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The Rogues of the River
THE twenty-five years that preceded the Civil War were a golden age of chance. At the height of the South's prosperity river commerce was nourished by a steadily increas ing tide of new settlers. Vast crops of cotton, rice, and sugar were produced on the plantations of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama and brought soaring prices.
River-town landinas were hustling with travelers. The cargoes were handled by husky Negroes who swarmed over the levees and hauled bales and produce to the bellies of the steamers.
The valley people traveled for business and they traveled for pleasure. Steamboats, trimmer and faster, offered more and better service, good food arid entertainment and elegantly furnished staterooms. In the saloons thick carpeting covered the floors, massive crystal chandeliers hung from the ceilings, large oval mirror frames were goldleafed and the woodwork intricately embellished. On the paddle box of a side-wheeler were painted resplendent scenes-waterfalls, Indians, battle panoramas-at which people along the shore gaped happily.
The voyagers were wealthy cotton factors, millionaire merchants from New Orleans, flush land speculators, Northern capitalists, and affluent farmers. Many Southern families could afford to travel up the Mississippi and the Ohio each summer to enjoy the milder climate and society of Kentucky, North Carolina, and western Virginia resorts. It was not uncommon for lighthearted sons of the plantation lords to make the splendidly disdainful gesture of pitching Papa's silver dollars into the bubbles churned up by the paddle wheels.
Gamblers shared in the profits from slavery, cotton, rice, and sugar cane. They trimmed the guileless rich and inveigled hardheaded merchants into wagering high stakes against the operabouffe background of the riverboats' social rooms. The gamblers made their suckers feel they were sports at a grand carnival: win or lose all! It's only money. . . . Canada Bill Jones, unrivaled among three-card-monte sharpers, voiced the opinion of the gambling fraternity when he said suckers have no business with money.
The riverboat gamblers, in their extreme way, reflected the contemporary temper of the country-each man for himself. Personal ambition was animated by the frenzied hope for quick gain, the everlasting urge to achieve wealth.
Europeans who traveled on the riverboats were astonished at the equality that existed among traders, plantation owners, the ship's barber, members of Congress, clerks, army officers. One man was as good as another if he had enough money to play.
Republicanism even extended at times to the cards themselves where traditional kings, queens, and knaves were supplanted by more democratic figures. In 1848 an American deck of playing cards appeared with George Washington as President of Hearts, John Adams as President of Diamonds, Benjamin Franklin as President of Clubs, and Lafayette President of Spades. The queens had become goddesses; Fortune, Ceres, Nlinerva, and Venus, their charms modestly concealed by mantles. Four Indian chiefs were the knaves: Gy-ant-wachia, the Iroquois Joseph Brant, Red jacket, and an unidentified brave.
Beau Brummell in all his glory was no greater dude than the riverboat sports. They ordered their boots from Paris. The brims of their dark slouch hats had a spectacular swagger and even their high hats had a naughty curve to the brim. Broadcloth coats reached down beyond the knees, trousers were undertaker black or soft gray, with the trend to loud checkered pants beginning only with the Civil War. Up to that time the gamblers, like the plantation gentry, favored low-necked, loose collared white shirts, the cuffs edged with ruffles. On ties flashed magnificent stickpins. Vests were showily adorned with hand-painted designs or sporting scenes and beautified with pearl or stickpin buttons. The really elegant gambler wore an expensive, immense watch of gold, jewelbedecked, on a gold chain, and bedizened his fingers with diamond and ruby rings.
To many an ordinary, law-abiding citizen the gambler represented recklessness and quick fortune, a flashy mockery of their drab, workaday lives. Young ragamuffins tagged along admiringly at the gamblers' heels as they walked through the river towns. To many a woman the gambler was irresistible.
But the riverboat gambler led a trying life. He slept by day and worked at night playing cards for hours on end under oil lamps or gaslight in rooms heavy with cigar smoke. His poker face often masked nerves strained to highest tension, a body aching with fatigue and the knowledge of a painfully uncertain future.
Life was varied by periods of high dissipation and profligate spending ashore. It was a matter of pride to smoke nothing but the finest imported cigars, drink nothing but the choicest wines, and to visit the most expensive brothels. Many a sport suffered and even died from venereal disease. Gambling, too, was a disease and even the wisest succumbed to one or two games that made a sucker out of him, no better than the gulls he trimmed on the boats.
For these splendid-appearing men the fine show was ephemeral. They seesawed between being rich as plantation lords and poor as levee roustabouts. Few lived long and none died rich. The center of their brief glory was the social hall, invariably in the central compartment of the boat to accommodate the fellowship of the passengers. Theoretically gambling closed at ten in the evening, but everybody disregarded that. It was a rare sunrise when at least one group of passengers was not still hard at it in the social hall, clinking chips and hard cash, rippling bank notes, and shuffling cards. Though the tables might have been removed from the dining saloon for dancing and the cabin reserved for the ladies given over to a psalm-singing fest, the social hall was usually the scene of five or six card games that neither the merry music of the fiddlers nor the pious female voices seemed to distract.
The professional gamblers who first followed the steamboats were generally honest and polite, with agreeable personalities. If a man wore a fine broadcloth coat, a white ruffled shirt, a diamond breastpin, fancy pants, polished leather boots, and a silk top hat, and loitered in a careless, leisurely manner, he was probably a professional gambler.
Senator William C. Preston, an eloquent Southern lawyer, booked passage "on one of the floating palaces on the Mississippi which then swarmed with Hoosiers, greenhorns and gamblers." As the boat was making ready to leave he stood on deck watching the activity, with a small mahogany box tucked under his arm.
A fellow traveler approached him and whispered, "When are you going to start the game?"
"Start what?" asked the perplexed senator.
"Come now, none of that old blind with me! Some of us on board would like a little action, so lay it out as soon as you can." "Now, really, sir," declared the senator, "I do not comprehend the significance of your statements."
"You are the keerful one, but we have enough rhino to make your game worth while."
The man looked at the senator's fine clothes and the mahogany box under his arm. "Say," he muttered after a pause, "aren't you a sporting man?"
"Positively not!" the senator indignantly replied. "And I have no idea why you think I am."
"Then why are you carrying the tools around with you?" asked the discomfited stranger.
"Tools!" exclaimed Preston, then realized that the box under his arm looked like the case professional gamblers used for their faro layouts. He laughed and opened it to display a traveling kit of comb, brush, soap, and razors. The man took a long look.
"A barber!" he snorted. "And I took you for a sporting gentleman." The devil soon invaded the paradise of the social hall in the form of cardsharps, three-card-monte sports, and short-card cheats. By the 1850s, if an honest gambler did exist, he was suspected of being a crook.
Square, as a figure of speech, originally referred to the Masonic emblem, a symbol of evenness and rectitude. The honest gamblers who first rode the steamboats in the 1830s and 1840s, though they were not above winning by superior card skill, were considered square. They looked upon the game as a way of acquiring money through risk, did not consider their calling more asocial than other ways men in their day amassed property and wealth.
The square gambler hoed his own row but the cardsharpers traveled in twos and threes to make cheating easier. They would form a card party as soon as one or two innocent gulls or coneys could be found to sit in with them in a "friendly game." When only one of the sharpers could find a place at the table and it became dangerous to stack the cards, hold out a high card, deal from the bottom, or ring in a cold deck, his associates gathered round as interested spectators and observed the hands held by their confederate's opponents.
They would communicate useful information to their man, perhaps by cigar smoke: one smoke ring signified a pair, two in rapid succession, two pairs, three meant three of a kind, four, four of a kind, and a furious puffing might indicate a flush. "Fingering," as flashing information by fingers was called, was another common method with one finger indicating a pair, and so on. No man was considered well dressed unless his attire was completed by a walking stick, and the river sharpers twirled and held their canes in prearranged signals.
The "Five Aces" swindle, though frequently resorted to, required keen timing with the steamboat's docking, exceptional nerve, and two gamblers working as a team. They pretended to be ordinary passengers who struck up a temporary shipboard acquaintanceship with each other and an honest passenger.
The three were enjoying one last drink together when Gambler No. 1 offered to show the other two an unusually interesting card trick. He shuffled a deck of cards, took out the four aces, and placed the ace of hearts and the ace of clubs on top of half the deck. The other half of the cards and the two remaining aces he gave to his partner and the gull and declared that no matter how well they mixed the cards he could make the four aces turn up consecutively. Gambler No. 1 then turned his back on the two men to permit them to shuffle the pack out of his sight.
Gambler No. 2 winked to the intended victim, gave him the ace of diamonds and motioned him to slip it under his shirt, then shuffled the cards and announced that they were ready for the trick. Gambler No. 1 turned around, picked up the pack, and asked the others if they thought the four aces would appear in consecutive order. They confessed themselves skeptical.
Gambler No. 1 was willing to bet $1,000 that they would. Gambler No. 2 was willing to take part of the bet-all he had was $200. The victim, hand on his shirt, where he could feel the concealed ace, was confident that Gambler No. 1 had no chance of winning and offered to cover the remaining $800. Gambler No. 2 was selected to hold the stakes.
So that there should be no misunderstanding, Gambler No. 2 always asked the victim how the winner should be decided. Gambler No. 1 was to turn the cards, one by one. If the four aces appeared consecutively, the money was his; if not, the traveler and Gambler No. 2 were the winners. The greenhand tried to keep a straight face, for he had a sure thing-the ace of diamonds -inside his shirt.
Gambler No. 1 rang in an identical fixed pack of cards while these arrangements were being made and began turning up the cards, one by one. He eventually reached the aces: first the ace of hearts, immediately followed by the ace of spades and then the ace of clubs.
Gambler No. 1 stopped and said, "If the next card is the ace of diamonds, the money belongs to me."
The traveler touched his shirt again to feel the hidden ace of diamonds. "That is the agreement," he concurred.
Gambler No. 1 turned over the next card. It was the ace of diamonds.
Gambler No. 2 handed the wager money to his partner, who made a rapid exit from the cabin and the boat.
The victim was sick at heart, stunned, and stupefied. How did it happen? he wondered aloud. Gambler No. 2 pretended to be as perplexed as the victim, only relieved that he had lost no more than $200. It was time to go ashore. He said a sorrowful good-by to the sucker and left to join his partner and share the spoils.
Improvements in cheating went on steadily and the smoothfingered sharpers added "stamped" or marked cards to their bag of tricks. Marked cards first appeared during the 1830s and originally their use was a secret closely kept among a select few. Curiously enough, gamblers who played with marked cards made their greatest killings against fellow sharpers who relied on legerdemain to win. Riverboat gamblers usually made up their own distinguishing signs and had packs manufactured for them in New York, Chicago, Cincinnati, or New Orleans. Boastful gamblers, rather than manufacturers, sometimes confided their secret to friends, and soon the use of stamped cards ceased to be the monopoly of a few.
Stamped cards were strictly American; European laws forbade them. But American manufacturers became so blatant they even began to send out illustrated circulars showing their own special marking systems. Dr. Cross of New Orleans was probably the pioneer in this field. He bought cards with bare backs from New York makers and stamped them with plates of his own or gamblers' designs. A Mr. Bartlett of New York carried on an equally lucrative business along the same lines and continued producing his dishonest merchandise long after Cross quit in 1854, right up to the 1870s.
The distinguishing stamps were so cleverly hidden in the playing card's ordinary pattern that not even the keenest and most experienced cardsharp could point out the difference between a regular and a marked card unless he was given the key. Crooked cards had the great attraction of enabling men to win whose fingers were not deft enough to yield them a profitable living.
It was customary for gentlemen who played cards aboard steamers to buy them from the bartender. Sharpers generally took him into their confidence immediately upon coming aboard and, for a share in the winnings, he took care to deliver the special cards only to the right group.
Devol and his partner, Dunlap, boarded the Paragoad at Baton Rouge one evening, pretending not to know each other. Dunlap went to his cabin to change his clothes while Devol ordered a bottle of good wine and the best cigar, then sat down in the social hall to wait. A Baton Rouge merchant who knew Devol came along and jokingly wondered out loud why he was not playing cards. Devol invited the man to join him in a drink.
One glass followed another and they began throwing dice for the drinks. The merchant observed casually that this was the first steamboat he had ever been on where not even one game of poker was going strong when the boat left the landing, adding wistfully that if one or two more men showed up in the social hall they might get a game. Dunlap came into the room and Devol, acting as though he were a stranger, called to him and asked if he ever played poker. The Baton Rouge merchant beamed and cordially invited Dunlap to have a drink with them.
At a knowing wink from Devol, Dunlap excused himself for a few minutes, went to his cabin for a deck of stamped cards, and gave them to the bartender with the usual instruction. When Dunlap returned the impatient merchant urged, "Sit down, and we'll make up a game." The bartender supplied the marked deck and the game started a half hour after midnight and went on until the table was needed for breakfast. There had been a $20 limit at the start, but that was soon lifted, and at the last the merchant was out $2300, Devol had ostensibly parted with $900 to his partner, and the bartender had his reward.
During the Mexican War scores of professional gamblers temporarily deserted the steamboats to accompany the army, setting up card and chuck-a-luck games on paydays to accommodate the soldiers. When General Winfield Scott and the victorious Americans occupied Mexico City on September 14, 1847, the gamblers were right behind them. Monte bank, played with the Spanish pack of forty cards, was the favorite Mexican banking game and soon caught on with the conquerors. Stamped cards were unknown to Mexicans and the camp-following American gamblers were quick to see the opportunities they offered for cleaning out the vanquished as well as the vanquishers. They sent a deputation to New York to engage Bartlett to manufacture quantities of stamped Spanish playing decks. The trip to New York proved profitless. Bartlett's cards, when they arrived, were inferior in quality and both Americans and Mexicans preferred playing with the native product.
Still undiscouraged, the American gamblers consulted the Mexican firm holding monopoly rights to manufacture cards and bribed them to produce stamped decks. They agreed to pay the Mexican manufacturer "five thousand dollars for one hundred gross of cards, of patterns similar to the square cards in use, stipulating for an equal amount of each pattern. The sharpers were to furnish the necessary plates, which they were obliged to have made in New York, and brought from thence to the manufacturers in the City of Mexico."
The deal went through, but so much time had been consumed in the negotiations that peace was declared and the American soldiers withdrawn from Mexico just when the sharpers were ready to spring their cards.
The gamblers would have been in a bad way, but the discovery of gold in California soon afterward gave them a chance to use their stock of Spanish cards. Monte bank was the favorite game both of the large Mexican population in California and of the adventurers who tumbled into the state from all parts of the world. In frenzied San Francisco and Sacramento the gamblers used their stamped cards all the summer and fall of 1849, winning fortunes from prospectors and even from unsuspecting professional gamblers.
By the winter the day and night games had worn out the first hundred gross and the gamblers had to send to Mexico for two hundred gross more. Somebody smelled a rat and soon players caught onto the fact that Mexican-niade cards were marked and thereafter cards made in Spain were dealt in the monte-bank games. Some of the gamblers held on and took root in California, while many ruefully returned to their old crooked habits on the Mississippi and Ohio riverboats.