Crime on the Wire: How the Telegraph was Used to Send the First Spam Mail

In the early history of the telegraph, entrepreneurial men and women like David Lechler and P.T. Barnum used the technology to play fairly harmless pranks on their friends and neighbors who were unfamiliar with the machine. By the end of the 19th century, the technology had matured and become a common (and to many essential) part of American life.

As I keep an eye out for reports and stories about misuses of the telegraph , I’ve noticed more than a few observers from the late 1800s and early 1900s who don’t condemn the telegraph outright, but write lurid tales of crime and delinquency where the telegraph plays a central role. Just as they had at the mid-century, telegraphs allowed operators to distort their identity and trick unsuspecting customers who assume messages are legitimate. But now, these critics claim, people were really getting hurt.

One such telegraph critic was Josiah Flynt, a early muckraker and crime writer who was known for his expose on railroad tramps. In his 1900 book The Powers that Prey, a collection of short vignettes of the criminal classes, he depicts the telegraph as a fixture of seedy criminal dens that allowed criminals and undesirables to continue their evil ways away from the watchful eye of decent society:

“One evening, or rather one morning, in May, 189-, in the “Slide,” which everybody knows, though that is not its name, a mixed company of men and women were glad that they were young. Therefore they ordered miscellaneous drinks and smoked cigarettes and listened to three “darkies” explain, to the accompaniment of three guitars, that they find the Western Union a convenience no matter where they roam, and that they will telegraph their baby, who’ll send ten or twenty maybe, and they won’t have to walk back home.”

Doped SInger
Untitled Photo, Possibly Related to: Doped Singer, “Love oh, love, oh keerless love,” Scotts Run, West Virginia. Relief Investigator reported a number of dope cases at Scotts Run, 1935. Library of Congress.

In 1907, Flynt returned to his discussion of the telegraph and its relationship with crime in an interesting piece about the New York dope-shop. It seems that con men were using the telegraph to send the first spam mail: solicitations of horse betting tips to unsuspecting “suckers” who paid handsomely for this information. Flynt was adamant that his stories were based off of his personal experiences undercover in the criminal underworld. “These stories,” he wrote, “are not fiction in the ordinary sense…the characters are real and the incidents have all occurred…The stories are intended to point a moral as well as adorn a tale.” Below is a excerpt from his article, can you find the moral of this sensational story?

“The dope-shop is one of the fungus growths of the pool-room game. In it’s every essential the dope-shop is a confidence game. Between the “form” of racehorses as set forth in publications for that purpose or in the daily papers and in the dope-shop there is the same difference that lies between the advice of a reputable broker in stocks and the persuasions of the man that works with three shells. The tips published in the daily papers are given to the public for what they are- the guesses of men who make the handicapping of thoroughbreds their business. It may be that even the publication of guesses does not tend to the common good, but it probably will be continued as long as horse-racing is a recognized American institution. The dope-shop, however, is another thing.

The vender of “fake” racing information bases his operations on the worst traits of men. He comes to you with a proposition in effect as follows:

‘I know of a certain piece of crooked work to be done in connection with a certain race. There is to be cheating, and I am in with the cheaters. If you will pay me a small fee I will let you in on this crooked deal.’

Salvator and Tenny
Horseracing was a popular betting sport at New York tracks like Sheepshead Bay. Currier and Ives, “Great, Horses in a Great Race,” 1890. Library of Congress.

It seems to matter little that this proposition implies that the person to whom it is addressed is both a knave and a fool. Circular letters carrying this proposition are sent though the mails by the millions annually. They reach every class in the country. They are written with particular reference to their power to induce women to buy tops on “sure things.” To the work-weary house-wife who is not able to see the day of leisure in the future after contemplating the meager family income of the present, these promises of from five to fifty dollars for each dollar invested come with irresistible force. For the man who is feverish with desire to do more for his family they are hard to cast aside. These are the men and women, largely, to whom these advertisements are sent.

The biggest list of the dope-shop is the Sucker list. These lists are compiles in a hundred cunning ways and after one dope-shop has worked its list to exhaustion it sells it to another shop or exchanges it for a fresh list of unsophisticated ones. Therefore the person whose name is once on one of these lists continues to receive dope advertisements for years from shops all over the country.

Josiah Flynt
Josiah Flynt, looking very suspicious of any criminal activities involving the telegraph. My Life, 1908.

New York is the home of the dope-shop. In that city it was born and in that city it has been brought to its highest state of development. Every other large city in which there is interest in racing has its dope-shop, but in none is the game worked so effectively as in New York. The necessaries of a dope-shop are a manager who can take the last dollar of a widow without compunction, a cheap office, a desk, a Sucker list, a supply of extravagantly worded circulars, and a block of telegraphs blanks. The fee charged ranges from one dollars to ten dollars for each tip sent and from five to twenty dollars for the weekly tip service. To each subscriber who has paid the fee in advance there is sent by telegraph the name of a horse tha the confidence man tells you cannot lose that day. Besides paying for the so-called information you are required to pay the cost of the message. This “information” usually is a guess by the office-boy or by the manager, neither of whom has any closer connection with racing stables than the Suckers to whom the information is sent. There are a few “square” confidence men in this game who send to all their subscribers the name of the same horse on a given day. The majority of them send to subscribers in one city the name of one horse, to subscribers in another city the name of another horse in the same race, and to subscribers in still other cities the names of still other horses in the same race. One of these is reasonably certain to win. In this way the subscribers in the city to which the name of the winning horse is sent are inveigled into buying more dope of the same kind and into playing the information until they have lost hopelessly. So widespread has become this evil that newspapers and racing publications which publish the advertisements of dope-shops have been forced to refuse the advertisements of those who have been caught playing the trick.

There is no way of computing the amount of money out of which the ever-gullible public is swindled in the course of a year in this way, but it runs into millions. One New York dope-shop, which had exceptional good luck in guessing winning horses for several days less than a year ago, was sending more than five hundred telegrams a day to a western city, and each telegram represented an investment by the subscriber of five dollars plus the cost of a despatch. It is probably that this one dope-shop during this streak of good guessing took in not less than twenty thousand dollars a day. During this short period of exceptional good luck the subscribers unquestionably made money “playing the dope,” but it was followed by the inevitable period of bad guessing, and all the money won, and more too, was bet away while the Suckers were hoping for a return on their former good luck.

Dope Raid
Racing Dope Raid, September 30, 1922. Library of Congress.

Probably the most remarkable evidence of the complete gullibility of the race-mad public is to be found in the promises mad by the dope-shops. Nearly all of them give their subscribers a “guarantee,” which consists of a promise that if the tips sent for one week  do not make money for the player, the next week’s tips will be sent free. I have never heard of the public accepting such a proposition from any other kind of confidence man. If the information causes the bettor to lose money, no charge will be made for more information that will cause the bettor to lose more money! In truth it seems that the Sucker-a-minute estimate will have to be revised. This dope-shop swindle is the only out-and-out confidence game to which the federal mails remain open.”

This excerpt is from “Corporation and Police Partnership with the Criminal Pool-Rooms” by Josiah Flynt, Cosmopolitan May-October 1907, 161-168.

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