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The Queen of the Gambling Cities
(Part 2 Of 4)



The first of the "splendid hells" in the U.S. opened its doors in New Orleans at Bourbon and Orleans streets in the early 182Os. John Davis provided true magnificence, costly fixtures and luxurious furniture. The finest wines and liquors and the pick of a bountiful sideboard spread with food prepared by expert chefs were free. Negro servants hovered everywhere to cater to patrons who behaved like gentlemen and were genteel enough to wear evening clothes after night fell.

In Davis's gambling rooms anybody could take a fling at the roulette wheels or try his luck at faro, vingt-et-un, and other games twenty-four hours a day. House dealers, working four-hour shifts, were all experienced pros on high salary plus commissions on their take, a precaution to keep them on the square. Private rooins were available for public officials and swells looking for high-stake games could play Boston, twenty-one, ecarte, in seclusion. The house took a percentage of money wagered and supplied an employee if a private gambling party was a player short. Davis, no mean gambler, took a hand himself if the stakes promised to be exceptionally high.

John Davis opened another establishment on Bayou St. John, as lavish as his first, but operated it only from Saturday morning till Monday morning with full-course dinners served every Sunday night.

Murrell's bloody underworld plot shattered this comfortable state of things, and in the anti-gambling movement that sprang from it moral Louisiana politicians saw a chance to break the political power of the New Orleans gamblers. All gaming-house proprietors, honest or not, were classed together and the earlier licensing laws revoked. The ban cost the state more than $100,000 a year and touched off a fight between city and state. According to state law, anyone whose information led to the arrest of a gambling-house keeper was entitled to half the fine exacted, but still no one informed and the gendarmes never broke in on undercover gambling rooms. It is likely that bribes took care of them.

The financial crisis of 1837 harmed the gamblers more than any legislation. The gaming rooms folded for lack of patronage. For a decade New Orleans gambling was at a low point.

In 1846 the geographical position of the city made it a natural supply base, recruiting center, and embarkation point for our armies during the war with Mexico. Forty-nine thousand volunteers from Texas and the Mississippi Valley, together with a paltry thirteen thousand from the thirteen original states (lukewarm toward the war), passed through New Orleans. From 1849 on into the '50s the city teemed with adventurers on their way to the California gold fields via Nicaragua or the Isthmus of Panama.

Sharp gamblers, reasoning that men on their way to war or wealth were indifferent to danger and hardship and would be rash enough to risk their money at the tables, moved in. New Orleans was overloaded with prosperity from 1846 to about 1851, and with it came a gambling excitement even more widespread and furious than in the days of the big licensed houses. "Gambling houses were no longer confined to any particular section of the city as they had formerly been, but opened everywhere. Dens abounded in the neighborhood of St. Mary's market for the accommodation of the flatboat men and river characters, while for those of more fastidious tastes, places of a better grade were opened in the neighborhood of hotels and boarding houses. But this class of resorts was especially numerous in those localities where returning soldiers or emigrants were quartered," John Philip Quinn wrote.

Once more the gambling fraternity was concentrated in New Orleans and the gamblers regained political power. Friendly city authorities cheerfully licensed scores of establishments to run games of rondeau and lotto (now called keno). At least three thousand professional gamblers were employed as housemen in the four to five hundred gambling houses of the day. On any busy street the voice of the housemen calling "time" and "game" could be heard. The surroundings were not elegant but the rivermen and transients were content.

They were not the only avid gamblers. Native businessmen, grown fat again, thought nothing of losing huge sums, and members of the exclusive Boston Club who dropped as much as $20,000 at one sitting were not considered plungers by their colleagues.

In 1852 the flow of emigrants diminished and the authorities ordered the dens to close and forbade them to open again. Gambling in New Orleans went back to normal and, except in the Swamp and along the waterfront, few gambling establishments survived. The ones that did catered to the rich and successful in lavishly decorated rooms where magnificent suppers were served. The proprietors were excellent hosts and were counted among the foremost citizens of New Orleans. James Sherwood, Henry Perritt and Henry Price McGrath, whose swank gambling house was at No. 4 Carondelet Street, were probably the city's outstanding gamblers in the '50s.

Sherwood and Perritt spent between $75,000 and $100,000 for furniture alone. McGrath, a Kentuckian, was very popular with the rich sportsmen from his state who visited New Orleans each winter for business and pleasure. Sherwood and Perritt knew an attraction when they saw one and offered him a full working partnership. His abilities at faro and his charm with clients so swelled the firm's profits that all three were rich men in a few years.

The partners boasted that their games were square and New Orleans believed them though the house seldom lost. Sherwood, something of a genius at making suckers happy and keeping them coming back, often ordered all gambling to stop so everyone could sit down to lavish suppers where he entertained them with lively and amusing stories. Even heavy losers found it impossible to go away mad after being floored by Sherwood's jokes.

The gambling house of Sherwood, Perritt, and McGrath was not the only one in New Orleans that enjoyed high social standing. Lauraine and Cassidy's place opposite the St. Charles Hotel boasted a solid silver service on which incomparable suppers were served. Society rejected Augustus Lauraine finally, not because he was a gambler, but because he did not pay off a gambling debt. Another famous establishment was run by Sam Levy and "Count" Lorenzo Servri, the title indicating New Orlean's admiration for his beautiful clothes and polished manners.

Not all the operators of successful and fashionable New Orleans gaming resorts in the '50s were twenty-one-carat jewels. There was, for example, Allen Jones, who, one of his gambling contemporaries said, "bears among those to whom he is well known, the unenviable reputation of being the meanest and most sordid wretch that ever disgraced the fraternity of sharpers."

Allen Jones, a son of Tennessee, moved to Huntsville, Alabama, where he built up a thriving business making saddles and harness and a reputation as Huntsville's sharpest poker player. But even a shrewd amateur was easy quarry for a tricky professional, as Allen Jones learned from "Colonel" J. J. Bryant.

This enterprising gentleman had run away from home in Lynchburg, Virginia, to become a sword swallower in a circus, left that, married, and settled down in Jackson, Mississippi, where he opened first a grocery store, then a hotel. After these came a career of trading in Negro slaves and the title "Colonel." His next profession, gambling, suited him best of all and he stuck to it for the rest of his life and in the course of it cleaned young Jones of his "saddles, bridles, money and all the rest and residue of his possessions at the fascinating game of poker." Awed but undismayed, Allen felt the sudden urge to become a professional gambler and entreated the colonel to take him in as a partner.


[Continue To Part 3 Of Article]




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