Gambling in the Old West

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Gambling in the Old West

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Gambling cowboy studied today

Postby Kit В» 17.11.2019

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As towns sprouted in the 19th-century American West — outside Army forts, at river crossings along wagon trails, in mining districts and at railheads — some of the first structures built were recreational facilities.

Recreation for the almost totally male population inevitably meant the triple-W vices of the frontier: whiskey-drinking, whoring and wagering. Saloons, brothels and gambling halls would appear almost overnight.

In the early camps, the structure might be only a lantern-lit, dirt-floored tent, the bar simply a board stretched between two whiskey barrels, the prostitution facility just a cot in a wagon bed for the use of a single female strumpet, and the gambling outfit only a rickety table, a few chairs and a greasy, dog-eared deck of cards. As the towns grew and prospered, these primitive facilities were replaced by one-story wooden buildings with false fronts to make them appear even larger.

And if the community developed into a city, saloons were housed in imposing brick buildings with ornate bars, huge back-bar mirrors and brilliant chandeliers.

The best-known sporting men of the West presided over and patronized gambling houses that were often the most impressive and elaborately accoutered structures of the cities. The popularity of gambling in the West can be attributed mostly to the fact that all who left the relative safety and comfort of the East to seek fame and fortune on the frontier were, in a sense, natural-born gamblers. In the early West, gambling was considered a profession, as legitimate a calling as the clergy, the law or medicine.

During the year period prior to the Civil War, gambling flourished in the towns along the Mississippi from New Orleans to St. Louis and was a staple attraction on virtually every riverboat. This golden age of gambling produced some of the most memorable practitioners of the art — legendary professionals like Charles Cora, J.

One of the popular gambling games of the 19th century was a bluffing game that evolved into American poker. Another, vingt-et-un twenty-one , introduced into the United States through the predominately French community of New Orleans, we now call blackjack. Still another was Mexican monte. But undoubtedly the most popular gambling game in the West was faro, which drew its name from the Egyptian pharaohs depicted on the back of the cards.

The foremost faro player on the Mississippi was Italian immigrant Charles Cora. Bryant, perhaps the best-known professional gambler on the lower Mississippi, lost thousands to Cora. Jimmy Fitzgerald and Charles Starr were early standard-setters of the sartorial splendor that became a hallmark of the to professional gamblers plying their trade on the river. Their expensive black suits and boots were offset by snow-white ruffled shirts and dazzling brocaded vests.

Huge rings adorned his fingers. The discovery of gold in California and the resulting rush of attracted many of the paddle-wheel and Mississippi River town gamblers to San Francisco, the new El Dorado of the West. By the early s Portsmouth Square, the center of the City by the Bay, was ringed by large gambling houses where the doors never closed and enormous sums changed hands over the tables.

There was the Parker House, originally built by its owner, Robert A. Parker, as a hotel, but quickly converted to a casino as the gambling craze swept San Francisco.

A large room downstairs contained three tables for faro, two for monte, one for roulette and a seventh for any other game desired. It was estimated that at the peak of the California Gold Rush upward of half a million dollars was stacked on the tables of the Parker House on any given day. As indicated by the several French names, some of these establishments were owned and operated by gambling syndicates from France, a country long known for its love of gaming.

As mining camps sprang up and grew in the hills surrounding San Francisco, the gamblers followed. Soon elaborate temples devoted to the goddess Chance were running day and night in Sacramento, Columbia, Nevada City and other Sierra boom towns. Among the former Mississippi riverboat gamblers who gained prominence on the California scene were Cora and Bryant. In San Francisco Cora continued to enjoy remarkable success at the faro tables, but luck completely deserted him after he resolved a difficulty with U.

Marshal William H. Richardson on November 18, , by shooting him to death on a San Francisco street. Shootings and stabbings were common occurrences in the city, and had this murder been committed a few months earlier Cora might have escaped punishment on the ancient claim of self-defense.

But violence had reached such proportions in the city that residents were calling for reorganization of the Vigilance Committee that had been so effective against the criminal element in In that year vigilantes had executed or banished from the city many miscreants, and now, five years later, they felt another no-nonsense cleansing was called for.

They tried Cora, found him guilty and on May 22, , hanged him from the roof of their headquarters building. After his arrival, he had purchased the Ward House, refurbished and renamed it the Bryant House, and soon became one of the most prosperous and influential men in San Francisco. In , when the first election for sheriff was held in the city, he ran for the office. Bryant sold his gambling house and moved on to the outlying camps, where he was financially successful.

He resumed his gambling operations in the South and continued to prosper, but at the end of the Civil War he found himself destitute, as his wealth was in worthless Confederate currency. One of the suckers took offense and in shot him dead. With the s came the great mining excitement of the fabled Comstock Lode in Nevada.

Most of the gambling activity in the Comstock was centered in Virginia City and nearby satellite communities. As in San Francisco, gambling houses dominated the main streets of the new towns. At the height of the boom an agent of the U. Geological Survey, studying recreational opportunities in Virginia City, found that the town of 18, had a gambling house for every inhabitants.

The best known of the many resorts in Virginia City was the Gentry and Crittenden Gambling Saloon, which featured a no-limit faro table presided over by the famous dealer Hamilton Baker. Gold Hill and Carson City were also outstanding towns for the sporting element during the Comstock bonanza years. One of the most important events of the late s was the completion of the transcon-tinental railroad.

When the railroad pushed on, most of these towns disappeared. The sporting crowd simply loaded their tents, shacks, whiskey barrels, cots, gambling equipment and other paraphernalia on flatcars and moved to the next location at the end of the line. But a few points remained as permanent communities, and today the cities of North Platte, Neb.

Most of the honky-tonk crowd who preyed on the railroad construction workers during this period were forgettable small-timers, but a few went on to prominence among the gambling men of the West. When the steel rails at last spanned the country, many of these sure-thing gamblers continued to work their swindles on railroad passengers, using the rail center of Omaha as headquarters. They joined a large contingentof other crooked gamblers who formed the lowest echelon of the profession.

Gambling, with its basic get-rich-quick appeal, had always attracted a criminal element. When I stake money, it is a sure thing that I win. Smith got his start and his nickname from a scam he developed in Leadville, in the Colorado Rockies.

Manipulating three walnut shells and a pea on a board, he would induce the sucker to bet on which shell concealed the pea, when in fact it was under none of them, for he had palmed it.

When that racket grew old, he devised a new scheme based on the same principle that the hand is quicker than the eye. Of course, none of them contained any bills, because he had deftly palmed them in the wrapping process. The decade of the s saw the advent of the great trail drives of Texas Longhorns to the Kansas railheads and the birth of the notorious cow towns of Abilene, Newton, Wichita, Ellsworth and Dodge City. All became great gambling centers during their early days, and some of the most celebrated names in Western history are associated with this period.

Joining them were other professional gamblers whose names are remembered today for their gunfighting notoriety: Doc Holliday, Ben Thompson and Luke Short.

It was no accident that many of the top-flight gunfighters of the Western frontier were members of the sporting fraternity. Tough, steel-nerved young men who had acquired gunfighting reputations either in personal difficulties or as boomtown lawmen found themselves in demand as dealers in gambling resorts.

There were two reasons for this. First, gunfighters of renown attracted patronage, as miners and cowboys were quick to seize the opportunity to match wits and gambling skills with frontier celebrities across a green felt table. Second, since the open display of large piles of cash was a constant attraction for criminals of all sorts, ranging from sneak thieves to holdup men, the mere presence at the tables of famous personalities known to be adept at the art of the draw and shoot discouraged any attempt to steal.

The s also saw more ore strikes and additional mining districts. All three became gambling meccas, and their names have been associated with some of the most famous Westerners of the 19th century. Leadville, 10, feet high in the mountains, blossomed almost overnight into the largest city in Colorado, and at one point its boosters attempted to wrest the state capital away from Denver. At its peak, gambling opportunities were afforded in more than resorts ranging from small saloons to elaborate theaters and concert halls.

Tombstone blossomed into a major city in the Arizona desert almost overnight and attracted many prominent professional gamblers, including Masterson, Holliday, Earp and Short. The leading drinking emporium in the boomtown was the Oriental Saloon. When gambling became so popular in the Oriental that it adversely affected business at the other resorts in town, a group of competitors hired Johnny Tyler, a gambler of some gunfighting notoriety, to lead a gang of toughs into the Oriental every night, start a ruckus and intimidate patrons.

The Oriental owners retaliated by offering Wyatt Earp, who had acquired a gunfighting reputation of his own, a quarter interest in the business if he would handle Tyler and his cohorts.

This squad of gunfighting luminaries was too much for Tyler, who soon left town, and the Oriental returned to its air of decorum and its profitability. Soon Bat Masterson and Luke Short also departed Tombstone — but not before Short had killed Charlie Storms, another well-traveled professional gambler of note, in a famous gunfight.

Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday stayed on to gain immortality for their participation in the most celebrated Western showdown of all, the so-called Gunfight at the O. Holliday also joined Wyatt in his vendetta ride to avenge the murder of his brother Morgan and the crippling of his brother Virgil.

They left Arizona as fugitives wanted for murder, but they returned to their gambling profession and were never tried. As great cities grew in the West during the s, gambling emporiums grew with them. San Francisco, where gambling had flourished since the first days of the California Gold Rush, now harbored the Barbary Coast, a sin center of worldwide notoriety.

Of course, along with the prospectors and mining men who flocked to the Klondike were members of the sporting crowd, the same types who had been early arrivals at every boomtown in the West since the Forty-Niners first arrived in California. They opened saloons, brothels and gambling houses and did a flourishing business separating the miners from their gold dust.

Some of the most colorful professional gamblers of the American West made it to the north country. Wyatt Earp was there. He made and lost a fortune, owned and lost two gambling houses, and made another fortune.

It was in the Klondike that he first began promoting prizefights, an enterprise that would lead him into worldwide celebrity as the promoter of the multimillion-dollar-gate bouts of the s featuring heavyweight Jack Dempsey.

Goldie lost it all back later when Square Sam, supplied with fresh funds by admirers, cleaned him out. William F. The crooked gamblers seemed to congregate in the north country at the port town of Skagway, where, under the leadership of Soapy Smith, they relieved new arrivals and departing miners of anything of value. There were still a few wide-open gambling towns after the turn of the century, most notably the boom mining camps of Nevada, particularly Goldfield, Rawhide and Tonopah.

He lost. When he contracted pneumonia and died in Rawhide, Herman W. Knickerbocker, a defrocked Methodist minister, delivered a moving eulogy to the famous gambler.

CFL’s Mike Rose calls cowboy culture a "conspiracy theory" at Calgary Stampede! - Keean Bexte, time: 5:48
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