Three Little Shells

Three Little Shells

Leon Kentish alias H. Wilson and Harry Montague alias R.F. Johnson were arrested yesterday by Chief of Police Little, Sergeant Kennedy and Officer Neagle. The men were stopping at the Causer House. They are charged with suspicion of larceny, and common gamblers. They are alleged to be shell workers, and travel under the pretense of selling an article for cleaning clothing. The fellows are the same ones who were recently arrested in Binghamton, and taken to Penn Yan, where they were wanted for skipping board bills. The police found the shells upon their persons.

Star-Gazette, Elmira, New York, July 17, 1893

The shell game is a con as old as time. A pea or small ball is placed under one of three shells (walnut shells were popular) that were laid out, usually on the ground. The shell operator shuffles them around and asks the mark to guess which shell the pea is under. It looks like easy money, but unbeknownst to the mark, the operator, using sleight of hand, has removed the pea before the mark makes his — inevitably wrong — choice. Then the operator surreptitiously places the pea under another shell. He reveals the pea and voila, the mark loses the bet!

Often shills or cappers were used to help convince the mark to get involved in the game or to suggest under which shell the pea would be found. Sometimes the mark was allowed to win once or twice, with the stakes being ratcheted up with each play. Then the operator went in for the kill.

Oily-tongued, nimble-fingered shell workers were said to be “in their glory when they find a man who is out for a good time with a good-sized purse.” They were the bane of the nineteenth century cop’s existence.

“Step right up, gentlemen, and be convinced that the hand is quicker than the eye.” This is the way that the shell-worker opened his game while sitting astride one of the long timbers on the pier. One of the cappers came up and called the turn for $120, which was paid to him without a murmur. Then another one of the party won and induced his friend, a young fellow who looked like he might be a divinity student to try his luck. The shells were thrown and the capper whispered: “Bet him $25 and take the shell on this end.”

The Inter Ocean, Chicago, June 12, 1894

Needless to say, the divinity student lost his stake. The shell game workers ran off when they noticed a sketch artist sitting nearby, watching them closely and “copping off their mugs” for the newspaper.

shell game

Harry Montague_back_markedIn addition to working the shell game, Harry Montague was wanted by the Newark Police for highway robbery and burglary. When he went before a New York City judge, in June 1893, he literally talked himself into jail by using language so foul that the judge held him in contempt of court. The police planned to hand him over to the New Jersey authorities once he finished serving 29 days in Brooklyn’s Raymond Street Jail.

Instead Harry managed to elude the New Jersey authorities and make his way upstate. The shells he was carrying tipped off the Elmira police to his real profession and he and his pal, Leon Kentish, were arrested. After that Harry either earned himself a long prison stretch or he changed his alias because his name disappeared completely from police notes in the news.

Featured photo: CDV mugshot of Harry Montague, alias Johnson, July 9, 1893. Collection of the author.

The Disorderly House

The Disorderly House

BALDWINSVILLE, April 1. —Chief of Police Cornelius, Deputy Sheriff John H. Russell and Special Officers Delbert Simpson and Clinton Farmer raided a house on Marble street to-night and arrested eight persons, as follows: Edward Craver and Rosanna Zimmers, who are charged with keeping a disorderly house; George Willet, Henrietta Willet, Christine Dickey, William Dennison, Christine Simmons and Charlie Zimmers, who are charged with being inmates.

 

They will be arraigned at 10 o’clock tomorrow morning before Police Justice Wright.

 

Five children ranging in age from 1 year to 11 were found in the place and were taken in charge by an agent of the S.P.C.C. of Syracuse.

The Post-Standard, Syracuse, New York, April 2, 1907

The legal definition of a disorderly house is “a place where acts prohibited by statute are habitually indulged in or permitted.” In layman’s terms, “disorderly house” is an outdated euphemism for a brothel.

An inmate of a disorderly house in early 20th century in America was someone who was poor and filled with desperation. Growing up in such a place would be a really tough row to hoe.

Christine Simmons, her shoulders slumped in resignation, her cheek bearing a small scar and her lip, a healing scab, was photographed after her 1907 arrest at a disorderly house on Marble Street in Baldwinsville, a village on the Seneca River northwest of Syracuse, New York. The raid on the house was carried out by four officers, including the police chief, so there must have been complaints about the house from people with power.

Prison bookThe legal system wasted no time in dispatching Christine to her fate — four months in prison. She and her housemate, Christine Dickey, were sent to the Onondaga County Penitentiary in Jamesville, New York, the day after their arrests, as was Edward Craver, the man who ran the house. Christine was given the option of paying a $25 fine (about $650 in 2017 dollars) to avoid going to the penitentiary, however a fine of that size was beyond her means.

Oldpen01

Onondaga County Penitentiary, circa 1937.

Christine’s mugshot photos are on a large glass negative held in a tattered sleeve bearing only her name. Recognizing that her photos had similarities to photos on other prison cards from New York state around 1900, I checked newspapers and discovered the story about Christine’s arrest at the disorderly house. I found the record of her prison sentence in the Governor’s Registers of Commitments to Prisons, 1842–1908 at Ancestry.com.

I wasn’t able locate Christine in records or newspapers after she was sent to prison in 1907. I don’t know when she was born or where or anything about her life later on. Her bleak face, captured more than a century ago in the emulsion on fragile glass is all that remains. It speaks volumes.

Note: Christine’s name is written on the back of the plate and the writing is bleeding through slightly to the front.

Featured photo: Christine Simmons, corrected digital file from a glass plate negative. Collection of the author.