La MaggioreLa Maggiore: SpecificationsThe Shell Game Store

The Shell Game’s Allure

At the end of the 1800s one of the best known shell men in the United States was Jim Miner, also known as Umbrella Jim. He used to introduce his game with a wonderful little song, thankfully recorded in Gambling and Gambling Devices by John Phillip Quinn (a reformed gambler), which went as follows:

A little fun, just now and then
Is relished by the best of men.
If you have nerve, you may have plenty;
Five, draws you ten, and ten draws twenty.
Attention giv’n, I’ll show to you,
How umbrellas hide the peek-a-boo.
Select your shell, the one you choose;
If right, you win, if not, you lose;
The game itself is lots of fun,
Jim’s chances though, are two to one;
And I tell you that your chance is slim
To win a prize from ‘Umbrella Jim’!

The Three Shell Game holds a unique place in the world of magic, and many of the top names in magic featured it prominently in their performances. The shells are placed upon the table and before a word is said, the audience’s curiosity is running away. It is difficult to pin down its allure on the public. Is it gambling . . . a con . . . sleight-of-hand? Or perhaps the result of a dark pact with the underworld? Many have heard of the game, but few have seen it performed live with actual walnut shells.

These shells, unavailable for many years, were favored by such pros as Mike Rogers and Frank Garcia. Often referred to as “Italian walnuts,” very few people had access to them and they were available only in very limited quantities. The originals had one major drawback, their notable brittle nature, which rendered them dry and fragile over time. With La Maggiore, we provide workers with a set of almost indestructible shells that, with appropriate care, will last a lifetime.

La Maggiore shells are manufactured in high-impact resin, and are the largest commercially available. Molded from an actual walnut similar to those used by the greats, La Maggiore was lovingly sculpted and refined for perfect sensitivity. The original walnut came off one of two trees remaining on the only plantation in the Northern Hemisphere that still grows them.

Great pains have been taken to ensure that the color and texture says definitively “walnut shell.” This shell was sanded and then filled with putty to smooth out the interior, molded, cast and then sanded further to ensure a fluid response. The only other work put into these shells is in the back edge, where a gentle “inverted V” has been sculpted in to minimize shell motion during the steal.

Virtually indestructible, washable and modifiable (see Specifications), La Maggiore is the finest set of shells ever commercially available.

A good tool does the job adequately, a great tool enhances the abilities of the worker, enabling him to soar to heights previously thought unattainable.

Thus it could be said that these replica walnut shells are perhaps better than the real thing. Treat them roughly and they come back screaming for more. Treat them kindly, respect their powers and you might one day be able to retire to finer pursuits, your every need provided for . . .

HISTORICAL REFERENCES

I wanted to share some of my research with shell game aficionados. I recently discovered a reference to thimble-rig that predates any previously known references by almost fifty years.

From a book about
Lord Mayors of Hull
(East coast town in Yorkshire, UK)

HULL ELECTIONS c. 1670 -
Richard Perry and his fiddler wife

Owre hys Shoppe Tewel-Peice, hee hath depeyntid ye Wordyns "Ys bee ye Whyte Swanne" yn bygge letteryns-ase wel ase ye lyne- "Yffe I trustes afore I tryes, I maie repente afore I deyes." Anewste evrie nyghte a Beavie, o Blackgardes, Byrders, an Blabblers, wyl gette togedder atte hys Stewe, an lake atte Cardes, Merryls, Skyttels, Nobbes an Stuntes, an odder games o a lyke kynde-atte alle o whych Perry bee dempt a Heppen honde-soe Heppen yt hee canne alwaie amenage toe beyape hys Compagnyons, who bee o ye vylest sorte. Pott-Hawkers, Swepes, Tantrels, Pedler-men, Women o ye Towne, an Tatter de Mallyones o ye mowste fylthie descrypte bee hys reglar Customeres. Dogge-fyghtyn, Cock-fyghtyn, Bulle-batyn, Thymbel-rygge an Nine-pins bee hys favorid emploie.

OTHER MORE COMMON
(BUT DETAILED) REFERENCES FOLLOW.

From Trivia: Or, the Art of Walking
the Streets of London
. Book II
by John Gay (1716)

EXCERPTED

Careful Observers, studious of the Town,
Shun the Misfortunes that disgrace the Clown;
Untempted, they contemn the Jugler's Feats,
Pass by the Meuse, nor try the Thimble's Cheats.
When Drays bound high, they never cross behind,
Where bubbling Yest is blown by Gusts of Wind:
And when up Ludgate-hill huge Carts move slow,
Far from the straining Steeds securely go,
Whose dashing Hoofs behind them fling the Mire,
And mark with muddy Blots the gazing 'Squire.
The Parthian thus his Jav'lin backward throws,
And as he flies infests pursuing Foes.

From The Every-Day Book
by William Hone (1825)

Thimble and Pea.

On the 8th of June, 1825, a publican in the neighbourhood of Whitechapel was charged at the Public Office, Bow-street, by Mr. John Francis Panchaud, a foreigner, with having, in conjunction with several other persons, defrauded him of a 10l. note, at Ascot Heath race-course, on the Thursday preceding. The alleged fraud, or robbery, was effected by means of an unfair game known among the frequenters of races and fairs by the name of "the thimble rig," of which J. Smith, the officer, this day gave the following description to Mr. Minshull, in order that the worthy magistrate might perfectly understand the case:—A gang of seven or eight, or more, set up a table, but they all appear strangers to each other, and unconnected with the game, except one who conducts it, and who appears to be the sole proprietor. This master of the ceremonies has three thimbles, and is provided with a number of peas, or pepper-corns. He puts one under each thimble, or perhaps only under one or two, as the case may be. He then offers a bet as to which thimble a pepper-corn is or is not under, and offers at first such a wager as is eagerly taken by those round the table, and he loses. He pays the losings freely, and the other members of this joint-stock company affect to laugh at him, as what they call a "good flat." Having thus drawn the attention, and probably excited the cupidity of a stranger, who appears to have money, they suffer him to win a stake or two, and get him to increase his bets. When he seems thoroughly in the humour, the master of the table lifts a thimble, under which is a pepper-corn, and turning his head aside to speak to some one, he suffers the corn to roll off; and, seeming to be unconscious of this, he replaces the thimble, and offers bets to any amount that there is a corn underneath that particular thimble. The stranger having seen the corn roll off "with his own eyes," as the phrase is, chuckles to himself, and eagerly takes the bet; the thimble is removed, and behold !—there is a pepper-corn under it still, the fellow having dexterously slipped another under it when the first rolled off the table. "So that the plain fact is, sir," continued Smith, "that the stranger, fancying he is taking in the master of the table, cheerfully stakes his money with a dead certainty, as he supposes, of winning, and he finds that he has been taken in himself." Smith said, he had known instances of gentlemen getting from their carriages, and in a few moments ridding themselves of 20l. or 301., or perhaps more, and going off wondering at their folly, and looking uncommon silly.

It appeared that Mr. Panchaud went up to one of these tables, at which the defendant and many others were playing, and after winning two or three times, the trick above described was commenced. The conductor of the game offered a bet of 5l., and Mr. Panchaud having seen the pepper-corn roll off, took the wager, and put down a 10l. note. In a moment after there was a general hustling, the table was upset, and the whole party speedily disappeared, together with the 10l. note. When the bet was offered, the defendant, who stood next to him, jogged his elbow, and said eagerly, "Bet him, bet him; you must win, the ball is under our feet." Mr. Panchaud had no doubt, from his whole manner, that the defendant was concerned with the others in the trick. The case stood over for further investigation. It is only mentioned here for the purpose of showing a species of slight of hand continued in our own times to defraud the unwary.

From The Reformed Gambler
by Jonathan H. Green (c.1858)

CHAPTER XI. THE GAME OF THIMBLES.

Dr. Bennett the King Thimble player—The young man with two such piercing eyes—Best two in three.

Who has not heard of the game of Thimbles ? For the edification of those who have been so fortunate as never to have seen it, we will briefly describe it.

The sporting gentleman produces three common sewing thimbles and a small ball, and placing them on his knee or some smooth surface, commences operations by rolling the little ball by his third finger under each of the thimbles, which are in a row, lifting first one and then another, as the ball approaches it, with his thumb and forefinger, and playing it along from one to the other. When all is ripe he suffers the ball to stop, half disclosing, half concealing its resting place. Hands are then lifted, and the easy dupes make their bets as to the identical thimble under which the ball may be found. The strength of the game lies in the legerdemain by which the gamester removes the ball and places it under any thimble he may choose, after the bet is made.

Thousands of dollars have been lost at this game. Some years ago, I took a trip upon one of the fine Southern steamboats up Red River to the foot of the Raft. As usual there was a large number of passengers on board, among them the celebrated Dr, Bennett the inventor of the game of "Thimbles!" The Dr. frequently amused the passengers with several games, particularly one called "Calculation," which seemed to be his favorite, and brought him quite a revenue during the trip. The Doctor himself was quite a subject of curiosity and study to us, having heard so much of his unrivalled shrewdness as a "sportsman," and the vast amount acumulated by him by the little game of Thimbles. Indeed, it was said that he was the moving cause of several penal statutes, in regard to gaming on Thimbles, having been enacted in the states of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee.

One evening after supper it was insisted by some of the passengers that the Doctor should exhibit the game of Thimbles, which with his usual modesty he declined to do, protesting among other things that he had no thimbles. This difficulty was easily remedied, a messenger was dispatched to the ladies' cabin, and soon returned with the required number. The Doctor made him a little ball of paper and commenced his performance. At first he was quite unlucky—but he paid up punctually, and consoled himself with a favorite expression of his, that "sometimes I am very severe, then again not quite so sly."

Among the lookers on was a young gentleman from the good old state of Connecticut, on his first visit "South" He was on his way to the head of navigation with a pretty little stock of groceries, by way of trying his fortune in the great West. He soon manifested much interest in the game, declaring he knew the thimble under which the ball might be found. The Doctor gave him a knowing wink and told him in a whisper not to tell. But so often did our friend "guess" right, that he laid aside all scruples of conscience, and desired to be permitted to bet a few dollars. To this proposition the Doctor at first objected, declaring "he did not like the young man's eye, it was too keen," that he saw the ball, &c. This seemed to please the Connecticut yankee very much, and made him more anxious to bet.

After much parley and a good deal of reluctance on the part of the Doctor, it was at last agreed that Connecticut might bet a few dollars, "just a few," if he would allow the Doctor a little chance against two such piercing eyes as he had, by betting two to one. This being at length settled our young friend put up his twenty dollars against the Doctor's ten. Hands off and all being ready, he lifted the thimble and sure enough there was the ball. The Doctor gave up the money and all enjoyed a hearty laugh at his expense. This was the largest bet that had been made that evening. The Doctor observed, "sometimes he was not so sly." The ball and thimbles were again put in motion—again all being ready our lucky friend proposed to bet—but the Doctor declared he must have some chance against such great odds as "yankee eyes," and insisted on three to one, or thirty dollars to ten being made. This was also accepted: again the thimble was raised, and sure enough there was the ball. Our friend again pocketed another ten, and again the "social hall" rang with laughter, at the Doctor's expense.

The thimbles were again arranged; this time we observed the game closely, as we thought from his repeated losses the Doctor was hardly entitled to that great reputation for cunning and sagacity which had ever been attributed to him. Now, in the moving of the little paper ball, we thought we discovered the source of the Doctor's misfortunes, for becoming a little unrolled, a portion of the paper of which it was made, stuck out from under one of the thimbles. This our Connecticut friend plainly saw, and we presumed the Doctor, through old age, (now about 70) had his sight so impaired as not to be able to see it, and could not, therefore, play his game with his accustomed adroitness. But the tale was soon told. Our "Yankee friend" proposed to double the bet, "having the thing so dead." The Doctor impatient of repeated losses, told him to make it hundreds instead of tens. This was done, and our friend bet three hundred dollars against one hundred dollars, (just here I thought it a shame to take advantage even of a professional gambler's blindness, for the location of the ball was evident.)

The money up, "Connecticut" was all impatient to realize his expectations, and in great eagerness he again raises the thimble—and sure enough, it was not there! He had reached the climax of the Doctor's expectations in regard to his ready cash and willingness to bet, and he could not win. We have seen many pictures of disappointment, but the appearance of that young man's countenance we can never forget. The laugh was now uproarious. As much as you have pitied the poor dupe the laugh was irresistible—but the poor fellow, "like the boy the calf run over, saw nothing to laugh at." He was a statue of amazed misery. The Doctor coolly pocketed his cash, while our friend stammered out his astonishment with the declaration that all was not right, that he had never bet before, and had surely been taken in.

"Never mind," says the Doctor, "what's a few hundred dollars to a young man with your eyes? The ladies all admire them—I heard them speak of them to-day—and you won twice out of three times—that's the best two in three any how."

Copyright © 2002-2013 Andrew J. Pinard. All rights reserved.

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