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Abe was not one of these characters. He wasn’t that kind of hustler. But he probably made more money at the fair than any of them did. He later told West that he usually cleared $2,500 – that’s the equivalent of $57,000 in modern currency – on each fair. His profit margin hovered around 92 percent.
How did he do it? By selling cheap cigars — wrapped in an expensive story.
Apparently working from memory, West paraphrase-quotes an Oregonian article from the 1870s that describes his hustle:
“Heedless of the rain, Abe mounts his showcase on a goods box in the center of the grounds and doesn’t allow bashfulness to trouble him. He sells five ‘pure Havana’ cigars for one dollar, and as an inducement to purchasers, throws in a ‘gold’ watch and a set of ‘diamond’ shirt studs. On this generous plan he manages to do a brisk business.”
That wasn’t exactly right, West added. Each cigar purchaser got to take an envelope containing a number, which corresponded to a piece of jewelry. Not every cigar buyer got a free watch … in fact, most likely none of them ever did.
“In my innocence, I asked Mr. Tichner just what chance the purchaser of his cigars had to get a watch,” said West. “His answer: ‘Just about as much chance as a snowball has to roll through hell.’”
But for Abe, the money-making magic was in the markup.
“Abe’s cigars cost him $15 a thousand – a cent and a half each,” West writes. “His jewelry (plain junk) from a dollar a gross for collar buttons to $5 a gross for watch chains and necklaces. His ‘gold’ watches were white metal, gold plated.”
What Abe Tichner had figured out was that there wasn’t a whole lot of real difference between an average everyday cigar and a “pure Havana,” and people away from their homes and in a new environment were more susceptible to suggestion than they would otherwise be. If they could be convinced that a cigar was a 25-cent Cuban that they were getting for 20 cents, they would not only get a 25-cent-Cuban-cigar experience out of smoking it, but they would enjoy it even more because they’d “saved” 20 percent on it. Looked at that way, Abe wasn’t cheating them; he was delivering an experience that was, arguably, worth what he was charging.
Of course, providing that experience only cost him one and a half cents, plus a little complimentary hot air.
Nor were the “rubes” the only ones falling for it. When one of the other county-fair swindlers, a Buffalo Bill Cody look-alike who called himself the “King of Pain” and sold a patent-remedy painkiller for $1 a bottle (about $25 in modern money), confided to Abe that he was having trouble finding decent cigars, Abe pulled him aside and, with a great show of confidentiality, told him he had a small private stock of “clear Havanas” and would be glad to share a few with him. Thereupon he went to his kit bag, rummaged long and hard, and came up with four or five cigars, which he reverently presented to His Majesty.
“These cigars were, in fact, the same cabbage-leaf variety that Abe was dispensing to his patrons of the fair,” West writes. “But those presented to the ‘King’ were tied with a silk ribbon which indicated quality.”
“Finding them to his taste,” West adds, “he prevailed upon Abe to allow him to purchase others from time to time – the price to be 50 cents each.”
Abe Tichner went on to a very successful and respectable career in Portland, making most of his money as a financier and warrant broker; he frequently appeared in the newspaper as the successful bidder for various city bond offerings. And his early, profligate years at the faro tables seem to have been a phase he was going through. Later in his life, no matter how rich he got, he watched every dime: in 1902, when a county clerk tried to short him 10 cents on a series of $1 notes, Abe punched him in the eye.
He partnered with Aaron Maegly to build the six-story Maegly-Tichner Building at 610 Broadway in 1911; and in 1918, he had a gorgeous home built for his family (he’d married Mary Baker in 1874). The Abraham Tichner House, located on Southwest Kingston Avenue, is still immaculately kept and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2010.