If it looks like ‘easy money’ it probably means you are about to get fleeced: trains, racing and the 3 card trick

Amiable-gentleman-three-card-trick-Chips

In mid June 1882 a well-dressed man was stood in the dock at Southwark Police court and charged with conspiracy to steal (or rather defraud) from two German visitors to the races. However, Henry Archer was no small time thief and appeared in court represented by his lawyer and ready to vigorously refute the charges laid against him.

There were two supposed victims (unconnected and on separate days) but only one showed up in court. Archer’s brief, Mr Keith Frith, suggested that the absence of one of the complainants was evidence of his client’s innocence, as we shall see.

The case began with the prosecution giving their version of events on the 8 June 1882. Mr Batchelor, from the Treasury Solicitor’s office led the prosecution and stated that on the Thursday in question William Tremel was travelling in the first class carriage from Waterloo to Ascot to watch the horse racing. As he took his seat Archer and two other men joined him. As the train pulled out of Waterloo one of Archer’s companions spread a travel rug over his knees and pulled out a pack of cards. He then proceeded to play the ‘three card trick’ with his friends.

The trio were betting and winning and losing money. Tremel may not (as a foreign visitor) have been familiar with the game and watched intently. Not long afterwards Archer asked him if he wanted to join in and the German was soon hooked and, inevitably (because it was a scam) started to lose.

By the time they got to the end of the journey he had lost between £8 and £10 (which may not sound that much, but represents about £500-£650 in today’s money). Tremel also borrowed another £20 from Archer and gave him and IOU; he had been well and truly fleeced but Archer claimed that he had never been on the train and had never met the German.

At the racetrack the prosecution claimed that Archer had bid his friends farewell and told Herr Tremel that he was off to see his brother, who was ‘Fred Archer the jockey’. Later that day Tremel saw Archer on the racecourse and noticed that he was carrying a book for recording the odds. Mr Frith explained that his client was a respectable individual and a ‘bona fide betting man’. In other words he was a licensed bookmaker on the Ascot and Kempton Park racetracks and argued that he’d done nothing wrong and that Tremel must have been mistaken in identifying him.

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The other victim (Robert Poehl) had stayed away from court because he accepted that he lost a similar amount of money on the train playing at a game of chance at which he’d hoped to profit.

When Archer had been arrested the police found ‘commissions and telegrams from certain noblemen well known on the turf’ and so – Frith argued – it was ‘absurd to bring charges against him’. He produced a witness who gave Archer an alibi and a glowing character reference. Batchelor, prosecuting, said he’d be able to find a witness to shoot down the alibi and asked for a remand so he could bring further evidence against Archer (and possibly track down the other two men). Mr Slade, as magistrate, agreed and bailed Archer in the meantime.

The whole episode reminds me of the racetrack wars of the 1910s and 20s (dramatized by the BBC in the Peaky Blinders series) involving rival gangs led by Billy Kimber, Darby Sabini and Alfred Solomon. There was a legitimate betting industry but it worked in the shady borders between legitimacy and criminality and the two worlds were never very far apart.

People are still being fleeced by the ‘three card trick’ (or ‘find the lady’) mainly because humans continue to believe they can beat the system. You can’t and as every casino owner knows 9and every gamble forgets) the ‘house always wins’.

[from The Standard, Thursday, June 15, 1882]

Fred Archer was a famous jockey in the 1880s, if not the most famous. He won champion jockey no less than 13 times in a row and rode 2,748 winners. Despite his success he had a sad end, taking his own life at the age of just 29 following the death of his wife in childbirth. Fred Archer had one surviving daughter to whom he left a huge fortune worth over £6,000,000 today. He did have two brothers, but neither of them were called Henry, so perhaps our Archer made that up as well.

For a detailed analysis of the racetrack wars see Heather Shore’s London’s Criminal Underworlds, c.1720-1930, which offers an excellent study of networks of crime and the people involved in it.   

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