- Historic Sites
Nation Of Gamblers
Once seen as a vice and now as a public panacea, the national passion that got Thomas Jefferson in trouble has been expanding for two centuries
September 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 5
“I’m dad-gum disgusted at trying to police every half-square and every half-house,” Sen. Huey Long told a radio audience in Louisiana in May 1935. “You can’t close gambling nowhere where the people want to gamble.”
Dozens of casinos in St. Bernard and Jefferson parishes reopened the next day, after a nearly five-month hiatus.
In California, Santa Anita Race Track was in the midst of its second season in the summer of 1935. As sleek as a luxury ocean liner, it brought horseracing to the West Coast, whereupon a network of bookmakers brought it to the neighborhoods. “1 had a wedding at four o’clock yesterday,” wrote a minister from Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. “It was with no little reluctance that the bride’s parents turned off the radio which bore the news of their horses.”
Back on the East Coast, Harlem ministers reported that gamblers couldn’t wait to go to church. Once there they waited anxiously for the hymn to be announced, so that they could bet it, by its numerical designation, in the numbers game. That New York game was controlled by Dutch Schultz, a gangster who feast- ed upon such superstition, though one day when the winning number in his game came up 0-0-0, he was gunned downed by rivals.
Three weeks later the police in Grand Rapids cracked down by put- ting Mrs. Eleanor Girodat in jail. She had organized a bingo game to raise money for the Catholic Daughters of America.
That one year, 1935, served as a trial for Huey Long’s supposition that “you can’t close gambling nowhere where people want to gamble.” Every other year in American history has tested it as well and, so far, proved it.
The lines were drawn tightest around gambling in America in the nineteenth century, when the betting crowd was small and maverick, pushing around in search of “a place where everybody can do what they please, just so they don’t interfere with other people’s rights,” as a Reno man later said. The best that could be said of professional gamblers in those days was that some of them had nice clothes.
Some of them did not. In 1835 the upstanding citizens of Vicksburg, Mississippi, rose up in rage against the gamblers who camped along the river there. They went from shack to shack, chasing the bettors into the swamp, and when they found resistance at one dark place, they dragged five of its denizens out and hanged them from a tree. The incident was widely publicized, and it drew a line between good and bad in the gambling issue, for both sides to see.
Since that eerie night the line has faded. Gambling itself has turned from a social ill to a social remedy; the town today that tried to chase gambling interests out might trip over its own head.
Nothing in gambling has changed as much as have the gambling interests, the people behind it. They create the games, run them, and, in the process, define the bettors. Gambling interests include gangsters and syndicates, but also church groups, charities, corporation stockholders, Indian tribes, and state and local governments. The newcomers are at once part of the tradition of gambling in America and a departure from it. Vicksburg, as a matter of fact, is still chasing bettors down to the river—but only as far as the casinos lined up there.
The Puritans of Massachusetts lost little time in enacting America’s first law against gambling in 1638, and in 1682 Quakers in Pennsylvania passed their own law against gambling and “such like enticing, vain, and evil sports and games.” Other colonies, especially New York under the Dutch, were not so strict about private games, but all the colonies depended on one public game, the lottery, as a respectable financial tool. At a time when capital was scarce and taxation an extremely sensitive issue, lotteries supported most schools and public works. Harvard College resorted to lotteries for many capital projects until 1793, when the Stoughton Hall lottery didn’t raise enough money to pay the grand-prize winner, who was unsympathetic and caused a fracas.
Just before he died, Thomas Jefferson was planning to raise money by staging his own lottery, with most of the Monticello estate as the prize. As heartbreaking as Jefferson’s situation was (especially since it was brought on in part by gambling debts), the lottery was often used as a means of liquidating property when no single buyer could be found.
Early lotteries were comparable to today’s raffles in that players received tickets in order, rather than choose their own number. Tickets were very expensive at five, ten, or twenty dollars each; that is a lot of money for a lottery ticket even today, and in colonial days it was inaccessible to people of average or modest means. But they still wanted to play.