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Titanic Thompson: The Greatest Cheat of All Time

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
November 15, 2022 3:03 am

Titanic Thompson: The Greatest Cheat of All Time

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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November 15, 2022 3:03 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, here a story you won't soon forget from a man none simply as... The History Guy.

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Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there. This is our American Stories, and our next story comes to us from a man who's simply known as the History Guy. His videos are watched by hundreds of thousands of people of all ages on YouTube. The History Guy is also heard here in our American Stories. Here's the History Guy with the story of Titanic Thompson, the greatest cheat of all time. A gambler once bet Al Capone that he could throw a lemon all the way to the top of a five-story building in a single throw. After Capone took that crazy bet, the man walked up to a street vendor and picked up a lemon and went to throw it, but sensing that this might be some sort of trick, Capone instead picked up his own lemon, squeezed all the juice out of it, handed it to the man and said, no, throw this. Unfazed, the man took a long running jump and threw as hard as he could, and to Al Capone's shock, the lemon went all the way to the top of the building and landed on the roof. What Capone didn't know is that that gambler had already palmed the squished fruit that Capone had given him and had instead thrown a lemon that was full of buckshot that he had placed on the vendor earlier in preparation for his outrageous bet. That gambler was a man named Alvin Thomas, but he went by the name Titanic Thompson, and among the people of his profession, he was truly a titan.

The history of who is perhaps the world's greatest wager-er, deserves to be remembered. Alvin Clarence Thomas was born in 1893 in rural Missouri near the small town of Monnet. The last name, Thompson, that he would adopt for most of his adult life, came from a later newspaper misprint that he embraced as his own. According to the family history, his father was gambling the night Alvin was born and didn't see his new son until he came home the next day. Apparently his father couldn't handle the new responsibilities that came with having a child, so he took whatever cash he could find in the house and left.

Alvin's mother didn't spend time bemoaning her fate, she quickly remarried and ensured Alvin had a roof over his head. Thomas's new stepfather wasn't particularly fond of the boy, but taught him how to play cards and roll dice. Alvin took to the games far more quickly than he absorbed anything else. Later in life, Thompson said he couldn't read, but numbers and odds always made sense to him. He spent hours sitting alone in his room teaching himself to adeptly shuffle cards, practicing dealing from the bottom of the deck more quickly than the eye could follow. Thompson developed his own method of marking cards by putting spots on the back or bending the edges to be able to tell face cards by feel. He practiced throwing playing cards into a hat over and over again or tossing dice, figuring out how to hold them and make them land like he wanted. Thompson would write down the results of his dice throws, calculating odds and combinations long before others considered gambling a science of sorts. But he wanted more than science. Thompson strove to elevate gambling to an art form. He practiced shooting, jumping, and other simple skills like throwing coins into a cup to the point where his execution of them made him seem extraordinary. According to Kevin Cook, author of the book Titanic Thompson, the man who bet on everything, Thompson said, if a thing's hard to do, most folks are too lazy to do it.

That puts me one up on them. Alvin left home at the age of 16, he only had 50 cents to his name but he wasn't worried, he would always say, I've been broke, but never for more than six hours at a time. He promised his mother that he wouldn't drink or smoke and he kept those promises although he engaged in numerous other vices. When he was in high stakes games he would drink water or milk while the other high rollers were dulling their senses with alcohol and that was just fine by him. In Monet, Thompson discovered a man selling maps on the street.

He offered to sell maps for a percentage of the money and soon was wandering door to door selling maps. When the luster wore off that job, Thompson joined a sharpshooter named Captain Adam Henry Bogardus and his Bogardus Miracle Medicine show. Thompson wowed Bogardus with his shooting abilities and together they bilked rural Americans out of their money with promises of medicine that could cure almost anything that was wrong with you, from gout to crossed eyes.

In actuality the medicine was a mix of cocaine and alcohol which probably gave people bursts of energy if nothing else. Thompson drew attention to the show by bragging he could shoot a silver dollar out of the air with one shot. The trick was to substitute a real silver dollar with a pre-punctured one and throw it in the air while pulling the trigger. Thompson was already able to palm items like a pro and fooled audiences with the trick. After he left the traveling medicine show, Thompson began crisscrossing the country looking for games and offering unsuspecting people propositions that he was certain to win.

It was in a pool hall in Joplin, Missouri in 1912 that Thompson added the Titanic to his name. He just won a couple hundred dollars off of a local pool player when on his way out the door he read a sign offering two hundred dollars to the person who could jump over the pool table without touching it. Thompson announced to the room that he'd take the bat. He walked out and returned later with a mattress that he positioned on the other side of the pool table. Then taking a running start he threw himself over the table headfirst and landed on the mattress on the other side without touching the table and collecting on the bat.

An onlooker asked what the gambler's name was and according to legend another replied, it must be Titanic because he sinks everybody. Thompson had dedication and skill but he wasn't above shifting the odds with a bit of guile. Once he heard of a skilled horseshoe pitcher named Frank Jackson who bragged that he would bet any amount on a game of horseshoes.

Thompson saw opportunity but there was a problem, he'd never played horseshoes. He practiced in practice until he was ready. He baited Jackson by telling some kids he could beat anyone at horseshoes.

As he planned Jackson showed up after he heard of the boast. Thompson offered to play for ten dollars but Jackson balked saying he played for real money. So Thompson offered to play for ten thousand dollars saying it was all the money I have and flashing a wad of bills.

The hook was set. They played and Thompson ringed three in a row while Jackson's throws kept coming up a foot short. Jackson lost ten thousand dollars wondering why his throws were so weak that day.

Apparently Jackson never found out that Thompson had set the stakes 41 feet apart, a foot more than the 40-foot regulation. More serious trouble found Thompson when he killed a man with a hammer in 1910. It had been a good night for Thompson before the killing, he had won a riverboat through gambling and was playing craps on that same boat with Jim Johnson.

Thompson's girlfriend Nellie was with him as he won roll after roll. Johnson drunk and out of sorts accused Thompson of cheating and threw him overboard into the dark river. By the time Thompson climbed back on the boat, Johnson had torn Nellie's clothes in multiple places and was threatening to take out his frustrations with Thompson on her. Thompson was having none of it, he beat Johnson about the head with a hammer and threw the unconscious man into the river where he drowned. The local sheriff showed up to sort out the trouble and offered Thompson a choice, he'd either come to jail and face charges of murder or give the sheriff the boat and get out of town.

Thompson gave up his boat and left. The four other men Thompson would kill during his lifetime he claimed were trying to rob him, he got off every time. Perhaps it was this early violent experience on the river that convinced Thompson that women had no place on the road with him, but throughout his life Thompson refused to take any of his five wives on his travels. Thompson preferred his wives to be young and beautiful even in his later years. His first marriage to 18 year old Nora Truschel ended in divorce when he refused to get a normal job to spend time at home with her or to stop seeing other women while on the road. Alice Kane, his second wife, was a con man's kindred spirit. Thompson said he met black-haired Alice when she tried to pick his pocket in Pittsburgh. She was 17 years old and he was 25.

He brought her an enormous diamond ring and married her a month after their initial meeting. A week after their first anniversary, Thompson was drafted and ordered to report to Camp Zachary Taylor in Kentucky. He was made a sergeant and used his position to teach the other soldiers how to play five card stud and craps.

The First World War ended and Thompson went home without having to serve overseas. He used some of his gains to buy a new home for his long-suffering mother. Thompson didn't hesitate to take money from anyone he beat. In fact, Thompson sometimes thought that arrogant rich folks had the fleecing coming to them. He hustled and conned his way through poker games, craps, pool games, propositions and a game he showed enormous promise for, golf.

I went purely crazy over golf, Thompson said later. He could play naturally left-handed, so a typical con would be play a golf or right-handed and then offer double or nothing to play another game, this time with his left hand. He usually won. The itinerant gambling lifestyle faded away with the invention of the modern era of telegraphs and the professional gamblers of Las Vegas.

Thompson said you couldn't cheat in Vegas with their waxy cards and video cameras. He was paid to appear at the first World Series of Poker and he co-hosted with Jill Wills, the actor. Thompson's wife Alice died young after she was hit by a car while Thompson was away at work. He married three more times, divorcing each. His final wife Jeanette Bennett said they divorced so Thompson could afford to go into a retirement home. He had gambled his entire life but was living off his social security checks because he hadn't invested any of it.

Thompson died in Texas at the retirement home in May of 1974. He was 80 years old. Special thanks to Greg Hengler as always for working with the History Guy and bringing these stories to you. If you want more stories of forgotten history, please subscribe to his YouTube channel. The History Guy, history deserves to be remembered.

Titanic Thompson's story here on Our American Story. Passing the ball is fun. The Frito-Lay pass the ball challenge is more fun. Join Frito-Lay, the official USA snack of the FIFA World Cup 2022 for their pass the ball challenge. Look for the Golden World Soccer Ball and explore the ever-growing community. Then, pass the ball to friends for a chance to score custom swag.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2022-11-16 19:49:31 / 2022-11-16 19:55:00 / 5

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