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The Skaggs clan in the Kentucky backwoods showed less energy than most in tilling the overfertile soil and took fullest advantage of idleness to indulge in the sports of the day. Neither Elijah nor his many brothers and sisters had any schooling, but all the boys had an aptitude for cockfighting, raising quarter horses, and playing cards.
Elijah, who had more eagerness and vigor than all the rest of the family put together, saw early that there was more money to be made from gambling than from the raising of hogs. At sixteen he began to study the art and craft of card playing while his brothers were hunting squirrel and coon or just lying around.
Before his twenty-first birthday Elijah had become proficient at cardsharping. He could deal cards from the bottom of the deck, conceal cards on his person without being detected, arrange the position of cards in a pack, and "make a pass" (the deft exchange of the upper and lower section of a deck of cards) as smoothly as any able blackleg. The time had come to try his talents on a more lucrative region when he managed to win two thousand dollars from his family and friends. This nest egg had instilled in Elijah an excesive fondness for money and he was ready to seize any dishonest chance to foster it.
Elijah Skaggs discarded his hand-me-downs and bought a suit of store clothes to fit his long, lean body. He said good-by to the farm and took himself to Nashville, where his ascetic mien and garb attracted immediate attention. In Wanderings of a Vagabond, John Morris writes: "He appeared in Nashville, dressed in a frock coat and pants of black broadcloth, a black silk vest and patent leather boots, a white shirt with standing collar and around his neck was wound a white choker, while, resting on his cranium, was a black stove-pipe hat, which completed his attire. His long attenuated, and awkward frame, together with his solemn young face and demure habits, created quite a sensation in the town, and caused him to be nicknamed the `preaching faro dealer.' "
Men made jokes about Skagg's looks, but while they laughed he won their money, even before he learned faro, the card game that more than any others was to bring him wealth and prestige among his kind.
Faro, which was to become the national banking game of chance in the nineteenth century, was introduced to Nashville by professional gamblers from New Orleans about the time Skaggs showed up.
The growing popularity and the possibilities of faro moved Elijah to some straight thinking. It is a game in which the players bet against the dealer on the order in which certain cards will appear, and the dealer alone handles the deck. Skaggs realized that a sharp dealer could control any bank and he set about becoming a sharp dealer.
When he was convinced that a faro dealer was cheating, he kept strict vigil on the game for hours to learn the trick. If he could not detect it, he took the dealer aside and offered a high price for his secret. If the gambler would not sell, Skaggs threatened to lay his dishonesty bare to the public.
It always worked and Skaggs retired to his room and drilled himself till he had mastered the trick, which seldom cost more than $2000 and soon realized him $50,000 or $100,000. After this he traveled the country dealing faro. By the third decade of the nineteenth century he was a master of the art of fleecing. But in all fairness, Skaggs's record is not entirely bad; he often risked money honestly i f he felt he could win without cheating.
The gullible were legion and he knew that he could not operate everywhere at once. So he devised the next best way to gather in suckers' money: he sent his own crew on the road to separate the simple from their cash. Skaggs toured the country's gambling dives and palaces, collecting young, genteel-looking sports who exhibited an aptitude for learning his bag of tricks.
When he was satisfied that they were as perfect as he at manipulating cards, he sent them out in teams of two, supervised by one of his brothers, cousins, and other near relations. The family must have been startlingly large, for Elijah had at least twenty-five faro artists out winning money for him. To these relatives he supplied money for his dealers and from them required an accounting of all winnings. The dealers received one fourth of the profit after expenses were paid. When Skaggs was informed by one of his touring companies that their bank was broke or low, he ordered them to return directly and sent a new team out as replacement. The luckless gamblers were given fresh funds and sent to a different area.
For twenty years Elijah Skaggs's teams toured the country and they made him a millionaire, but in time as John Morris wrote . . . the true character of his games leaked out, and a cry was raised against them throughout the country, till the name of `Skaggs patent dealers,' as they were termed, was a synonym for all sorts of frauds and dishonesty at the gaming-table."
But before this Skaggs, the ambitious, had discovered the assets of book learning and hired a schoolmaster to accompany him while he operated his gambling empire, and give him an education. Armed with this knowledge, he broadened his scope and gainfully turned his talents to speculating, his contemporaries reported, "in mules, sheep, real estate, and bank-stocks." By 1847 he owned a thriving sugar plantation worked by two hundred Negro slaves who called him "Master."
In 1859 millionaire Skaggs retired from gambling, dismissed his faro dealers, informing them that the organization was no more. From now on any profits made bilking the yokels would be their own. He shed his quaint, parson's clothes for the fine apparel of a Southern gentleman and looked forward to a rich leisure on his plantation.
But the Civil War cruelly smashed his dream of ease. His holdings depreciated in value. His slaves were emancipated and left him, almost a pauper. His wits alone remained. The ex-gambler turned blockade runner around New Orleans and made more money than ever speculating in contraband cotton and sugar.
In the end Skaggs was powerless to outwit his destiny. Fervently devoted to the Confederate cause, he invested all $3,000,000 of his second fortune in Confederate bonds. His spirit was crushed when the South lost the war and he began to blank himself out with whisky. He reeled through Louisiana and Texas for five years and acquired the copper-red nose of the drunkard.
In 1870 Skaggs died, a destitute whisky-soak, in Texas.