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Gambling Country Towns and Boom Towns
The old New England states were legally tough on gamblers. Tavern keepers were fined for allowing card playing in or about their premises and individuals who ran gambling games in their homes or places of business were liable to a fine and as long as a year's imprisonment. The New Hampshire law even found a man doubly guilty if he won.
Players with friends they could trust not to tell on them kept right on playing, referring vaguely to "club" meetings when questioned about their comings and goings. The vigilant, ar-us-eyed law often pulled raids and hauled all the players off to jail to pay fines the next morning and earn themselves some unfavorable publicity in the next day's papers.
Come all ye Yankee farmers who wish to change your lot, Who've spunk enough to travel beyond your native spot, And leave behind the village where Pa and Ma do stay, Yea, yea, yea, Michigania.
When great waves of New Englanders left home in the 1820s and '30s to settle the territories that became Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan, the God-fearing ones passed the new antigambling laws in the territories, and the gay ones took along their sinful habits. Most towns in the Middle West were liberal in their interpretation and enforcement of the law, and the back room where the card games were played was to many a sport an oasis in the middle of a dreary desert.
In Marietta, Ohio, a town of fifteen hundred, an old-timer recalls, the "club members" met in the rear of a tailor shop. The scene was typical of countless small towns in the East and northern Middle West. "The different species of gambling carried on at this club were poker, brag, euchre, all-fours, whist, `vingtet-un' and `snaps' at faro. For use in the latter game [the proprietor] had provided an old sheet-iron dealing-box, and about two hundred large horn buttons, beside a piece of black cloth with thirteen cards pasted on it for a layout. Cards for playing all games except faro and vingt-et-un were sold to the players at twenty-five cents a pack, thus affording a clear profit of fifteen cents on every pack sold. At poker, a check was deducted from the pool, for the house, whenever threes or over were exposed, and at brag whenever a full was exposed; let the check be one cent or one dollar, the claims of the house were always the same. Out of this revenue the house was expected to supply its guests with liquors and cigars everything was done in a quiet and orderly manner. In fact they dared not do otherwise. The fear of detection and conviction held in check all who might otherwise have been disposed to be quarrelsome over their losses.
"The principal gatherings took place on Saturday evenings, when from four to five tables were in full blast. The hickory-bottomed chairs and pine tables used for the games were concealed in the loft overhead during the day, and brought out at night."
Faro was the favorite banking card game in the small towns. As played by the rural bloods the game was unlimited and it was difficult for the one who was banker to win. So small was the money he risked that he usually went broke in short order unless the cards ran well for him from the start.
Fancily dressed professional bankers, usually with Southern accents and the manners of plantation lords, as well as pockets wadded with money, toured the towns with all the proper paraphernalia in mahogany boxes blazened with the familiar royal tiger. Playing against a professional gave the local sports the feeling of being in the big time and the gambler played up by letting them win a few hundred dollars, ordering refreshments for all, nothing but the best cigars and liquor in town. The games broke up between ten and eleven with the local boys wishing their benefactor a fond good night as they trundled home with his cash. They regarded the newcomer as a generous and good sport, but no better than themselves at faro. In their confidence they ventured greater and greater sums on the fancy layout. The professional gambler's luck invariably seemed to change. He ended up winner almost every following night till he had got his own back.
The games grew longer, often lasting till daylight. The gambler still treated generously but now it was with his winnings. At this point good feeling turned to resentment and, as animosity rose, the professional gambler quietly and quickly left town.
The sting of losing eventually faded and the boys were ready to be taken the next time a soft-voiced gentleman came to town with a fat bank roll. The thought of the ivory checks in his box, the fine silver dealing box, the real faro layout stirred their blood again, and the well-heeled gambler with the cool, enigmatic eyes cleaned the boys out of as much money as they could raise before he wandered off to another town and other suckers.
As professional gamblers settled in one or another of the towns, in the early, inelegant days, they set up permanent establishments in houses on dingy side streets or alleys, in cellars, or even in hotel rooms rented for the purpose.
"Such articles as carpets, curtains or a side-board were unknown there," wrote an old sport. "It only required some chairs, and a few tables and benches, and to strew the floor with sand or sawdust. No liquors or drinks of any sort were furnished by the proprietor, except a pail of cold water. Many of them were, however, located convenient to some rum-mill, from whence refreshments could be ordered."
Flare-ups were frequent among the patrons, and profit-minded proprietors preferred to hire local bullies to keep the peace rather than to exclude quarrelsome players who might also be losers.
By the 1820s enterprising individuals began to open more lavishly furnished gambling houses catering to the polished-boot and ruffled-shirt trade in the South and East. When the violent anti-gambling tactics of the citizens of the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys propelled many of the gamblers north, some of them stayed over in Cincinnati and began to open better-class establishments.
They found a town that was not as disorderly as Louisville, Memphis, Natchez, or New Orleans, but one whose prison was pretty constantly crowded with gamblers caught cheating. They would occasionally teach a sharp lad their tricks while serving a term. Jonathan Green was one of these youths. In the Cincinnati prison yard "I learned the trick of the thimbles," he said in his later confessions.
Cincinnati had less to offer in the way of brothels and gambling hells than the other big river towns, but it did have innumerable "ten per cent houses" and could, in 1836, claim the dubious honor of being the home of the "wolf-trap."
As a professional gambler noted, " in no city in the union did [wolf-traps] flourish so extensively and in such number as [in Cincinnati], or were the resort of so many ruffianly and lawless characters. They were," he went on, "wherever a room could be found, and fitted up with a dozen cane-seated chairs, a faro table and a few other objects." In the Negro traps (where white men also played) no "check" games were permitted, as they were in the white traps. The Negro proprietor rarely put up a "snap" or even played against one. If the bank won he deducted 10 per cent; if it lost he did not charge. The banks ranged from one dollar to five hundred but seldom ran higher than fifty. Sometimes several persons would combine to stock a bank and all except the dealer would play against it. The moment one person went broke another venturesome sport would put up money for the next bank.
All kinds of people mingled in the wolf-traps: young bloods of rich families, artisans, unskilled laborers, local ward heelers, rivermen, steamboat passengers, traveling professional gamblers, petty thieves, and hoodlums. But Cincinnati law saw to it that no fortunate player was ever brutally slugged and robbed. Nor were suckers parted from their money through sharp dealing, marked cards, or crooked dealing boxes, since faro dealing in the 10-per-cent houses was generally honest. A sharp card artist would be frittering away his time and talents putting up money and running a bank among the pikers in a deadfall. The regular gambling houses offered better pickings and fewer dangers.
If the wolf-traps maintained fair dealing by the bank, here honesty ended. The stealing of chips, the paying off of less than the amount won, and "dropping a bet" were frauds commonly practiced. The last, one of the simplest ways to cheat the house at faro, usually was worked while the dealer made his turn for a card. With everyone's eyes focused on the dealing box, the cheater would drop more chips or cash behind the two or three cards nearest him if he saw that none of them could lose.
Gangs often duped well-heeled strangers by monopolizing the faro table, with one of their number acting as banker and the others pretending to try to break the bank.
The game was played on the square, but if the stranger happened to win heavily, one of the gang would leave the premises with the money the stranger had used to purchase chips, returning only if he got word that the stranger's luck had changed. If the stranger gave no signs of losing but some signs of leaving, the stand-in dealer would excuse himself on some pretext and not return unless he got a message that the stranger had lost back his winnings. If the dupe decided to cash in his chips, he was courteously told to wait until the original dealer came back, which, of course, he never did. Nobody in the room, it seemed, knew even the name of the missing dealer, so they all cursed uproariously. One of the gang whispered that he knew where the wanted man was and the two of them would find him and make him pay up. There followed so wearisome and fruitless a search that the desire for satisfaction would ebb and the poor stranger, who scarcely knew where he had started from, would want nothing but to get to bed. If he were of sterner stuff, he might persist, and the proprietor would eventually show up, recompense the victim, protesting that no one had ever been fleeced in his place before, and send the man off. For his services the proprietor usually drew 25 per cent of any money that had been taken from the stranger.
By 1850 Cincinnati was the largest city in the West, and wellequipped gambling rooms had forced most of the 10-per-cent houses to go out of business or upgrade their appointments and outlaw hoodlums. Proprietors of the costlier gambling rooms, all of whom paid police and politicians for "protection," complained that rondo and keno halls, where it was possible to bet as little as a dollar and which paid little or no graft to stay open, were undesirable competition.
The rondo resort on Fifth Street, owned by Joseph and Daniel Smith, was the first to feel the displeasure of the regular gambling room proprietors. George Devol, still only about nineteen but on his way up as a junior partner of the Smiths, wrote: we would be fined fifty dollars each once a month. Then they raised it to $100, and next to $500. This was just too much so we had heavy oak and iron doors put up; but the police would batter them down, and get us just the same. One night they surrounded the house, broke down the door, and arrested my two partners; but I escaped by the roof. The next day I went up to the jail to take the boys something to eat, when they nabbed and locked me up also. They put me in the same cell with Kissane of the steamer Martha Washington notoriety, who was living in great style in jail. They fined us $500 each and let us go, and that broke up 'Rondo.'" George cleared out of Cincinnati, but the Smiths, presumably having made peace with the police, opened up two months later and continued without interference.
During the Civil War, Cincinnati was headquarters for one of the Union Army's large departments. With the city crowded with army officers, soldiers, and paymasters, characters disposed to seek their fortunes by venturesome and questionable means accumulated.
Some of the riverboat talent, when steamboat traffic was curtailed by the war, transferred to the city whose laxness toward gambling establishments removed fear of raids.
"Bolly" Lewis, for almost twenty years a riverboat gambler, opened one of the biggest gambling houses in Cincinnati and, John Quinn writes: "One night an army paymaster dropped into his place, and before morning came the unfortunate officer had lost $40,000. This set Bolly to moralizing, and from that time he became a changed man. He gave up gambling, became a member of the church, and was prominent in all charitable works. He proved his penitence by restoring the $40,000 to the officer became part proprietor of the Gibson house, and when he died enjoyed the respect of the entire community." The story is a rarity in the annals of. gamblers.
Far more typical is the saga of Tom Mead, who flourished in Cincinnati during the halcyon war years. He started for California after gold in '49, but, according to one gambler, "found it more profitable to stop at Panama, where the miners who went by sea were crossing in a heavy stream, and opening a gambling house there. He caught them in a heavy stream coming and going, greatly to his own profit." He returned to the United States with a fortune and settled in Boston with the intention of living in ease and quiet. But Mead shot a man in Boston and decided that another city would be healthier for him, so he went back to Cincinnati and invested in real estate and three gambling houses, where he hired professional riverboat gamblers and prospered from then on.
With the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, Buffalo had become one of the great gateways to the West, rivaling St. Louis and Cincinnati. Like all such strategically placed cities, it grew, prospered, and gambled. By 1831 a thousand travelers were arriving and departing every day from a city thick with pugilists, whose favorite hangout it was up to the Civil War.
As prize fighting was neither accepted nor legal, fights took place behind the backs of the police and were generally staged at Long Point, a few miles out of town, and across the Canadian border. Slug fests were apt to be between an outstanding pug from the U.S. and an equally prominent bare-knuckle lad from Great Britain or Canada. Two Americans made history at Long Point when "Old Smoke" Morrissey successfully defended his heavyweight championship against John C. Heenan. Though Morrissey won only the $2500 side stakes in this, his last fight, his supporters increased their fortunes considerably.
Buffalo's proximity to Canada made it a comfortable place for men whose past gave them a sense of insecurity in the United States. Mingling and mixing with the rough and brawling Great Lakes sailors and Erie Canal men, these shady characters gave it a name as a "tough town." Gambling dens vied with brothels and saloons along Canal Street in the '30s and '40s for the customers' dollars. "Faro rooms," John Quinn recalled, "keno rooms, poker rooms and general gaming rooms, were as thick as sand flies, and ran in all their glory, in full blast day and night, without the slightest attempt being made to put the least check on this fascinating occupation by the authorities, many of whom were as deeply interested in it as the professional gamblers themselves." In addition to these rooms blacklegs carried faro layouts to the boardinghouses where canalers and sailors parked their ditty bags and gave the buys every chance to fight the tiger. And, as elsewhere, there was luxury for the bigger fish. During the war even the stabler Buffalonians were so gripped with excitement they took to gambling and the leading houses averaged $5000 to $20,000 profits a year. At openly run gambling rooms patrons could match wits against dazzling professionals like "Gentleman Bill" Carney, James McCormick, Timothy Glassford, Adam Clark, "Oat" Forrester and Reed Brockway.
Gentleman Bill was a native and well-born who took to gambling in his teens and by twenty was an ace faro dealer. For forty years judges, city officials, and rich businessmen were constant clients whom Carney frequently obliged by lifting the lid off the limit of his games. But if Carney had disappointed his parents, Carney's two sons ruined him. They inherited his fondness for drink and good times, so his great fortune evaporated and he died relatively poor.
In his heyday Gentleman Bill paid James McCormick $1000 a week plus a percentage of the house's winnings to deal faro. But life in Buffalo seemed too tame to McCormick after the war, so amassing enough money to retire and buy a string of trotting he moved on to New York, dealing or playing on the customer's side of the table wherever he thought the game was on the square, horses that earned him enough to dabble for pleasure in the game he once dealt for a living.
Like Carney's, Timothy Glassford's gambling house had a substantial clientele and was also honestly run. His success endured as long as Carney's and he gave himself a good time, but, unlike Gentleman Bill and most gamblers, Glassford left a proud estate valued at $80,000.
The Beau Brummel of Buffalo's old-time gamblers was "Oat" Forrester. According to a contemporary, "at times he wore diamonds worth $30,000." Buffalo's young men about town provided his faro tables with their greatest source of income, but long gambling hours and fast living ruined Forrester's health and impoverished him. He was forced to retire and live on, a sick man, dependent upon his daughter.
His hair-trigger mind and astonishing memory made Reed Brackway able to remember the order of cards despite the many turns in a game. One night in 1867 when there were six cards left in the dealing box he wagered $1500 on a king as the last winning card and added a $500 side bet with a spectator who doubted his wisdom. He was quite right and four minutes later Brockway was $2000 richer.
The halcyon days could not last forever. A year after the Civil War Buffalo's citizens pressed the Niagara Frontier Police to shut down all gaming establishments, and the police succeeded. Yet Buffalo's gambling history had been, according to Quinn, relatively clean for the times: "A search of police records of old gamblers fails to show that a murder, or very serious assault, ever occurred in a professional gaming house. Small rows in poker rooms, or in saloons connected with gambling rooms, and raids of gamblers, constitute the affairs chargeable directly or indirectly to gambling rooms - a remarkable record."