Arizona Frank’s Monte Scam
By Andi Gladwin - Thursday, December 26, 2019
While Frank Tarbeaux denied ever cheating in a game of cards, he was more open about his ability to run a Three Card Monte “gyp” (as he referred to it) on railroads in Omaha, with an elaborate con that would bring a mark in over a rehearsed conversation with two shills.
While Tarbeaux would talk about being a Monte hustle later in life, he was a lot more vague about his other card hustling work. He admitted to cheating alongside Wild Bill Hickok, but left everything else vague. He claimed to be an expert card player, but stated that his card-playing instincts (“card sense” as he called it) were so good that he didn’t need to manipulate the deck.
It has been said that the best cheats are gentlemen, but that wasn’t the case here. Tarbeaux was a crook and a murderer. He claims to have murdered his first man when he was just fourteen years old, and therefore made no bones about threatening to kill the train crew if they exposed his scam.
Tarbeaux detailed his full Monte scam in his memoirs, which I’ll quote directly below. It’s full of fanciful claims, but is one of the very few firsthand accounts of an early Monte hustlers that has been published. Note how he created a believable backstory, used his team to make the marks want to bring him down, and how he devised a method of vanishing in plain sight on a moving train (interestingly, this very technique is used by stage illusionists to this day!).
Here's what Frank wrote about the monte scam:
Feeling the way I did, and always figuring ways to kid people, it wasn't any wonder that I took the Three-Card Monte Gyp. It's the funniest act in the world to look at and I nearly died laughing when I first saw it. In fact, I laughed so hard that my pals told me I'd have to shut up or get out, as I'd spoil the game.
This gyp should be seen and heard to appreciate its artistry. It loses a deal of its color in cold type. The reader should keep a picture of the figures in his mind to get anything like the real savor of it.
This gyp, which, of course, was not one invented by me, we worked generally on railroad trains. I worked in it mostly out of Omaha. Sometimes the train crews were in with the boys; and sometimes they weren't. But the train crews couldn't do anything about it, anyhow. If they'd kicked, we would have taken over the train. I guess we were pretty hard babies.
We used to win hats full of split second watches, worth anywhere from five or six hundred to a thousand dollars, at a time when a watch was a great treasure. And we used to give one of those watches to each of a favorite train crew.
The gyp was worked by two steerers and a player.
I was the player. The steerers got on the train, and each of them selected a sucker. Conversation was easily opened, and when a steerer decided his sucker had money enough to make him worth while, he'd raise his hat as a signal to me.
I had gotten on the train in a linen duster and a hard hat. I had folded up the hard hat in the duster and tossed it up on a hat rack. From my pocket I took a soft hat, and put it on. I had a dickey, with a rubber band around the neck, which when pulled up, dressed me so far as the eye was concerned in a hickory shirt. The duster had concealed a homespun suit, dyed with butternut, a popular form of dress with rubes. We used to call them "humspuns."
With tobacco juice leaking from the corner of my mouth, my make-up was complete. It was a lightning change make-up too.
Take off the soft hat, pull down the dickey, slip on the linen duster, and put on the hard hat, and I was an average traveler, nothing like the gawky rube of an instant before.
In the next article in this series, I’ll share the full script that he used while acting as a country bumpkin.
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