Titanic Thompson (1893 – 1974)
Titanic Thompson, born Alvin Clarence Thomas, was a larger than life figure, born to gamble, the more unlikely and remarkable the wager the better, so much so that separating the apocryphal from the kosher in his long and inglorious career takes some doing. Take his nickname, Titanic. It wasn’t because he escaped Davy Jones’ locker whilst a passenger on the ill-fated liner by dressing as a woman, as some sources suggest. No, it relates to the reaction to another of his outlandish bets.
After a hard day’s work hustling in a pool hall called Snow Clarks in Joplin, Missouri in 1912, he noticed a sign offering “$200 to any man who jumps over my new pool table.” This was a challenge Thompson could not refuse, even though the table was nine feet long, 30 inches off the floor and 4.5 feet wide. No one believed he could do it and so he had many willing takers for the best. Thompson left the room and came back ten minutes later dragging an old mattress which he put on the other side of the table, where he was to land.
Thompson performed a prodigious leap head first, doing a flip, clearing the table and landing on his back on the mattress. As he was collecting his winnings, someone asked the proprietor his name. “I don’t rightly know, but it ought to be Titanic”, the hall owner said, “He sinks everybody.” The name stuck and Titanic set out on a peripatetic gambling career, targeting the rich, famous and anyone brave or foolish enough to take him on at golf, dice, pool, poker, coin-flipping or to accept his outlandish challenges.
Titanic was ambidextrous when it came to playing golf, although he was naturally left-handed. He challenged an amateur, who regularly carded a gross score of 90, to a game. Playing right-handed he lost a close game. Inevitably, Titanic challenged the amateur to a double or quits game and to make it easier for the amateur Titanic would play left-handed. Of course, he won with a score of 80.
Thompson once bet that he could drive a golf ball over 500 yards at a time when even the best golfers could only achieve around 300 yards. There were a lot of takers for this wager. Allowed to select his golf course, Titanic chose a tee on a hill overlooking a lake at Long Island. The lake was frozen. He struck the ball towards the lake, where it landed and slid and skidded for at least the requisite distance.
You had to read the small print when you struck a bet with Titanic. Irritated by a particularly obnoxious boxer, he bet the champion $1,000 that he could not knock him out while they both stood on the same piece of newspaper. This seemed too good to be true and the boxer accepted the challenge. Thompson laid a copy of the Spring Valley Herald across the threshold of the door, shut the door with him on one side and the increasingly frustrated boxer on the other.
Titanic was also known to play fast and loose with the rules. Horseshoe throwing was a popular sport at the time and the standard distance between the point where the thrower stood and the ring was forty feet. A champion pitcher, Frank Jackson, had issued an open challenge to all-comers with a prize of $10,000. Thompson challenged him and Jackson was astonished to find that his usually unerring throws were falling a foot short. Naturally, Thompson had set the ring forty-one feet away from the line.
A similar trick was played with sign posts. Returning to from a fishing trip to Joplin with a couple of inveterate gamblers, they noticed some workmen erecting a sign saying it was 20 miles away. The next time the trio passed the sign, Titanic wagered the pair that it was only 15 miles away. The bet was accepted, the odometer was studied, and, lo and behold, the distance was 15 miles. Thompson scooped the pot. Of course, he had had the sign moved!
He liked to throw a piece of fruit over a building. After the bet was struck an adjacent fruit seller would pass a weighted piece of fruit to Titanic and the feat was accomplished. He even hooked in Al Capone. Scarface wanted to investigate the lemon before it was thrown and only sleight of hand enabled Titanic to show him a real lemon before throwing the doctored fruit.
Damon Runyon, a writer, wanted to write a story about Thompson’s exploits but was rebuffed on the basis that Titanic’s occupation wasn’t conducive to publicity. In retaliation Runyon based Sky Masterton in a story that later became Guys and Dolls on him.
But there was a seamier side to Titanic. During his career he killed five men, four of whom were in self-defence. He is a subject I shall return tom no doubt.
If you enjoyed this, why not try out Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin fone