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
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
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
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
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.