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To Reform is as Human as to Err
IN the Western United States, where gambling had had a pretty square history, reform was at first aimed less at outlawing than at keeping it on the level. Early in the century New Mexico and Arizona experimented with legalized gambling, each device paying $500 toward public schools and general funds. The results were disappointing. Herbert Asbury reports Governor Herbert J. Hagerman of New Mexico as saying: " some of the games as played here afford the player 150% less chance of winning than similar games afford in the larger gambling establishments of Europe, which pay enormous dividends to their stockholders."
This revelation caused Arizona as well as New Mexico to slap heavy fines and jail sentences on anyone connected with gambling, including patrons. Two years later Nevada followed suit.
In California the two major cities declared for virtue immediately after the turn of the century. San Francisco particularly, was in a bad way when Fremont Older, the fighting editor of the San Francisco Bulletin, fired the first gun in 1901. The Golden Gate city was in the grip of a heinous political machine headed by Abe Ruef, who had in his power Mayor Eugene Schmitz, a former bassoon player and orchestra leader tagged "the smallest man mentally and the meanest man morally that ever occupied the Mayor's chair." Thanks to the Ruef, Schmitz combine underworld leaders and corrupt businessmen plundered the city, their guiding principle, as one historian summed it up: "Encourage dishonesty, and let no dishonest dollar escape."
When the traffic in graft became too flagrant and the wide-open conditions too intolerable, two public minded citizens, millionaire Rudolph Spreckels and James D. Phelan, a former mayor of the city, joined editor Older in his crusade, each man putting up $50,000. Through President Theodore Roosevelt the reformers got William J. Burns, the famous U.S. Secret Service detective, and Francis J. Heney, an able government attorney, to work for them.
They were thwarted by the San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906, which reduced much of the city to ruins and stalled any possibilities of political investigations. The machine turned the catastrophe into another source of quick and dishonest revenue in city contracts to utility corporations and business firms.
These carryings on made the reformers so indignant that they whipped thousands of citizens to the polls in 1907 to vote Schmitz out and the reform candidate, Dr. Edward R. Taylor, in. Gambling houses and brothels everywhere except along the Barbary Coast closed down immediately after Taylor was elected.Ruef, Schmitz, and more than 380 people were indicted on evidence rounded up by Burns. An appalling wave of violence marked Ruef's trial. Older was "kidnaped" on a warrant of doubtful legality and carried off to Santa Barbara. An ex-convict shot Francis Heney in court when he revealed the felon's record in an effort to disqualify him from serving on the jury.
Heney survived but he was incapacitated for a long time and Hiram W. Johnson took his place. By his successful prosecution of the case Johnson laid the foundations for his later career in politics.
In spite of his vigor only four people were convicted and only Abe Ruef went to jail. He was sentenced to fourteen years in San Quentin for bribing a city official to vote his way in return for a trolley franchise.
Up to this point the reformers had the citizenry squarely behind them, but they did not stop here. They went on to expose the "big fry," equal in guilt and responsibility for municipal corruption because they paid bribes to the politicians. These were the pillars of San Francisco society and they brought editorial, political, and financial pressure to bear in order to keep their dealings with crooked politicians secret.
The leaders of the reform movement were ostracized socially and attacked by the press. As a result P. H. McCarthy, better known as "Pinhead" carried the 1909 elections. The prosecution of graft trials came rapidly to a halt and the gambling houses and brothels opened their doors, while Pinhead devoted his time to encouraging the United States Government to hold its Panama Canal celebrations in that "Paris in America" San Francisco.
McCarthy was abetted in his rule by Jerome Bassity and Police Commissioner Harry P. Flannery. Bassity, whose real name was Jere McClane, was uncrowned king of the Barbary Coast and owned more brothels than anyone else in the city. In 1906 Bassity, who liked to do things in a big way, had gone into partnership with Madame Marcelle and built a flesh mart on Commercial Street, planned to have a hundred rooms (rather like box stalls) so a hundred women could oblige as many customers at the same time.
The grand jury had tried to stop Bassity, but the gala opening on December 17 was sensational with food, drink, and girls on the house.
Police Commissioner Flannery owned the Richelieu Bar, where Kearny, Geary, and Market streets meet. Flannery got a year in jail in 1917 for selling liquor to soldiers in uniform.
The election of James Rolph, Jr., in 1911 to the first of ten terms he served as mayor before going on to be governor, was the beginning of the end of wickedness in San Francisco. The bordellos and the dives went out of existence.
In 1910 Los Angeles had its reform epidemic and such gambling houses as there were - never very many - either shut or operated in discreet privacy. Horse racing was a local passion, but when an anti-betting statute was enacted Santa Anita closed down. Commented Willard Huntington Wright (S. S. Van Dine): "Puritanism is the inflexible doctrine of Los Angeles." The impuritan minority of Los Angeleans could, nevertheless find handbookies, frequently at the nearest cigar stand, to take their bets on any horse running in the United States or Canada and so survived till their town grew large and sinful around them.
Los Angeles struck it rich in oil, Hollywood, the celebrated climate, movies, cheap railroad fares, and the development of the automobile conspired to attract oil riggers, promoters, and land speculators. Along with them came cheap floozies and hightoned harlots, con men, gamblers, and hard-boiled crooks. Vice and crime rackets spread and Los Angeles began to experience the problems that give big cities economic, political, and social headaches. By the end of World War I puritanism was no longer the charter doctrine of the City of the Angels.
The rulers of the local underworld, familiarly known as the "Combination" or "Syndicate," arrogated power, and by the 1920s were hand in glove with top police and had husky links with the district attorney's office. A well-informed newspaperman commented: "For many years, the racket men in charge of gambling, brothels, bookmaking and slot machines operated cozily in a pleasant profit-sharing basis with law enforcement agencies."
Train travel was on the increase, trips were more frequent and longer and more luxurious as the shining rails spun a network between the East and West: Gamblers, even more adept than the "greyhounds" who worked transoceanic liners, turned to riding the rails. The greyhounds, lineal descendants of the Mississippi River sharpers, had several days to make friends of their victims before moving in for the kill, but the train gamblers had only hours. They developed a modus operandi effective in a short time: a team of two would pick its pigeon before he boarded the train or soon after, according to his look of affluence, the length of his trip, and his air of gullibility. The ideal timing for a game was late at night when fatigue weakened those processes that psychiatrists call the inhibitory mechanisms of the brain (the reason why the police generally interrogate suspects at night).
Will Irwin, in his Confessions of a Con Man, describes the process: "At about two o'clock in the morning our [victim] would be sound asleep. Louis would step up to him, take the train check from his hat and drop it on the floor. Then Louis would shake him and say: `Is that your check down there?' By the time the sucker had picked up the check and thanked Louis, he'd be wide awake. Louis would be so pleasant about it, would have such good stories to tell about people who lost their tickets, that the sucker would stay awake to talk. In half an hour or so they'd be established on a cordial basis. Then Louis would give me the office to come along."
Having been awakened from sleep, the sucker had less power to resist a game and less inclination to protest if he caught on to the fact that he was being cheated. The card sharks could be fairly sure that he would not be familiar with the laws governing gambling on trains and therefore vague or doubtful about registering a complaint with the train personnel. "If the sucker started to report to the conductor, Louis would say: `Don't you know it's a thousand dollars fine or six months in jail for gambling on these trains?' "
When complaints piled up, the Pullman Company gave orders for gatekeepers and conductors to refuse passage to known sharpers, and porters were told to be on the lookout for drawingroom games. The company even stopped selling cards, but nothing prevailed against "friendly games" of poker and bridge.
Chicago, railroad center of the U.S. and a giant switch yard for cross-country travel, was always a gambling center. Even a conscientious superintendent of police who raided and closed down all known gambling joints in 1910 couldn't do much under the ineffectual laws. "The average fine for gambling," he said ruefully, "was $4.30." After paying the fines gamblers got off scot free.
However, the sport of kings didn't fare so well in Illinois. The bookies were driven out. They countered by building a track about thirty miles from the state line in Porter County, Indiana, where authorities were unconcerned, until Governor Thomas R. Marshall went into action. In his autobiography Marshall wrote, "These gamblers assumed they could run these races, get away with them and the money, and that I would give as an excuse that I was absent from home [campaigning for the vice-presidency]. They also assumed that as a candidate I would be afraid to antagonize the sporting fraternity of this country. Therein they made a mistake. I ordered a company of the militia from South Bend to proceed to this race track, keep a platoon of soldiers, day and night, with fixed bayonets, across from the track, and let them run into the bayonets if they wished. They liked money but they did not like cold steel, and the gambling ended for that time."
Marshall was no sooner elected Vice President that he was sued by the race-track owners for damages. Their lawyer had incautiously forgotten that no executive can be held personally answerable for damages incurred by using militia to uphold the law and enforce what he believed to be the best interest of the people of his state.
In Midwestern, as in Eastern, spas, gambling was a major attraction. The waters of French Lick, Indiana, were widely publicized for their cure-all qualities, but they never relieved the fever to play poker, faro, Klondike and craps. Games were operated by professional sharpers who made a very good thing of separating visitors there for health from their spare cash.
Women especially reveled in the slot machines, while a poolroom enabled horse fanciers to bet on the races. The games, said a reformed gambler, were "not on the square and the gambling devices [were] fixed to cheat the player." The slot machine was rigged to win 80 per cent of the time; the use of loaded dice was common. But of them all Klondike was the biggest trap. An electric battery was usually hidden under the table where the Klondike layout was spread out. Magnets were installed in the dice and by manipulation of wires to the battery could be made to fall as the house deemed expedient. A copper wire ran through a leg of the table to a brass screw in the floor to complete the circuit and carry the current. The houseman could always lift the table and show suspicious suckers that there was no mechanical device attached to the table to rig the game. Then. he put it back on the screw and the house went right on exercising its electrical domination of the dice.
Marked cards were useful for poker, and faro banks were assisted by an electric "snake" that could snake a card far more subtly than even the smoothest dealer's hands.
West Baden, a mile and a half from French Lick, was almost as infamous as its neighbor in its glaring disregard of the law and the way local officials countenanced gambling. State officials found their hands tied, as the county was dominated by Tom Taggart, an honorable man and ex-chairman of the Democratic National Committee when William Jennings Bryan ran for president, but also proprietor of a French Lick resort and a controlling factor of West Baden.
Hot Springs, Arkansas, known in the 1900s as the "Monte Carlo of the Middle West," offered faro, roulette, stud and draw poker, pinochle, cribbage, Klondike, dice, slot machines, and betting on horses. An expert wrote: "There is not a club on the square."
In November 1910 Judge Woods was elected on an anti-gambling platform and, despite wails that Hot Springs would go bankrupt, shut up the lot.
The Ohio, Southern, Illinois, Arkansas, and Missouri clubs all stored their gambling tables and gear and prepared to wait it out till a more tolerant administration came in, since judge Wood made it obvious that pay-offs to the "right" politicians would not prevent police interference while he was in office. Contrary to the gloomy predictions, Hot Springs did not go bust. Tourists and health seekers merely found other pastimes.
When Woods went out, gambling came in again but on different terms; it was respectable and it was on the square. There were no poolrooms, but handbook operators cheerfully accepted any amounts of money on any horses in the United States, Mexico, and Canada. The cigar store just opposite the Arlington Hotel did a booming business in Daily Racing Form charts, and near at hand were always individuals willing to oblige by giving a tip or taking a bet.
In cities like Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo, before World War I, gambling, along with whisky and white slavery, was the target of a great movement supported by prudes, fanatics, and honest reformers.
Mammoth tents were pitched on local fairgrounds near the cities. For a month or more at a time daily religious services were held where reformed gamblers shared the platform with do-gooders and evangelists. The meetings wound up with earnest entreaties for sinners to step up and take the non-drinking, non-gambling pledge.
So popular were the demonstrations by reformed gamblers on ways a sucker could be taken for his money that they had to be repeated three or four times an evening to oblige the crowds who wanted to learn the inside and out of the gambler's cunning and be educated not to bet on the next man's game.
Even after the evangelists delivered their last exhortations and the gamblers gave their last demonstrations, folded their tents, and headed for sinners in the next town, anti-gambling fervor ran high. Ministers and local civic leaders would pressure the authorities to raid local dens of chance and smash slot machines and paraphernalia they seized.
Ex-gamblers and their fellow traveling preachers were engaged by communities to fight vice. In July 1911 John Phillip Quinn, after being on the road almost a year in Canada and the Great Lakes region with Methodist minister W. C. Ashby, made Canton, Ohio, a stop on his circuit. Canton could not get enough of Quinn and he lectured on through August, by which time the citizens were convinced that their town was a hotbed of wickedness. A committee was appointed to rid Canton of gambling and other sin spots. Wrote Quinn: "The city officials said that they did not know of any gambling going on in Canton, yet we obtained the evidence of five gambling houses in existence within a block of the city hall . . . one afternoon Sheriff Oberlin raided two of the largest gambling houses in Court Street, which has been notorious for its gambling for the past twenty years. Three wagon loads of gambling paraphernalia were taken, and after the cases were disposed of, a nice little bonfire was made."
Virtue was triumphant for only about a year, and then the Reverend C. W. Recard, pastor of the United Brethren Church, described gambling as the "cancer crime of Canton," and said, "Gambling is the bottomless pit among the slime holes and its mouth is open in Canton. The city is known among the good and wise to the ends of the earth as the home of McKinley. It is also known in a great circle of shysters whose fingers are always pointing to the purses of others. To these it is known as a safe retreat and a fat pasture."
Once more Quinn and Ashby secured evidence against Canton's dens of chance. One of them, over the Arcade Saloon on East Tuscarawas Street, was averaging $1500 a day, three hundred days a year. The sheriff made ninety arrests without the help of the police chief, who had been instructed by the mayor: "Tell the sheriff to go to hell."
Again in Oil City, Pennsylvania, Quinn and Ashby teamed up with a Committee of Three and found that one house of chance was open on Sundays and also sold whisky so that its patrons frequently profaned the Sabbath by getting soused. Quinn and Ashby reported numerous gambling houses and that it was not unusual for patrons to drop "two weeks' wages at one sitting."
In Franklin, Pennsylvania, the two investigators found young boys in poolrooms playing pea pool for nickels and dimes. The usual adult game was poker and the usual ante twenty-five cents, with a dollar limit. The biggest game met above the public library, and there players could lose $400 to $1000 at a poker fest.
Back East, on the sophisticated coast, gambling was to suffer a dramatic setback in the lead city of New York. In 1912 the Becker, Rosenthal case, in which the murder of a gambler exposed the widespread bribery of New York's finest and the tie up of politics and gambling, gave the reformers almost more ammunition than they knew how to use.