Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Leadville, February 1880: Beware of Big Ed Burns

I'm taking a break from the daily grind and from blasting anonymous blog spammers into oblivion to revisit Leadville of the past. There may not have been obnoxious spammers in Leadville of February 1880, but there were plenty of con men and so-called "bummers," including Big Ed Burns, who was described by the Carbonate Chronicle thusly:
. . . His strength was something terrible, and his deep chest was a human embodiment of Hercules . . . but with all his massiveness of frame he was agile and quick as a ballet dancer. Standing by the bar in a saloon he prided himself upon the fact that he could kick a man’s hat off with a single sweep of his foot. . . .

Burns did anything to make money, and as he seldom had the cash to engage in any of what are termed square gambling schemes, he earned a precarious livelihood by “skingames.” The old Theatre Comique was his favorite haunt. In a little side room known as “the joint,” many is the honest miner whom Big Ed robbed by dice, bunko or crooked poker. A cabinet of mineral specimens in one corner was always the pretext under which the victim was enticed into the den, and the gigantic form of the swindler did not make it desirable for the “sucker” to kick very loud or long.

. . . Might was right, muscle was master, and wherever brute strength was needed, Big Ed was called upon. The quieting effect that his massive form had upon a crowd, was something not readily expressed in words, and when he leaped into a wrangling circle of men, flung a chair out of the window, and said: “Let there be peace,” the silence was painful.
Several interesting bits emerge from this. First, newspapers are great for identifying slang, i.e., the term "the joint." According to the online etymology dictionary:
... Slang meaning of "place, building, establishment" (esp. one where persons meet for shady activities) first recorded 1877, Amer.Eng., from an earlier Anglo-Irish sense (1821), perhaps on the notion of a side-room, one "joined" to a main room. The original U.S. sense was especially of "an opium-smoking den.
It's also interesting that the poker was crooked, but apparently not the dice nor the bunko. Add to that, apparently Big Ed was employed to keep the peace. Seems it was a common practice to hire thugs as necessary. A big thug no doubt commanded respect and compliance from the "rougher element."

Hmmm. Could be fun to employ a "Big Ed" type of person in some future Silver Rush tale. I'll have to remember that. Too bad there isn't a virtual Big Ed to take take of the anonymous posters of annoying comments to this blog! I'd even suffer a virtual chair through the virtual window to silence them.


Jeff Smith said...

Hi, Ann.
Sure hope you don't consider me an obnoxious poster, lol.

I researched the life of "Big Ed" Burns as he was a member of my great-grandfathers bunco gang in Denver and Creede, Colorado and later followed him to Skagway, Alaska during the Klondike gold rush. My book, Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel includes much about Burns.

Jeff Smith
Blog: Soapy Smith Soap Box

Jeff Smith said...

Hope you don't mind...

I posted the newspaper quote and your Burns link on my blog...

Ann Parker said...

Hi Jeff! noooo, you are a very welcome poster! :-)
Your book sounds really interesting. I'll have to order a copy.

Camille Minichino said...

Don't you wish today's newspapers were as fun to read?

Ann Parker said...

Hi Camille!
I agree...
Maybe 100 years from now our newspapers will be read with the same fascination as we read "newspapers of old." All a matter of perspective. :-)

Anonymous said...

nice post. thanks.

Christina Rodriguez said...

Hmm, the employment of thugs as "security," I think we've all seen this before! Nice guys don't make good "bouncers." You need someone who can toe that ethical line and have everyone know it.

Sorry you're having such a hard time with spammers. I hope that gets better.

Anonymous said...

Hello Anne,
Bunko is short con...not the dice game of Bunco....and dice that are miss marked are crooked. There 's long con...like the fake stock market....or crooked auction houses. Faro was mostly crooked, as was most gambling. 1881, Denver had three straight gambling halls, two owned by Big Ed Chase who controlled the 17th Street bunko operators getting 60& for paying off the cops and and politicians. Good at raising the dead to vote too. Same that Big Ed Burns had to be doing but not so well in Leadville. He had protection racket for the Houses of 'bad repute'. The Houses paid the cops/city hall so much to operate, and so much to operate in piece with out broken up girls or fires from Big Ed Burns.

Doc Baggs of Denver was a master of the fake gold bar and long con.
Big Ed Chase of Denver and Cheyenne, Lou Blonger and Doc Baggs along with William "Canada Bill" Jones were well known Omaha con men...along with being train con men from Ohama to Kansas City.

I have Ed Burns in a short scene in my 1881 western 'Tears on the Mountain' All but Jones figger in my book. Soapy was just starting out in Denver in 1881...so has a cameo role.

Bill Cameron

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