- 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
Independent operators gave them a chance by offering an “insurance policy” on any specific number involved in the lottery. A policy number cost only a few cents, and the proceeds benefited the operator solely. It had nothing to do with insurance in the regular sense, except in one dismaying aspect. Around the turn of the twentieth century, Metropolitan Life and other reputable companies reported that in poorer neighborhoods more than half their life and health insurance policies were lapsing because customers were spending their premium money on “policy” numbers.
Policy players chose their own lucky numbers and learned the winning number through the drawing in the established lottery. Policy games had the same parasitic relationship to the lotteries that bucket shops had to legitimate stock markets, both offering parallel gambling experiences for the lower classes. Bucket shops allowed people to gamble on the fluctuations of market prices without actually investing in a company. The margins were so fantastic that a customer could buy ten thousand dollars’ worth of (fake) stock for one hundred dollars. If the stock market went up in price on the legitimate exchange, the bucket-shop customer made money in proportion. In practice, though, the bucket shop was less of a gamble than a con game, with a sticky spider web of margin systems that could ruin anyone. Such operations survived until the Great Depression made something of a mockery of the bucket-shop theme.
When lotteries were banned throughout America between 1830 and 1860, the policy game stumbled, but it flourished more than ever after a West Indian man devised a way to base the winning number not on a lottery result but on three digits of some mundane financial figure published in the daily paper. In this way policy grew into the numbers game that continues to this day.
During the late eighteenth century, card games were enjoyed as a fashionable after-dinner alternative to music in private homes in the Southern and Middle Atlantic colonies. When Abigail Adams, a New Englander, visited Philadelphia in 1791, she was aghast: “I should have a winter of dissipation indeed, if I accepted all my invitations to routs [big parties] and teaand-cards.” One of the best cardplayers in Philadelphia was Mary Morris, wife of the financier Robert Morris; another was Lucy Knox, whose husband, Gen. Henry Knox, was Washington’s chief artillerist. The games of loo and whist were the most common in such circles.
A typical colonist in attitude was the untypical man George Washington, who was content to gamble at cards all day, especially if it was raining out. According to his ledgers—and assuming that in this one specific case a gambler’s own records can be trusted—he broke even overall, despite a stinging stretch from January 1768 to April 1769, when he never won once, and lost a total of twelve pounds, ten shillings, and threepence.
Even during the dire winter at Valley Forge, Washington worried about the gambling among his troops.
As a soldier, however, Washington had far greater problems with gambling, that by the men in the ranks. In 1756, when he was the leader of the Virginia militia, he was warned that he would lose the support of the Virginia House of Burgesses if he could not do a better job of controlling gambling among his men. During the Revolutionary War, as commander in chief of the Continental Army, he issued vehement orders against all “games of chance,” but the fact that he had to issue such orders regularly indicates the frustration he faced over the issue. Even at Valley Forge, where men were freezing and going hungry for lack of supplies—or, especially at Valley Forge, where morale was so low among the troops—gambling was rampant, and it was a keen concern for General Washington.
The favorite game among the soldiers was “toss-up.” One player, (say, a sergeant) called heads or tails (say, heads) as the other threw a handful of wagered halfpennies in the air. When they landed, the sergeant gathered up the ones facing up heads, and the other player took all the tails. No one could stop a game so simple that it required only spare change and boredom, not where both were in good supply.
As the country expanded, each new advance in transportation brought a new chapter in gambling history. Transportation lines attract professional gamblers because they offer easy avenues of escape, along with a continuing supply of travelers burdened with large amounts of cash. Turnpikes, canal houses, riverboats, Great Lakes ships, and railroads all developed distinct traditions in gambling. The automobile brought a great deal of this to a halt simply because it precluded chance contact, the very elbowing among hundreds of people that brings about the games. Even today, teams of three-card monte players wander through the cars of Chicago el trains, acting out parts written for them a hundred and fifty years ago.