- 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
While Bishop Cannon was trying to explain the difference between speculation and gambling, leaders of the Catholic Church in America were reinforcing a belief that gambling is not a sin but rather, according to the chancellor of the Roman Catholic diocese in Cincinnati, “a legitimate amusement or recreation because it is intended as a necessary relaxation of the mind.” Throughout the thirties bingo, raffles, and Monte Carlo casino nights became important sources of fundraising for local Catholic churches; a 1938 Gallup poll showed that more people gambled at church games than at any other legal or illegal form.
The Roman Catholic Church, both the institution and its adherents, was closely aligned with European traditions, including those of gambling games. Because of this and the fact that, as one church representative said, “there is no eleventh commandment against gambling,” the church did not fight it as a fundraising activity for local churches, which were sorely burdened during the Great Depression.
Catholic churches undoubtedly used their gambling revenues for good, charitable causes. Conservative Protestants took a dim view of it, however, and they lashed out at church gambling as the thin edge of a wedge that would legitimize gambling and other vices. “I find it impossible even in my weakest moments,” wrote Richard Emrich in the Christian Century , “when the financial needs of the church are most pressing, to imagine St. John, St. Paul or St. Peter running a bingo party or our Lord sending out his disciples to sell chances. And I shudder at the thought that some young person might say, ‘It’s all right to gamble. We do it at church.’ ”
One church representative declared: “There is no eleventh commandment against gambling.”
The moral attack on gambling in America became divided among denominations and over which aspects of gambling reflected “legitimate amusement” and which were “evil circumstances.” Any prospective gambler could walk through the loopholes that opened up in the argument, and obviously a great many did, without for a minute compromising their religious ideals or their intentions to go to heaven.
Championed by ambitious politicians and hampered by greedy ones, the legal assault on gambling progressed in fits and starts through the first half of the twentieth century. Among those who leveled broadside attacks were the New York City district attorney William Jerome; the New York governor Charles Evans Hughes; the Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson, and the New York governor Thomas Dewey. And Sen. Huey Long (who was alleged to have taken a cut of the illegal slot-machine revenue in Louisiana) used the state police to close down gambling casinos there until two local political bosses visited him at his hotel, according to New Orleans newspapers, and let him know that if he kept the ban on casinos, he would receive no further political support from St. Bernard and Jefferson parishes. Two days later Long went on the radio to reverse his position on casinos. He concluded, “I’ll be dad-gum if it ain’t a puzzling thing what to do about gambling.”
Gambling interests could have said the same thing about politicians. “Those guys want it all,” said a casino manager in New York City in 1913. “Last week, on top of the regular $250, they learned I’d trimmed a guy from Atlanta for $2,500 and demanded half of it. How can a fellow be square with them crooks robbing him?”
In 1956, when the mayor of Reading, Pennsylvania, called off his own antigambling drive nineteen days after he took office, federal officials stepped in and forced a major raid on slot-machine operators, one of which, the Reading House tavern, was found to be the property of the mayor’s brother. The title had only recently been transferred out of the mayor’s name.
Elected officials have assumed first rank in the monumental problem of corruption, and it would be hard to blame a Reading policeman for taking a bribe in the prevailing atmosphere of 1956, especially if it happened to be tendered by the mayor. Police are, however, the second half of the corruption issue. The New York City police department, as an example, was about fifteen years old when the state legislature first investigated its ties with gambling operations. In 1892 the police superintendent was pressured into admitting that the department was thoroughly corrupted by gamblers’ money —but not without adding the strange boast that despite the bribery, he had “obtained more years of convictions against criminals than the detective forces of Scotland Yard, Paris, and Jersey City all put together.” In 1912 Lt. Charles Backer was at the head of the department’s vice squad, and his association with the degenerate influence of criminals was so advanced that when a key witness was on the brink of implicating the squad’s system of graft, Becker had him murdered on the street. Becker was eventually executed in the electric chair. Corruption scandals have rustled through the department every ten years or so ever since, but the amount of money involved seems to have been irresistible in the interims.