The Melbourne Cup was once a high priority target for those the police used to refer to as ‘the travelling class of magsmen’. They were the swindlers who would journey by ship or train between the major racing events to take advantage of the race day crowds.
The crowds at the bigger race events contained a larger percentage of occasional race goers, those more naive to the crafty methods of the seasoned swindler.
There were an assortment of ways in which to fool people out of their money. The ‘pea and thimble men’ enticed the crowd into betting on which thimble (or shell) the pea was under. The '3 card trick men' would tempt people to guess which card out of 3 was the red one - sleight of hand would mean that it was never the most obvious choice. There were others with portable roulette wheels and a table cloth printed with coloured, numbered squares. They would spread the cloth out like a picnic blanket so that punters could put their money on whichever number or colour they thought would win. There were countless types of magsmen at the races. If there was a way to ease someone of their money these guys had already thought of it, perfected it and taught it to others. All of their equipment was designed for a hasty pack-up because they always operated under the nose of the police who patrolled the racecourse flats.
In the week leading up to the 1884 Melbourne Cup, Melbourne police did a last-minute sweep of the city and arrested over 20 of the best-known magsmen in town. The charge was 'vagrancy', or in other words, 'having insufficient lawful means of support'. This meant that they would now need to present evidence, in court, that they received their income from lawful means. If they could not present pay slips or other proof that they were living off legal money, it was assumed they were living off the proceeds of crime and they would be sentenced to time in prison.
Leaving the arrests until the last minute was quite clever on the part of the police. It meant that the magsmen would be in prison awaiting trial whilst the Melbourne Cup was held. It didn't matter whether they were found guilty in court or not, they'd been prevented from preying on the crowds, and would soon be leaving town for the next major event anyway.
On this occasion, all were convicted and sentenced except a slippery customer called Thomas Carmody. He provided evidence that he owned property in Gippsland, thus convincing the judge that he had lawful means of support. Sergeant Thomas Nixon, who’d been in charge of the operation, said of Carmody in his later report: “This man is one of the oldest magsmen in the City and has been before the Court frequently on various charges of obtaining money by means of the Matchbox Trick and other similar games. (Sergeant Thomas Nixon, Police Report entitled ‘Magsmen’, 10th December 1884).
Carmody, who was born in Ireland in 1827, had given many demonstrations of the ‘matchbox trick’ over the years, one of which was detailed in the Argus newspaper in 1873. Nathaniel Ellis, a young farmer from Diamond Creek, was in Melbourne for business and had bumped into Thomas Carmody whilst walking along Bourke Street. Carmody introduced himself and explained that he was just recently arrived from country Victoria as well. Ellis was happy to meet another fellow from the bush and they walked about in amiable conversation until lunch time. Carmody then suggested that they go into the Australian Felix Hotel, (the building is still there on the corner of Bourke and Russell St), for a parting drink. Ellis explained that he was a member of the Order of Rechabites, and thus a non-drinker. Carmody responded by saying that he never touched anything stronger than sarsaparilla himself and on this note the two abstainers entered the venue to drink each other’s tee-totalling health. Not long afterwards, a stranger entered the pub and threw a matchbox on the counter. Carmody asked him for a match and the stranger threw him the box so that he could take his own. Try as he could though, Carmody couldn’t work out how to get the matchbox open. The stranger opened it, withdrew a match, tossed it to Carmody and then strolled outside for some air. While he was away, Carmody fiddled with the intricate box and managed to get it open. He then said to his new chum, Ellis, that now that they’d worked out how to open it, they should bet the man that they could do the same when he returned. When the man came back he didn’t believe that they knew the secret to opening his matchbox and kindly accepted a £10 bet from Carmody and £5 from Ellis. Unfortunately for Ellis, Carmody had forgotten his method and they both lost their money. Carmody had, of course, been working in concert with the stranger to achieve £5 profit. He was arrested later that day when Ellis saw him on the street and pointed him out to police. Carmody claimed in court that Ellis had lost his money at a game of skill and the charges were dismissed. This was one of the smaller profits for Carmody and his gang that year, having succeeded in fleecing other men of £50 and £100 at a time.
by Michael Shelford © 2017
Michael Shelford is a writer who specialises in Australian true crime. He is currently completing a book on Melbourne's crime scene c1890's to 1920's. He is also the creator and guide for the walking tour company Melbourne Historical Crime Tours.