Frank Tarbeaux and the Cutlas Case

By Andi Gladwin - Monday, December 30, 2019

After living most of his life in the United States, Frank Tarbeaux eventually made it to London. According to his autobiography, he preferred to be out of the Wild West and after leaving, never went back. He rented a house in Tavistock Square, and was said to have servants and a butler there.

During his time in London, he was invited to a game of Baccarat in the White Hart Hotel in Margate, Kent with some dangerous people, including Alfred Saville and Arthur Cockburn; two wealthy men, who were well-known in many dangerous circles. According to Tarbeaux: “I had a fine reputation in England, and these people thought I was a sap, and they took me into their game and tried to take my money away from me.” He played the drunken idiot that they expected him to be, and won £400 in the game before bowing out. After sensing the danger of winning these people’s money, Tarbeaux returned to the game and deliberately lost the winnings, and £100 more so that he could make a safe getaway. While Tarbeaux claimed never to be a swindler, this to me seems like quite the cheat’s mentality!

Cockburn became obsessed with the idea that Tarbeaux had tried to scam him during that game. He visited his house several times over a couple of years to make threats to Tarbeaux. On one occasion in 1894, Tarbeaux invited both Cockburn and Saville into his house, perhaps to try to make peace (or perhaps to continue his innocence act). It is often difficult to be sure of the truth of Tarbeaux’s stories, but what happened that evening became notorious. It went to court at the Old Bailey in London and became known as "The Cutlas Case," of which we can [](read the full court transcripts).

Tarbeaux claimed to have been attacked by Cockburn with a whiskey glass, and retaliated by brutally striking both him and Saville back. As described by Tarbeaux: “I snatched up another of those flint glasses with my right hand, shivered it slightly against the table to give it a cutting edge, and ripped it down across his face, across his throat, and up across his face again. It was his choice of weapon so I used it. This all happened in about two ticks of the clock.”

But what happened next defined the rest of Tarbeaux’s life. According to his autobiography, he removed two cutlasses hanging from the wall and put them on the table. Why? He doesn’t know — he was nervous and made a bad choice. He stated they were not used as weapons in the fight, even though Cockburn and Saville were brutally beaten.

He said: “When the bobby who, with the cabby had been pounding on the door from the beginning of the fight, which they could hear as plainly as if they had been present, came in, he saw the cutlasses, all covered with blood. So he decided that I had used the cutlasses in attacking Cockburn and Saville.” Although, that may well have been another Tarbeaux exaggeration as the police officer said in court: “There were marks of blood on the swords as if they had been taken up by someone who had blood on his fingers—there were no marks of blood on them as if they had been used in cutting.”

Perhaps Tarbeaux did have the gambler’s luck he often talked about. The two men that he so brutally attacked in apparent self defence, survived. Their wounds were such that they both died a year later, but they survived until Tarbeaux was tried. He was found guilty and given three years' penal servitude (prison with hard labour). Had the men died, he would have been given the death penalty.

Tarbeaux served his sentence and continued to travel throughout Europe playing cards alongside a “grafter.” We’ll never know for sure whether he was in Bill Hickok’s final game, we’ll never really know whether he cheated in a card game (although we can assume he did), and we’ll never really know how much he told us was true. But what we do know is that this character led an interesting life and that he ran a pretty interesting Monte scam. For me, that’s enough of a reason to study him.

Other articles in this series:

Part 1: Frank Tarbeaux: A Card Cheat You Never Knew Part 2: Arizona Frank’s Monte Scam Part 3: Tarbeaux's Monte Script Part 4: Frank Tarbeaux and Wild Bill Hickok

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