The Dusty Road Con
Fred Whalen learned to scam along the Mississippi, the river that divides America, at pool halls and revivals. He was born in 1898 in Alton, Illinois, just upriver from St. Louis, and by the time he was a teenager he had figured out the traveling evangelists who set up shop in tents, barns, and occasionally, even, in real churches. He saw the people writhing in divine ecstasy out in their congregations and sensed immediately what was up: they were phonies, plants, shills for the preachers. Little Freddie was barely able to see over the pews but he knew they were fakers, those folks writhing in the aisles. So he’d take his coat and cover them up and spoil the show … until the preachers began paying him $5 to stay away.
Freddie had another tactic for evangelists who didn’t have Holy Rollers shaking with the spirit. He didn’t need a hymn book—he knew all the words to standards such as “Are You Washed in the Blood?” so he’d rise with the crowd and belt it out, through the closing lines,
Are your garments spotless?
Are they white as Snow?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
The evangelist then would signal everyone to sit, eager to get down to business, and the flock would do as told, except for Freddie. He’d remain on his feet and start it again, “Are you washed in the blood?” and everyone would rise back up and join him, singing it over, first verse to last. Then the preacher would gesture once more for all to be seated, only to have Freddie launch into the refrain once more, “Are you washed in the blood?” His deal with those preachers was the same, five bucks and I go away.
As for pool, he was a true prodigy—there was nothing fake about him being able to beat anyone in Alton by fifth grade. An old shark known as Tennessee Brown saw the Irish kid toying with some pretty fair players for a jar full of pennies and begged Freddie’s parents to let him tutor the boy. Freddie’s father worked as a railroad switchman for the Illinois Terminal but had grown up in Ireland amid the potato famines, and he knew the value of a little extra money. So little Freddie soon was giving trick-shot exhibitions in which he wowed the crowds by hitting balls off the top of Coke bottles. But the real payoff wasn’t in showing off. It was in looking as bad as possible while still beating the other guy, making him believe it was his fault he lost. Freddie dropped out of school to hit the road with his cue and his mentor, who guided him through the pool parlors and dives along the river, perfecting his hustle. Sometimes Tennessee Brown would offer to play people using one pocket, they got the other five. Once he took their money he would treat himself to a 25-cent cigar and tell the loser, “Bet you can’t even beat that kid.”
Freddie’s childhood officially ended when his railroad worker father got consumption and couldn’t shake the cough. John Whalen took off without his family for that beautiful and distant place called California, having heard of its miracle cures, only to return to Alton four weeks later, homesick and still coughing. Freddie was fourteen when his father passed in 1912.
He moved up to Chicago to put all that he’d learned about human nature to work as a door-to-door salesman. He was slender but close to six feet tall and looked grown-up in a gray suit and vest. He had an oversized smile, a natural salesman’s smile, and if it looked fake to some people, so be it—most liked how he lit up a room. Freddie convinced two rival photo studios in the Windy City to let him represent them. For $1, families got a certificate they could bring in, good for an 8-by-10-inch formal portrait. He never let either studio know he was selling for the other.
In no time Freddie was peddling a more elaborate product, a check writing machine. People were fearful that someone would alter checks they wrote to raise the amount, so the typewriter-like device punched down and perforated the paper to form the number. It literally cut a check, the origin of that phrase. He found it easy to convince customers they were in great peril if they didn’t have one of his check protectors. Before long, the company that made the machines offered to send him to New York, to sell there. He declined because of a girl.
Whalen family lore offers two accounts of how Freddie met Lillian Wunderlich. One version was pure Americana, sweet, romantic, and innocent. In this telling, his selling took him back down to St. Louis, where he’d stop at a teeming boarding house run by Lillian’s mother. The Wunderlich clan was huge, with sixteen kids, many raised doing chores on a family farm in Pacific, Missouri. Perhaps that’s why the boys were so strong—one, Augustus, “Gus,” could hoist the heaviest wooden chair in the house with one hand. But the eldest girl was why Freddie kept coming back. Born in 1899, the year after him, Lillian was just fourteen when they went out for the first time, with several Wunderlichs along to chaperone, eager to keep an eye on the pool-playing salesman with the oversized smile.
But the other account of their meeting suggests that the Wunderlichs understood exactly who they were letting into the family. Young Gus also loved the spectacle of the revivals on the sawdust circuit and attended one in a barn, then dragged two of his sisters back the next night, telling Lillian and Florence, “You gotta see this.” They sat up in the loft, looking down on the preacher imploring the crowd, “I KNOW there’s a sinner out there—a gambling, drinking, womanizing sinner. And if we all bow our heads, he’s gonna come to the lord TONIGHT. Come forward, sinner, COME FORWARD!” With that, a lanky young man, dark-haired and duded up, jumped to his feet. “It’s me!” he shouted while marching up front to be saved, on his knees, in tears. It was Fred Whalen, of course, and after the service Gus guided his sisters to the back of the barn and again said, “Watch this” as Freddie and the preacher shook hands and something green passed from the man of the cloth to the night’s repentant sinner, no longer the enemy of the traveling evangelists.
Lillian Wunderlich was smitten on the spot. She liked to point out that her grandmother had gone to dances with the train-robbing James boys, Frank and Jesse, in the mid-1800s. It was in her blood, an eye for a certain kind of man. She was sixteen when she married Fred. He was seventeen. They honeymooned at the Mineral Springs Hotel in Alton, which touted the therapeutic powers of the waters bubbling up below its basement and sold the stuff by the bottle.
The couple had a daughter first, Bobie, then a son, Jack. Decades later, the family insisted that the baby boy was huge, ten pounds out of the womb, or maybe fourteen pounds, or sixteen. Family legends vary that way. But the State of Missouri birth certificate did not list a weight, reporting only that Jack Fredrick Whalen was born just after midnight on May 11, 1921.
* * *
THE NEXT YEAR, Fred Whalen led the clan’s migration west, he and his young wife, their two kids and a slew of Wunderlichs. He showed up at their boarding home with $26, his pool cue, his fancy clothes, and two vehicles. “Everybody that wants to go to California, pack your stuff, we’re leaving,” he announced, and a dozen of them stuffed into two cars waiting outside. One was a let’s-hope-it-works black sedan made by the Dorris Motor Car Company of St. Louis (“Built Up to a Standard. Not Down to a Price.”), soon to go defunct. But the other was eye-popping, a Marmon Touring Car made by the Indianapolis company whose yellow one-seat speedster had won the first 500-mile race in that city. Now Marmon offered discerning motorists “The Major Car of the Major Class” featuring a large rear seating area set well back from the driver, running boards on each side, the first rear-view mirror, and a front grill topped by a silver ornament you might see on the car of a millionaire company president, which is exactly what Fred pretended to be in the small towns en route.
They’d stop at a dusty roadside camp on the outskirts of Anywhere U.S.A., where everyone got out but Fred and his young wife and the iron-muscled Gus. An aunt would take charge of baby Jack, who traveled in a makeshift cradle they suspended on a rope inside one car, hanging down behind the front seat. While other Wunderlichs wandered off to find a nearby farm, searching for a stray chicken to poach, Fred put on his three-piece suit and Lillian her frilliest dress, with a hat to match. Gus got ready in a white shirt and vest … and a chauffeur’s cap. Then they rode in toward Main Street in the imposing Marmon, the couple in back, Gus up at the wheel. Fred called him “kid” and “palie,” but Gus was an ideal chauffeur, having driven farm vehicles, and rebuilt their motors, from the day he quit the sixth grade.
In each town, Gus would look for the busiest tavern and stall the Marmon in front of it. By the time he got out and lifted the hood, a crowd would be gathering to gawk at the car that sure wasn’t a Ford and at the regal-looking couple inside, dressed to the nines. Gus would examine the engine and shake his head and ask if anyone knew where he could find tools. Then he’d walk back to tell Fred, “Excuse me sir, it’s going to take a while to fix. Why don’t you go inside where it’s cool and have some refreshment?”
Fred would take Lillian’s hand and stride into the tavern and as soon as they disappeared a local would ask, “Who’s that?” Gus-the-chauffeur then would tell of the finance company Fred ran, consolidated or associated something-or-other, and then he’d asked the locals, “Do you have any pool tables in there?”
“Well, my boss fancies himself a pool player. He thinks he can play.”
Gus would glance side to side to make sure his boss was gone then confide that if anyone knew what they were doing, and stayed sober, they could beat him easy. All Gus asked was that they share some of their take with the kindly servant who had tipped them off, slip him a token of appreciation after they took his boss to the cleaners. The news spread quickly that there was a rich, easy mark in town.
That’s how the Whalens and Wunderlichs financed their trek west, with Fred’s winnings from all the suckers in America’s heartland.
Copyright © 2012 by Paul Lieberman