He was a harmless-looking old man with a long white beard. He wore a big metal shoe on one foot due to a birth defect or injury that made one of his legs shorter than the other. Possibly he was a man of mixed race, but no one was really sure about that.
However there was no doubt about the fact that he could charm you with his non-stop patter, telling you how much he enjoyed playing cards, though he claimed he frequently lost at the games. Why not try a hand of euchre, poker or even bunco with him?
And so it would begin with the bunco man known as Iron Foot Johnson and his mark. The mark is about to lose a bundle, though he’s convinced of the inevitability of his success. And that, of course, is what a good con man does — he lulls his victim into the certainty of easy money; then he goes in for the kill.
Iron Foot Johnson road the rails, primarily in the northwestern United States, playing rigged card games with suckers and cheating them out of their cash. He usually had a shill or two with him who helped bring the mark into the game by convincing him that old Iron Foot would be easily taken. His disability was a blessing because it made him seem vulnerable and easy. At the last minute, through some trickery or slight–of-hand, Iron Foot would end up with the winning hand, against all odds, and the mark’s money would quickly disappear into Iron Foot’s jacket.
In the situation described below, he was playing in a Montana saloon, but his modus operandi was same.
The crime for which he is at present in trouble is similar to those which the police say he has been engaged in for a long time. The stealing is committed in a card game, and, although the trick is an old one it seldom fails of success, as the victim is led into the trap by the prospect of making money, even though it be acquired dishonestly.
— The Evening Star, Washington D.C., February 14, 1890
In his youth, Iron Foot tried to cheat the government out of an enormous sum of money concerning “illegal Alabama claims.” The affair was exposed when an accomplice and Johnson got into an argument that ended with Johnson assaulting his accomplice; the incensed accomplice tipped off authorities about the plan.
Iron Foot’s rogues’ gallery photograph, a carte-de-visite, was taken in May of 1898 when he was working with fellow bunco man James McCormick, alias Howard. The two were arrested in Mankato, Minnesota, for buncoing an “aged stranger out of $100.” The disposition of the case was not reported.
Iron Foot Johnson, whose real name was either George A. Wright or Charles Johnson, was criminally active until at least 1904 when it was reported by the Cincinnati Enquirer that another expert card shark, Robert Murphy, was “mugged” (confused) with Johnson. Murphy had been cheating people who were riding on the train to the World’s Fair in St. Louis.
Featured image: “Iron Foot” Johnson, carte de visite mugshot (front and back). Collection of the author.