“I am conducting a fair legitimate business. My mission is to trim suckers.”
Going through my files I wanted to begin writing about some of the other bunco men working in Denver, either with or in direct competition with Soapy. I kept running into “Doc” Baggs and realized I needed to explain him first.
His name is, Charles L. “Doc” Baggs, inventor of the gold brick scheme and Soapy’s predecessor to Denver’s underworld bunco throne. Not only is he important as a stepping stone for Soapy but once Baggs abandoned Denver several key members of the gang he left behind were absorbed into the Soap Gang. These names included “Troublesome Tom" Cady, George Millsap, George Wilder, J. B. Parmer, Con Sullivan and others.
Historical accounts identify Baggs as an early bunco gang leader in Denver and Soapy Smith as the rising leader of another gang. Baggs favored large profits from wealthy dupes. These targets required elaborate, “big-store” swindles that usually took place indoors and involved fake businesses. These operations were often on par with large theatrical productions requiring a set and cast of characters, and could last for days. Baggs left the short cons to Jeff. One of the major drawbacks to Baggs’ methods was that once a large haul had been received, he often times had to flee to avoid arrest and official inquiry. Jeff, on the other hand, was able to stay put and continue operating in the same location because he had many ways of keeping a lid on his businesses, including the rare complaint.
These two dominant gangs in Denver were said to be competitors, and they may have been in some respects as both were organized under different leaders and competed for overlapping portions of the same resource. But apparently plenty was to be had as no instances of warfare between rival gangs are known. Further, plentiful evidence shows that gangs were in the habit of joining forces during city elections to support officials who secretly promised not to interfere with bunco brotherhood businesses run by the gangs that supported them.
I am naturally drawn to the history of Baggs in Denver and what brought him there in the first place and how Soapy was able to assume the throne once Baggs abandoned Denver. Did he leave on his own free will? Was the law too close on his tail? Did Soapy force him out of the seat of power?
Baggs is credited with inventing the "gold brick" confidence scam. He fleeced many wealthy and prominent people by selling them counterfeit gold bars. According to well known historian and author, Robert K. DeArment in his book, Knights of the Green Cloth: The Saga of the Frontier Gamblers, Baggs fleeced a number of men, including
“Tom Fitch and L. B. Howard, officers of the Cedros Island Mining Company of San Diego, and Leadville banker H. M. Smith. Fitch and Howard handed over $15,000 for one of Doc’s bogus bricks, and Smith contributed $20,000 to the Baggs “bag.” Miguel A. Otero, later governor of New Mexico, was taken for $2,400 by Baggs in April, 1882.”
The history of Baggs before competing with Soapy in Denver is one of constant movement due to his methods. DeArment writes that Baggs began his crime career as protégé of the famous three-card monte king, “Canada Bill” Jones, shilling for him on trains out of Omaha. DeArment also found that the book, Vigilante Days and Ways by Nathaniel Langford, 1890 shows that Baggs was arrested in July 1873 along with John Bull, Ben Marks and a couple of shills named Cuming and Connor for robbing a James Wilkinson in a crooked poker game aboard a train outside of Omaha, Nebraska.
I found Baggs next in the gold camp of Deadwood, South Dakota, where newspaper accounts show he operated from spring 1877 through the first months of winter 1879. It is estimated that he had amassed $100,000 while there (Omaha Daily Bee, 1882). The blog Deadwoodpoker lists those newspaper accounts in which Baggs’ name was mentioned.
To be continued…
To be continued…