Canada Bill: William Jones Confidence Artist

Chances are you even if you’ve heard of Wild Bill Hickok or Buffalo Bill, you haven’t heard of Canada Bill. He wasn’t famous like either of those Bills rather he was infamous because he was considered king of the confidence artists in the 1800s. Canada Bill operated in Canada and the U.S. and was described in 1917 as “the most notorious, smoothest-talking man that ever set foot upon Nebraska soil ― either by steamboat or steam train; largely in evidence in Omaha and along the line of the Union Pacific in the early ‘70s; a card shark of which the world probably never produced an equal.[1] Furthermore, it was estimated that during his lifetime he made at least half a million dollars using his gambling skills.

William “Canada Bill” Jones. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Canada Bill was born in Yorkshire England in 1837 and christened as William Jones. He worked as a horse trader and immigrated to Canada in 1860 at the age of twenty-three. While young he honed his gambling and card skills and after moving to Canada, he learned and perfected his three-card monte scam while travelling with Dick Cady as thrower. Moreover, Canada Bill got his nickname while residing in Kingston, Canada and was known as such when he arrived the United States and traveled to Mississippi.

In Mississippi he found great success working as a riverboat gambler. He also teamed up with up other gamblers such as George Devol, Holly Chappell, and Tom Brown. After the foursome broke up, Canada Bill and Devol continued to work together until the outbreak of the American Civil War, when both accused the other of cheating.

While in the U.S. Canada Bill also made his way to Omaha, Nebraska, where he and his gang operated. He quickly made a name for himself in Omaha and became known as “king of the three card monte men.”[2] He could easily beat professional gamblers and it was reported that in 1874 he won $75,000 in three months. Of his time in Omaha, it was reported:

“Bunco men and cappers befriended unsuspecting visitors, luring them into card games with Canada Bill and his fellow legerdemains. The enforcers lurked in the background, ready to help if needed. There was an actor for every part, ensuring a constant ‘run of suckers.’ … The Omaha police generally left them alone; most of their problems came from railroad detectives. The Canada Bill gang broke up in 1876. The members moved west to the gold fields but not before establishing precedents for illegal activities that continued in Omaha for many more years.”[3]

When not conning someone, Canada Bill usually dressed in a somewhat “slouchy” manner and reportedly didn’t care for good clothes or expensive jewelry. However, The Kansas City Star reported in 1917 that whenever he pulled a con he always dressed perfectly for the part and proved to be a superb student of human nature:

“He always dressed for the part he played, and he never overdid the job. If he was a farmer, there was no hayseed in his hair and no straw behind his ear ― he would make up to look just like the average prosperous farmer. If he was a merchant from a country town off on a buying trip, you’d pick him out of a bunch for just that sort of fellow and nobody else. He never overdid the makeup. Anybody that was here …  will remember Canada Bill.”[4]

A reporter who met Canada Bill stated in 1892 that he couldn’t help but admire him and described him in the following fashion:

“He was large-formed man with a cleanly shaven face, a square jaw, deep-set eyes the expression of a sphinx. His favorite disguise was the make-up of a cattle drover, and, as there were more members of that class on the road … Canada Bill had no difficulty in passing himself off as one of them. He always carried two or three confederates or cappers with him, and the money that he won with his three little cards during a half dozen years, … would buy a bank and pay officers’ salaries for twenty years. Whenever arrested Bill would plead guilty … and no matter how large a fine would be imposed … he would flash up a bundle of greenbacks … thank the Court for doing its duty and bow himself into the street.[5]

Three-card monte was a favorite con used by Canada Bill. It was practiced as early as the fifteenth century and was a swindling game where it was impossible to beat the dealer. A shill would befriend a sucker or mark and pretend to conspire with him to cheat the dealer. However, the sucker could not win because the shill was working with the dealer. A description of how the con worked was described in 1917:

“Three-card monte was played with three cards, not the ordinary playing cards ― they were cards made for the very purpose. One of them had a picture of an elephant on it, another the picture of a snake, and the third a star. The operator holds the star card in one hand and the other two between his thumb and forefinger in the other hand and throws them on a table or cloth. He bets you that you can’t pick the ‘star’ card. … [but] here’s the way Canada Bill worked it:

In the first place, most of his work was done on the railroad trains. You know how lonesome you get riding along in a smoker or chair car. Canada Bill always had a capper, who was a good make-up man too. The capper singled out his victim … and took a seat alongside of him and began to exchange confidences, long before Canada Bill appeared. When the capper and the victim became good friends Canada Bill would heave in sight ― sometimes he would be a Montana sheep man, sometimes a retired farmer, sometimes a country merchant. … he would plant himself in the seat opposite the capper and the ‘mark’ and pull out a roll of greenbacks and begin to brag about … [having] the best of luck. … Then he would tell about going into Butte and playing three-card monte … and he would produce a set of cards which he said he had bought. The capper would ask him what kind of game it was, and so Canada Bill would throw the cards and the capper would try his luck at picking out the ‘star’ card and he’d win three out of four bets. By this time the sucker would be getting interested, seeing good money pass … [then] Canada Bill’s psychology mill would begin to work. While the cards were laying on the cloth or the car seat, he would turn his head to hunt a spittoon and quick as flash the capper would turn the ‘star’ card so the sucker could see it. … And nine times out of ten the sucker [plays] because he thinks he’s got a sure thing.”[6]

When the cards were switched, the capper would encourage the sucker to make a huge bet. Whatever card the sucker picked would prove to be an elephant or a snake and he would lose his money. That was because Canada Bill had deftly replaced the star with superb sleight of hand. Moreover, when the sucker lost, he was generally afraid to complain “because he’d had to ‘fess up that he thought he had a sure thing.”[7]

Canada Bill - sleight of hand

Sleight of hand. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Canada Bill cheated many people during his lifetime. However, supposedly, one of his greatest cons involved a Methodist minister. Canada Bill claimed he swindled the minister out of a thousand dollars while riding the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad train. There was also a story about Canada Bill boarding a train wearing “cowhide boots” and “coarse clothes” and swindling numerous Grangers out of their money after the attended the Illinois State Fair. Supposedly, Canada Bill took from them about $200 in less than an hour and shortly after he swindled them, he was seen heading the opposite way on another train dressed in the height of fashion.

Although Canada Bill might be a swindler, there was at least one story about him having some redeeming qualities. A reporter on a westbound train between Toledo and Chicago in 1874 watched as he swindled a greenhorn out of $600.00. The dazed man went stumbled back to his car where his told his wife that he had lost all their life savings. The wife, with her two children in tow, hastened to the smoking car and found Canada Bill. She confronted him telling him that she and her husband had sold everything and were heading to Kansas to start a new life. She then sank to her knees and cried, “the children and I must starve mister, just because my man was fool.”[8] Taking pity on the forlorn women Canada Bill drew a big wad of cash from his pocket, counted out all the money the greenhorn had lost, and even added an extra twenty for good measure. He then said, “Here’s your money, madame. I never rob women and children, but I want you to keep it to yourself in future … Now run back … and stop crying.”[9]

Another story about the kindness of Canada Bill was reported by his one-time riverboat gambling partner Devol. Despite their disagreement and contentious parting, Devol seemed to have good things to say about Canada Bill and once stated:

“There never lived a better-hearted man [than Canada Bill] … Many a time I have seen him walk up to a Sister of Charity and present her with as much as $50. Once I saw him win $200 from a man on a boat, and shortly after the ‘little boy came running through the cabin and Bill gave the boy $200, telling him to take it to his mother. He had no heart for suckers, however, and he often said gullible people had no business with money.”[10]  

Sisters of Charity in 1865 by Alexandre-Marie Guillemin. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Canada Bill reputedly never drank to excess like Jane Cakebread. He also was great at the confidence game and handily won whenever he played draughts. However, much like Mark Twain showed the human failings of his characters Huck Finn and Hank Morgan. Canada Bill also demonstrated such traits. For instance, Canada Bill loved to play faro, a gambling game that the French Queen Marie Antoinette also loved, and in fact faro was so appealing to Canada Bill he became an inveterate gambler for it, or in other words he was a sucker for the game.

This meant that as quickly as he swindled suckers at three-card monte, Canada Bill blew his winnings on faro. In fact, shortly after relocating to Berks County, Pennsylvania, he was broke because of having lost all his money at faro, and so when he got sick and died, he was a pauper. His death happened on 22 October 1877 when he was roughly 40 years old and a month after he died, Pennsylvania’s Reading Eagle reported:

“‘Canada Bill’ died of consumption [tuberculosis] in the county hospital. His funeral was probably the strangest ever seen … for there were neither tears, nor women, nor minister about the grave that now holds the remains of man who died penniless in strange land, but had the name at one time of having won nearly half a million dollars at three-card monte. … A dozen or more of the representatives of the sporting fraternity of Reading had congregated about the grave to do the last honors … After the hearse approached the grave and the walnut coffin had been taken out and placed on a bier, the question was asked whether the remains were in it. The undertaker guessed that they were still there. ‘Unscrew the lid,’ the master of ceremonies ordered. ‘Bill was in many a tight box and he worked himself out somehow or other, and it’s no dead sure thing that he ain’t got out on the trip to the cemetery.’ … [Unsurprisingly, his] corpse was found in the coffin. … and after the lid had been again screwed on, orders were given that the interment should be made.”[11]

Canada Bill was buried in the Charles Evans Cemetery, an historic, nonsectarian, garden-style cemetery located in the city of Reading, Pennsylvania. Chicago gamblers, who were his friends, later reimbursed Reading’s mayor for his funeral.

Canada Bill - Charles Evans Cemetery

Image of Charles Evans Cemetery dated 1862. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

References:

  • [1] A. C. Wakeley, ed., Omaha: The Gate City and Douglas County Nebraska 1 (Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1917), p. 434.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 435.
  • [3] L. H. Larsen and B. J. Cottrell, The Gate City: A History of Omaha (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), p. 96.
  • [4] The Kansas City Star, “When Canada Bill was King of the Con Men,” September 9, 1917, p. 33.
  • [5] The Beaver Crossing Times, “Clever Canada Bill,” June 2, 1892, p. 2.
  • [6] The Kansas City Star, p. 33.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] The Beaver Crossing Times, p. 2.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] The Kansas City Times, “Famed as Trappers of Men,” May 1, 1893, p. 2.
  • [11] The Black Hills Champion, “The Last Game,” November 18, 1877, p. 4.

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