Remember the elaborate con game in the Oscar-winning movie, “The Sting?” Something like that scam occurred in Santa Rosa, 1908.

The definitive book on early 20th century cons is “The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man,” where it’s noted that the “wire” was invented in 1898 and refined in 1900 by the gang fictionally portrayed in the film. The classic version had two parts; the con man convinced the sucker that he always won horse race bets because he had tapped the telegraph wire, allowing a confederate to block and re-transmit race results after the winning horse was actually known. The confidence man asked the sucker to place a few bets for him because his winning streak was arousing suspicion at a certain private “horse pool room” for high-rollers. (The term “pool room” has nothing to do with billiards – it was the name for an off-track betting hall, also sometimes called “race horse turf exchanges.” They were allowed in some cities even though horse racing was not legal in that state. The wire con was believable because the races – which sometimes were taking place hundreds of miles away – were reported by telegraph connections that were prone to interruptions and delays.)

In part two of the scam, the sucker was told that a long-shot would certainly win the final race of the day, and he should make the largest bet possible. That horse supposedly wins, but it was the practice of the pool rooms to pay off the last race on the following day. The next morning the sucker and the con man arrive together at the private pool room only to find the building empty. The con artist’s final job is to convince the sucker to not report it to the police, arguing that he also might be sent to prison because he was part of the wire fraud conspiracy. And yes, sometimes a murder was faked to ensure the sucker was frightened into silence, just like in the movie – in the colorful parlance of the day, this touch was called the “cackle-bladder” because the con man popped open a pig’s bladder filled with chicken blood to simulate a fatal wound. (A full description of the wire con can be found in a 1914 book available on-line).

The scam that was worked in Santa Rosa was neither as elaborate or as competent. According to an article in the April 3 San Francisco Call, the con man was a well-known young man named Walter Rea (age 21 at the time and a native Santa Rosan). “He is said to have bet $5 on a horse quoted at 80 to 1. When word was received that his horse had won he cashed in and left town. It is believed that a confederate tapped the wire and gave the wrong horse as the winner,” reported the Call. Rea was caught and arrested on the complaint of W. J. Edgeworth, a Sebastopol man who was part owner of the pool room known as “Donahue’s.”

The incident serves as a postscript to the previous post, discussing the outcome of the 1908 Santa Rosa city election and how the town had long profited from an underground economy of prostitution and illegal gambling. In the articles transcribed here, it was revealed that there were two illegal pool rooms then operating in Santa Rosa. Police and the District Attorney apparently looked the other way, even though the election that would be held less than a week later was largely a referendum upon the city’s tolerance for vice and crime (read update here).

Victimized for $400 Dollars Wednesday

One of the two poolrooms which have been operating in Santa Rosa for many months was “stung” Wednesday afternoon to the extent of four hundred dollars. Just how the “sting” was administered was not definitely stated, but it is believed to have been done by means of tapped wires. As the pool room is not a legal institution, those who benefited by the coup and secured the coin will probably not be molested, for if the proprietors have any warrants issued for the arrest of the youth who administered the “sting” they will have to testify in prosecuting that they have been conducting a pool room.

The young man who secured the pool room coin is well known around this city, and immediately after the tip was received that a certain horse had won, he is alleged to have “cashed in” his checks and departed. The man who was “stung” has done considerable talking since.

– Santa Rosa Republican, April 2, 1908

The hearing of the case against Walter Rea, charged with beating a local pool room out of several hundred dollars, disclosed the existence of two pool rooms in the City of Roses, according to the testimony.

The testimony showed that Frank W. Brown received information by telegaph regarding races at his place of business, and that they were then transmitted by phone to Donahue’s and later reduced to writing and sent to Donahue’s place. Rea secured three hundred dollars on the purported victory of a certain horse, reported to have won, when the animal had been defeated. The money was paid by Donahue personally.

The case was continued until next Saturday for further hearing.

– Santa Rosa Republican, April 20, 1908

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