Steamboats & suckers: 'Go and sin no more!'
by Stanley Nelson - posted Wednesday, February 20th, 2013 @ 1:56 pm
Gambling had always been a steady pastime of the flatboatmen who kept Natchez Under-the-Hill buzzing during the late 1700s and early 1800s. Later, the steam engine changed the world of commerce and sparked a major industry on the Mississippi -- gambling.
The first steamboat to navigate the big river -- the New Orleans -- arrived in Natchez in late December 1811. Painted sky-blue, the steamer on that visit picked up her very first freight and passengers under-the-hill. Part of the owners' business plan was to capitalize on the New Orleans and Natchez trade.
Historian J.H.B. Latrobe, recalling the steamboat's first visit to Natchez, said she came into sight of town and then rounded to the Vidalia side before making a second run for the Natchez landing. Because the captain expected to remain docked for a day or two, Latrobe said "the engineer had allowed his fires to go down, so that when the boat turned its head up stream it lost headway altogether, and was being carried down by the current, far below the intended landing.
"Thousands were assembled on the bluff and at the foot of it; and, for a moment, it would have seemed that the New Orleans had achieved what she had done, so far, only that she might be overcome at last. Fresh fuel, however, was added, the engine was stopped, that steam might accumulate; presently the safety valve lifted -- a few turns of the wheel steadied the boat -- a few more gave her headway; and, overcoming even the Mississippi, she gained the shore amid shouts of exultation and applause."
Among the thousands in Natchez that day was Samuel Davis, a wealthy transplant from Philadelphia who owned plantations throughout the region and was the son-in-law of the Spaniard Joseph Vidal, the founder of Vidalia. According to historian J.F.H. Claiborne in his 19th century book on Mississippi, "Mr. Davis was the only man in the crowd that had the nerve to ship cotton on the first trip of the boat. The first cotton ever shipped by steamer from Natchez was shipped by him, and he was thought to be taking a very great risk."
Success came quickly for the New Orleans. After an initial investment of $38,000 to build the steamer, the owners netted $20,000 the first year. A reporter for Kramer's Almanac wrote in 1813 that the vessel, owned by Fulton and Livingston of New York, "performs a regular route from Natchez to New Orleans in three days (downstream), and returns in four (upstream). The passage descending is $18, and ascending $25." By 1820, the rivers in the west -- the Mississippi, Red, Missouri and others -- were being worked by 69 steamboats. The number grew to 557 in 1845, and a year before the Civil War, there were 735 in operation.
Before the New Orleans arrived in Natchez, the rivermen who delivered the goods downriver -- men who loved whiskey, women and trouble -- gambled in the various riverfront dives under-the-hill at Natchez and elsewhere. But the steamboat opened the river to the professional gambler who now didn't have to wait in the growing cities of Natchez and New Orleans for the suckers to arrive. Now they could travel the river against the current, and down again, and gamble on the boats or at the river landings.
Professional gamblers were not always easy to spot. Some resembled farmers or laborers although others wore the garb made famous in novels: knee-length broadcloth coats, a "headlight" (diamond) on the chest, fine leather boots and a European-made Jurgensen watch that cost $1,000. Yet professional gamblers, no matter the dress, had many things in common: they were con artists and cheats, often working together to beat a man out of his money with cards, dice or other devices in games of poker, keno, roulette, faro, three-card monte, rondo and so on.
Rich planters were the favorite targets. In 1832, a young Natchez man returning from his honeymoon sat down at the poker table and lost a bundle. To make matters worse the money wasn't his. It belonged to Natchez planters. The young man had collected it for them from merchants back east.
When he had lost the last dollar, the honeymooner was so distraught he tried to jump into the river. Among the men who restrained him was Jim Bowie, who had grown to manhood on the nearby Catahoula Parish frontier and would later die at the Alamo. Bowie had watched the honeymooner lose the last of his money and had noticed that one of the gamblers was cheating.
Bowie talked his way into the game and began winning. When one of the gamblers attempted to pull a card from his sleeve, Bowie pulled his famous knife and shouted, "Show your hand! If it contains more than five cards I'll kill you!" Six cards fell out as Bowie twisted the man's wrist -- a jack, a queen and four aces. Bowie claimed the pot, made sure the young honeymooner recovered his losses and pocketed the rest.
Professional gamblers like Tom Ellison once watched a planter "lose his whole tobacco crop in one night and get up and never mind it particularly. Many a time I've seen a game player just skin off his watch and ring and studs and play them in...I've seen them betting a bale of cotton at a crack, and it wasn't at all uncommon to hear an old planter betting his Negroes on a good hand."
During the years before the Civil War, the Rev. John G. Jones looked down at the steamboats below the bluff at Natchez and shook his head. The steam engine which transformed travel on the Mississippi also transformed ordinary people onboard, he said, and made many a man forget his faith and throw away his money at the gambling table:
"Vice, in all its most popular and fascinating forms, has ever been rife on our Southern steamboats," said the preacher, "and too many people look on a steamboat trip not only as a holiday from the ordinary business of life, but as a respite from the restraints of morality and the duties of religion."
One of the scores of steamers arriving at Natchez during the period was the H.R.W. Hill, which was out of business by 1860 after a boiler explosion that claimed three dozen lives and injured 20. When the H.R.W. Hill landed at Natchez in the months before the accident, renown Mississippi River gambler George Devol was onboard and had just filled his pockets with other people's money at the poker table.
Although he won hundreds of thousands of dollars in his lifetime, Devol died penniless. He had developed a trait common to all great riverboat gamblers: cheating. And his favorite targets were the wealthy river planters who often were suckered easily and completely.
Devol wrote about his cheating and gambling escapades in a book called "Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi" (1887). He and other gamblers were described in 1896 by Cole Martin, who along with another gambler, once cheated a young Devol out of $2,000: "It's very pretty to read about, but the real thing was not so nice. The black-eyed, black-mustached hero gambler that you read about was anything but a hero. There was no chivalry in his nature, and he was ready for any dark deed that would profit him. Of course I am speaking of the professional gambler, for everyone gambled; if they had not done so the professional's occupation would have been gone. The chivalrous ones were the young Southern planters, reckless, but not mean, who would play the full limit and get fleeced."
The son of a ship's carpenter, Devol was a native of Ohio who ran away from home when he was 10. He worked as a cabin boy on a steamer and soon became entranced by the professional gamblers. He learned how to play the many games of cards and chance, and, just as importantly, became a master of reading men.
When aboard the H.R.W. Hill docked at the Natchez landing, he smoked on deck as many passengers went ashore. A short time later, a man came up and told Devol, "I did want to play in that game today, but I dare not as I have my family onboard; so if you play tonight I want to sit in." Devol said he realized "this man was crazy for a game." Two hours after supper, the man showed up at the gambling room and there found Devol and two other gamblers at a table. What the man didn't know was that Devol was working with the other two gamblers.
"I nursed him like a baby," said Devol. By the time the gamblers had taken hundreds of dollars from him the man's wife walked up. Devol said "she made him quit and go to bed. I was sorry to see such an angel leave the game; but such is luck. I found out that he was very rich, but had married the money."
Devol was even known to entice ministers into games and take every penny they had. Afterward, he returned the money and offered a piece of advice: "Go and sin no more!"