No. 424
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
May 22, 2019

The Sawdust Game

January 10, 2012
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English Franciscan John Forest was burned at Smithfield on this date in 1538 … the undercard to the simultaneous “execution” of a downthrown idol of Saint Derfel Gadarn. The latter had been ripped from its shrine at Llandderfel in Gwynedd, Wales: the place gets its name from Derfel himself and its devotion to its Celtic […]
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Executed Today - 5/22/2019

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Coming in May! Warps and Wefts is excited to announce the publication of “Dressing Miss Lizzie”, a collection of paper …

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Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 4/23/2019

via Newspapers.com Phantom cats and a mysterious death. Who can ask for more in an old newspaper story? The "Brooklyn Daily Eagle," March 13, 1886: Ghost stories from the credulous and nervous gentlemen who draw salaries as guardians of the peace in the precinct covered from the Graham avenue station are becoming frequent. Last week they saw the ghost of an Italian. On Thursday night a
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Strange Company - 5/22/2019
Jeff and Joe Soapy Smith buries Joe Simmons The Illustrated Police News April 9, 1892 (Click image to enlarge) oe Simmons was a tall, slender gambler known to many as “Gambler Joe” Simmons, a member of the Soap Gang who managed Soapy Smith's Tivoli Club in Denver, 1890, and Soapy's Orleans Club in Creede, 1892. According to William Devere’s poem "Two Little Busted Shoes," Simmons
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Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 3/25/2019
In July 1890, a man came into the 126th Street Police Station in Harlem, New York City, to report a conversation he had overheard in an elevated train. A young man and woman sitting near him were talking about the mysterious disappearance of Miss Goodwin from the Storm King flats on East 126th Street. They believed that she had been foully dealt with by “professional malpractioners.” The woman
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Murder By Gaslight - 5/18/2019

I’m not the first old sign enthusiast who came across this beauty of a beer sign on the tenement at 317 East Fifth Street. Grieve wrote it up back in January, and I’m sure other fans walking along this quiet East Village block noticed the ancient signage, too. “S. Cort Wines & Lager Beer” the […]
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Ephemeral New York - 5/19/2019
[Editor’s note: Guest writer, Peter Dickson, lives in West Sussex, England and has been working with microfilm copies of The Duncan Campbell Papers from the State Library of NSW, Sydney, Australia. The following are some of his analyses of what he has discovered from reading these papers. Dickson has contributed many transcriptions to the Jamaica Family […]
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Early American Crime - 2/7/2019
A Characteristic Present | Pretty Female Billiardists

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. [more]

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.