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"Canada Bill" Jones may have looked like the perfect country bumpkin, but professional gamblers and "marks" alike knew he was far cagier than he looked. Said to have won and lost over a million dollars in his life, he died penniless. (Courtesy photo)

Courtesy photo

William "Canada Bill" Jones reportedly was born about 1800 in a gypsy caravan in Yorkshire, England. This would explain where he learned sucker-based games of chance, including Three Card Monte. In this easily moved scam, three cards are shown, then turned face down and shuffled, with the "mark" challenged to find the single face card, usually the queen.

Canada Bill, so named because he moved to Canada at about age 20,  became so adept at dealing cards that the player had no chance whatsoever.

Bill was noted for his slovenly, bumpkinlike appearance. He was described as a "medium-sized, chicken-headed, tow-haired" man with blue eyes who walked with a shuffle, grinned from ear to ear and generally "resembled an idiot." Frequently in disguise as a farmer, he might also appear as a doctor or merchant who would ask simple questions in a high, squeaky voice.

After leaving Canada in search of bigger games, Bill discovered that riverboats had bored, captive audiences who often had money as well as time on their hands. Like many river gamblers, Bill often worked with partners and shills who added to his "education" but since many also cheated each other, he changed associates frequently.

After the Civil War, with the expansion of railroads, Bill and his then partner "Dutch Charlie" took their winnings of nearly a quarter of a million dollars and worked their way from Kansas City to Omaha.

Bill arrived in Omaha about 1871. The rapidly growing railroad and river town had a population of about 16,000 and though its streets were dirt and its sidewalks wood, there were 13 faro parlors alone, and its saloons were all open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Because there was a constant flow of men moving in and out, it was paradise for Bill's gambling pursuits. Men moving through were considered much better clients, as they were more apt to grumble and leave rather than object to the local law as a resident might.

Bill set up house and business at the Canfield House hotel at 301 S. Ninth St. He and an accomplice immediately started a Three Card Monte game in the hotel lobby and their first client promptly lost $100, over a month's wages for many at the time.

Bill quickly expanded his operations and associates, working the saloons and railroad stations but not ignoring the sidelines of rolling drunks and even armed robbery. Known as the Canada Bill Gang, they arduously made sure that Omaha was "wide open from center to circumference and ‘everything went.'" Short jail terms and small fines were considered merely an irritant and a cost of doing business.

Bill soon had numerous employees, including Sherman Thurston, an ex-wrestler who lured in marks, and Doc Boggs, who was nattily dressed in a stovepipe hat and cane and steered marks to Bill who operated out of saloons. Interestingly, Bill and virtually all of his associates were also seemingly addicted to faro and constantly lost all of their winnings to other gamblers as fast as they accumulated them.

Around 1873, the gang had become so cocksure that they began expanding beyond what even they could control. A huge illegal bare-knuckle boxing match between Tom Allen and Ben Hogan was planned for a site near Pacific Junction on the east side of the Missouri River. This venue, in the middle of nowhere, brought players by railroad from hundreds of miles. After the Canada Bill Gang "cut the ropes and entered the ring with drawn revolvers" when the fight wasn't going as expected, all sides appeared in opposition.

Newspapers nationwide countered with stories saying: "Omaha (is) a cesspool of iniquity," the town is full of "mobs of Monte-men, pickpockets, faro dealers and criminal fugitives." And more: "If you want to find a rogues rookery, go to Omaha." Said another: "Whisky shops are innumerable and attached to each is a faro bank ... in full blast day and night."

Amidst grand larceny charges, a vigilante uprising and claims of bribery, the gang took advantage of the new sucker potential in the gold fields and broke up. Canada Bill moved to Chicago and later Cleveland and set up shop anew.

Omaha, even without the gang, was still considered wide open to "legal" gambling and vice for a number of years.

"Canada Bill" Jones "the most notorious, smoothest-talking man that ever set foot on Nebraska soil... a card shark of which the world probably never produced an equal," died in 1877 in a charity hospital in Reading, Pa. His funeral expenses were ultimately reimbursed by a syndicate of Chicago compatriots, one of whom was willing to bet $1,000 two-to-one that Bill was not in the coffin. There were no takers.

Historian Jim McKee, who still writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write to him in care of the Journal Star or at jim@leebooksellers.com.

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