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The Reformed Gambler
The only storm of dislike that assailed gambling between the Vicksburg lynchings and the Civil War was comparatively mild. It resulted, just the same, in a widespread series of anti-gambling laws. The genesis of the reform wave was Jonathan F. Green, known all over the America of the mid-nineteenth century as "Green, the Reformed Gambler."
Green learned his trade during twelve years in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, where he became a proficient swindler who could thimbleri-, coo- the dice smoothly, bottom deal, palm and stack any deck of cards, pull two cards at faro, and, he claimed, read a marked deck as easily as the average man reads his newspaper.
What he reaped at the gaming tables was probably small in comparison to what he made later from his stag popularity as a lecturer and from such books as An Exposure of the Arts and Miseries of Gambling, published in Cincinnati in 1843 and claiming, said writer John Morris, "first, that all gamblers were thieves; secondly, that they never played on the square; thirdly, that faro had less percentage than any other banking game, and that it was twenty per cent worse than stealing anyhow."
One of the sensations of a Green lecture was his announcement that all decks of playing cards were manufactured with secret markings, easily deciphered by every professional gambler but undetectable by honest people and amateurs. To prove his point, Green would ask for a volunteer from the audience, give him money, and send him to buy a pack of cards from a nearby store. When the volunteer returned, Green shuffled the deck, placed it face down on a table, and called out the suit and value of each card, one by one, as he picked it up and showed it to his amazed audience.
Professional gamblers, outraged, maintained that Green was playing his audiences for suckers, that the "volunteer" was an employee of Green's who left the hall not to shop but to fish a deck of marked cards out of his pocket. However, they lacked the pluck to expose the trick.
The trick, indeed, when the gamblers finally discovered it, was a neat one: a tiny mirror, on or under the table, permitted Green to see the face of each card as he pulled it from the pack.
Sales of Green's book exposing gambling were understandably brisk among his audiences and contributions to fight -ambling generous. The remarkable ex-gambler further cashed in with two more books, The Gambler's Mirror and Gambling Unmasked, able blends of truth and humbug. The climate was ideal for them, since the 1840s were marked by an extravagant devotion to cults and reform movements. Gambling Unmasked ran into several editions and was read avidly, for in its pages Green melodramatically professed to lay bare all ]its past life as a gambler. It was the heart-throbbing tale of how, young and motherless, he was lured by vicious men from misdeed to misdeed till divine intervention reclaimed him and he became an earnest Christian. His readers gobbled it up in abridged editions at fifty cents a copy, four dollars a dozen for people who wished to distribute it as a dire warning.
Three years later Green hit still harder at his ex-colleagues with a new book, The Secret Band of Brothers; or, The American Outlaws. It reads like an echo of Stewart's pamphlet, though the preface announces: "This work ... is unlike anything ever published in this country. It is not a mere exposure of gambling, nor yet an attack on the character of particular gamblers. It is a revelation of a wide-spread organization-pledged to gambling, theft and villainy of all kinds."
Though published in 1847, the book, strangely enough, deals with the alleged vile and intolerable operations of villains in the early 1830s. The Secret Band, according to Green, composed of two hundred Grand Masters, each with six Vice-grand Masters and a numerous common brotherhood, could be found all over the United States. To the Worthy Grand or Ruling Grand Master were entrusted the constitution, bylaws, and other secret papers of the fraternity.
The Grand Masters cooked up the schemes, advised the Vicegrand Masters of their general purport. These, in turn, detailed the brotherhood to execute the plots. The Grand Masters pocketed the greater share of the spoils, the Vice-grand Masters a lesser cut, while the common brotherhood got only enough to allow it to exist. The higher up the member, the richer he was, the more respected in his community, and generally the loudest amen-snorter in church. The commoners were "seldom wealthy, generally of a suspicious character, who had no fixed residence, but wandered from place to place, preying upon the community in the character of barkeepers, pickpockets, thieves, gamblers, horse-racers, and sometimes murderers." Bail and lawyers' fees were forthcoming if they got into trouble on behalf of the organization and many were freed even when their guilt was clear.
"We will not wonder," Green explains, "when we learn that there are men of wealth and influence in almost every town, who are sworn to aid and befriend these villains. They are sometimes lawyers, and jurors, and even judges."
Specifically Green averred that a group of men met on July 12, 1798, in western Virginia, and there adopted the constitution and bylaws and that the organization comprised men of all social classes who solemnly pledged themselves to stand by one another in order to enrich themselves with other people's money, goods, and lands. Green published the constitution in full with the regulations that members swore to obey on pain of sudden and violent death. A private line of communication-a sort of underground post office in hollow trees and caves-extended from Toronto to New Orleans, he claimed, and messages were transmitted in a secret language of flash words. Some of the more common specimens in use were:
SOUNDING: Feeling or Ascertaining. CULLEY: Brother, Friend, Partner. CONEY: Counterfeit paper money. BOGUS: Spurious Coin, etc. CRABBING: Robbing, Stealing, etc. DUMBY: Pocket-book, purse, etc. DROP: Pocket, etc. CADY: Highwayman, murderer, etc. GLIB: Incendiary. STRIKER: " CRACK: Break. As Crack a crib. CRIB: House, trunk, desk, etc. THIMBLE: Watch, crome, clock. PRAGUE: Horse, -Mule or ass. GLIM: Light. SIFTER: Burglar, house-breaker, etc. GEISTER: An extra thief. FEELER: Dirk, sword, knife, etc. REACHER: Gun, pistol, etc. PAD: Bed. BLOTTER: Writing (letters, etc.)
An extra vocabulary of words and numbers was known only to the Grand Masters and used on urgent occasions. All letters were written in a special invisible ink. Whether such a society ever existed is highly debatable, but Green's case was so convincing that even gamblers formerly regarded as high-toned gentlemen lost social standing.
Antagonism to real and fancied secret societies led Americans to turn against fraternal religious organizations like the Masons and added to the smugness of the Know-Nothings. Political demagogues and the press sided with Green and were influential in the formation of anti-gambling societies whose members pressed for anti-gambling legislation throughout the Mississippi Valley.
When the authorities in the valley and in formerly hospitable Louisiana started persecuting them, the gamblers piled into New York, followed by Green. In a report he made in 1851, Green claimed that New York not only tolerated but "encouraged, caressed and honored" them. Expressing further shock, he insisted that in every department of the public service the gamblers had "long conducted their nefarious business with a boldness and effrontery perfectly surprising."
On Green's side Horace Greeley editorialized in the New York Tribune "that not less than five millions of dollars are annually won from fools and shallow knaves, by blacklegs, in this city alone; and not less than a thousand young men are annually ruined by them.... But our present laws are very defective and our police either bribed or powerless." To remedy this situation, an anti-gambling bill was introduced in the legislature.
Another New York City newspaper urged the sporting and policy men to bend every effort and expense to "stifle this child of the Reformed Gambler." The attack was prepared by gamblers, ropers, landlords, and sympathizers on two fronts: a large delegation would go to Albany to try to defeat the bill and steps would be taken to disgrace Mr. Green and force him to quit the state capital until the legislature adjourned.
Silas W. Spaulding, an ex-agent for the sale of Green's books who had quarreled with the Reformed Gambler, was prompted by the gambling fraternity to get his former paitner arrested for obtaining money and goods under false pretenses. Green was duly arrested, brought to New York, and lodged in the Tombs till his trial came up. The examination showed all charges unfounded and the magistrate dismissed the case.
Green's wallet had been taken from him when he was locked up and in it were found two Treasury notes for $500 each and some counterfeit bills. The Spaulding contingent had the Reformed Gambler rearrested on the charge of having forged Treasury notes and counterfeit money in his possession and trying to pass them on to other people.
Green spent four more days in a prison cell, then came up before a United States commissioner for examination. The Treasury notes proved to be canceled, not forged, and along with the counterfeit money had been furnished Green "by authority." To everybody's amazement and Spaulding's chagrin Green revealed that for a year he had held a commission and was paid by the United States Secret Service to ferret out "coney dealers" and "queersmen" (dealers, passers or handlers of counterfeit money, and regular professional counterfeiters). Mr. Gillet, solicitor of the Treasury, from whom Green had received his government appointment, furnished him with the bills and notes in his wallet to help him detect forgeries.
Prosecuting Attorney William M. Evarts stopped the trial. The charges against Green were too ridiculous to be taken as serious, he said, and had obviously been inspired by sheer maliciousness. The U.S. commissioner agreed that the case was "frivolous" and Green was discharged.
The gamblers had, however, succeeded in keeping Green out of Albany at the crucial time. As a result of his tribulations he went home to New Haven ill and was confined to his bed for several weeks, so he was unable to urge enactment of the bill and it lay on the table when the legislature adjourned.
The attempted frame-up boomeranged on its perpetrators. Public sentiment was aroused and Horace Greeley issued an editorial call in the Tribune:
We greatly needed his service here to watch the operation, and defeat the snares, of the gamblers, who are more numerous, daring, and most pernicious . . . we would like to bear our part with a number in enabling Mr. Green to devote his time entirely to the extirpation of gambling from our city. What citizen of known integrity, and some time at command will take the lead in effecting such an arrangement?
Many prominent New Yorkers responded. A meeting was held and it was resolved to organize an anti-gambling association to be supported morally by the public and financially by businessmen. The following July the New York Association for the Suppression of Gambling was officially launched with Horace Greeley one of ten eminent New Yorkers on its Executive Committee and Jonathan Green executive agent and corresponding secretary. He actually headed the Intelligence Office, an unofficial citizens' secret police to obtain "by every fair and legitimate means" the full list of gambling houses in New York City, including policy and lottery offices. The executive agent was also to secure names of patrons of gambling establishments, amounts they had won or lost at the tables, and record the names and addresses of informers to substantiate this intelligence.
The list was to be kept confidential, the record available only to the Supervisory Committee, and people on it were to be admonished about the perils of gambling. If these people were unswayed by warnings, their employers would be informed and advised to fire them. For, as Greeley pointed out, "Gambling is a vice which flourishes only in concealment. By exposure it dies."
For a nominal yearly fee-prorated according to the size and type of firm-banks, insurance companies, commercial houses, and other such institutions could learn from the Intelligence Office whether their employees or associates were addicted to the gambling table. The association repeatedly pointed out that no firm was any better than the honesty of the people responsible for its pecuniary affairs.
The "rescue of the gambler's victim" was another prime objective of the association. Here again they counted on Greeley's belief that most gambling flourished best in obscurity and felt that with exposure only the thoroughly addicted would continue on their wayward path. To the association there was no such thing as an honest gambler and experienced counsel was retained to aid victims hoping to recover money they had lost at the gaming tables.
A whole program of public education was envisaged, through books, tracts, and lectures and plans were made to promote antigambling legislation.
Alas, little direct evidence remains as to how much practical success all this high-minded, public-spirited campaign accomplished. That it was sufficient to disturb the gamblers is clear: they made noisy attacks on the crackpots and "philosophers" and tried to smear its prestige by pointing out that the association's top agent was himself a reformed gambler. The president made short work of this: ". . . who more likely to be acquainted with the arts and wiles of the gambler? . . . Shall we wait for angels to come from heaven and proclaim to us duty?"
But the strongest allegation against the association was that its members were "spies and informers" against private and respectable citizens "watching their secret and personal habits." Gambling circles hinted darkly that information would be turned into a blackmail weapon and victims forced to pay hush money. Justice Drinker, a staunch and active member of the association, spoke up at a mass rally: "We only seek to pluck the victim from the gamblers' clutches. What we do, we do openly. We have no war to make against individuals; it is only against gamblers, so far as their arts are concerned. When we find out that a young man visits these houses, we send for him and inform him of his danger, with perfect concealment of his name. If he still visits these places, we admonish him a second time; and if, notwith'standing, he persists, we hand him over to his people or employer, and there leave him."
On the legal front Green's bill was called up for debate shortly after the legislature met in 1851. Heavy pressure from the gambling interests stalled a final vote on its passage during this session and, according to the association, "gave rise to some of the most remarkable developments of official corruption that ever disgraced the annals of our State legislation." However, with Green working assiduously, a bill was passed in June-not so stringent as had been hoped - and became law on August 1, which the association hoped would "if faithfully enforced, close every gambling hell within the State." Proprietors of many of the principal gambling houses closed their establishments at midnight of July 31 and much of their furniture was sold on August 1 at public auction. Many suspended and left town while ropers and housemen by the hundred were faced with the prospect of changing their profession or starving. A few houses risked running afoul of the law and simply remained open.
As the record makes abundantly clear, the law was not effective for long. When Jonathan Green retired from active work in the anti-gambling association in 1852, it was already on the point of death.
The Reformed Gambler's long and healthy career, his indefatigable and frequently imaginative revelations had touched off many a wave of reform wherever he had preached. But as soon as he moved on to new territory, the gamblers crept or swept back in. North and South, along the Hudson, and up and down the great Mississippi river the games were only briefly interrupted and the suckers only temporarily dissuaded from entering the clutches of the colorful, ubiquitous gambling men.