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The Gamblers and the Clan of the Mystic Confederacy
THE towns waxing rich on the river trade were tolerant toward the hellholes like "Pinch Gut" in Memphis, the "Landing" in Vicksburg, the "Swamp" in New Orleans, and Natchez-under-the-Hill, which owed their existence to flatboatmen, keelers, and river travelers. The law could not deal effectively with these strongholds and the respectable citizens left them alone unless they boiled over to invade the business districts or residential sections.
Professional gamblers were powerfully entrenched in the underworld hives, providing capital for drinking dives, sin traps, and taverns. As a result the word "gambler" came to mean a person capable of any crime and "the gamblers are coming" a signal for alarm. It was a grandiose scheme by a desperado, John A. Murrell, that ended the uneasy truce between the upper and nether worlds in the bawdy cities.
A young man named Virgil Stewart, under the alias of Adam Hues, rode with John Murrell for months to learn and confirm the fact that Murrell was chief of a formidable organization-The Clan of the Mystic Confederacy-which extended all over the Mississippi Valley and into the Ohio Valley territory.
Murrell, a tall man, wore stylish clothes, rode a fine horse, and carried himself with inordinate self-esteem. His friends were not only gamblers, but planters, thieves, slave stealers, innkeepers, politicians, counterfeiters, outlaws, and criminals. He confided to Stewart that he planned to build the clan to a strength of two thousand trusted men, with himself as commander in chief, a grand council of one hundred (first class), four hundred councilors (second class, and fifteen hundred "strykers" to do the dirty work. They would organize a revolt among the slaves to culminate in a general insurrection on Christmas Day, 1835. While troops and civilians were subduing the slave uprising, Murrell and his clansmen would loot the towns. For the past two years councilors and six hundred and fifty strykers had been raising money by cheating at cards, counterfeiting, and robbery, dutifully turning over their ill-gotten gains to Murrell. The money was used to plant rebellion among the slaves and to buy firearms and amunition in the North. Natchez, Vicksburg, and New Orleans were major objectives and Natchez the first city on the list to be looted.
In July 1834, Stewart was the chief witness against Murrell before the judge of the circuit court at Jackson, Tennessee, when he was sentenced to ten years at hard labor in the state penitentiary. Stewart published the whole story in a pamphlet, The Western Land Pirate, which sold thousands of copies, and the whole valley was in an uproar over Murrell's trial. "[Jesse] James," said Mark Twain, "was a retail rascal; Murrell, wholesale."
During the next few months men identified as members of the Mystic Confederacy were lashed, tarred and feathered, and lynch courts sprang up "everywhere" according to a contemporary. In the cities the size of the criminal element prevented a reign of terror and an uneasy calm existed. Then gradually, with Murrell safe in jail, people began to feel that the danger had been exaggerated and it was possible to say that Stewart was full of baked wind and not be accused of membership in the clan.
In June 1835, on a plantation near Beattie's Bluff in Madison County, Mississippi, the wife of the owner heard two slaves arguing about the forthcoming uprising. Terrified, she told her husband, who managed to extract a confession from one of them. All through the night and for the next few days men rode from plantation to plantation spreading news that the clan was not dead. Slaves were whipped into disclosing that the time of the revolt had been moved forward from Christmas to the Fourth of July, when they were to rise, slaughter their masters with clubs, rakes, hoes, hammers, axes, and any other tools that would serve. They were then to possess themselves of any available arms and march an the towns, killing and pillaging residences and warehouses. The main part of the clan was then supposed to emerge from Natchez-under-the-Hill to reinforce the liberated army and help them assault Natchez-on-the-Hill and gain control of the entire valley.
The half-dozen Negroes who had been forced to confess were hanged on June 30, and Committees of Safety set up, empowered to round up " any person or persons, either white or black, and try in summary manner any person brought before them, with the power to hang or whip."
Detachments of determined men seized all those named in the confessions. Joshua Cotton, a gambler and horse thief who had been masquerading as a physician, admitted belonging to the clan's grand council, whose "object in undertaking to excite the Negroes to rebellion," he said, "was not for the purpose of liberating them, but for plunder." Cotton added the names of other white conspirators and shared their fate, hanging.
Men wore out fleet horses carrying word of the plans and the executions, and an alerted countryside armed to the teeth. But the Negroes, who had been willing to die for a chance at freedom, made no move when they realized they were being cynically used as cover for plundering operations.
The dream of looting the river towns had spread throughout the underworld and, when July 4 came, gamblers and ruffians in Natchez whipped themselves up in a drunken revel and snarled through the lower streets like packs of maddened wolves. As they lacked organization or leaders, all that happened was a day-long, sanguinary free-for-all in Natchez-under-the-Hill, which they never left for the upper city. Those who did not scramble into undercover holes were later rounded up by the Committees of Safety and hanged.
Memphis, on the Fourth, had a tranquil morning. Decent people were at home, out of the sun, enjoying their noontime holiday dinners, when a swelling of jubilant hoots drew them to their windows. After one look the women latched their shutters and bolted the doors while the menfolk grimly primed their rifles. All of Pinch Gut was scrambling up the hill to the respectable streets of Memphis while their generals, the gamblers of Smoky Row, remained in Gut headquarters, drinking to the success of the looting to come.
The rabble pillaged three shops. A few prostitutes ventured into a side street where some women fled with shrill cries and the red-light girls gave chase, turning the air blue with their profanity. The Pinch-Gut alley cats caught their quarry long enough to indulge in a one-sided hair-stretching contest and to tear their victims' outer garments to shreds.
While the mob ran undirected and crazily through the streets, one of them suggested burning down the courthouse. The pack took up the cry, went to the public square, and leered, sneered, and shook their fists at the building. But a sudden fear overtook them and they turned away in search of more shops to, smash.
In the meantime the respectable citizens formed into small armed bands and took up positions at the heads of the principal streets to protect important buildings.
The invaders marched past the determined citizens, emitting contemptuous growls and open declarations of their intention to fight, but made no attack. And, as their throats were growing dry, they turned back to the Gut. A few gamblers shot into the air, as last-minute gestures of defiance; the mob put the torch to several shacks at the edge of the respectable part of town. Then they scuttled back to their own diggings.
The drunken revelry that followed was climaxed by the accidental burning of the Pedraza Hotel, the biggest gambling hell on Smoky Row and headquarters of the Gut's powerful clique. The people of Memphis crowded to the edge of Chickasaw Bluff and looked down on Pinch Gut as the flames licked the hotel.
"Let 'em burn!" one citizen shouted gleefully, voicing the sentiments of the community.
Vicksburg was a key trading center, its prosperity attracting so many adventurers that at least fifty large gaming houses flourished there. Each year the Vicksburg Volunteer Rifle Corps held a gala Fourth-of-July celebration, and in 1835 they played host to the Natchez Militia at a huge outdoor feast in a clearing just outside the town. An ox and a number of fine hogs were roasted whole on spits, with barrels of native cider and whisky from Monongahela to wash down the food.
Francis Cabler, a well-known gambler from the Landing, Vicksburg's demimonde district, made a drunken entrance when the party was at its height. He leaped on the tables and ran amuck among the dishes of food and jugs of whisky, Some of the officers of the Volunteers grabbed him and tried to sober him up. But Cabler was in a rambunctious mood, cursing everybody in sight and declaring that he was as fine a turkey as anybody. In a scuffle he succeeded in landing a crushing blow on the jaw of a Volunteer that knocked that officer unconscious. At this the rank and file took over, intent on punishing Cabler properly.
The captain intervened to save Cabler's hide and he was set free upon giving assurance that he would leave the picnic without delay. Then Volunteers wound up their party with a full-dress parade through Vicksburg. In the center of town a young messenger handed their captain a note from Cabler warning him that he was coming back from the Landing to kill as many Volunteers as he could.
"Company, halt!" boomed the captain. "Fix bayonets!"
Steel flashed as the militia attached bayonets to muzzles of their long rifles and the company waited for their captain's next order as Cabler staggered wildly toward them. The gambler, fortified by more river-town rye, brandished an ugly knife in one hand, a pistol in the other, and had a dagger stuck in his belt.
"Charge and take him prisoner!" the captain commanded. Cabler, finding himself the focal point of a glittering ring of steel, was easily taken and disarmed. Suddenly sober and meek, he was led to the clearing, tied to the trunk of a stout tree, and given thirty-two stinging lashes on his bare back. The embers were, still smoldering in the roasting pits and beside one of them he was tarred and feathered and told to quit Vicksburg within fortyeight hours on pain of death.
The inhabitants of the Landing were so humiliated and enraged that the leaders of the clan tried to turn their anger to profit by organizing an evening attack on Vicksburg, ostensibly to avenge Cabler, but actually to carry out the original plan of sacking the town on this day. A large body of the Landing's rabble started to march up the hill, but with every step members of the motley army deserted, unwilling to risk Cabler's unpleasant and ludicrous fate. By the time the gambler captains reached the top of the hill, there was hardly a score left and they continued noisily through the dusky streets, where they encountered no one, shot a few bullets into the air, then swaggered back to their Landing holes.
This feckless sally reminded men of the revelations about the Clan of the Mystic Confederacy in Stewart's pamphlet and stoked the fires of fear.
A public rally was called and every man from eighteen to eighty concurred with speakers who "intemperately advocated the expulsion by violence, from their midst, of every gambler in the city." Resolutions to this effect were drawn up and passed without one dissenting vote. A Vigilante Committee was appointed to help the Volunteers give the resolutions the force of law.
On July 5 the citizens of Vicksburg watched the denizens of the Landing take flight. By horse, by wagon, by foot, on land or river via steamboat and flatboat went the gamblers, the ruffians, and the prostitutes. Such gamblers as had no stomach for leaving retired into the notorious gambling house-groggery of John North and prepared for siege by turning it into an arsenal. They barricaded the doors with faro tables, boarded up the windows, gouged out holes for their gun barrels, and sat back to wait for the attack.
On the morning of July 6 it came: the Vicksburg Volunteer Rifle Corps, in full battle dress, together with a body of citizens armed to kill. They formed up and marched down the hill, keeping step to spirited music played by the fife-and-drum corps. A search party entered every shanty along the line of march, though all were deserted, and hauled every gambling device outdoors and smashed them to bits with axes.
When they reached North's establishment they surrounded it and the captain ordered the gamblers to come out peacefully. At the inmates' refusal, the fife-and-drum corps played lustily while a detachment of thirty men went forward in double file to take possession of the building and capture the men inside it. A volley of shots from the upper windows greeted the attackers, wounding several and killing Dr. Hugh S. Bodley, a gentleman without an enemy in Vicksburg.
Outraged at this savage murder, the besiegers descended en masse, hacked their way through doors and windows, and captured four notorious gamblers. John North escaped in the confusion but was taken on the outskirts of Vicksburg and brought back to suffer the fate of the other four. Their hands tied tightly behind them and a stout rope looped around their necks, the gamblers were led to a row of trees on the top of the hill overlooking the river and hanged, without any semblance of trial, while all Vicksburg looked on. One of the dead men had operated a crooked roulette wheel and the center of such a wheel was tied up to his dangling body." The bodies hung above the town for twenty-four hours.
Gamblers who had hidden in hope chat the agitation against them would die down fixed their eyes in horror on the grim sight and made haste to quit Vicksburg. A steamboat was leaving that noon for New Orleans and many, among them C.abler, managed to get on it. Those who did not reach the pier in time borrowed, bought, and confiscated rowboats and canoes and made for the islands in the Mississippi. Several days later a steamboat headed downriver took them off and out of the reach of Vicksburg citizens intent on hiring a steamboat to bring them back to "justice."
Citizen patrols guarded every road and path leading out of the city and members of the Volunteer Rifle Corps were stationed on the boat landing. Although these provisions were too late to haul in all malefactors, a score of frightened red-light ladies, same roughs too far gone in whisky to know or care what happened to them, and a few slick gamblers were caught in the dragnet.
The river front was assiduously combed for James Hoard, owner of a gambling hell, and Henry Wyatt, a faro dealer, reputed chiefs of the Clan of the Mystic Confederacy. Hoard was unable even to get standing room on the New Orleans boat, or a horse, a skiff, or a canoe. Desperate, he pushed off on a log and succeeded in keeping afloat all day, ending at nightfall in a swamp five miles south of the city. That night he spent listening, he later said, "to an orchestra composed of shrieking owls and growling frogs."
At daybreak he started walking, where the mud and hummocks of the swamp would bear his weight, and swimming where they wouldn't.
At last he reached firm footing on a beach and a passing steamer heeded his frantic calls a few hours later and took him aboard. When Hoard looked at himself in a mirror he was shocked to find his dark hair had turned white the night before. He assumed a new name when he arrived in New Orleans and does not reappear in the history of gambling.
Henry Wyatt did not fare so well. Ten years later he was on trial for murdering a fellow prisoner in the state prison at Auburn, New York, found guilty, and sentenced to be hanged. During his last days Jonathan L. Green, who called himself "The Reformed Gambler," a friend from the Mississippi Valley days, visited him and has left this account of what happened: "Wyatt and three others were taken on the morning of July 7th, stripped, and one thousand lashes given to the four, tarred and feathered, and put into a canoe and set adrift on the Mississippi River . . . with the broiling sun upon their mangled bodies. Two died in about two hours after they were set afloat. Wyatt and another remained with their hands and feet bound forty hours, suffering more than tongue can tell or pen describe, when they were picked up by some slave Negroes, who started with the two survivors to their quarters. His companion died before they arrived."
The summary justice meted out in Vicksburg set off a chain reaction: anti-gambling measures were passed all through the region, police put teeth into laws never before enforced, and efforts were made to stamp out the underworld completely. The authorities of Natchez threatened the residents below the Hill with the rope-collar treatment practiced in Vicksburg, unless they left town, and passing steamers sighted flatboats loaded with human cargoes on the way to sanctuary in New Orleans.
In every large town, at every crossroads settlement along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, vigilantes assisted or took over the authority of the police. They called themselves Rangers, Regulators, Committees of Safety, and, when necessary, were savage in their methods of driving out undesirables. Signs in public squares ordered gamblers to leave; citizen groups met harried sporting men at town limits and told them to move on. Mobs in St. Louis, Nashville, Louisville, and Memphis hunted them. But victims were scarce. The gamblers had fled.
A few courageous officials still believed that citizens should not take the law into their own hands. Samuel W. Davies, mayor of Cincinnati, deputized hundreds of extra police to stop a turbulent mob from burning down all gambling establishments and lynching all gamblers. Upholders of law and order in New Orleans held a rally and resolved not to allow indignant citizens to attack the many gamblers seeking refuge in that city.
For two years gambling was virtually defunct in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys. But by 1838 a new chapter was opening. The old gambling hells along the river had been dealt their final deathblow by the steamboat traffic. A more proficient type of gambler appeared and a novel gambling world was born in the social rooms of the side-wheelers. These riverboat gamblers were the elite of their profession till the Civil War and for two decades after the surrender of the South.