New York, New York, The badger game—possibly the most lucrative and insidious con game of the 19th Century—ensnared hundreds of men a month in New York City alone. The premise is very simple; a man is approached by an attractive young prostitute, usually when the man is intoxicated, and he agrees to follow her to her room. Then, just as they are about to consummate the bargain, the door bursts open and the woman’s angry “husband” storms into the room, threatening violence, legal action, and public exposure. Eventually, the husband agrees to back off if he is paid a large sum of money. The mark pays and quickly leaves. Of course, the incident is never reported.
The Victorian era in America, characterized by extreme modesty and prudery, was, ironically, also a golden age of prostitution. Every city in America had a red light district and, though prostitution was illegal, it was tolerated and even encouraged by city governments who viewed the social evil as a public necessity. Though it wasn’t discussed openly, it was believed that men had certain needs that had to be met. However, this applied only to the lower classes; a gentleman would never admit to visiting a prostitute. This attitude guaranteed the success of the badger game.
In 1880s New York, the king of the badger game was a gangster named Shang Draper. Draper ran a saloon on Sixth Avenue and Twenty-Ninth Street and a staff of forty female employees who lured drunken customers to a whorehouse on Prince and Wooster streets. In another house, Draper employed girls aged nine to fourteen. In this variation, the “parents” of the girl would burst in and easily shake down the mark.
Another noted New York badger game operator was Kate Phillips who, reportedly, one night took a visiting St. Louis coffee-and-tea dealer back to her room. A policeman burst into the room and caught them in flagrante. He arrested the coffee-and-tea man for adultery and took him to court where the judge fined him $15,000. The man paid the fine and was never seen again. The whole setup—the cop, the court, the judge—was phony.
A related scam is the panel game. While the mark is suitably distracted, with his pants draped across a conveniently placed chair, another man, known as a “creeper,” opens a sliding panel in the wainscoting quietly enters the room and steals the mark’s money and jewelry.
The simplest variation of the badger game is known as the Murphy game allegedly named for its inventor, a clever pimp named Murphy. He would describe a beautiful prostitute and persuade the mark to give him the money, thus eliminating the possibility of being caught paying a prostitute. Murphy would get the money then send the mark to room 419 (let’s say) of the whorehouse. By the time the mark realized that room 419 did not exist, Murphy was long gone. Murphy revolutionized the field of prostitution by eliminating the need for a prostitute.