Lucky Bill ThorntonThe 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.

Sacramento 1849

************** Sacramento in 1849, when it was inhabited exclusively by cartoon figures. Later they would move south and establish Toon Town.

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.


© Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.   




  1. i have always wondered how toon town became toon town.

  2. His real name is Thorington, not Thornton.

    • Hello! I’ve heard that at a few sites but wasn’t sure if it was accurate. There are a lot of books that say otherwise, but are you saying he was an ancestor?

      • I have the book the Hanging of Lucky Bill
        and it is Thorington. Also in Time Life Old West
        Series, The Gamblers it is Thorington. And I have been
        In contact with relatives and that’s how they
        spell it. My dad told me the name was bastardized
        a lot. I am Lucky Bill Thorington in SASS.

      • Okay, I will change it to Thorington. It is listed as Thornton in Knights of the Green Cloth and other books about western gamblers, that was where I got the Thornton name. Thanks for getting in touch and letting me know the correct last name!

  3. I was going to mention that book. I wrote to the author telling him, too. Got no response, but the author may have been dead by then. Would appreciate the change. I live in Wyoming. There is a town named Torrington here. People want to change my name to that, or Thornington. It was more common, I think, in Victorian times for other people to change to their familiar.
    He had a house in Genoa, NV. Their records also show Thorington.
    Keep up the good work. I had heard that Lucky Bill was the character Rotton Luck Willie was based on in Paint Your Wagon.

    • Thank you very much! I love spreading some publicity to overlooked figures like Lucky Bill, Kid Russell, X the Vigilante, Sam Sixkiller and others. I didn’t know that about Paint Your Wagon.
      Please feel free to let any other fans of the American West know about my blog.

  4. Jay Thorington

    I once performed a shell game at museum on Omaha.
    ” Ladies and gentlemen, here’s a nice quiet little game conducted on the square, Especially recommended by the clergy for its honesty and wholesome moral tendencies. I win only from blind man all others can win a fortune ….”
    What I didn’t realize initially, is there was a blind man standing in the audience. I do believe he was th one laughing the hardest.
    “Lucky Bill” Thorington

  5. Jay (Lucky Bill) Thorington

    That was Lucky Bill’s spiel when beginning the shell game (thimble rigging) con. He always worked with a shill who would win the first couple rounds till someone would “see how easy it was”. They would lose. Three card monte uses three cards, and you have to pick where your card is. Thimble rigging involves 3 drinking thimbles (which are larger than a sewing one), where you find the “pea”. Lucky Bill used a cork pea, and filled his nails sharp to stab it, allowing him to put it where he wanted. In reality, the pea was under none of the thimbles when the mark made his selection.

  6. Jay (Lucky Bill) Thorington

    That was Lucky Bill’s spiel before he began his shell (thimble rigging), which involve 3 large drinking thimbles and a cork “pea”. He worked with a shill who won to set up the mark. Lucky Bill kept his nails sharp to stab the pea.
    When the mark chose which thimble the pea was under, in reality it wasn’t under any of them.
    Also, I had heard LB used an 1849 pocket, which would be more handy for
    a gambler type. Rather than the big Walker, but I may be wrong.

    • Hello again! It’s great to hear some of those fine details that often get neglected. I know how you feel about the type of gun, too, but a few of the books claimed that was what he used so that’s the only reason I specified it. You know how that goes with different books citing different “facts.”

  7. Jay (Lucky Bill) Thorington

    Get one wrong “fact” and it spreads. I think that’s how his last name got messed up. Knights of the Green Cloth,was quoted. Nothing saying he couldn’t have had more than one gun, though. I portray him with the ’49.
    Considering there were only 1100 Walkers made and 350,000 1849s, my money would be on the Pocket pistol.

  8. Laurie Hickey

    Many people thought Thorington was an alias but that was his last name but often Thornton was also used. I have been researching Lucky Bill for the past few years to write the true story.
    Much of the story of Lucky Bill Thorington has been fabricated. His parent moved from Vermont to Columbus, Chenango County, NY prior to William B.Thoringtons birth abt 1815. His father was James & mother was Mary Ann Thorington. They are buried in the Columbus Corners Cemetery also Bill’s sister Lydia & brother James. He marriied Maria Loretta Perkins iin the late 1830. They had 2 children a daughter that died quite young and a son William Jerome Thorington. I have found no evidence that he served in the Mexican War 1846 – 1848 as he was having a few problems with the law in Chenango County during that time. He was on trial in Chenango County as late as the fall of 1849. In 1850 he was livining in the Eldorado County, CA. He then moved to Sacramento and continued his gambaling.
    His mistress Martha Lamb was born in NY and grew up on the west sid of Duck Lake in Calhoun County, Michigan.

    • Hello! Thanks for commenting! Good info, but for my Frontierado posts I always go with the most dramatic versions of these people’s stories in the tradition of folklore and mythology.
      I think it’s great that folks like you try to find the tiny nuggets of truth at the core of these legends.

  9. Allan

    I don’t understand. Did this man really exist?

  10. Coy

    I like gamblers who are also gunmen!

  11. Shelby

    Lucky Bill needs a movie.

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