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The Queen of the Gambling Cities
(Part 1 Of 4)



`whar the lion roareth and the wang-doodle mourneth for his first born'...ah! This part of my tex, my beseeching brethering, is not to be taken as it says. It don't mean the howling wilderness, whar John the Hard-Shell Baptist fed on locusts and wild asses, but it means, my brethering, the city of New Y'Orleans, the mother of harlots and hard lots, whar...gamblers, thieves and pickpockets goes skitting about the streets like weasels in a barnyard; whar honest men are scarcer than hen's teeth; and whar a strange woman once took your beluved teacher and bamboozled him out of two hundred and twenty seven dollars in the twinkling of a sheep's tail...

(legendary text of an "unlarnt" Hard-Shell Baptist preacher)

Gambling had always been a peculiarly New Orleans vice since the first settlers played in alehouses and taverns furnished with roulette wheels and tables for games. No official rebukes or threats of whipping or confinement in the stocks discouraged the New Orleans gambling appetite.

It also was the city where craps, most American of sporting games next to poker, was first introduced to whites and blacks. In 1798 Louis Philippe, later the "Citizen King of France," was the guest of the rich Bernard de Marigny, head of an eminent Louisiana family. Louis Philippe showed his host how to play craps, the French version of English hazard, and De Marigny taught it to other Creoles.

De Marigny lost so heavily at craps he was compelled to break up his large estate on the outskirts of New Orleans and turn the land into city blocks. He named one street Rue de Craps. When a church was built on it about ten years later, it became known as the Craps Methodist Church, causing the congregation such consternation that the street was renamed Burgundy.

As the Creole gentry made fortunes in business, they gambled extravagantly, at first always in select and private groups. Gradually the focus shifted away from home games to public coffeehouses and professional gamblers began to appear. They were not popular. After the Louisiana Purchase an interim government passed anti-gambling laws, one of the first statutes providing that professionals and persons playing with them were subject, after being caught gambling together for the third time, to twenty-five lashes on the uncovered back.

As part of the United States, New Orleans developed into a worldly city, rich because it was an important port and terminus of the greatest of America's inland waterways. The waterfront was crowded rows deep for miles with keelboats, flatboats, and ocean-going ships, while the men who sailed in them made the market places, coffeehouses, and fleshpots of the city vibrate with life and money. They ate peppered shrimp, garlicky frogs' legs, and thick gumbo, drank Louisiana coffee, cheap red wine, and poor hard liquor, frolicked with fast gals whose physical charms and the love powders they sold put the men in high gear, ready for helling around. Rough riverboat men and naTve farmers tossed their wages and profits around the gambling dens. It was a fat market of suckers for blackguard gamblers.

In the twenty years after 1803 New Orleans's permanent population quadrupled, "and it has been estimated that from one-third to one-fourth of the increase was composed of thieves, ruffians, vagabonds and prostitutes who, with the removal of all restrictions upon immigration, had flocked into the city from the four corners of the earth," wrote Herbert Asbury in The French Quarter.

The riffraff concentrated on the waterfront, catering to the vices of men from the flatboats and keelers. As soon as the boats tied up the rivermen could gratify themselves with women, wet their cobweb throats with whisky, and try their luck at roulette or cards, without setting foot on shore. Since flatboats were sold for the price of their wood at the end of the trip down the Mississippi, enterprising brothel madames, gamblers, and dispensers of liquor often bought and converted them into crude floating dives.

The six blocks between Girod Street close by the Protestant Cemetery at Cypress and South Liberty Street, known as the "Swamp," was the wickedest area in all New Orleans, however. Not even the police dared enter this underworld stronghold where the only law was the law of the knife, the pistol, and the club, and men fought as they could - eye gouging, ear chewing, stomping a fallen opponent, and kneeing him in the groin.

Herbert Asbury relates that the Swamp was crowded with cheap saloons, the lowest of dance halls, the most sordid of brothels and shady gambling dens. The "games were so crooked that a man had about as much chance of winning as of performing the legendary feats of Annie Christmas. If by some miscalculation he did, he was knocked on the head and knifed on his way out of the place." A winner was likely to be accused of cheating and beaten to a pulp. His body, if he failed to survive, was laid out on the floor and left there as an example and warning till it stank so it was dumped into the river. This method of discouraging ambitious gamblers was especially favored in a dive with the soothing name of the "House of Rest for Weary Boatmen."

Had Diogenes searched for an honest man in this cesspool, he would, according to one historian, have found Grampin, an old Frenchman who ran a licensed gambling house known as "Number 9" situated on Tchoupotoulas Street. It did not pay. Grampin went broke, and a curious legend, which has been reported many times and about many places, is supposed to have overtaken him. It is the story of the old sea captain who wagered never more, never less than twenty-five cents on the roulette wheel. He came in one night, placed his bet, and won. Contrary to custom he let it stand. The wheel turned and again and again the ball settled on the same color. Ten, twelve, fifteen times, and money was piled in front of the captain, while the place went wild, but he sat, head on hand, and made no move. Sixteen thousand dollars was at stake on the seventeenth roll and the captain uttered not a word. At this juncture the mate arrived and pleaded, "Haul in, old Captain! Don't bet all that pile against this set of land pirates! Haul in!" He stretched out a hand and as he did so, the captain toppled over slowly. He had been dead since he laid down the first twenty-five cents.

The mate managed to bundle up the money in the ensuing hubbub and give it to a cabin boy to rush back to the ship. Grampin and his men gave the mate a bad time, claiming that it belonged to the house since the captain had been dead and had not bet it. But when they discovered the money was already gone, they let him leave. The mate was in time allowed to take the captain's body to the ship and Grampin tried to recoup his losses from among the living.

In 1811 gambling became illegal in all of Louisiana, but a strong gamblers' lobby managed to except New Orleans, with gambling theoretically under rigid rules and official surveillance. In effect the amendment legalized open and crooked gambling in the city since the police force was inadequate to compel compliance to public ordinances. Nine years afterward even "legalized" gambling was prohibited though the gamblers continued merrily in establishments that were an open secret and as profitable as ever. The authorities, appalled at losing the revenue from legalized gambling, petitioned the legislature, and three years later gambling was again legal, but on a limited scale: not more than six houses were to be licensed at an annual fee of $5000 each and 20 per cent of this had to go to the College of New Orleans and 80 per cent to the Charity Hospital.

Licensed gambling-house keepers put continuous pressure on New Orleans officials to clean up unlicensed gambling except in the Swamp, where the police feared to interfere. The licensed proprietors waxed rich and politically influential. Jealous of this concentration of power, other gamblers succeeded in having the limitation on the number of houses removed though the annual fee was hiked to $7000.

Fourteen big gambling houses, not inaccurately called "clubhouses," became social centers and offered premises, nowhere else available, for transacting business. No stigma attached to gambling, and the gaming resorts served as home, business exchange, and social club for many men of the city. It was just as usual to find a friend in a gambling house as to chance upon him at home, and no stranger considered his visit to New Orleans complete unless it included a fling in the public gaming rooms.


[Continue To Part 2 Of Article]




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