The greatest con artist of 19th century New York

Hungry Joe Lewis arrived in New York City in the 1880s and immediately began separating wealthy residents from their money via a game called Bunco (also called Banco).

HungryjoelewisPlayed with cards or dice, Bunco was kind of the late–19th century version of three-card monte.

The point was to let the rube win early on, encourage him to drop more dough . . . until he lost in the end because ultimately the game was not winnable.

It was played so often in New York at the time the term Bunco eventually became synonymous with fraud.

Hungry Joe’s most prominent mark was Irish writer Oscar Wilde, who visited the city in 1882. After “bumping into” Wilde near Union Square and convincing him to play Bunco, Lewis managed to get $5,000 out of the writer.

Hungry Joe earned a string of convictions for Bunco-ing various people. But he supposedly went straight after being released from prison in 1896. He died in 1902, known forever as “King of the Bunco Men.”

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8 Responses to “The greatest con artist of 19th century New York”

  1. Lidian Says:

    What an amazing photograph! He really looks shady. Where did you find it, it is a mug shot?

  2. wildnewyork Says:

    I don’t know if it’s a mug shot, but that’s my guess. He is a shady dude for sure.

  3. Bowery Boogie Says:

    just like the three card monte stands i remember seeing all the time. same strategy.

  4. wildnewyork Says:

    I know, they were all over Times Square, then they disappeared. I saw some guys running 3-card monte near Union Square last winter though. Maybe it’s making a comeback?

  5. B Says:

    Wilde = Irish, not British.

  6. wildnewyork Says:

    Yes, thank you, changed in the text.

  7. The Shadow Entrepreneurs | Tom Rizzo Blog Says:

    […] enjoyed a high degree of success, before moving westward. Swindlers, counterfeiters, pick-pockets, con-men, medical quacks , and others, preyed on the public, taking advantage of the public’s trusting […]

  8. The first confidence man was a New Yorker | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] con—leading to the term con artist and continuing a long tradition of New York swindles, from bunco to the selling the Brooklyn Bridge to three-card […]

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