|Antiques Digest||Browse Auctions||Appraisal||Home|
The Big Fishes and the Sharks
THE violent and gaudy decades between the Civil War and the Spanish-American War saw waste and wealth, disillusionment and glamour - and the robber barons. In dustries were rising and ripening, and monopolies and trusts were formed and manipulated by relentlessly audacious opportunists. Legislatures could be bought and banks dominated by men who gambled for the highest stakes on the stock market.
Money meant success in life. Money was power and social glory. The wives and daughters of the new millionaires transformed American society into an aristocracy of wealth. A member of the old guard, John Armstrong Chanler, commented contemptuously: ". . , any wealthy California cad whose dad had struck it rich in the sluices or Chicago pork packer with his vulgar overfed big-busted hussies can butt in and have their ungainly boots licked by a sycophantic, Wall Street-dominated, Mammon-led press which daily exhibited their routs and antics to the public eye."
The routs and antics included endless parties, each designed by society's competitive hostesses to be bigger and better than those of their rivals, till black pearls were served in the oysters and hundred-dollars bills wrapped around the cigarettes. In addition to indulging the ladies lavishly and footing the bills for these fantastic goings-on, the men enjoyed themselves in even more reckless fashion. Many of them owed their fortunes to lucky gambles and their daily lives were exciting games of making their money make more money. The passion consumed their leisure as well as their business hours and they gambled like gods for preposterous sums.
Yacht racing fitted the times to perfection, for the late 1860s and early 1870s - the Flash Age - was a period not only of unrestrained speculation but of expensive sports.
In October 1866 a conversation at the Union Club in New York provoked Pierre Lorillard, Jr., into pitting his centerboard schooner, Vesta, against George and Franklin Osgood's Fleetzuing in a race from Sandy Hook to the Needles in the English Channel. Characteristically the owners wagered $30,000 on their respective yachts and James Gordon Bennett raised the ante another $30,000 when he asked to enter his keel schooner, Henrietta.
The first transatlantic yacht racers left port on December 11, 1866 on a bleak and heavy day, a plethora of side bets adding to the tension of the race.
Several gales and 13 days, 21 hours, and 55 minutes later, on Christmas Day, Bennett, aboard the Henrietta, sighted the Needles more than eight hours before the second ship, Fleetzuing. Bennett collected $90,000 and American yacht builders' business boomed.
The great gambling houses of the period were established to take some of this dandy money away from the cash-happy men with big fortunes and no taxes. New York City was a gambler's paradise. There was the unique and only Richard Canfield with his houses in New York and Saratoga and, second only to these, 818 Broadway, where fleshy, flashy Diamond Jim Brady could be seen perhaps along with Denman Thompson, an actor who made The Old Homestead the box-office hit of the era. Thompson thought nothing of dropping a week's pay during a session at the faro table and went overboard for more than $150,000 at 818.
It was at Davey Johnson's gambling house (not at Canfield's, as many people believed) that Reggie Vanderbilt celebrated his twenty-first birthday, while fellow Yale students watched admiringly, by losing $70,000.
Davey, who in his prime had a string of poolrooms and gambling establishments in New York, was a celebrated plunger on his own and handed $90,000 to the bookies when his horse Roseben was nosed out by Colonsay. His pain would have been greater if the horse had not already made him several hundred thousand dollars. Johnson, described by a New York newspaper as "the man who hates to give up," would risk his money against anybody else's for the joy of making a wager. Once he even put up $100,000 against a Rembrandt painting, the winner to be decided by a hand of faro. Freddie Hostetter, twenty-nine-year-old Pittsburgher whose family made the spiritous bitters still remembered nostalgically by our grandfathers, found a perfect gambling companion in Johnson. The roulette wheel got $200,000 of the $1,000,000 he tossed away during the last few months of his life in 1902. Johnson got the rest coolly matching pennies for $1000 a flip.
The fascination of roulette also enthralled Louis Ehret, heir to a brewing fortune, George Bennett, Pittsburgh distiller, Jesse Lewisohn, banker and boy friend of Lillian Russell, Francis Kinney, maker of Sweet Caporals, Percival S. Hill, president of the American Tobacco Company, Julius Fleischmann, manufacturer of yeast, Reginald and Alfred G. Vanderbilt and Payne Whitney.
The two Wormser brothers, leading Wall Street operators, were, like many of their kind, reckless with their money in a number of New York's gambling spots and were steady patrons of Canfield's Club House at Saratoga every summer. They were worldly men and foolhardy gamblers, obsessed by just one fear - being killed together in a train wreck -so they journeyed up and down the state on different days.
Elderly odd ball was Senator Edward O. Wolcott, who represented Colorado in Washington for twelve years, played heavy on the horses, gambled big on the roulette wheel, but had as his true loves poker and faro, which he would play cheerfully for fortyeight hours on end. The senator needed no cash. Canfield, who allowed Wolcott the special limit of $2000 on cases and $4000 on doubles at faro, never asked to see the color of his money and, on one of the senator's off nights, accepted his LO.U. for $60,000 without hesitation. Edward Wolcott died as he had lived, at Monte Carlo in 1905.
Another political gambler with a taste for faro was State Senator Patrick H. McCarran, of Brooklyn, whom Canfield permitted to bet $1000 on cases and $2000 on doubles, twice the normal limit. Win or lose, McCarran never handed out less than a $5.00 tip for the slightest service rendered him in a gambling house. One day in August 1902 he left $100,000 at the faro table in Canfield's palatial Saratoga Club House. In that same week Bet-AMillion Gates won $300,000 from the house between 10 P.M. and dawn.
Probably the most fanatic of all the faro addicts in the East were William Thompson, possessor of the race track at Gloucester City, New Jersey, and Joseph Seagram, the Canadian distiller. They often sat down to the same table at Canfield's in Saratoga to see who would be luckier at bucking the tiger with the usual limits often upped to $2000 on cases and $4000 on doubles. They were not unlikely to settle down to their games right after supper, gamble through the night and all the following day without a break. When they came away they might drive around the lake in a carriage or retire for a Turkish bath and a rubdown and a few hours later be back for another two-day bout.
The Dwyer brothers, Mike and Phil, originally butchers in Brooklyn, took to horse racing in the 1870s. It made them rich, and the more money they won the better horses they bought, at the same time operating race courses. They leased the old Prospect Park Fair Grounds Trotting Track for the pleasure of turf fans of Manhattan and Brooklyn (banning only drunks and pickpockets). So good was the attendance the Dwyers were encouraged to build their own track at Gravesend. Their horses made history: Raceland ("Old Bones"), Kingston, who won his ten starts, Hanover, who was out of the running only twice in fifty races and ran ahead of the field thirty-two times. Mike was the bigger gambler of the brothers and roulette was his weakness - he never knew enough to qua when he was ahead.
For prodigal betting, nothing after Canfield's place topped 33 West Thirty-third Street, handily close to the Waldorf-Astoria and known to addicts of high play as "The House with the Bronze Door." It was owned by a small, politically powerful group that included Billy Burbridge, Big Bill Kennedy, Gottfried Walbaum, and Frank Farrell.
Billy Burbridge, though the least accomplished member of the syndicate, was a capable professional gambler with money and a nose for knowing when to put it on a proposition.
Big Bill Kennedy had part interest in several notorious dens in the Tenderloin district whose profits enabled him to join the big-time gamblers and rise in their world.
Gottfried Walbaum, "Dutch Fred," may or may not have made his first money from a house of prostitution. Later he bought the Guttenberg race track in New Jersey, where it is quite possible that the results of many races were known before they were run. In 1890 he acquired a 90 per cent interest in the Saratoga track (later rescued from the taint of gambler influence by a syndicate headed by William C. Whitney) for the neat sum of $375,000, and this, coupled with his partnership in the House with the Bronze Door, made Dutch Fred a personage in gambling circles. His selfconfidence grew with his fortunes. At the track, where he had a reputation for giving bettors more liberal odds than other bookies, he generally won, boasting loudly, ". . . nobody can beat me. I'm just a sucker for luck."
In fact he was a sucker for the corniest, most obvious of swindles at his own track. Knowing that Walbaum would accept bets after a race began (which was not uncommon among bookies at the time), a track employee would post himself where he could get a telltale view, and if one of the horses had an imposing lead would high-sign his confederates to get money down on it before Walbaum could close his book. Walbaum never wised up and his sharp employees took him almost every time.
Frank Farrell had his fingers in a number of pies and was the brightest of the foursome. Himself fond of plunging at the races, he realized that thousands of fans equally horse-crazy could not go to the tracks. Though they could afford to stake only small amounts individually, the aggregate of their bets might be handsome. Accordingly, when his pal "Big Bill" Devery became chief of police, Farrell set up a chain of about two hundred fifty poolrooms in New York and its suburbs and became "King of the Poolroom Syndicate."
Devery was an ideal ally. He was probably the most notorious police officer in New York City's history, the subject of many a trial and target of more investigations into graft and corruption than any other Manhattan police official.-A syndicate to which he belonged distributed protection money from gambling houses to high-ups in the police force and to politicians. Farrell was a member of the unholy syndicate, as was Tammany sachem and State Senator Big Tim Sullivan. When a reform administration swept Big Bill out of office, he returned to the arena as an independent, anti-Tammany candidate far mayor, campaigning against graft. But the voters rejected this nonsense, so he set out with Farrell to get the franchise of the New York American League baseball team, later the New York Yankees, then known as The Highlanders. The team never won the pennant for the partners and made money only one year under their ownership.
During the first few years of its existence 33 West Thirty-third Street was an unpretentious, only slightly better-than-average place. Then Walbaum and Farrell gave Stanford White half a million dollars to make a beauty of it. White spent the money in Europe on oil paintings, velvet carpets, Persian rugs, and the famous door, which he found in the wine cellar of the palace of a doge in Venice, where it had been swinging since 1498. It cost $20,000, and the second-floor banister, which took ten master Venetian craftsmen two years to carve, accounted for another $60,000. Money was not stinted and the proprietors never paid less than $25,000 for food in any of the Bronze Door's most prosperous years - 1895 to 1902.
Before they could play, visitors were screened through narrow slits in a formidable second door. They were looked over further as they progressed through the first two rooms and if they did not pass muster were tactfully barred from going beyond. New York was theoretically wide open despite the anti-gambling laws, but there was always danger from agents of anti-gambling groups and reform-minded district attorneys.
The bronze door and rigid surveillance system paid off on the night when District Attorney William Travers Jerome led a raiding party to the premises. The door withstood blowtorches, and while Jerome and his hounds of the law sweated it out on the pavement, gambling paraphernalia and patrons, including Diamond Jim Brady, were taken out via a secret passage and over roof tops to a house down the block. A secondary exit, used on other occasions, was through a tunnel into the house next door, also owned by the proprietors of the House with the Bronze Door.
The celebrated and the notorious visited the house at 33 West Thirty-third Street in its palmy days, and one of the most renowned was "Lucky" Baldwin. He won his nickname in California, where luck was always his - when he hunted gold, ran a hotel and gambling casino, operated a vast ranch, played cards, plunged on the horses. He was already worth about thirty millions when he began coming East to Saratoga to race and bet on his horses, stopping over in New York to take a turn at the stock market and play faro at the Farrell-VValbaum house or John Baldwin's. Faro was his game and in 1871, it is said, he took $200,000 from Tom Van Brugh, proprietor of the El Dorado Club, in a single deal.
Lucky was in all ways a fearless man and he appointed himself bouncer of the big hotel he took over on Market Street in San Francisco. It was here that he made dice shooting as respectable as poker playing, setting aside a special room for it. Before this move dice could be rolled publicly only in saloons whose owners partitioned off cubicles so small that no more than four or five people could play. Baldwin set the vogue for larger and steeper dice parties, though they never surpassed the gatherings in the poker room. Here habitues included James C. Flood, the Bonanza King, and four Nevada senators, James G. Fair, John Percival Jones, William Stewart and William Sharon. These four had all made their millions from the Comstock Lode and they all adored poker. The biggest character among them was little William Sharon - his enemies called him a runt - a man of many talents and intrigues. He could quote Shakespeare and Byron by the yard, outmaneuver most men in business, finance, and draw poker.
Dice and poker made Baldwin's hotel so popular and successful that San Franciscans say he paved the lobby with gold pieces. He also opened an excessively ornate gambling house in Arcadia, California. The building still stands "a fantastic Victorian weddingcake," with even the stalls for the carriage horses constructed of mahogany.
Horses were generally treated well by Baldwin, since they generally treated him well. Volante, Los Angeles, and the bay Emperor of Norfolk were darlings of the Saratoga fans, above all Volante, until Royal Arch, a 10-1 long shot, outran the field. Volante, the 1-12 favorite, came in a few seconds later and even the wisenheimer bookies believed it was an accident and Volante would take the California Stakes the following year. He was the 1-20 favorite, Royal Arch again a long shot at 20-1. It was practically impossible to find bookmakers sucker enough to take money on Volante, and Mike Dwyer, gambler and horse owner, laughed for glee when he managed to put $40,000 on Volante against $2000. Nobody so much as smiled when Royal Arch beat Volante again. It was one of the few times when Lady Luck deserted Lucky Baldwin. On another, rare occasion a tout dashed up to him before a race one of his horses was running and declared, "I clocked your horse working out the other morning and I'm so sure he's going to win that I bet fifty dollars on him. I got big odds" - he grinned and waved the ticket - "fifteen to one."
"Here's fifty dollars," said Baldwin. "Give me your ticket and you bet this for yourself. I want to get back to the paddock to make sure the horse is handled right."
The-tout handed over his ticket. The horse won handily, but when Baldwin went to collect the ticket did not. It was counterfeit. It is eminently fitting that Baldwin's Santa Anita Ranch, one of the largest breeding farms of all time, is the site of the Santa Anita track.
A bronze door regular, "Pittsburgh Phil," whose real name was George E. Smith, was a slight, reserved man and one of the few who ever made a fortune out of the bangtails. He was a nemesis to the bookies, a god to small-time bettors, and one of the un- The Big Fishes and the Sharks 317 scheduled attractions at every major race meet in the East. Striding past the betting ring, he would raise a finger and say laconically to the bookmakers "a thousand" to be bet on the horse he chose. A few steps later it would be five fingers for five thousand more on the same horse. And so on down the line of bookmakers, betting between $25,000 and $50,000 on a race. His word was as good as a United States Treasury check -he never welshed if he lost.
When Pittsburgh Phil doped out his daily choices he overlooked nothing, not even the way the wind was blowing. (There had been a time when his betting was influenced by sentiment. That was when he had his own stable but he sold it when he caught himself backing his horses just because they were his, without regard to the facts.) His system was as costly as it was complex, with stable managers, grooms, trainers, jockeys, and private clockers organized to give him information, at fees that ran as high as $1000 a day and were well worth it. Bill Cowan, who accepted the largest bets of any bookmaker at the New York tracks, admitted that he paid out more money to Pittsburgh Phil than to any twenty other big turf bettors.
The hectic pace and high living of a natural winner-the round of wine, women, and long gambling bouts-took their toll. With not much longer to live, in an Asheville, North Carolina, tuberculosis sanatorium, wrote former newspaper man Gray Gorham, Pittsburgh Phil said to his doctor one night, " `Doc, how long will I live?' The doctor told him he had only 24 hours longer, then Phil bet him $10,000 he would live longer than 24 hours, and each wrote out his check and put it on the table by the bed. 24 and one half hours later, Phil died with the checks in his hand and a smile on his lips." He left an estate of two million dollars.