The other day I stumbled upon some high school papers I’d written back in the late 1960s. Among the fragments of essays and term papers, there were a few pages about crime figures of the Old West of the 1800s. Most of the essays were missing several pages. The “Big Springs Train Robbery of 1877” page captured my attention, but the paper about the Nebraska crime was mostly missing. Frustrated and disappointed, I moved on to some of my other early writings about miscreants and felons.
My youthful attention had been captured by a couple of lesser known rapscallions of the frontier. With a combination of gambler’s luck and instinct for fraud, they were minor legends in their day.
George Devol’s 50-year career started in 1839, when he ran away from his Marietta, Ohio home at age 10. He became cabin boy the the steam powered riverboat, Wacousta. He found jobs on various other steamboats. Young George observed the card players and gamblers who frequented the boats. In his early teens he had learned “Seven-Up” and the fine art of bluffing.
Soon he could palm cards, deal seconds, and recover the cut. He was born with a thick skull that came in handy during his time as the greatest riverboat gambler on the Mississippi River. You could say he used his forehead as a weapon many times. He survived hits from pokers, clubs, large rocks, and stone-coal.
At the outbreak of the Mexican War, the 16 year old Devol was hired as a barkeeper on the steamboat, Corvette. Onboard that boat, he met a cardsharp who taught him how to stack a deck of cards. Once Devol reached southern Texas he used his skills to swindle his fellow soldiers. At age 17, he gathered his winnings and returned to his Ohio home. That’s where he learned to play Rondo and the infamous game of Faro.
The young man continued to work the riverboats up to the time of the Civil War, raking in several hundreds of thousands of dollars. The war years signalled a dwindling number of riverboat passengers, so a change in venue came about. Devol worked the towns around Kansas City. Then following the war, he followed the growth of the railroads in the early 1870s towards Cheyenne, Wyoming.
By the 1890s, the era of riverboat and railroad gambling was finished. Devol retired from the gambling halls and published an autobiography. It’s believed that he won more than $2,000,000 during his gambling days. But he was practically broke when he passed away in Hot Springs, Arkansas in 1903.
Even more famous than George Devol was an English immigrant who spent his formative years in Canada. William “Canada Bill” Jones was one of the star-quality card sharps of the 1800s on the American frontier. His game of choice was Three-card Monte. The game proceeds much like that of a standard shell-game.
Canada Bill’s best asset was his talent to play an idiotic fool. He was born with a high-pitched, squeaky voice. he paired that with the ability to act like a clumsy country bumpkin. To anyone who didn’t know him, he resembled a moron. He wore clothes that were a couple of sizes too big. He was skilled in asking foolish questions and sported a gawky, good-natured grin that made him look like a total greenhorn.
For most of his life, Canada Bill made his living as a swindler. Besides his special skills at Three-card Monte, he was a cardsharp at poker. Canada Bill’s favorite game was Faro. By the time the riverboat gambling trade died away, Canada Bill worked the trains. One day, the swindler wrote a letter to the general superintendent of the Union Pacific Railroad in Omaha offering payment of $25,000 to ensure exclusive rights to run a Three-card Monte operation onboard the UP trains. The railroad executive politely turned down the business offer.
In the end, Faro became Canada Bill’s undoing. Instead of saving his gambling profits, he prefered to recirculate his money. At the time of his death by consumption (tuberculosis)in 1880 at Reading, Pennsylvania, he was bankrupt and broke. His burial expenses were paid by the city of Reading. When news of Canada Bill’s death reached Chicago, a group of his cohorts in petty crime passed the hat to repay the city of Reading and to buy a gravestone for Canada Bill.
The Blue Jay of Happiness says that upon being told by George Devol that a Faro Game in Baton Rouge was crooked, Canada Bill replied, “Yeah, but it’s the only game in town!” Some historians claim that the quote was used more than once in other towns as part of his “moron-rube” con.