Frank Tarbeaux: A Card Cheat You Never Knew
By Andi Gladwin - Wednesday, December 25, 2019
Frank Tarbeaux isn't really known to magicians. He was a swindler who operated in the Wild West and happened to be at the right place at the right time on far too many occasions. He was born on August 24, 1852 and claimed to be the “the first white boy born in what was then the Territory, and is now the State of Colorado.” He traveled the Wild West cheating and conning, played cards in the game that Wild Bill Hickok was shot in, and was eventually kidnapped and tried in London for an assault so serious that it made major news. Quite the character.
In fact, Tarbeaux ("Arizona Frank”) was such a character that he found himself the subject of a work of fiction: Tarboe, The Story of a Life by Gilbert Parker (1927), where the character based off him was described quite poetically as "A man capable of great things, now a gambler by lack of moral courage, a menace to society while he could have been its benefactor, criminal now though he might have become a saint." Just like the fictionalised character, Tarbeaux’s life was full of murders, crime, and plenty of swindling. But beneath the despicableness of his character, lay a surprisingly lovable rogue whose life as a cheat may interest a magician or two.
I stumbled across Tarbeaux whilst researching Three Card Monte operators. I hadn’t heard his name before, so continued to dig deeper. Sadly, there is very little impartial information about him published, but what I found intrigued me. I eventually came across his autobiography (as told to Donald Henderson Clarke); a hard to find book of tales about his life. It seems that he was a keen storyteller and it’s quite likely that many of his tales were exaggerated (for example, while he claimed to have shot Bob Ford; Jesse James’ killer, in the right lung, there is no actual evidence to this), but still, the stories are both fascinating and entertaining. As we dig further into his life, I can’t promise you that everything he said was true, but I will try to corroborate his story with facts as much as possible.
Like many cheats, Tarbeaux claimed his innocence throughout life, going as far as saying that “There is no need to cheat at cards when a man is a master of them. I never was accused of cheating in a game of cards in my life. Most men don't play cards: they play at them. A master does not have to deal from the bottom of the deck or resort to other devices which have more place in fiction than in fact. I was born with what is called a card sense, just as some persons are born with ability at music, or at writing, or painting.” In contrast, Eddie McGuire (the man who gave prominence to Walter Irving Scott; the Phantom of the Card Table) considered Tarbeaux to be such a good cheat that he called him "the predecessor of Walter Irving Scott;" the man who many say was the most technically proficient card cheat of all time. That’s good pedigree.
To Tarbeaux, gambling was a career, not a hobby. He wrote: “I gamble only to make money. I don't think I have any of the so-called gambling instinct. I'm like the guy that plays the big bass viol in the orchestra, who comes home at 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning, and his wife asks him to play a little tune, and he says, "Go to hell." I feel that way about cards. They're my business, not my pleasure.”
But regardless of his claims of innocence, we do know that Tarbeaux ran an elaborate Three Card Monte scam. His system started with threats of murder, involved two shills, a quick-change act, and a presentation and back story so detailed that it’s easy to see why the marks were suckered in.
Over my next three posts, I’ll share my findings of this cruel, but lovable rogue. We’ll learn about his Monte scam in detail, about his friendship with Wild Bill Hickok (which lead him to be his accomplice during the game that Bill was shot in the back), and finally how he became part of a vicious London attack.
I’m excited to introduce you to a character who understood the craft of cheating beyond just the technical elements, led an intriguing life of crime, and along the way, left a few things for us to learn about magic. Check back tomorrow to hear the stories of the despicable "Arizona Frank.”
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