The Frontierado holiday is this Friday, August 5th! As we all count down to it like little kids excitedly awaiting Santa Claus here’s another look at legends surrounding another neglected figure of the American west. ** Special thanks to Jay Thorington, a descendant of Lucky Bill, for the correct spelling of the last name **
LUCKY BILL – William B. Thorington was the real-life inspiration for Bret Harte’s fictional gambler Jack Hamlin. Lucky Bill was born sometime in the 1820s in New York and after serving in the Mounted Rifles during the Mexican War of 1846-1848 had wandered as far as Michigan when word of the discovery of gold in California hit in 1849.
Thorington traveled west with one of the countless wagon trains, putting his Monte-playing skills and his con artist tricks to good use along the way. By the time the wagon train reached California, Lucky Bill had supposedly acquired a large amount of cash and valuables from his traveling companions. Periodic clashes enroute with the Pawnee and other tribes helped hone Lucky Bill’s gunmanship.
Rather than spend his time prospecting for gold Bill settled in to fleece prospectors and other gamblers at the Monte table or with his skill at the Shell Game. Eventually, after winning many pots and losing a few others Lucky Bill settled in Sacramento, already with a trail of dead bodies in his wake courtesy of his Colt Walker pistol. Thorington played his game and his cons out of casinos like Jimmie Lee’s Stinking Tent, Mansion House, The Humboldt, New Orleans West and The Diana. He even spent time working The Empire – run by Andrew Butler – the brother of future Civil War General Benjamin Butler.
When Jimmie Lee earned enough cash to buy a casino with four walls around it a criminal element took over his tent and renamed it The Round Tent, attracting the toughest of the tough and the deadliest of the deadly. Lucky Bill’s skill with cards and a gun enabled him to thrive in this cutthroat atmosphere and he supposedly earned $24,000 IN EIGHTEEN FIFTIES MONEY during one particular two-month winning streak.
At some point in 1851 Thorington and fellow gambler Sidney “Sid the Kid” Charles decided to tour the outlying camps around the California goldfields like Hangtown. After the pair wiped out a fair number of prospectors in card games and cons they were chased out of the boondocks in running gunfights with some of their aggrieved victims. On another occassion Lucky Bill encountered the vengeful brother of one of his victims on a stagecoach between San Francisco and Sacramento. The man wounded Bill in the side and Bill wounded him in the shoulder but both gunslingers recuperated at a Sacramento hotel under a doctor’s care.
Over the next year Thorington worked at adding a certain P.R. element to his game and often refunded small stakes to gamblers he wiped out, like the time he won two oxes and $60 from a farmer but kicked back one of the oxes. Lucky Bill also took to handing out some personal charity to unlucky prospectors or strapped local businessmen, earning a certain amount of gratitude which would manifest itself in public protection or sotto voce warnings about sore losers gunning for him.
In very late 1852 Bill went on a legendary $20,000 losing streak and decided to head back east while he still had a small fortune left in savings. In Michigan Lucky Bill charmed three ladies into traveling with him when he headed back out west in 1853. In a famous incident at a Peoria train station involving two of the ladies’ gun-toting fathers and railroad detectives two of the young women returned home with their respective fathers. The third, Martha Lamb, remained with the gambler/gunfighter.
In Saint Joseph, MO, the jumping-off point for many wagon trains headed west, the couple blew all Bill’s remaining money in a profligate spending spree. Thorington returned to con games and the card tables, soon amassing another nest egg with which he and Martha headed west. This time Lucky Bill worked the Carson Valley goldfields and boomtowns in Nevada. Learning a lesson from his previous financial ups and downs Bill quit this time while he was well ahead in terms of gambling winnings and bought land near Genoa, NV.
With Martha still by his side (no marriage records were ever found, though) Lucky Bill became a hugely successful rancher and sawmill operator as well as the owner of the lucrative Carson County Toll Road. Thorington just couldn’t keep his nose clean indefinitely, however, and was soon acting as an accomplice or mastermind (accounts vary) for local criminal elements like rustlers and armed bandits. On June 18th, 1858, allegedly stolen livestock were found on Lucky Bill Thorington’s spread and he was summarily hanged by a Vigilante mob.
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