They were typical of the fortune seekers who never twirled a pan or
broke their backs over a pick. The shuffling of cards or the click of a
roulette wheel seemed to many a quicker and easier way to riches than
panning or digging. "Breaking the bank" was as exciting as striking the
biggest mother lode of them all. That the turn of a card could spell
tragedy was secondary.
It was not unusual for men to risk $10,000 or $20,000 on a single
card under the light and heat of a hundred lamps. The tables were always
thronged and prospectors waited their turn to play at Hubbard's Round
Tent in Sacramento, uncomplaining since they could while away the
interim admiring the salacious paintings around the walls.
Everybody gambled but not everybody won. Men of good and poor repute
saw that gambling could be lucrative and made a profession of it. When
damnation-preaching William Taylor arrived in San Francisco that
frenzied September of 1849, he learned from a gold hunter that clerks were
making $200 a month, cooks $300, and gambling was the most profitable-and
hence respectedprofession of all.
Taylor asked if there were any churches in San Francisco.
"We have one preacher," the gold hunter replied, "but preaching don't
pay here, so he quit preaching and went to gambling." A letter dated
April 3, 1850, speaks of ministers who "swear & curse," of deacons seen at
the gambling tables and church members watching their successes at
roulette, faro, or monte bank. "And I have heard that the professed
Gamblers say, that money is so plenty and easy to be made 8c, consequently
betting is so high that it is necessary for them to cheat more than usual,
to hold their own."
Play, under such circumstances, was seldom profitable for the
amateur. In the spring of 1860 a group of prospectors discovered gold in a
gulch near the site of the present Leadville, Colorado, then called
California Gulch. The lively, wicked town of Ore City boomed into being and
its population skyrocketed to five thousand in a few months. Veteran
prospectors John Ferguson and Pete Wells located the richest pocket in
the placer diggings. With Ferguson a heavy drinker and Wells a rabid
gambler their bonanza allowed them epic binges and reckless games in which
they squandered each night the gold dust they panned each day. Ore City
gamblers competed for their patronage. One was smarter than the rest:
he built a saloon right next to Ferguson's and Wells's claim to give him
first crack at the gold taken out by the partners during the day.
By the end of the second summer the rich ore began to play out and
Ferguson and Wells, as poor now as when they had arrived, were among the
last to drift away before Ore City became a ghost town.
If they weren't gambling in regular establishments, prospectors were
likely to be gambling against each other. An actual poker "fuss" at
Coyoteville, a mining camp on the South Fork of the Yuba River in
California, is described in The Diary of a Forty-Niner: "There were four
partners in one of the richest claims on the hill and they got to gambling
together. They started in playing five dollar ante and passing the buck.
Then they raised it to twenty-five dollars ante each, and Jack
Breedlove, one of the partners, cleaned out the rest of them, winning
twenty-two thousand dollars. Not satified with this they staked their interests
in the claim, valuing a fourth at ten thousand dollars, and, when the
game quit, Zeke Roubier, another of the partners, won back eight
thousand dollars and held on to his fourth interest. The other two went broke
and Breedlove ended by owning three fourths of the claim and winning
fourteen thousand dollars, so that altogether he was thirty-four thousand
dollars ahead. He offered his old partners work in the mine at an ounce
a day, which they refused, packed their blankets and started out in
search of new diggings."
The great rush to NVashoe around Carson City in the Nevada Territory
repeated the hectic history of California. Canvas and dried skins
covered buildings as lumber sold at $400 per thousand feet. "Calico palaces"
rose and professional gamblers began to reap a rich harvest. A
prospector who reached the scene in one of the early waves wrote on April 5,
1860 to the Mountain Democrat of Placerville, California, that the main
pursuits were "eating, sleeping, drinking and gambling."
But life was not all profits for the professionals. One Jim Moran
was long remembered for the trimming he gave a tinhorn cardsharper at
poker in Tuttletown. There was a general store, one hotel, a barbershop,
and a saloon run by Valentine Pitorf where Tuttletown's thirsty miners
satisfied their craze for whisky and cards.
Like any lively mining settlement Tuttletown had its share of
professional gamblers and the foremost of these was Tom Lucket. Pitorf had
the reputation of being exceptionally sober, for, though he liked his
whisky as well as the next man, he did not mix business and pleasure. Once
a month he saddled up and rode into Sonora to drench his innards with
liquor. This herculean task required at least three days. When Pitorf
hit the trail he turned his saloon over to Lucket for the duration.
One afternoon, a few hours after the saloonkeeper had departed, Tom
Lucket sat at a table with customers playing threehanded poker. The
game was slow, so Jim Moran, who had ambled into the saloon for a drink
and was watching from a nearby table, was urged to join it. Jim reckoned
that he was a poor player and would only dampen their game, but when
they insisted, reluctantly pulled up a chair and took a hand.
Moran was loaded with gold dust and hour after hour he lost it. The
more he lost the more excited he got, and the more recklessly he
About three o'clock in the morning, when the saloon was crowded with
barflies, gamblers, and spectators; Jim opened up a hand for ten
dollars. Lucket raised and Jim called. The other two dropped out. Moran
requested three cards and Lucket took two. From a twenty-dollar bet the men
raised and reraised a hundred dollars a time. Lucket ran out of money
for his last raise and had to take $100 from the cash drawer. Moran bent
his eyes on the cards he held and mused. Then he not only called Tom
Lucket's bet of $100, but raised him $500.
Not having the money to call Moran's bet, and believing that it was
an attempt to bluff him out, the professional gambler put up Pitorf's
saloon and everything in it against Moran's $500.
Moran won with four eights when the two men showed cards. Lucket had a
full house, three queens and a pair of tens. Moran swept the money and
gold he had won into his broad sombrero while the stunned Lucket
watched. He then took his place on the house's side of the bar and doled out
all of Pitorf's cigars to the crowd. Next he turned the saloon over to
them, saying, "Drink up, boys. The whole dern shebang is yourn."
Two minutes later Moran walked out into the night and was never
seen in Tuttletown again. The most disorderly and tumultuous likkering up
that ever roused the hills followed, with men on their feet dipping
into the whisky barrel and others dead drunk in heaps on the floor. When
Pitorf returned from his bender the sight of the orgy made him foam at
the mouth. He swacked the miners who could still stand with a cue and
dragged out the ones who couldn't. Then, downhearted and disgusted,
Valentine Pitorf reached for the rawest brand of what. stock was' left and
launched himself into oblivion.
A big gambler, one who could afford to bet thousands on a single
card, was a man with prestige. Nevada's Jack Davis took to holding up
trains to qualify for a seat in the Virginia City Crystal Saloon sky-high
poker games. Little Jack Davis, sometimes called the Professor, then
became a regular member of this select circle. As the first train robber
in America (he held up the Overland Express on November 1, 1870) he was
much admired in Nevada, its newspapers acclaiming the Sagebrush state
as the home of Davis and his daring men. All the money he took as loot
he dropped at the Crystal Saloon.
But Davis was able to play no-limit poker again after he and his men
captured an entire train and rode it into a tunnel on a branch track
where, safely hidden, and at leisure, they helped themselves to fifty
thousand dollars in gold.
The United States authorities stepped in and sent Davis, much
mourned by his cronies, and his men to jail. Shortly afterward it was
discovered that he had hired men to fuse his stolen gold into bars of bullion
to sell to the government at prevailing rates.
The establishments where miners and prospectors could come in from
their lives of physical hardship and isolation to find liquor, gambling,
and female companionship under one roof became the social clubs and
community centers in the jumpingoff cities. During the frequent fires that
swept the hastily constructed towns the original calico palaces with
plank tables invariably burned and were replaced by more attractive
quarters. The "old professor," spanking the ivories of a sadly out-of-tune
peeyanner in exchange for drinks and what the boys threw him, was
replaced by French and German bands playing opera music from a raised stage.
The erotic art that decorated the walls became less and less crude, the
opulent-bosomed thrushes who warbled bawdy ditties or tear-jerking
ballads more accomplished, and the Naughty Nellie commission girls were
better-looking. Roulette, faro, poker, all fours, Spanish monte, rouge et
noir, vingt-et-un, lansquenet, with keno and craps added later, were
played at ten to twenty tables.