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Gambling Palaces, Personalities, and Police
The New York Tribune summed up Patrick Herne as a gambler of "great shrewdness and of polished affability of manner" and the press rated him "the most interesting man of his class." At 587 Broadway his suite of apartments was filled "with fat subjects belonging to the more intellectual and wealthy classes." In this splendidly appointed den could be found New York's finest and gayest, members of the Livingston clan, the Jameses of Albany, the Costers of New York, from whom the Tribune declared that Herne "won not less than half a million dollars."
Patrick Herne claimed to be an Irish gentleman who had come to these shores about 1830 to tour the United States. In New Orleans his good clothes, ready money, and sporty inclinations made him a sucker target for several sharp faro dealers who took him till he had dissipated his large personal fortune.
Too proud to write home for funds, or return broke, Patrick Herne found employment in a New Orleans notary office. Reckless spending and his addiction to gambling cost him the job within the year. Since he loved gambling for its own sake, he determined to make it his means of livelihood. He wangled a job as an assistant faro dealer, but the manager spotted his talent for mixing well with people, his manners and education, and set him to work as a roper. Herne made such a success at this that he presently branched out and began to rope for other houses as well, and his cut of the profits helped him recover much of his lost fortune.
In 1840 Herne followed the trail of other New Orleans gamblers, after anti-gambling laws made that city less profitable to his profession, to New York, where his money made it possible for him to join Reuben Parsons and Henry Colton in opening several large and fine gaming houses. Nine years later he dropped out of the partnership to start his own sumptuous establishment at 587 Broadway, designed strictly for high-class suckers. Here men lost and were neatly braced out of large sums, but Herne, with his smooth tongue and affable ways, always managed to take the sting out of the misfortune. Even Jonathan Green, whose life was a testament to his loathing for gamblers, admitted: "Pat is eminently social in his feelings, which combined with a kind and generous nature, renders him a very agreeable companion. In all the exterior qualifications of a gentleman, he has no superior, and thus it is that he is universally esteemed by players of every description. We have known men almost ready to commit suicide in consequence of their losses sustained at his tables, whose feelings were so far subdued by Pat's kindness and civility, that they almost forgot their misfortunes, and left the room fascinated with its gentlemanly proprietor."
Not only the prosperous but also many has-beens availed themselves of Herne's hospitality. They ate, drank, and passed the evening in amiable company and when they were ready to leave, however late the hour, found Pat at the door bidding them goodby with a warm smile and a hearty parting handshake, like one gentleman to another. A coach was always at the door to take these broken-down gentlemen home at their host's expense.
A gentlemen who so far lost his pride as to beg or borrow continuously or to try to filch money from players was, however, persona non grata. The Report on Gambling in New York cites a case involving a sometime wealthy merchant so infatuated with faro that he borrowed small sums from friendly and generous players and tried to eke out a living at the game. "When he entered the parlor, Herne approached him and extended his hand in the most bland and affable manner, observed that he was very happy to see him and would esteem it a special favor if he would take a short stroll with him, as he had a matter of some importance to communicate. The sucker readily acceded, and Pat, politely offering his arm, walked with his friend to a fashionable drinking establishment, and taking a private box, ordered a bottle of wine. . . . . Herne observed that a number of men nightly visited his house, who were very obnoxious to the players, and who for their own interest, had better stay away, and therefore, he had determined to exclude them; `and now,' said he, 'Mr. S-, I am desirous that you should assist me-your own means being very limited, you had better not play, and if you would only speak to these men yourself, and set them the example, I have no doubt you could accomplish all I desire. You need not absent yourself more than two or three weeks, and then if you find your evenings hang heavily on your hands, drop in occasionally, and be assured that I shall be exceedingly happy to see you.' Mr. S agreed so heartily that he promised to absent himself for three months, at which Pat drank his health and "returned to his room to repeat the experiment upon some other unfortunate victim."
Herne's charm worked equally well on neighborhood rowdies, but with the law he used more substantial persuasions. "The money and presents which he secretly distributed among the police force in his ward, ensured him against interruption from these satellites, while he compromised with all blackmailers who tried to prey upon him, sooner than allow their snares to draw him within the meshes of the law."
The establishmerit at 587 Broadway never failed to yield handsome profits, but Herne, with his fondness for faro and fancy living, was always short of money. During the 1850s another gambler, Schuyler Halsey, bought a partnership with Herne and both men dissipated several fortunes an their dizzy rounds of the town and at rival faro tables. Herne was almost penniless when he died in 1850, while Halsey managed to leave $50,000 at his death five years later, a mere trickle compared to the immense sums that had run through his fingers.
Another good-natured gambling proprietor, "Shell" Burell, was tall, broad-shouldered, as stooped as a giant buzzard, and so quick-witted and friendly he had no enemies, ever: among other gamblers. His personal passion was roulette, but despite this he saved money and invested it wisely in city real estate. A visitor once asked Shell what limit he put on bets at roulette and the reply was characteristic: "Bet all you've got and if that isn't enough, get on the table and I will turn for you; but I must be allowed to put my own value on you."
In a different class was Jim Bartolf, for though his establishment at No.10 Park Place was vastly popular, it was nothing but a well-furnished trap where Jim, who knew every trick in a cheating gambler's book, could deal and fix cards his way in any deck or make the cards in a faro box win or lose as he pleased.
Jim allowed destitute and hopeless victims of gambling to frequent his establishment in order to rope in sucker prospects from hotels and bars or steer strangers away from other gambling houses to his place, paying the roper some 50 per cent of the amount he swindled from the victim.
Elbowroom at the gaming table was quickly found for the newcomer, where his every look and action tipped off the wise ones whether he had money and whether he could be taken for it. The stranger who had little cash or gambled like an old hand was left alone. Otherwise Jim signaled one of his boys to work on the innocent.
To the stranger who left the table ahead, a hanger-on suggested that he try his luck in the next room where there was less of a crowd and a chance for steep play (and if he'd lost but still seemed to have money the come-on was that he could recoup it). In the next room the old fox himself was waiting to cheat the unhappy man, with regular patrons who happened to drop in given the high-sign to leave. The lamb was taken to the slaughter then, for every dollar on his person.
When Jim was through he was through. He never gave a cleaned-out sucker a stake or so much as carfare home. One man, Gerald Spalding, sure he'd been cheated, went to the police when Jim refused him two dollars train fare. Jonathan Green tells the unhappy aftermath: ". . . strange as it may seem, the justice, pretending to suspect the complainant's motives, said he would hold him to bail to prosecute, was committed to prison, whilst the gamblers were not even arrested!" Spalding was released when he agreed to drop charges, and New York gamblers chuckled.
Like Herne, Reuben Parsons, who became, according to the New York Association for the Suppression of Vice, "the great American Faro Banker," started out by losing huge sums before deciding to turn the game to his profit. Not only was his business vastly successful but it also shaped the careers of numerous other eminent gamblers. Parsons rarely operated a gambling house himself, preferring to stay modestly behind the scenes while partners fronted for him. This New Englander Green described as "plain in his dress, and unassuming in his manners, associates but little with his class, and is seldom publicly seen in any of his gaming houses, of which, although the actual proprietor, he stands in no fear or danger of legal prosecutions, as it cannot be shown that he is the winner of a dollar."
Parsons, long believed to be the brains behind John Frink, the first Policy King of America, backed and gave a chance at the big time to a half-dozen more. So shrewd was he that almost all his ventures turned out well and he invested in more gambling houses and in real estate. In 1861 he went into retirement and lived quietly till after the war, when he caught the Wall Street fever. Wall Street was not Parsons's pasture and the ex-gambler turned out to be a lamb, easily slaughtered by the market bulls and bears who cleaned him out. He died flaf broke in 1875.
His closest friend was Henry Colton, and the two men were associated over twenty lucrative years. The most profitable gambling house they owned together was on Barclay Street-Colton's Gaming House-where John Frink had formerly had his place. Supper was served to all at half-past ten and the play became really lively after midnight. "The play is generally very heavy," Jonathan Green noted, "thousands of dollars changing hands before the game closes, which is usually after daylight. At the tables may be seen merchants, bank, insurance and merchandise clerks, together with lawyers, editors, authors, officers of the Army and Navy, politicians, office-holders, gamblers, etc.; and as fast as they get broke retire from the table, as though nothing had happened, (if they are old players) and form themselves into groups, for the discussion of business, politics and wine."
Colton, decidedly sharp and shrewd, was nevertheless honest in his dealings. Even the reformers admitted that if he "pursued a respectable business, no man would be more highly esteemed." Well read on many subjects, he was a walking encyclopedia on gambling games. Green paid him this tribute: "His knowledge of games is very extensive and so correct that his decisions are considered law, and of binding authority, and are quoted and adhered to in every gambling circle in the United States. . . . The game of faro . . . has been much modified by Colton." So astute was he that he invested in property and transferred it to his wife's name so lawsuits, which threatened him in 1877, were powerless to impoverish him.
During the '50s handsome Sam Suydam's gambling establishment on Barclay Street became a prime hangout of the big-time sporting men and politicians. Here professional gamblers took their busmen's holidays, for high stakes and nothing but cash, catered to by an extensive staff of servants. Suydam had worked as a youth in a bakeshop, quitting to become a first-class rowdy, adept at the arts of petty thievery as practiced by the Bowery B'hoy gang. His exuberance, nerve, and sparkling personality made him at home anywhere, and at eighteen (when he felt "fit for travel") carried him south, where he mastered the artifices of the professional gambler. He returned north in the fine clothes of a sport, though penniless, and began hanging around the gambling houses where Reuben Parsons, always on the lookout for personable young gamblers, was taken with his features and b.right disposition. Parsons instructed handsome Sam how to deal and manipulate cards, then put him to work in one of his faro houses.
A young house painter, Joe Hall, who made several incredible wins at faro, went to Parsons, with whom he was friendly, for advice on investing his money. Parsons suggested that he team up with Sam Suydam and take over a place on Barclay Street, with Sam supplying the talent, Joe putting up the cash. Hall and Suydam, as partners, had several prosperous years till Joe sold out to open a palatial gambling establishment on his own at 537 Broadway. He rolled up a fortune and managed to spread out as a gambling-house tycoon in the '50s and '60s to Washington, where he offered stiff competition to the Hall of the Bleeding Heart, and to Philadelphia.
But Hall's greatest contribution to American gambling annals rests on his house at 818 Broadway which would later be operated by "Old Smoke" Morrissey.
Hall's excess energy was devoted to horses, and "after [his trotting stallion] Lantern won an important race Hall had a silver bucket made for the horse to drink out of," the Tribune reported. Bad times are fatal to gambling-house keepers and with them Joe went broke, so that by 1874 he was "worn out and crippled and soliciting alms to keep him from starving."
The roster of tony gambling houses rolls on. Orlando Moore's at 256 Broadway was exclusive and intimate, no pikers, professional gamblers or men without means admitted. Moore and "Decator," his colored servant, passed on whether a visitor could have the privilege of gambling. A warning bell rang when a door to the foot of a staircase opened and Cerberus was ready for the visitor by the time he reached the head of the stairs. Decator had an uncanny memory for names or faces, and when he recognized "a playing man" the door swung wide to him. Supper was duly served at 10:30 but was modest, as Moore believed that his clients came to gamble, not to eat.
So obsessed with social standing was Moore that he spent all his fortune in his "desire to force his family into a circle of society closed to them in spite of his wealth and his family's education," in the words of the Tribune.
At Jack Wallis's gambling house on Park Place the respectable and the underworld met in rooms "frequented by men of almost every profession, including gamblers, thimble-riggers, thieves, pickpockets, watch-stuffers, pocket-book-droppers, &c. These men are nightly playing at the same table with merchants, clerks, lawyers, railroad-conductors, mechanics and other men who pursue an honest livelihood, and maintain a respectable character." The house had first been opened about 1838 by James Berry, a professional gambler from Cincinnati, and French Jose, a noted cheat from New Orleans who, said Green, "was compelled, by the present stringent law against gaming in Louisiana, to leave that city." Jack Wallis, a Chinese clerk in a mercantile house, fell victim to the gambling habit and spent his time in downtown dens till he became so adept he was hired as a dealer by Berry and French Jose and about 1847 managed to become proprietor, it was believed with Reuben Parsons's cash, of the Park Place establishment. Here games were on the level only when visiting professionals were trying their luck.
Another team, Willis and his partner, James Southall, looked to high-class and respectable ropers to bring in rich customers, as Green put it ". . . the men who are engaged in this kind of pigeoning or picking up of customers . . . pervade all classes of society ... [and] are scattered all over the city, living in hotels and private houses, most luxuriantly upon the avails of this kind of robbery."
The Tribune on August 19, 1850, elaborated: "...a few weeks since, two gentlemen who were on a visit to New York, for the purpose of buying merchandise, were introduced to the company of two gamblers, by a friend, also a merchant. The strangers, unsuspicious of foul play, were induced to play at hazard with dice, at a hotel in the Fourth Ward which has been heretofore considered highly respectable, when at various sittings, they lost to the tune of $3,000. Last Saturday night one of them commenced playing, and played until he lost all the money he brought with him, besides having to give due bills for the remainder. On telling their misfortune to one of their friends, a watch was set, and suspicion being aroused, the case was laid before judge Mountfort, who ordered the dice to be seized, when it was found they were loaded with quicksilver."
Simon-pure honesty prevailed at "Jack" Harrison's rooms on Park Place, and visiting gamblers preferred his tables to any others in the city. On March 10, 1850, Jack died in his gambling house, and before he was in his grave three sharpers, Stuart, Hamar, and Eldridge, had taken over. Stuart, the most forceful of the three, was a roughneck, formerly one of the Washington Market Boys, who as a gambler retained a warm interest in pugilistic affairs. He promoted the celebrated match when Tom Hyer beat Yankee Sullivan to a bloody, insensible pulp in seventeen rounds at Roach's Point, Maryland, on February 7, 1849. Hyer later bought into the partnership, despite the fact that Stuart had been Yankee Sullivan's principal backer. Hyer was a great draw for fight fans.
Honesty was dead and "crowds of fighting men, `Bowery Boys,' and other kindred spirits, frequent the house, and at times the scenes enacted here are truly hellish," wrote the ubiquitous Jonathan Green. "One of the peculiarities of this house is, that all the silver won, or otherwise obtained at the game, belongs to the dealers, and therefore none of it, under any circumstances, is paid to players. The game is played fairly, when there is no opportunity to cheat, and not otherwise." By now respectable businessmen avoided the place and professional gamblers were excluded. Hyer turned out to be more of a burden than an asset, squandering money recklessly till his partners bought him off. For a time he subsisted by terrorizing smaller gambling houses, but "others would not give him their money, nor submit to have their games broken up, unless he was disposed to go up against lead or cold steel - articles held in wholesome awe, invariably by your muscle expounder," wrote John Morris. Hyer came to the conventional end in 1864, when his friends and former admirers chipped in to give him decent burial.
One of Reuben Parsons's most astute investments was in Sherlock Hillman's gambling enterprise, which he induced Hillman to move downtown to Liberty Street. For the first time an A-1 gambling house operated in the daytime only, from 11 A.M. to 7 P.M., and for years enough businessmen found time during these hours to make the house successful. Hillman was spared the expense of meals since the men who gambled in the daytime seldom took time out to eat and drink. Encouraged by Hillman's venture, other "Day Gambling Houses" appeared in the Wall Street district, though none on so grand a scale, and became widespread after the Civil War. They were generally on the top floors of office buildings, their doors shuttered, their windows heavily curtained. Constant business traffic on the stairs cloaked would-be gamblers in anonymity. Proprietors often operated nightly establishments as well, uptown.
Speculators, trying to recoup their losses, had a poor chance in the day gambling houses, where most games were crooked. The stakes were generally low but the aggregate take of the house high. All gambling houses in New York were divided between small dens and classy, high-stake establishments where the gambler had a better break, as the game was often square, depending on the superior skill of the dealers for its profits. "In the second-class houses, the visitor is literally fleeced. Every advantage is taken of him and it is morally certain that he will lose every cent he risks. In the first-class houses, one can play or look on, as he pleases. In the second-class houses, the visitor who declines to risk something is in danger of personal violence. He will be insulted by the proprietor or one of his myrmidons; and if he resents the insult, his life hangs on a very slender thread. . . . The visitor is plied with liquor unceasingly during his stay in the rooms, and the losses of the unfortunate man during this period of semiconsciousness are frightful.
"Many persons coming to the city yield to the temptation to visit these places, merely to see them. They intend to lose only a dollar or two as the price of the exhibition," wrote an observer in 1868.
The so called "brace rooms," where only roped games were played, were the most disreputable of all. Only potential suckers brought in by ropers were admitted and the working personnel consisted of an "artist," a case keeper, three or four cappers and ropers. At the head of this fine crew was the "master sharper," usually a glib and superior roper who spent "the greater portion of his time hanging about hotels, coffee-houses, billiard rooms and other public places, hunting up `suckers' for the purpose of decoying them to his den to be robbed," wrote a nineteenthcentury sport. "The case-keeper is a man who keeps the case-box, and whenever the `artist' takes two cards secretly marks it up.... Each card as it is run off from the dealing-box is marked by the case-keeper. Suppose two cards are `taken' as one, the top one only being visible; the result would be, unless there were some means of letting the case-keeper know what the card was, he could not mark it; consequently the swindle would be detected at the end of the deal. But the `artist' is equal to this emergency. On the lower right hand end of the losing cards, as the pack lies before the dealer in the box, the denomination is indicated by a dot.... The moment the cards are dropped on the pile, the under card, being a trifle shorter than that above it, reveals its name to the dealer by the dot on its corner. By a system of telegraphing, as laying one finger on the end of the box, or on its middle, or one at each end, or two fingers in various positions, he lets the casekeeper know the name of it, who quietly slips up the button while the eyes of the `suckers' are elsewhere."
The roper cultivated a prospective victim with food and drinks, perhaps playing billiards with him. When the time was ripe, the roper took him along to the "clubhouse," boasting that he'd made a killing there the night before. The dupe would be welcome even just to sit and watch.
The doorbell of the brace den rang several times in quick succession and at the signal the personnel sprang into action, so that a genuine game of faro seemed to be in full swing by the time the roper and his friend entered the gaming rooms. "The dealer grumbles occasionally about its being a bad night for the bank, and affirms with an oath, that everybody's beating him. Some `capper' relates how a man went into some bank with a $5 bill and broke the concern, carrying off about $2,500. A drink or two having by this time been administered to the `sucker,' he is quite ready to acquiesce when his `friend,' passing over to him a stack of checks, addresses him with `Here's ten dollars' worth of chips; put in another ten with it, and we'll try our luck together, by jingo! We'll go halves, win or lose."
"The proposition is apparently a fair enough one. He puts in his $10 and loses. He puts in then another $10 to retrieve his first, and again loses, and continues to do so until he is cleaned out. When this is accomplished, the `cappers' generally withdraw, -and the game breaks up." A skillful "artist" might smoothly trim ten or twelve victims at one time in this way.
The sucker and his roper departed, with the roper shedding alligator tears over his victim's losses, then shedding the victim as quickly as possible so he could get back to the den to collect his cut. Division of the spoils was precise. "Ten per cent. goes to the case-keeper, forty-five per cent. goes to the `steerer'. . . . The fortyfive per cent. which goes to the house belongs to the proprietor; out of which he gives his `artist' his share, after the expenses of the establishment have been paid. This worthy gets generally twenty-five per cent. in the second-class skinning-houses. The cappers get only what the bank chooses to give them, three or four dollars each, according to the length of time they are employed, and that only in a long game with heavy winnings."
If there was danger that an important sucker might come back and make a row after lie sobered up, the house held the take for a couple of days, against this eventuality, when all or part of the money might be returned.
The wolf-trap, more than the first- or second-class gambling house, was public in every sense. Everybody was welcome to games of chuck-a-luck, twenty-one, or faro and even had the privilege of running a game with the customers banking, the proprietor taking 10 per cent of winnings and providing equipment and supervision. The stakes were rarely high, the places were bare, and frequently subject to the violence of rowdy street gangs. No proprietor stayed long in business without protection.
Most notorious of wolf-traps was 98 Barclay Street, with most of the sports attracted because there was always plenty of money among the patrons, the "most abandoned of society." Though blanketing s were frequent, oddly enough, no patron's table bets were ever robbed by invading ruffians, there being an unwritten law about taking only from the banker. In one day a record was established: eight dealers were blanketed and robbed successively at 98 Barclay Street by various gangs. The police left it severely alone - "A captain of police would as soon take his men into the heart of the Comanche nation, when all the warriors are on the `warpath' . . . as to enter 98 Barclay Street and arrest one of its patrons."
The Tapis Franc at No. 10 Ann Street was the one wolf-trap the city roughs rarely tried to break up. The proprietors were strong-arm buckoes who knew how to knock-em-down and dragem-out as well as the best. The management was also so well entrenched with the local gendarmes that it could be sure of a blue-coated rescue force the moment it cried: "Police!"