May 15, 2010

The book: Medicine Man

The Shell Game


Over on the Magic Cafe Forum is an interesting post regarding Soapy and the shell game. Forum member Mota writes

I was reading an interesting book about a doctor who did medicine shows late 1800's-early 1900's, then became a licensed doctor who did house calls for forty four years. The book is Medicine Man by Owen Tully Straton, edited by Owen S. Straton.

The book is the result of the son's (the editor) compiling notes his father made while doing medicine shows and practicing medicine during this time in history.

I was surprised when reading the glossary at the end of the book he related his experience with Soapy Smith and the shell game in Skagway, Alaska. It is on page 241, under the heading "Shell game". The rest of this post is what is in the glossary...punctuation is as in the book. Enjoy...

"In a 1949 letter my father wrote, "A shell game was worked with half of three English walnut shells lined with putty to make the insides smooth so the pea would roll out easy. Actually, it wasn't a pea at all but a small ball made out of soft rubber. A sucker bet that the pea was under a certain shell and won if the pea was there and lost if it wasn't. In the game's most deadly form, a booster or shill among the onlookers would pretend to surreptitiously remove a pea from under a shell, press it in the hand of a sucker, and whisper to the sucker, 'Bet him that it isn't under any of them.' If the sucker made the bet, the shellman would tell him to pick up the shells himself. Low and behold, there would be the pea the sucker though he had in his hand.

"In Skagway in 1897 a highbinder called Soapy Smith was the brains of as tough a gang of goons as ever came down the pike. They had a saloon named The Klondike in which they operated all the sure-thing games known to wolves. When an incoming steamship announced its arrival by a blast from its whistle, Soapy's henchmen would yell, 'Fresh Fish!' and head for the landing, where they would pose as a welcoming committee and try to steer the new arrivals into their trap.

"They also ran shell games on both the Skagway and Dyea trails. One day when I was hiking from the foot of the trail to Skagway, I saw one of those shell games operating on the wagon road. The shellman was a big Irishman named Dan Daley. He had his little table set up in about four inches of snow, and the boosters all carried dummy packs on their backs.

"I halted to see how they worked, believing that with my whiskers and mackinaw clothing I looked like any come-on. It seemed, however, that I didn't, because I hadn't stood there for more than a few minutes when Mr. Daley looked up and advised, 'Better run along and peddle your papers, young fellow. You can't make any money around here.' I, not hankering for a punch in the nose, took his advice and moved on."


The information contained in Medicine Man is very comparable to the information in my own book. The Klondike Saloon was indeed one of three known dens operated in part by the Soap Gang. The shell man "Dan Daley" is no doubt Bill Daily, one of Soapy's partners. It was reported by Daily's (and Soapy's) friend, Bat Masterson, that Soapy, Daily and another partner cleared nearly $30,000 in less than a month on their first trip to Skagway.












William "Bill" Daily: pp. 360, 388.
Shell & pea game: pp. 8, 10, 15, 27, 51, 53-55, 58, 64, 72, 78-80, 92, 99, 110, 112, 115, 141, 205, 210, 229-31, 248, 250, 256, 308, 351, 362, 368, 465-67, 471-72, 475-77, 482, 492, 498, 505, 535, 548, 594.












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