Flim-flam men | AspenTimes.com

Flim-flam men

Tim Willoughby
Medicine for any malady, from the Aspen Weekly Times, 1895.
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My father heard many stories while sitting by the wood stove in mining camp bunkhouses. The male culture there fostered a traditional style of storytelling. Anecdotes were embellished, but they were always grounded in personal experience. The “old-timers” handed down history to the “boys,” often as a way of giving them guidance. Flim-flam men, snake-oil salesmen and professional con artists were popular subjects.

One of my father’s stories transpired when he worked for the Minnie Mine in Breckenridge. He was 19 when he ran into Charlie Baker, an elder miner he knew from Aspen. Baker asked if my father had any money. It was payday, so after deductions for his board, father had about $75. Baker whispered, “I’ll let you in on a little secret. May, who owns and operates the Blue Goose, bought a Kentucky-bred racehorse. People think it is an old pitiful nag, so May expects to clean up on the stupid folks around here.”

May’s Blue Goose was a notorious brothel in Breckenridge. Baker had inside information that she paid over $4,000 for her stealth horse. A horse race was advertised for 4th of July celebrations that very day that day in Dillon. Baker continued, “cowboys will be racing their own slowpokes and $75 should get you around $200.

Since the $75 was all my father had until his next month’s payday, he declined to place a bet ” but he did attend the race. As it turned out, May also brought in a professional jockey. The horse that had been “the laughing stock of Kremmling” won the race by more than 100 yards. In horse racing as well as boxing, disguising a “ringer” was a common scam.

A flim-flam man known as Tennessee Roberts lived on Hyman Avenue for a while in the 1920s. Looking for a way to earn a living that would avoid the hard labor required in mining, he finally devised a way to make an easy dollar. Tennessee begged or bought leftover cakes of soap from hotel rooms at a cheap price. He then removed dirty wheel grease from his Model T Ford and repacked the axles with black tar soap. Soap was good-enough wheel lubricant for the old Fords.

Roberts traveled throughout Colorado and Utah to sell his soap. He would pull into town and engage a group of miners for a demonstration. Mine oil clung to their hands and lodged under their fingernails. Roberts would smear his hands and arms with his dark “wheel grease,” then clean immediately with his soap and cold water. The soap sold out quickly at 25 cents per bar. He did not stay long in any town.

Salesmen offered patent medicine that would cure aches and pains of unsuspecting rural townsfolk. From New York to San Francisco, false announcements of mineral strikes boosted mine stock sales. Every summer, hundreds of hucksters emulated P.T. Barnum’s traveling shows by charging money to satisfy the human curiosity that intensifies in small towns with little else to engage an active mind. Barnum’s summary, “a sucker born every minute,” survives today as our reminder of the decades of swindles that have been perpetrated on the gullible.

When did you last receive an e-mail from Nigeria announcing your unclaimed fortune?


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