Canada Bill Jones

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William "Canada Bill" Jones (c. 1837–1877) was a noted confidence artist, riverboat gambler and card sharp. He has been described as "without doubt the greatest three-card-monte sharp ever to work the boats, perhaps the greatest of them all."[1]

Life[edit]

Born in a Romanichal tent in Yorkshire, Jones learned the classic scams young. At twenty, he migrated to Canada in search of fresh marks. He honed his three-card Monte while travelling Canada as a thrower with Dick Cady. When Jones wanted bigger game, he left Cady and headed south to the Mississippi riverboats. There he joined up with George Devol, Holly Chappell and Tom Brown, working the boats. When the foursome broke up, Devol and Jones kept at it until the American Civil War. They fell out when Jones caught Devol trying to cheat him.[1]

However, as Devol told the story, Jones cheated him first, and Devol simply repaid himself at the first opportunity. Devol also said that Jones was tow-haired, blue-eyed, never had a hair on his face or weighed more than 130 pounds, often complained of pains in his head, and "could turn monte with the best of them." The foursome made good money: Brown's share of the take was $240,000.[2]

A detective who knew Canada Bill said he was "as gentle as a woman and as cunning as a fox" and "could beat any man at his own game." And he liked to "snake in" the greenhorns.[3]

George Devol added that Canada Bill was generous to a fault. Devol had seen him many a time hand over as much as $50 to a Sister of Charity he passed on the street.[4]

After the war, Dutch Charlie was Jones' next partner, this time in Kansas City. When they won $200,000 there, they decided to move on to working the Omaha, Nebraska to Kansas City trains. When the Union Pacific Railroad management started clamping down on three-card Monte players, he wrote the general superintendent of the railroad, offering $10,000 a year to secure an exclusive franchise, but was rebuffed.[1] Other accounts variously claimed that Canada Bill offered the officers of the Union Pacific $1000 a month or $30,000 a year if they would let him play monte on their trains — and he would only play preachers.[5]

Jones moved on to Chicago, in 1874, teaming up with Jimmy Porter and "Colonel" Charlie Starr. There he opened and worked four gambling joints, all crooked.[1]

He won and lost $150,000 in a year, consistently falling for short card cons. Moving on to Cleveland with Porter, he continued to lose to professionals there as fast as he won from his marks. He moved on in 1877, dying a pauper in the Charity Hospital at Reading, Pennsylvania. The mayor was reimbursed for the funeral by the gamblers of Chicago. John Quinn wrote in Fools of Fortune that

"... as the coffin was being lowered into the grave, one of his friends offered to bet $1,000 to $500 that `Bill was not in the box.' The offer found no takers, for the reason, as one of his acquaintances said, 'that he had known Bill to squeeze through tighter holes than that'."[1]

Canada Bill Jones died of tuberculosis, then called "consumption", at about age 40.[6]

In popular culture[edit]

The German writer Karl May wrote two stories about Canada Bill Jones: Ein Self-man (1878) and Three carde monte (1879). The narrator meets several times with the young Abraham Lincoln and together they oppose "Kanada-Bill." Later on, May revised the latter story for integration in Old Surehand II (1895), adding a fictional cause of death.[7]

In the 1998 poker film Rounders, the main character, played by Matt Damon, quotes Canada Bill Jones, saying "It's immoral to let a sucker keep his money."

In Neil Gaiman's American Gods, Mr. Wednesday tells the "it's the only game in town" story about Canada Bill Jones, calling it the finest line of poetry ever spoken in America.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e "American Gambling History - A Pair of Knaves". www.oldandsold.com. 
  2. ^ George Devol, Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi, 2d ed., (New York: author, 1892), 190-201 (available on GoogleBooks).
  3. ^ "Another Reminiscence of the Great Card-Sharp, Canada Bill," Dallas Weekly Herald, December 15, 1877, p. 4.
  4. ^ Devol 285.
  5. ^ "Three Keerd Monkey," Little Rock Daily Republican, September 14, 1872, p. 3, reprinted in San Francisco Bulletin, September 25, 1872, p. 4; "Robbers of the Rail: the Monte Gamblers of the Overland Route,” Inter Ocean, June 27, 1874, p. 2.
  6. ^ "Canada Bill’s Funeral,” Inter Ocean, November 1, 1877, p. 3.
  7. ^ Ekkehard Koch: Der »Kanada-Bill« · Variationen eines Motivs bei Karl May. In: Jahrbuch der Karl-May-Gesellschaft 1976, pp. 29-46. (in German)