William “Canada Bill” Jones – Hustling on the Mississippi River

Canada Bill Jones

Canada Bill Jones

William “Canada Bill” Jones was one of the greatest cardsharps in history,

William Jones was born in Yorkshire, England, in the early 1800s. At some point, he immigrated to Canada, where he first learned three-card monte from a veteran player named Dick Cady. The con game occurs when the “dealer” shows three cards to the player, throws the cards face down on the table, rearranges them, and then asks the “mark” to find one of the cards he showed him. Often, the dealer is “working” with an accomplice who appears to be a bystander who tries to ensure that the player chooses the wrong card.

Jones soon took his game “on the road,” playing primarily on the Mississippi River. One of his greatest “assets” in making a profit  was his ability to play the “fool.” With a squeaky voice and appearing as a klutz and a simpleton,  Jones easily his “marks” that he was harmless.

Of Canada Bill, fellow gambler George Devol said of him:

“Canada Bill was a character one might travel the length and breadth of the land and never see his match or run across his equal. Imagine a medium-sized, chicken-headed, tow-haired sort of a man with mild blue eyes and a mouth nearly from ear to ear, who walked with a shuffling, half-apologetic sort of a gait, and who, when his countenance was in repose, resembled an idiot. For hours he would sit in his chair, twisting his hair in little ringlets. His clothes were always several sizes too large, and his face was as smooth as a woman’s and never had a particle of hair on it. Canada was a slick one. He had a squeaking, boyish voice, and awkward, gawky manners, and a way of asking fool questions and putting on a good-natured sort of a grin, that led everybody to believe that he was the rankest kind of a sucker-the greenest sort of a country jake. Woe to the man who picked him up, though.”

When the action on the riverboats dried up, Jones began to work the railroads. At one point, Jones even wrote the general superintendent of the Union Pacific Railroad, offering $25,000 a year for the exclusive rights to run a three-card monte game on the trains. The railroad official politely declined the offer.

For decades, Jones made money swindling people in three-card monte and as a cardsharp at poker and other games. However, he, too, was a gambler, who loved the game of Faro, generally re-circulating his profits rather than holding on to them. When he died in 1880 in Reading, Pennsylvania, he was penniless and was buried at public expense. However, when many of his fellow gamblers heard of his death, a group from Chicago raised some money, repaid the City of Reading, and erected a marker for “Canada Bill.”


© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated December 2022.

Also See:

Adventures of the American West

Scoundrels in American History

Other Frontier Characters

Outlaws & Scoundrels Photo Gallery