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A Pair of Knaves
George Devol, one of the most accomplished gamblers who ever riffled a poker deck or trimmed the gulls at three-card monte, also wrote his memoirs. His Forty Years as a Gambler on the Mississippi' never gained the popularity of Jonathan Green's confessions and diatribes, perhaps because he was cheerful, unrepentant, and stuck considerably closer to the truth.
Young George embarked on his rough-and-tumble career by running away from his home in Marietta, Ohio, at the age of ten, to become a cabin boy on a riverboat in 1839. Before he was fourteen he could stack a deck of cards smoothly and cheat all the other boys. During the Mexican War young Devol went down to the Rio Grande and fleeced the soldiers of their pay, then stopped in New Orleans for several months for a high old time before going back to Ohio.
Two years of honest labor calking steamboats for the large wage of four dollars a day were too dull for George. He was haunted by the memory of himself, not yet seventeen, with thousands of dollars in his pockets, enjoying wine, suppers, and girls and coming home loaded with presents for his family. So he kicked his calking tools into the river and told his brother, "I will make money rain."
Back an the riverboats he won hundreds of thousands of dollars from cotton men, land speculators, bank defaulters, thieves, army paymasters, fellow gamblers, and anyone else with ready cash and gambling spirit.
To attract the Southern planters, he posed as one himself, training the colored roustabouts all up and down the river to call him "Massa" whenever they saw him. At each landing he made a great show of bidding his "slaves" farewell. "Good-by, Massa George," the most antique of the Negroes would cry out loudly for the benefit of passengers, "I's goin' to take good care of the ol' plantation till you come back."
Another of the Negroes would carry Devol's saddlebags aboard and watching passengers took it for granted that he was a bona fide plantation owner of great means. His clothes were compatible with the role he had chosen: a long broadcloth coat, high hat, gray trousers, ruffled white shirt, billowy silk tie adorned with a diamond breastpin, and a vest embellished with hand-colored foxhunting scenes. This peacock strutted to the bar, greeting all within shouting distance, and paid for drinks from a bank roll so thick it made every eye pop. Devol was now certain to be invited to take a hand in the first big poker game that started. Every man aboard wanted a shot at this "rich planter's" money.
Devol was as tough as he was flamboyant. His two-hundredpound frame was topped by a remarkably thick skull and he was capable of taking or giving considerable punishment. When Devol butted his rivals they curled up on the floor like possums a boulder had fallen on. One Kentucky bully said, "The first lick he hit me, I thought my neck was disjointed; and when he ran that head into me, I thought it was a cannon ball."
"I whipped myself when I hit his head," cried another frontier brute.
At twenty-five Devol claimed no man lived who could best him in a butting match and at fifty-eight could write proudly, "In most of all the many fights that I have been engaged in, I made use of what I called `that old head of mine.' I don't know (and I guess I never will while I'm alive) just how thick my old skull is; but I do know it must be pretty thick, or it would have been cracked many years ago, for I have been struck some terrible blows on my head with iron dray-pins, pokers, clubs, stone-coal and boulders, which would have split any man's skull wide open unless it was pretty thick. Doctors have often told me that my skull was nearly an inch in thickness over my forehead. They were only guessing at it then, of course, but if my dear old mother-in-law don't guard my grave, they will know after I am dead, sure enough, for I have heard them say so."
Devol gave his most notable butting performance in the winter of 1867 when John Robinson's Traveling Circus played in New Orleans and featured the famous William Carroll, "The Man with the Thick Skull, or The Great Butter," and advertised that he could outbutt any man or beast in the circus except the elephant. Carroll took on all comers and even smashed heavy doors to pieces by dashing his head against them.
One night after the show two of the circus owners and their hardheaded attraction met George Devol and other big-time New Orleans gamblers in a saloon. One of the circus men boasted that Billy Carroll could kill any adversary with his head. Dutch Jake, an outstanding sporting man, started flashing money. He had $10,000 to bet on a man Car-roll could not kill. Devol knew whom he had in mind but was in no mood to change the social occasion into a gambling match. "Don't bet, boys," he said. "Mr. Carroll and I will come together for fun." A long cord was stretched across the barroom about six feet above the floor, a piece of cloth tied in the center. Gambler and circus strong man took up positions five paces from the cloth, as was customary in butting matches. The two men were to strike each other where the cloth hung.
They ran together at a signal and the impact sent Carroll over backward. Devol, considerably heavier than his opponent, had not even butted his hardest. When Carroll came to, he staggered up to Devol, laid his hand on the gambler's head, and said, "Gentlemen, at last I have found my papa."
General Benjamin Franklin Butler, after commanding the Union land forces in the capture of New Orleans in 1862, was made military governor of the city, and closed all the gambling dens the day he took over. But about two weeks later he granted legal permits for public gambling houses to any professional willing to pay for the privilege and, it was whispered, take the general's brother, A. J. Butler, as'a partner in the enterprise.
Devol made a barrel of money out of this regime, managing the Oakland race track. He had paid $50,000 for a string of nineteen horses and won mightily on fixed races. During meets he worked his monte games in the grandstand, and after the track closed dealt cards in the sporting houses where the fans gathered. He managed to relieve plunging army paymasters and Union officers of so much money they complained to General Butler and the gambler was hauled before the provost judge, fined a paltry thousand dollars, and given a year in jail.
Life in prison was pleasant for Devol. During the day he took money from the many rich and important Southerners incarcerated with him. Each night, accompanied by his jailer, whom he bribed to help him spend his winnings, he toured the city's hot spots. Deval's friends saw to it that he wanted for nothing, a good bed, a shower, the best food. General Butler, making a surprise visit one dinner hour, exploded when he saw the game birds and expensive wines set in front of Devol and his fellow prisoners. "The damned rascals are living better than I ever did!" the general roared.
After several months Devol was released by Governor Shepley, who considered his crimes trifling and pardoned him on his promise not to beat Union Army personnel at cards. Devol abided by this till General Butler confiscated his horses at the Oakland track. For revenge Devol immediately trimmed a Union paymaster of $19,000, bought a few horses, and reopened the track.
General Butler's command was shifted to Virginia and North Carolina, so Devol, along with the rest of his profession, carried on freely for another two years until General Stephen A. Hurlburt, finding that the paymasters' gambling was draining the funds from the Department of the Gulf, clamped down and closed all gambling houses.
Devol moved into Mobile in 1865, directly after General Canby captured that city, and opened two gambling houses. "Paymasters in the army were among the best suckers we had," he said.
When big money play started to taper off and Mobile officials began enforcing strict anti-gambling laws, he sold out and returned to the riverboats on the Mississippi and the packet boats on the Missouri. He even followed the Union Pacific westward, dealing poker and throwing monte in wild end-of-the-run towns like Julesburg and Cheyenne, taking cowboys, mule skinners, buffalo hunters, desperadoes, and railroad contractors for their money.
At St. Louis he was persuaded to operate a keno game that netted him $200 a day, but St. Louis and keno were not the riverboats and three-card monte and he sold out. The Mississippi was in his blood so, though the flush ante-bellum days were past, he went back to what his rambling heart reco~nized as tiae nearest place to home he had ever known.
It was marriage that, at last, ended river life for him. Women had always lost their heads over the big gambler with the handsome features who dressed in fancy clothes and was unfailingly gallant to ladies. It was inevitable that he would fall in love and when he did marry he settled down in Cincinnati with his wife and mother-in-law.
Devol had very little money when lie married and quit gambling. His winnings during forty years of gambling easily totaled over $2,000,000, but, like most men of his kind, he never could hold onto it. He loved fast horses and was as bad a sucker as any when he stood on the customer's side in faro and was often "braced" out of his money bucking the tiger at a crooked table.
At fifty-eight Devol sat down and wrote his memoirs. He no longer gambled-his wife and a formidable mother-in-law saw to that -but he was still as slick as the best of them at stacking a deck or palming a card.
William, better known as Canada Bill, Jones teamed up with Devol on the riverboats for years. Canada Bill was without doubt the greatest three-card-monte sharp ever to work the boats, perhaps the greatest of them all. He was a little runt who weighed in at a hundred thirty pounds, as Devol described him, "medium-sized, chicken-headed, tow-haired ... with mild blue eyes, and a mouth nearly from ear to ear, who walked with a shuffling, halfapologetic sort of gait, and who, when his countenance was in repose, resembled an idiot ... his face was as smooth as a woman's and never had a particle of hair on it . . . he had a squeaking, boyish voice, and awkward, gawky manners, and a way of asking fool questions and putting on a good-natured sort of grin that led everybody to believe that he was the rankest kind of sucker - the greenest sort of a country jake."
He had been born in a gypsy tent in Yorkshire, England, where his parents, like other gypsies, lived by mending pots and pans, telling fortunes, trading horses, and practicing cunning of all kinds. Young Bill, proficient in gypsy roguery, was adept at playing, and cheating, at cards. By the age of twenty he had won as much cash as the gypsies were willing to risk so he migrated to Canada.
With Dick Cady, one of Canada's leading three-card-monte sharps, who taught him the tricks of the trade, Jones traveled all over civilized Canada for several years, cashing in on the old bentcard trick in monte. Bill became the star thrower of the team, so Cady generally acted as capper.
Bored by his successes against the Canadians, Bill heard of the rich Southern cash to be had on the Mississippi riverboats. Cady refused to leave, so Bill went south alone. His reputation preceded him and when he reached New Orleans he was made welcome and a partner by George Devol, Tom Brown, and Holly Chappell. Four years later, when the foursome split up, Canada Bill and Devol continued to work the riverboats as a team until the Civil War. The smoothest partnership in American gambling broke up when Canada Bill caught Devol trying to finesse him out of a lar7e sum of money.
He picked up his cards and left the riverboats after the war when they no longer offered the attraction of big money and the ranks of gamblers were overcrowded. His next partner was Dutch Charlie, with whom he operated for a while in Kansas City. After winning $200,000 they looked for other green pastures.
They found them on the trains that ran from Kansas City to Omaha. With strings of cappers they soon began taking money from the passengers. North or south, on riverboat or train, threecard monte was still a suckers' game and the supply of victims was endless. Complaints were soon pouring in to the railroads by the hundreds.
Railroad officials, the Union Pacific in particular, tried to clamp down on the Canada Bills who worked their trains. Conductors on the U.P. were directed to refuse passage and remove by force if need be, all three-card-monte players found in the cars, on pain of immediate dismissal from their jobs. At this Canada Bill wrote boldly to the general superintendent of the Union Pacific, offering $10,000 per annum for the sole right to throw three-card monte on the line and sweetened the proposition by stating his willingness to confine his game exclusively to Chicago commercial travelers and Methodist preachers. The U.P. hardheartedly rejected the scheme and he had to seek suckers elsewhere.
Canada Bill traveled north and east to find prospective chumps among race-horse fans and the throngs of visitors to the great county fairs prevalent in the 1870s. Chicago, growing, bustling city of lakes and prairies, was earning a reputation at the time as a gamblers' paradise. In 1874 Canada Bill decided to give the people of Chicago a chance to fall for the bent-card fraud. He was assisted in this undertaking by Jimmy Porter and "Colonel" Charlie Starr, both accomplished rascals and former riverboat practitioners. According to detective Allan Pinkerton, he "secured an understanding" with the police and opened four crooked gambling joints. Bill was the chief three-card monte artist at these houses and before long Chicago's bunco men were "steering" victims to him.
Within a year Canada Bill had won $150,000, but he did not have a dollar to his name when he left Chicago soon afterward. He had been taken to the cleaners at casino and other short-card games. For all his success he was known as the world's biggest short-card chump, who never refused and never won. As Devol said, "He loved gambling for its own sake, just as the moralists love virtue for its own sake."
From Chicago, Canada Bill and Jim Porter went to Cleveland, but, though the suckers were many, Bill dropped all his money to other professionals. He left Cleveland in 1877, went to the Charity Hospital in Reading, Pennsylvania, and died there, a pauper.
The mayor of Reading saw to it that he received decent burial and was reimbursed by the gambling gentry of Chicago when they heard that Canada Bill had cashed in his chips to the Big Dealer.
In Fools of Fortune, John Quinn wrote of the funeral that Bill was recognized as a general all round confidence operator, and so distrustful were those who knew him of appearances which he put forth that ... as the coffin was being lowered into the grave one of his friends offered to bet $1,000 to $500 that `Bill was not in the box.' The offer found no takers, for the reason, as one of his acquaintances said, `that he had known Bill to squeeze through tighter holes than that."
O, when I die, just bury me In a box-back coat and hat, Put a twenty dollar gold piece on my watch chain To let the Lard know I'm standing pat.