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Southern Gambling Houses
Most Southern towns, in spite of occasional waves of virtuous wrath and law enforcement, manifested a certain cordiality toward gamblers, amateur and professional. Occasionally officials tried to enforce the law to line their own pockets. In Wheeling when gamblers were picked up they were kept in jail, unless they could raise bail, until court met. The court met once every six months and always convicted the ;amblers, who gloomily paid the standard thousand dollar fine. After languishing for a few days of their prison term, they would be offered immediate release upon relinquishing every additional dollar they owned. They invariably went along with this and handed over the money. One gambler claimed: "This plunder was divided between the Mayor of the City, the Marshal and the District Attorney."
In Mobile, on the other hand, Captain William H. Williamson, professional gambler, was twice elected chief of police. Williamson was born in Virginia of quality folks who saw to it that he had a good education and was well behaved and honorable. He came back from the California gold rush with a considerable fortune made dealing cards against successful prospectors and settled in Mobile, where he continued to follow his profession and, like his wealthy patrons, frequent the races. His reputation was so high and his popularity so great that there were no complaints when he was given the highest office of law enforcement and he served the interests of the people of Mobile satisfactorily for six years.
Two thirds of the wealth of Alabama was concentrated in Mobile, much of it held by slaveowners. Gambling seemed to solve the problem of what to do with their money and there were plenty of professionals to help them do it without unnecessary strain.
Just as honest as Police Chief Williamson, though a sharp contrast in dress, manners, and credulity, was Georgia-born Silas Greene, who dealt his games for a quarter of a century in Mobile. The tall, well-built veteran gambler was a partner in a popular establishment on the first floor above the Sans Souci coffee house, across from the Waverly hotel. Greene never affected fancy dress or overcame his childlike, irrational belief that signs and omens controlled luck. Even at sixty, in the decade before the Civil War, he continued to wear his plain clothes and take counsel with fortune-tellers and astrologers at ten dollars a visit. Poor Greene had a Jonah complex and thought his presence in the gambling rooms was responsible whenever the house had losing nights. He would leave when a bad run began and wait nervously outside until one of the dealers sent word that the tide of fortune had changed. Sometimes he stood in the street all night long.
At the end of one winter season in the '50s Greene's establishment came out minus $33,000, and a practical joker among his friends decided to have a little fun at Silas Greene's expense. He bribed an old hag who gave horoscope readings to make a monkey of him. The "wise woman" kept him hanging for three days, extracting ten dollars for each visit, while she consulted the stars and planets. Then she directed him to appear at the race course three miles from town for nine consecutive mornings. He must arrive there at precisely nine o'clock and walk once around the track, after which he was free to drive his buggy back to town. If he did this faithfully and told no one of her divinations, he would recoup all his losses and win $49,000 besides.
Word got round till crowds took to driving to the track each morning "to see old Greene do his work," though he somehow never suspected that he was the cause of these gatherings.
On the eighth night a gang of merry funsters stuffed him so full of champagne he was quite unable to appear for his final day's exercise and was filled with gloom when the diviner told him that he had forfeited the protection of the stars.
The joke was public property and it was not long before Greene caught on to the hoax. His rage was terrible indeed and he went on the warpath with his double-barreled gun. His friend the practical joker hid out and the sheriff finally called off the man hunt by forcing Greene to give security for his future observance of the peace with a five-thousand-dollar bond.
Though Mobile's better gambling houses were not pretentious, their name for integrity kept customers flocking to the tables in Shakespeare's Row, a block of brick buildings in the main business district. The Row was Spanish in style, with arched gateways at either end and a large courtyard in the middle. Along it were ranged banks, jewelry stores, tailoring establishments, offices of commission brokers, restaurants - the businesses commonly found in the center of any city. In the middle of the courtyard was a three-storied, twenty-eight-room building with a covered piazza running right around the second and third floors and numerous stairways. Each of the twenty-eight rooms was devoted to gambling, and all the games were on the square. Shakespeare's Row was for the mannerly and washed, "the unclean and disorderly excluded without remorse."
Wagering varied in all of the rooms, faro limits usually ranging from $12.50 to $100 with a paroli to $800. High limit on the roulette wheels was proportional, usually $25 on a bar or single figure, $700 on the colors.
All, however, was not respectable in Mobile's gambling world. The streets leading down to or running along the waterfront abounded in low dives that offered games like rondo, craps, chuck-a-luck, and others where the house was able to cut itself in for a heavy percentage of the play or was enormously favored.
Honest gambling houses normally took a 10-per-cent cut of winnings at rondo, but the knaves who ran the games on Mobile's waterfront were not satisfied with less than seventeen. The odds against players of chuck-a-luck are very great, even in a square game, as this table of odds that have prevailed in gambling establishments for almost a century shows:
The house pays 180 where the odds 251 to 1:
The house could not lose, yet along the waterfront there were rogues who took further advantage of the suckers' passion for play. Sharp gamblers swindled the unwary with loaded dice. Some skillful tricksters used dice boxes with false bottoms that rattled in the absence of the dice they had hooked between their fingers to control the numbers that came up. Others learned to tap the box with their fingers to sound like dice and when the box was raised the three dice appeared with fixed numbers showing. Loaded dice were also used in craps. The few honest dens on the waterfront shrewdly refrained from rolling the dice and betting but took a cut for the house out of every winning. In these houses it was only the transients who were swindled, the farmers, rivermen, or foreigners who arrived via the coast of Mexico.
European travelers to Charleston, soon after the Revolution, observed that "Betting and gambling were, with drunkenness and a passion for duelling and running in debt, the chief sins of the Carolina gentlemen." The passion for gambling went back to Charleston's colonial days.
A famous British naval commander, Lord Anson, on an official visit to Charleston about the year 1733, was wined and dined by the leading citizens, foremost among them the King's collector for the province, Thomas Gadsen. Lord Anson was inordinately fond of gambling and so adroit at it he was once reprimanded for winning money from his own midshipmen. Mr. Gadsen, himself a former officer of the King's Navy, and therefore aware of his guest's prowess, foolishly sat down to cards with him and lost a large sum of money. To cover his losses, Gadsen gave Milord title to that portion of Charleston long called Ansonborough. Years later Gadsen's son, a Revolutionary War hero, contrived to buy the land back from Lord Anson.
Charleston was, at the turn of the nineteenth century, a great commercial center where wealthy Carolina families maintained town houses to reside in part of each year, leaving their plantations in charge of overseers. During the long social season in town they enjoyed the theaters, attended balls, and followed the races. Some worthies among the plantation gentry spent practically all their time in the city and counted their best and happiest hours the ones spent gambling at cards, in the privacy of their clubs and the French coffeehouses, and at the races, where they bet passionately.
In 1735 the planters and merchants had formed the world's first "jockey club" (England's came fifteen years later) to schedule race meets, authorize prize purses, and define and regulate track rules. The club's prime purpose was to improve the equine breed in America, and its members were indeed "jockeys" since the horse breeders rode their own horses and incidentally bet on them steeply.
Though Virginians had imported the first thoroughbred into America, Charlestonians were willing to match pride, purses, and horses with them and for more than a century devoted themselves to breeding and training horses that would outrace Virginia's. Horse enthusiasts who came all the way from Virginia found ready takers for their betting money. Wining and dining the night before a race, South Carolinians toasted the favorite horse, its rider, and their entire state.
The well-to-do enjoyed cards, especially poker, so extravagantly that many a plantation changed hands as the result of an all-night game. Most of the great poker battles were fought at the exclusive old Charleston Club House where another British official took another colonial over the hurdles at cards in antebellum days.
Motte A. Pringle, scion of a famous Charleston family and young man about town, sat down to play with Mr. Bunch, British consul stationed at Charleston. Mr. Bunch pretended an ignorance of cards that was far from the truth, and Mr. Pringle responded with eagerness by acquainting the Briton with the finer points of the game. Naturally they played for money to add interest to the proceedings. Several hours later Mr. Pringle rose from the table owing Mr. Bunch $10,000. Pringle Senior, when advised of this deplorable evening, saw to it that the gambling debt was paid within twenty-four hours and pointed out to his son that any larceny-minded amateur is a setup for a sharp card player, so he'd better think twice before giving poker lessons to companions whose card experience he did not know.
Gambling houses never flourished to any marked degree in Charleston before the Civil War. Betting the races overshadowed card games. Nor did professional gamblers, faced with a populace short on funds and preferring lotteries to cards, do well. The popularity of lotteries was at a high point in 1845 after most cities and states had legislated them out of existence. Even Negro slaves, if they were fortunate enough to have a little money, could put down fifty cents or a dollar for a share in a ticket and occasionally the considerate owner of a slave who held a winning number allowed him to buy his freedom.
This tradition continued in spite of the fact that Denmark Vesey had been one of these. He won $1500 in the "east Bay Lottery" in 1800 and purchased his freedom for $600, refusing to be manumitted to Africa, as he had other plans for the future.
Taking inspiration from the Bible, Vesey saw his people as the children of Israel with him as their Moses. For two decades he preached revolt and by 1822 had enlisted some nine thousand free Negroes and slaves, all living in or within fifty miles of Charleston. Each' had his task: some made pike heads; others fitted them to handles; some found where their masters stored arms, and prepared to distribute them on the day of the revolt. Slaves who worked in stables were instructed where to bring the horses when the insurrection erupted. It is even said that Negroes from the nearby islands were to sail on Charleston in a flotilla of small boats and seize the fort and whatever shipping lay in the harbor. Sometime in July, Vesey and his colleagues planned to force their way into the arsenal and free every slave in Charleston.
A loyal house servant reported the plot to his master and other house slaves betrayed Vesey and his secret army. The plantation owners took action just as the final plans for the insurrection were completed. Thirty-five leaders were executed and scores of slaves sold to other masters in other states.
Had Vesey's insurrection succeeded, it would have been the bloodiest aftermath of a lottery in American history.