No. 458
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
January 21, 2020

The Sawdust Game

The "sawdust game," was a confidence scam that only swindled those who deserved to be swindled.
January 10, 2012
...
...

On this date in 1877, the British put a bow on a suppressed rebellion in Malaysia by executing one of its leaders. The conflict is known as the Perak War. Perak was a sultanate on the Malaysian peninsula that had been torn by conflict for much of the 19th century and in 1874 sought protectorate […]
More...
Executed Today - 1/20/2020

`
(Click image to enlarge) new quote attributed to bad man "Soapy" Smith Discovered in an edition of the Alaska Mining Record, April 5, 1899. ______________________ The sensational press of the east are now engaging in some real pipe dreams of their own, and allow a column or two of Canadian and American fights on the Atlin and Porcupine border to creep into their paper. One
More...
Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 1/16/2020

Ivan the Terrible may have been, well, terrible, but it was after he died in 1584 that the pure hell really began to break loose. Ivan left numerous children by various wives and mistresses, an uncertain succession, and a royal court containing more than the average number of psychopaths. It was easy to predict this would not end well. Ivan was initially succeeded by his oldest son, the sickly
More...
Strange Company - 1/20/2020
Beginning on January 1st, W&W will begin featuring fascinating short clippings from the Fall River papers and other newspapers from …

Continue reading

More...
Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 12/29/2019
This week we present a guest post from Shelley Dziedzic of Lizzie Borden: Warps & Wefts, a blog devoted to the Borden murders and the city of Fall River, Massachusetts—"News, articles and photos about The Lady, The Crime, The City and The Era.” Shelly is a member of the Muttoneaters, a group that investigates all things related to Lizzie Borden, and the Pear Essential Players who annually
More...
Murder By Gaslight - 1/18/2020

By foot, streetcar, horse-driven carriage, automobile, or elevated train, New Yorkers at the turn of the 20th century came to do its shopping on 23rd Street—the northern border of the Ladies Mile shopping district, which boasted eminent stores such as Stern Brothers and Best & Co. 23rd Street was such a busy shopping corridor, postcards […]
More...
Ephemeral New York - 1/20/2020
[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 […]
More...
Early American Crime - 2/7/2019
The Cardiff Giant | The Astor Place Riot

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. 

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.