Smooth Strangers Who “Beat” Hotels
The practice cf "beating” the larger hotels out of board and lcdgings is not so uncommon as one might tuppose. In fact, as the writer of this article shows, a great deal of it is going on all the time. The operations of these "dead beats” are similar in nearly every case and consist in playing the roles of respectable boarders.
IT was the “Smooth Stranger” who a few days ago declared that of all the cities in which he had lived and plied his calling none was such a paradise for hotel “dead, beats” as is New York. As a matter of fact, he spoke the truth, for with the thousands who come and go among the great caravansaries in the metropolis it is impossible to keep watch and ward over the honesty of every patron. Men there are who boast of living on the fat of the land from month to month at the expence of the city hotel man. One of the most impudent of this class wrote a letter recently to the president of the National Hotel Keeper’s Protective Association, which has its headquarters in New York, and told him that in all his varied experience he had not found a place that was easier than this city.
That he was right about it no ex-
prienced caterer to the public is disposed to deny. The principal assets of an accomplished hotel “beat” are a certain quiet assurance self-control, good clothes and a seared conscience. After that there is little else necessary than the well formed resolution of never paying a cent.
One of the officers of an agency rvhich is devoted to giving information concerning predatory visitors declares that it is possible for a “beat” to live unmolested in the hotels of this city for the greater part of a year before he would find the situation growing uncomfortable ; he could do this, and, in fact he does, without a single cent of capital and by committing no greater offence against the State than the violation of the innkeepers’ law.
Conditions of modern hotel life are peculiarly adapted to the growth of
that constantly increasing class, the “smooth strangers.” It was not long ago, certainly less than two decades, that the average clerk knew every patron by sight who was in the house, and was able to call many of them his personal friends. The proprietor was constantly in touch with those who stopped at his hostlery and was able to detect almost at a glance if any undesirable persons were under his roof.
Hotel keeping in this present generation is ordered something after the manner of a factory. The public is carried about through the establishment by means of elevators like so much raw material. The patrons are thrown into one hopper and fed; they are committed to another department and moistened with cocktails and highballs; then they are taken on lifts to the dormitory department and laid away for the night.
Nobody pays much attention to them except the hotel detective. His position is much like that of a hopper boy at a colliery, he gets a rapid survey of the specimens of humanity, large and small, as they pass before him in the corridor, which is much like an endless belt, and occasionally he removes an exceptionally bad piece of slate. This sharp eyed person, however, is not likely to take any risks unless the man under suspicion has a Rogue’s Gallery portrait or has been convicted of various crimes and misdemeanors. He cannot question the financial standing of every stranger, and if the hotel “dead beat” is not of striking appearance detection is well nigh impossible.
More than a hundred thousand strangers go every day through the great hotels of this city, and the
man on the floor, no matter how observant he may be, can only hope to protect the patrons of the place from the attention of pickpockets, thieves and confidence men. As far as insuring the proprietor of the hotel from being robbed by the “smooth stranger,” the average hotel detective is helpless. Some of the shrewdest of them bear testimony to the ease with which it is possible for unassuming freebooters to ply their calling.
First of all the hotel “beat” must have a reckless disregard of consequences and a good digestion. He must not have a constitution which experiences symptoms of distress after being reinforced with food for which the man who furnished it will never be paid. Conscience, sense of shame or even a lurking shadow of self-respect would be fatal to him. Once he has the proper psychological attitude toward the business he can go to any lengths in following it.
Having discarded his conscience he must then acquire either a small satchel or a dress suit case. The expenditure of two or three dollars will fit him out in that regard. If he feels disposed to the niceties of dress he might also carry something of a wardrobe ; but this is considered unnecessary ; such things as shirts and collars may be purchased from time to time as they are required. It may be that circumstances will arise when it is necessary to leave the dress suit case with the hotel proprietor in order to make a quick exit.
It is also necessary that the hotel beat should be neatly attired, but he should avoid the use of flashy neckties, scarf pins of striking or unusual designs, fancy waistcoats or bright and shiny yellow shoes. It
would be fatal to him, almost, if he should be identified as a man with a bright red tie or as a man with a green beetle scarf pin. If he should be so unfortunate as to have a heavy scar or any marked facial blemish it would be well for him to adopt some other occupation.
Unobtrusiveness is the keynote of success when one deliberately seeks to defraud a hotel. The “smooth stranger” must glide in and out of the place, sit quietly in the writing room, talk to no one unless he is addressed, make few acquaintances and comport himself as one who is devoted to serious business.
As hotels are managed at present nearly any one can live in one for a week without receiving any communication from the cashier. The “dead beat” uses this fact to the best advantage, taking care, however, not to ring for ice water too often, or to have meals sent to his room, or to in any way impress his individuality upon the employes and attendants. High living is all very pleasant, but it is likely to result in disaster. The most successful of the profession do not order wine for dinner, neither do they have fifty cent, cigars charged to them. They never splurge. There are at least fifty first class hotels in New York city where they are able to live under the best conditions. The 150 so-called family hotels are not as good a field on account of the comparatively small number of transient patrons. As long as the freebooter keeps his expenses down to fifty or sixty dollars a week he is likely not to attract undue notice. He can have a room and bath, provided that in the place where he happens to stop there are many suites of this character; but it is recommended
by the leaders of the profession that the engaging of two rooms and bath is hazardous unless confidence is first established by the cashing of a perfectly good check. Taken all in all, beating the hotels on a conservative basis of not more than $10 a day is considered as the most practical and the easiest method of living without labor.
Nothing is said to the “smooth stranger” until he has begun to delay in the matter of the first week’s board. After he has received his bill for seven days his further stay depends largely upon his own selfconfidence and skill. He may ignore it for three or four days and then go to the cashier with some remark about his remittance not yet having arrived. It happens that many persons who are engaged in perfectly legitimate callings have had delays in receiving money, and there is nothing which the management can do about it except, perhaps, to tell the hotel detective of their suspicion, if they happen to have any. But in these cases, especially if they are taken to the police court, the intent to defraud must be made manifest. The detective hesitates to go to the extremes of causing the arrest of an unassuming person who has all the self-control and quiet assurance of a man following a legitimate calling. While this interesting question is being discussed the “smooth stranger” will take his dress suit case and quietly disappear. He might pass several attendants with his baggage in a hotel where three or four thousand persons are quartered without attracting the slightest suspicion to himself, every hour of the day in that establishment seeing the arrival or departure of scores of persons
with dress suit cases and handbags. But even if the baggage is abandoned in the room what difference does it make? Dress suit cases are cheap, and second hand satchels may be purchased in pawnbrokers’ shops at a ridiculously low figure.
Some ready money is necessary for the complete happiness of the modern hotel beat, and before he leaves a hotel he has usually obtained a supply. Where hundreds of persons come and go through the corridor of a hotel, what is easier for him than to stroll up to the counter and ask for five dollars— “cash” to be charged to his room? If one clerk should decline to give it another probably will. There are so many patrons of a hotel that the office force rarely has time to exchange suspicions, especially those of the verified kind. Many of the wandering gentry pass worthless checks in the hotel, but this practice is discouraged by the more skilful ones.
“I have made it a practice,” said a representative hotel beat recently, “not to lay down checks, for by so doing one leaves a trail of documentary evidence which is likely to follow him around the country and eventually result in his doing time. A man of ordinary address, however, can get sufficient money for incidental expenses by making a swift touch at the desk. Of course, I do not pretend to say that there is a fortune in beating hotels, but a man who attends to business can always make a comfortable living and escape hard work.”
It cannot be denied, however, that the njajority of hotel beats also combine forgery and check kiting with their profession, a fact which is greatly deplored by the adept.
“It seems to me that there’s noth-
ing easier,” said a well known hotel detective, recently, “than living for nothing at the leading houses in New York city, provided that one does not lay down bad checks too often and constantly changes his name and modifies his clothing or personal appearance as much as he can.
“After finishing an engagement at one hotel it is easy for the operator to transfer himself to another. If he should have been put to the extraordinary expedient of leaving his baggage as a hostage he can soon acquire the necessary impedimenta. It is considered an unwritten law in the profesión not to play more than four hotels in a large city in succession. Even in New York it is customary for the hotel beat to run out of town for a few days and return under another alias; by that time, if his presence had caused any little ripple of excitment or curiosity, the incident is likely to have been entirely forgotten. He begins all over again and frequently ends up at some quiet family hotel uptown for his final engagement. Here he is the conservative business man. He dictates letters to some well known house, outlining vast business projects.
“The public stenographer tells the secc/nd assistant day clerk about him possibly, and the impression gets abroad that he has heavy responsibilities which he is bearing in silence and reserve. Having established his credit, by delicate processes of suggestion, the ‘smooth stranger’ concludes his New York engagement by inducing the management to cash a check for fifty or a hundred dollars, and is thus supplied with the amount needful for making a long jump. He has his ‘get away money,* and again he is out in the open,
visiting the smaller cities of the United States, preparing for his return in the course of months under a slightly different guise and in a new specialty to Broadway.”
One of the most remarkable documents illustrating the trickery of the human mind is contained in the confessions of a dead beat recently sent to the president of the National Hotel Keepers’ Protective Associaation. He tells the names of the persons and the hotels which he has defrauded and a careful inquiry reveals that in every respect he told the truthThe operations cover the month of last August, during which time he had accumulated board, lodging and loose change to the sum of $439.90.
These operations began in North Carolina on August 1, and by gradual stages and at the expense of the persons whom he defrauded the adept made his way north, arriving in New York city on the 15th, and after spending from two to three days at the hotels mentioned he made a jump to Buffalo, travelled to Detroit by boat at the expense of the navigation company, and started in to acquire board, lodging and cash at the hotels of Detroit. It was in this city that he writes he was overwhelmed with remorse. He wrote a letter confessing his misdeeds, and with it sent the foregoing itemized account of his operations in the month of August. He said that he was about to board a steamboat at the Queen City of the
Straits and to throw himself overboard.
It is not generally believed by hotel men than this “prince of dead beats” has come to a tragic end, for under some other alias, and upheld by his confidence in being counted as dead, he may have begun his depredations anew. His methods of obtaining accommodations were along the traditional line. He acquired considerable cash at Broadway hotels for his petty expenses by hiringj automobiles. It was his custom to cash small checks and after paying the chauffeur appropriate the few dollars remaining for pocket money. In several places he posed as an expert in automobiles and in others as the travelling agent of a well known paper house in Cincinnati.
One of the reasons given for the comparative freedom with which hotel beats operate is that they are as a general thing not reported by the bonifaces through the agents established for that purpose. They seldom notify the police, as they wish to avoid any notoriety, and many of them neglect to inform each other of circular letters or otherwise. One of the largest hotels in Pittsburg charges its losses from hotel beats to the advertising account and other hotels cheerfully put down the amounts to profit and loss—three or four hotels in this city caused to be written across the face of the account of the repentant Warren the inscription in red ink, “Committedsuicide.”