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The Biggest and Richest Gambling City
New York was a natural gambling town, as it was a commercial and financial center. Financial men all speculated heavily, particularly in railroad and canal stocks in the 1830s, but panic several times prevailed and bankruptcies and failures ensued.
New Yorkers were appalled when the bottom dropped out of the market in 1833 - but not cured. Two years later a bull market once more made the pulse of plungers beat feverishly, and a frenzy of buying and selling set in. That eminent New Yorker, Philip Hone, noted in his diary for October 14, 1835: "The gambling in stocks in Wall Street has arrived at such a pitch, and the sudden reverses of fortune are so frequent, that it is a matter of everyday intelligence that some unlucky rascal has lost other people's money to a large amount, and run away or been caught and consigned to the hand of justice.... The retail business in vice is quite out of fashion. Everything is done on a large scale, and a fellow is a sneak, who has not the soul to commit a crime of magnitude sufficient to ruin his employer, or to break the bank." Another New Yorker observed that "nine lose everything where one makes his fortune." The stock market was only one of various ways New Yorkers gambled.
New York's rise to greatness and notoriety was based on her superb natural harbor. Shipping helped to make her rich and in the nineteenth century caused intense rivalries, reflected in wagers on a handsome scale. Merchant shippers commissioned shipbuilders to turn out vessels so fleet that they could race along the commercial sea lanes. Boston and New York took special delight in these clipper-ship contests, backing their favorites with huge sums of money.
In the days before steam there was no prettier sight to New Yorkers than a clipper ship hoisting and unfurling its high, white, and many rustling sails to catch the wind and sail like a white-winged queen down the bay. And when a ship was on the last leg of her cruise news flashed from the lighthouse at Sandy Hook to the shore. Men in maritime circles and sailing enthusiasts flocked to the waterfront to watch the ocean-going packet come in.
A New York-bound ship often sighted other clippers racing their way to England or around the Horn to San Francisco, and intelligence of their position and time was eagerly received by New Yorkers who had big bets on them.
The heaviest betting took place, of course, among the shipowners, sailors, and land swabs who worked or loafed on the "Street of Ships," South Street, and along the rest of the waterfront. Hundreds of thousands of dollars changed hands when the Colunabus, George Washington, and Sheffield all left New York on July 8, 1836, and raced for Liverpool. The George Washington beat the Sheffield by barely two hours in a seventeen-day crossing; the Columbus arrived a day later. The following year the Colum,U1as raced the Sheridun on the same run with $10,000 standing in stakes on the outcome. This time she won handily by crossing in sixteen days, two ahead of the Sheridan.
Though the little two-hundred-foot packet Sirius, loaded with cargo and using a two-cylinder side-lever engine, crossed from London in March of 1838, and a few hours later the Great Western chugged into New York after a fifteen-day crossing, American sailing ships were built for two more decades and the height of the clipper ship era was in the 1850s. The discovery of gold in California spurred the captains to race around the Horn against time and provided New Yorkers with grand occasions to lay wagers on their favorites.
Rival merchants, shipowners, and ships' captains assembled at fashionable eating and drinking spots-the Astor House was the favorite in the '50s-and while they supped, argued the merits of their ships and laid sizable wagers that turned each voyage into a keen contest. The first great race around the Horn in 1850 involved the Houqua, the Sea Witch, the Samuel Russell, the Memnon, the Celestial, the Mandarin, and the Race Horse, bound for San Francisco from New York and Boston. Captain Arthur H. Clark noted: "All of these vessels had their friends, and large sums of money were wagered on the result."
The Samuel Russell broke all previous records by making the voyage in 109 days, eleven days faster than the best previous time. Its jubilant backers were ready to count their winnings, especially as the Houqua took 120 days. The Sea Witch, however, sailed into San Francisco harbor the next day, just 97 days after its white sails winged the ship past Sandy Hook. None of the others approached her time.
Again New York's waterfront wagered its all when the Swordfish sailed from New York and the Flying Fish from Boston, San Francisco bound, on November 11, 1851. The Boston clipper managed to run several days ahead until the ships rounded the Horn. After that it was nip and tuck up to the equator. At this point the Swordfish, which had fallen a day behind her rival, passed her and gradually increased the lead to arrive triumphant in San Francisco only 90 days and 16 hours after leaving New York. "It is said that Boston's waterfront contingent went broke when the Swordfish won this race," wrote Richard C. McKay.
The rivalry between Boston and New York was such that money for wagering was never wanting when the owner of a Boston clipper and the owner of a New York clipper were willing to test the relative fleetness of their ships.
The Hudson River steamboats also provided New Yorkers with exciting occasions for betting. As on the Mississippi, comfort was thrown to the winds in favor of speed. When Philip Hone took the Champlain from Utica to Hyde Park in 1834, she met up with the Nimrod and both boats burned everything they could to keep up steam as they raced madly down the river. Hone complained that at Hyde Park he and other passengers were "pitched ashore like bundles of hay" along with their baggage to save time.
The most spectacular of these races took place on June 1, 1847, when Commodore Vanderbilt pitted his Cornelius Vanderbilt against George Law's Oregon. The course, from the Battery to Croton Point and back, was only seventy-five miles, and the owners put up a modest thousand dollars apiece. But countless New Yorkers who stood rows deep along the river all day to watch almost all backed one or the other ship with cash. The captains had divested their vessels of furniture and carried minimum amounts of coal to make the run.
The steamboats got off promptly at eleven o'clock and raced furiously upriver, so close that the Cornelius Vanderbilt collided with the Oregon and greatly impaired her wheelhouse. The Oregon's coal supply gave out on the return trip and the captain ordered his crew to throw everything that would burn into the furnace-flooring, woodwork, anything. The Oregon arrived at the Battery one fifth of a mile ahead of her puffing rival, and George Law collected $1000 from Commodore Vanderbilt. Law paid many times that to put the Oregon back in shape.
New Yorkers' thirst for betting was insatiable. For thirty years before the Civil War they bet madly on foot races. Everybody followed them and debated them. In January 1835, John C. Stevens bet Samuel L. Gouverneur that it was possible far a man to run ten miles in an hour and, when Stevens found his man, the race was scheduled for April 24 at the old Union horse track on Long Island. Stevens offered $1000 to every contestant who ran the ten miles within sixty minutes and $1300 if only one entrant could perform this feat.
All New York bet and practically all New York showed up at the course. Hone sat with 'his son Robert in the family barouche "enveloped in the clouds of dust ... on the road to the race-course, jostled by every description of vehicle conveying every description of people." When they arrived, "The crowd on the ground was as great, I think, as at the famous Eclipse Race, and immense sums were betted by the men who find it difficult to pay their honest debts, and by hopefuls who have to square the amount of their losses from the reluctant pockets of father. ... At 43 minutes past one o'clock nine men started for the prize. They all came around the first three miles each within six minutes, and the first five miles were performed by five of the number within half an hour. They then began to give in and only three ran the whole ten miles. One man alone won the race, performing the ten miles in 59 minutes 48 seconds. His name is Henry Stannard, a farmer, aged 24 years, born in Killingworth, Conn., tall and thin, weighing 165 pounds.... He was not distressed by his efforts."
Hoboken's charms attracted lovers and foot-race fans. Here at the Beacon Course on a memorable day in November 1844, Thomas Jackson, the "American Deer," was favorite in a field of British and American runners. So great was the interest that the Spirit of the Times reported that "from the head of the quarterstretch quite around to the drawgate, the enclosed space was so densely crammed as to render it nearly impossible to clear a space wide enough for the pedestrians to run through, though they were preceded by a dozen men on horseback. Thousands filled the stands, but it would have required the amphitheatre of Titus to accommodate them all." Jackson disappointed his supporters and cost them untold losses by being unable to go on after the fourth mile. The $700 first prize went to an Englishman, John Barlow, who covered the ten miles in fifty-four minutes, twentyone seconds. The following year the "American Deer" redeemed himself by running eleven miles in sixty minutes to defeat Sheppard, the most famous British ten-miler.
Even more popular was "numbers," the old American sucker swindle, "policy," under a new name, which would realize a take of $350,000,000 a year in the 1930s and '40s. Through almost the entire nineteenth century the figures for policy play were based on lottery drawings. At various times figures have been taken from all sorts of sources: pari-mutuel totals, baseball scores, totals of the stock market, cotton market, wheat pit, and the like.
In its first and simplest form it is likely that policy originated in the lottery ticket shops of England where players idled while they awaited returns by betting among themselves that their tickets would be drawn that day. By the nineteenth century in the United States everybody took a swing at policy. Sharp ones with knowledge of the laws of probability began to take bets, however small, at odds that looked attractive to the uninformed in what was called "lottery insurance." After Charles N. Baldwin's exposure of the fraud involved, private lotteries became illegal in New York State in 1819 but continued to flourish with big drawings held once a week.
Runners, a fixed feature of lottery insurance, carried over to "numbers" with local characters acting as pay-off men for higherups in the organization. By the twentieth century elevator operators, cigar-stand clerks, and even office boys served as "numbers" collectors.
In January 1834 Philip Hone noted with relief that a law prohibiting lotteries in New York State had gone into effect the first day of the year. ". . , we are to have no more lotteries in the State and if the laws are enforced ... we shall be relieved of the most ruinous and disgraceful system of gambling to which our citizens have been exposed." Though most states had abolished lotteries by 1835, "exchanges" in practically all cities enabled people to buy tickets in lotteries held where they were still legal. The Kentucky lotteries drew the greatest play before the Civil War, and New Yorkers dropped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the packets of lottery agents. The gamblers and the sporting men who owned the "exchanges" generally received 12-per-cent commission on all tickets sold.
Though the law was precise as to the illegality of policy, as it was then called, public indifference in New York City permitted the exchange offices to carry on, and the streets were littered with losing policy slips after each major drawing of a Kentucky lottery.
The terms in use in today's numbers rackets were common before the Civil War: the biggest bait, adds as much as a thousand to one, enticed suckers to play a "flat-gig"-three numbers bet on to appear from the wheel in a specified order. A city detective in the middle of the nineteenth century presumed that the name "flat-gig" came "from the fact that it is played by nobody but fools, who are known in the dialect common to detectives and thieves as `flats.'
The Louisiana Weekly commented in 1937: "Lottery vendors say there is so much money played on 4-11-44 that it would break the Bank of Monte Carlo to pay off when the gig makes its appearance."
Policy was an audacious swindle, with the odds against the players, but it attracted all kinds of people because it required no skill, only pennies, dimes, and dollars. New York City newsboys were confirmed policy players for years. "A tradition," wrote Charles Loring Brace, "in the remote past of some boy who drew a hundred dollars . . . still pervades the whole body, and they annually sink a considerable portion of their hard-earned pennies in `lottery tickets.'
No absurdity was too great for the addict. "If one dreams of a house on fire, a horse running away, a ship sinking at sea, a bald-headed man or a monkey going up a cocoanut tree, straightway he rushes to play the numbers indicated," a reporter observed.
Policy players pored over dream books-Old Dinah's Policy Dream Book, The Book of Dreams, and the Wheel of Fortune described every dream imaginable and the policy combination it suggested. Then, with one policy shop available to every sixteen hundred citizens, they played their hunches. Local politicians as well as politically entrenched gamblers operated the agencies and gave them immunity from the police. A detective with thirty years' experience in New York described the situation: "Now and then a raid will be made upon these smaller concerns by the police, but if driven out of one quarter, it is with the understanding that they can set up in a new one if they choose. The proprietors are, many of them, small-fry politicians, very useful to the man who wants to be alderman or something else of his ward, and these are the very fellows who have plenty of time to do the dirty work . . . it is not supposed for a moment that an alderman or a member of the state legislature would permit himself to strike even his remote political ancestor, and so year after year this vice, like a hundred others, goes on undisturbed in our midst."
When one of the recurrent waves of reform produced An Act for the More Effectual Suppression of Gambling in 1851, most policy agents followed the example of gambling-house proprietors and suspended operations temporarily, but a fourth of them kept right on operating openly. New York City's Police Department was no source of peril to the law defiers. A member of the Association for the Supression of Gambling publicy and bitterly stated: "One of the magistrates declared the law unconstitutional, and for a time refused to issue warrants under it.
"The chief of Police was for a long time ignorant of the provisions of the law; and when made acquainted with them, declared it to be no more his business to execute it, than that of any other police officer, and declined to second our efforts in attempting to enforce a law, which by the oath of his office he had sworn to obey and execute."
On occasion when complaints were registered before the law, the accused were rich and powerful enough to bribe and browbeat their way out of trouble.
The reform forces were jubilant when one Charles Treadwell, who operated a policy shop at 147 Houston Street, appeared before a Judge Mountfort and committed himself under oath as being one of many agents working for John B. Frink, biggest policy operator in New York City and first American policy king. A warrant was issued for Frink and he was taken to the police station with his record books and papers. He claimed that he had given up his chain of policy offices as of August 1, when the antigambling law became effective. The judge permitted him to remain at liberty on his promise to appear in court a few days later to stand trial against any or all witnesses. Asserting that his records related to nothing but a contract with the City Corporation's street comissioner, Frink was allowed to take his books with him.
The reformers thought they had it made, but professional gamblers looked toward Reuben Parsons and smiled knowingly. Parsons, top gambler in the city of the time, was rumored to be the real power behind Frink.
Frink duly appeared and Charles Treadwell was the one witness called against him. When Treadwell was examined by the defendant's attorney, it was all too evident that Parsons or one of his underlinings had persuaded the witness to falsify his previous testimony. He coolly swore: "Mr. Frink has not to my knowledge anything to do with the office I occupy; I have never seen him pay me any commissions on what I sold; he was never in my place in his life; I was never employed by him to sell lottery policies. . . . I do not know as Mr. F. ever employed any one to sell policies; ... I had the money to pay the rent of the office of a boy called John, and if I were to be hung I could not tell by whom he was employed."
Frink appeared again and, again with a straight face, assured His Honor once more that he had gone out of business in compliance with the law. It was obvious that unscrupulous individuals were using his name in the now unlawful business of policy. The court could do nothing but dismiss the first case against the first big-time policy operator in the United States.
Gaming, too was big business in New York, with at least 24,500 persons directly engaged in it, plus landlords and owners of gambling houses-probably 6 per cent of the population. Penalties were low, only seventeen arrests made in a period of five months, and only fifty-nine indicted in the six years between January 1845 and April 1851 for owning houses of chance and winning money at gambling. Of these twenty-five pleaded guilty and were fined $5 to $250; none of the others paid any penalties whatsoever. However, occasional raids and arrests were made that closed gambling houses down for a night or two. Mayor Fernando Wood used token forays to build a reputation as a publie-spirited official.
Putting teeth into the law was largely up to local police captains, so proprietors generally arranged for protection by coming to terms with these gentlemen. A few could. not be bought. George Walling, who came up the hard way from patrolman to chief of the New York police, was such a rarity. In the eighteenth Ward, when he was its captain, he cleaned up gambling vigorously. "When first appointed captain, I was called upon by a professional gambler, who asked permission to open a gambling house in my precinct. I refused him in language more forceful than polite, and he was wise enough to think I meant what I said, and therefore did not invest any money in such a venture as proposed." In general the police could never enforce the law as long as the machinery of justice was controlled by politicians.
There were only three reasons why gambling establishments went out of business in New York City: lack of patronage, refusal to pay protection money to the police and render favors to politicians, and the roughhouse play of rowdies who wrecked the houses and frightened well-behaved customers away. The rowdies were a particular nuisance.
A gambler might come to New York and hopefully open a small den, clean, well plastered and papered, and fitted out with a sideboard, chairs, lamps, and perhaps writing desks. Being a stranger, the proprietor of this modest establishment might not know enough at first to engage the muscle and brawn of a local bruiser. But he soon would.
The den did not enjoy more than a few nights' play before a group of hard-looking buckaroos paid it a visit. One of two things happened. The strangers manhandled and chased all the players out of the rooms, took what plunder they could, and demolished what they could not, or else the hoodlums "bonneted" the gambler.
"Bonnet him!" The cry often rang down dimly lit streets, alleys, and in low dens of New York City. It was a signal among ruffians to knock a victim's hat down over his eyes and then rob him of his cash and valuables. If he resisted he was beaten mercilessly.
In new gambling houses the ruffians elaborated bonneting, threw blankets without warning over the heads of the proprietor and his housemen, then forcibly turned and knotted. The victims and his housemen. The blankets were then forcibly turned and knotted. The victims could do nothing while they were robbed but flail and gasp for air. The hoodlums were gone by the time the sufferers had pawed their way out of the blankets.
The police offered no protection against hoodlum gangs; they were too scared. And police graft went only to keep the law at bay, not for defense against toughs. So the gangs throve in all the corrupt cities in the North and were valuable to politicians at election time when they stuffed the ballot boxes and terrorized peaceful citizens with fists and brass knuckles.
Of all the wicked and bawdy cities New York was known as the wickedest. One terrified Vermonter, faced with the necessity of visiting Manhattan in the nineteenth century, . ... "made his will, and had prayers offered in the church that he might be kept from peril in the wicked city to which he was going."