in the barbershop, continued till Sunday morning. Devol, winner to the tune of $8000, ate breakfast and went on deck for a smoke and a little fresh air before turning in for some much-needed sleep. A fine-looking gentleman of about sixty and, a little later the captain of the Fairchilds joined him. The old man was a minister from Louisville who asked the captain's consent to preach in the ladies' cabin. He put his arm around Devol and had him halfway down to it before the gambler realized that he was too late to get out of attending the service. The discourse on the evils of gambling included special reference to the game of the night before. Devol squirmed inwardly but chipped in liberally when the collection was taken.
Near midnight Devol went into the main cabin and found it deserted except for the minister, who was reading. As Devol had changed his clothes, the old gentleman did not recognize him. When the minister fulminated against gamblers, Devol pretended to be equally bitter, saying that he had been slicked in a threecard-monte game and lost $1000. The loss of the money did not bother him, he maintained, as his father was rich and always gave him more than he could spend. The minister plied him with questions, and Devol, acting the simpleton, said that he had the cards the gamblers had used and offered to get them if the minister wished.
The old gentleman thought it best to retire to Devol's stateroom to see how the gamblers had played. There Devol explained the game and allowed the minister to try it until he thought he knew all about-it.
"My dear sir," the minister said to Devol, "I can't see how you could lose money on anything so simple. I would not fail to pick the queen every time."
"I will put up $100 against your $100 and the winner will donate the money to your church," Devol proposed "I only want to show you how I lost my money."
He took out a thick roll of bills, peeled off $100 and offered to make it $200 if the minister agreed. The clergyman, his eyes glued to the roll of money, willingly put up $200.
The first round was the usual clumsy come-on and the old boy thought he had a steal, so he impetuously planked down $200 for another try. Devol kept throwing the three cards and palming the queen till the minister had lost $1000.
"I am really sorry," Devol protested. "This money will do me no good and will not be much use to your church. I want you to win your money back, so I'll put up my $1000 winnings against your watch and chain, and we can both have a laugh when you win back your money."
Needless to say the old man picked not the queen but an ace, Devol pocketed the watch and chain and his victim sadly bade him good night and went off to his own cabin.
Devol took the watch to the captain and told him the story, at which they laughed heartily, then he went to the reverend's room and found him on his knees.
"I was praying for you," said the minister.
"Hadn't you better do some praying for yourself?" asked Devol. "I prayed mostly for myself," the minister admitted.
"Here is your watch and chain and $100 of your money back," said Devol, who could not resist adding dramatically, "Sin no more!"