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The Gambling Capital
Ever since its beginning in the mud of Georgetown, what was first called Federal City was a gambling town. It was founded on lotteries and its single industry of government was based on the risks of election as the stock market in New York was based on risk for gain. The highest officials of the nation were usually men willing to bet against odds.
The capital delighted in horse racing and never more so than when U.S. President Andrew Jackson was a regular member of the crowds that jammed the stands at the National Course, just north of the city. Party loyalty extended even to the track, and when Jackson dropped a thousand dollars on a fast filly his personal secretary had brought up from the Hermitage in Tennessee, Vice-President Van Buren and the faithful lost too.
Jackson, a man known to bet with loyalty as well as money, had long before, on a race near Nashville, laid heavy odds on a thoroughbred. A man named Wilson tipped him off, in time to hedge his bets, that the jockey was going to throw the race. Jackson gratefully begged Wilson to let him know if he could ever be of service. Years later, when Jackson was in office as president, three armed men robbed a mail coach near Philadelphia. They were promptly captured, arrested, tried, convicted, and two of them were sentenced to the gallows. One of the men condemned to die was Wilson. He managed to get word of his plight to the Chief Executive and Jackson promptly intervened to have Wilson's sentence commuted to ten years in the penitentiary.
During race weeks in the Washington of the 1820s and '30s many a time Congress lacked the quorum necessary to do business. In other seasons statesmen diverted themselves by attending and gambling on cockfights. Jackson once ordered certain gamecocks of which he was immensely proud brought to Washington from his home in Tennessee. The long incarceration in a stagecoach did them no good and at the "main" near Blandensburg on the Maryland line, when they were matched against some pugnacious birds from Annapolis, they showed a humiliating want of spirit and the presidential party lost their purses.
Betting on elections in Washington was, of course, inevitable and spirited. On the 1826 election Van Buren willingly wagered $10,000 and his evening clothes.
In the presidential election of 1832, Henry Clay was thought to be the only man who might beat Jackson, but the pro-Jackson New Hampshire Patriot lammed into him, claiming that Clay "spends his days at the gaming table and his nights in a brothel." He was indeed a canny gambler, with few masters at poker and seven-up. Daniel Webster was a double threat, too, at euchre and poker. General Winfield Scott was a matchless whist player, and the man who defeated him for the presidency, Franklin Pierce, was adept in any game of cards for money.
There were plenty of public places for politicians and civil servants of all degrees to indulge the enthusiasm for gambling that marked the city. Most gaming rooms centered in and around Pennsylvania Avenue, as close to the Capitol as possible. Some opened their doors to all comers and offered faro as the principal, if not the only game, with single wagers limited to ten dollars: With hundreds of low-salaried government employees on tap these houses did well. At others a few caste-conscious proprietors barred all but the rich or highly placed and considered themselves such aristocrats of the gaming table that they snubbed lesser gamblers on the streets.
Edward Pendleton's Palace of Fortune, opened in 1832, soon earned a nickname-the Hall of the Bleeding Heart. Pendleton and a partner named Marshall had a staff of colored servants who saw to it that no patron was ever without "rare viands and choice wines" and Pendleton's Palace was a success from the start. As the money rolled in, Marshall succumbed to prosperity: He began to live high and foolish. On constant and extended drinking sprees this slick faro dealer frequented other men's faro tables at which he rid himself of his share of the partnership's take. Washington's gambling resorts never rated any blue ribbons for honesty and Marshall got in so much trouble that Pendleton finally bought him out. He went home to Kentucky to die an alcoholic. Going it alone with the Hall of the Bleeding Heart, Pendleton began using his position and influence to become a formidable lobbyist.
Whether well-born or not, and opinions varied, this Virginian with the fancy clothes and gentlemanly manners, during his twenty-six years as proprietor of the most fashionable gambling establishment in Washington, became one of the city's most prominent permanent residents. He gained impeccable connections in Washington society, was close to the rich and powerful who pulled the strings behind the political scene, and had a wife who was one of the capital's leading beauties. Indeed Jacqueline Pendleton, daughter of architect and engineer Robert Mills, was admired by, most of the great politicos of her day and was the privileged friend and confidante of at least one president.
In the '40s and the faction-ridden '50s gambling houses were the only places where abolitionists and secessionists were seen together. Pendleton's provided, in the no-man's-land neutrality of the gaming tables, the most elegant spot for people of different political views to meet.
Lobbyists as well as politicians habituated the Palace of Fortune, and were always delighted at a chance to lend cash to a legislature who went broke fighting the tiger. Such debts were conveniently forgotten as bills the lobbyists were promoting went to the floor of Congress. Pendleton, according to vetern journalist Perley Poore, "assisted in the passage of many useful bills of a private nature, involving considerable sums of money" and observed facetiously, "a broker in parliamentary notes is an inevitable retainer of broker voters."
When officials came to financial grief at his tables, Pendleton made loans to them if they were high enough up. One of his bestknown acts of "charity" was when Humphrey Marshall, in 1852 appointed minister to China, had a last fling at Pendleton's faro tables and dropped all the money he had plus, according to Perley, "six months' pay, and gratefully accepted a loan from Pendleton to enable him to reach the scene of his diplomatic labors."
No gambling house rivaled Pendletan's in Washington till Joe Hall, who already had thriving establishments in New York and Philadelphia, decided that there were enough suckers in the national government to support another first-class house of chance. Within a year this stiff competition cut into Pendleton's business, but in 1858 Pendleton died, leaving an immense fortune to his beautiful Jacqueline. Several leading Democrats were pallbearers at the funeral and the President attended. The auctioning of Pendleton's effects and the fittings of his gambling house attracted fashionable crowds, drawing from the fascinated Poore the comment that "probably for the first time since the descent of Proserpine, the gates of Hades were passed by troops of the fair sex."
A year later when Jacqueline Pendleton, at the age of forty-five lay dying, President James Buchanan watched helpless and grief-stricken at the foot of her bed as she breathed her last, and he wrote a touching obituary address for her funeral.
"A true account of the money designedly lost at Washington by diplomats, heads of departments and Congressmen," wrote Perley Poore in 1886, "would give a deep insight into the secret history of legislation. What Representative could vote against the claims of a man whose money he had been winning in small sums, it is true, all winter?"
When Henry Labouchere, secretary of the British Legation from 1855 to 1858, retired to a watering place in Virginia to discuss a reciprocity treaty between Canada and the United States, he found Under Secretary of State William Learned Marcy, normally the most cordial of men, ill-humored and hindering the discussions at every point. The difficulty, Mr. Labouchere learned, was that the under secretary missed his nightly rubbers of whist.
That night and every other night thereafter during the negotiations, the British minister and Mr. Labouchere played cards for small stakes with Mr. Marcy and his secretary. The British made the diplomatic gesture of consistently losing to the Americans. Marcy's good humor was quickly restored and, Labouchere said, "every morning when the details of the treaty were being discussed we had our revenge, and scored a few points for Canada."