THE RIVERGATE home | contents | appendices | cd-book Cover

appendix 3

gambling in louisiana, it's a tradition!
topline2.gif (123 bytes)

by abbye a. gorin and wilbur e. meneray

Enlarge this image

I. Gambling, Part Of Louisiana From The Begining Of The Region 

John Law, a Scotsman, professional gambler and advisor to the regent Philippe of Orleans, had a grand plan to populate the French Louisiana colony in record time and make a fortune for himself. Philippe, reputed to be a gambler himself, caretaker of an Empire that was 64 million livres in debt, was an easy get-rich-quick mark for Law. At the same time, Philippe gave Law aid and encouragement.

Law's fraudulent scheme called for combining the Bank of France and a land speculation company called the Company of the West. In 1716, he signed a contract with the government of France, blessed by Philippe, allowing him to establish a private bank which provided him with all the credit he needed. The plan was 1) to induce noblemen and rich middle class businessmen to buy shares of stock in Louisiana land and to purchase some land for themselves, 2) to entice the poor of Europe to become engagés (hired field hands for the Company or for the concessionaires). Law promised shareholders prosperity when gold, silver, diamonds, and pearls were found in the New World. He supported his "shares" with nothing but promises. He was inundated with speculators.

Flexing his political clout the following year, Law replaced the governor of Louisiana, Jean Michiele (Governor 1717-1718), with the man of his choice, Bienville, who began his second term as governor at the age of thirty-seven (Bienville's first term, 1701-1713).

Paupers, prisoners, and prostitutes were sent to populate the colony and to start the flow of wealth to the stockholders. The first wave of immigrants was dumped on Biloxi Bay, and if they didn't die first, were picked up by Bienville for settlement in New Orleans and other parts of the colony.

John Law's career ended when the bubble finally burst in October 1720. The French national debt had swollen from 64 to 130 million livres. Bankrupt, the "shameless manipulator" fled Paris in a borrowed coach with escorts provided by the Duc D'Orleans. Louisiana's first Grand Scam is also known as "le Mississippi" or the Mississippi Bubble.

The Creoles of Louisiana following in John Law's footsteps were addicted to gambling. Social life centered on private parties that featured dancing and gaming.

II. "Temples Of Chance" In The New State Of  Louisiana    

In 1823, (Louisiana became a state in 1812) the Legislature formally legalized various forms of gambling. Six "temples of chance" were licensed in New Orleans with the proviso that each would contribute $5,000 annually to the Charity Hospital and to the College of Orleans. Gambling dens, kept open all hours of the day and night, were patronized by bandits and gamblers who filtered into New Orleans in the wake of honest farmers and traders who came down the Mississippi River on flatboats to sell their wares.

By 1835, the fears and concerns over the adverse social effects of gambling convinced Louisiana legislators to repeal the licensing act. New laws made keepers of gambling houses subject to fines from $5,000 to $10,000 or imprisonment from one to five years. In spite of new laws, gambling proliferated in New Orleans and South Louisiana.

John Davis, an émigré from Saint-Domingue, introduced big time gambling to America. His gambling palace offered "free meals and drinks" as long as one played. Davis put up a complex of buildings on Orleans Street, between Bourbon and Royal Streets: the Davis Hotel, the Orleans Ballroom, and the Theatre d'Orleans. It is said that Davis could lodge you, feed you, amuse you, and fleece you, all in one city block.

III. Horse Racing -- One Bankrupt Promoter, Another In Financial Trouble

The Metairie Race Course had its beginnings in 1838. As the cotton and sugar planters of the lower Mississippi Valley were becoming the nation's leading economic force, the course emerged as the South's leading race track. Governors, mayors, senators, business and professional elite, and everybody who was somebody, or nobody, went to the Metairie track.

Richard Ten Broeck, a promotor from Albany, New York, took over the track in 1848. He refurbished the grandstand and built special stands for the ladies, complete with parlors where they could retire for rest between races. The Metairie Course reached its apogee in 1854. The ambitious Broeck over extended his dreams of fortune and fell into financial disaster; the Course was put on the block. A group of Louisianians purchased the track and reorganized under the name of the Metairie Association. When the Civil War broke out, a portion of the racetrack was converted into an army training camp for a short time.

At the end of the war, a new consortium of investors reorganized the track under the name of the Metairie Jockey Club and carried on from 1865 to 1872 when the association became plagued with financial troubles. Neither renting the track for prizefights nor leasing to an independent racing operator succeeded.

By 1872, the property was on the block again. A group of investors with the intent to build a cemetery purchased the old racetrack and converted it into a cemetery which is known today as Metairie Cemetery. The oval shaped track became the basis of the landscape design and is included in the portion of the cemetery worthy of a place on the National Register of Historic Places in the United States.

IV. 500 Gambling Halls, 4,000 Jobs, And No Revenue For The City Of New Orleans

About 1840, New Orleans had slightly over 40,000 inhabitants. Castellanos (1827-1896), a criminal lawyer, judge of the Criminal Court in New Orleans, and historian, stated that the cause for the abnormal proportion of criminal offenses to population size was gambling which attracted swindlers from every part of the country. Efforts to curb the "gaming evil" failed because the menace to society was tolerated, legalized by State authority. In 1840, New Orleans had an estimated 500 gambling establishments employing over 4,000 people and generating virtually no revenue for the benefit of the City.

V. A Street Named Craps

New Orleans even had a street named Craps. As the story goes, the wealthy Creole, Bernard Marigny (1775-1868), who on his return home to New Orleans from schooling in England, introduced an intriguing game played with two dice.

The mutual dislike between Creoles and Americans provoked name calling. The Americans called the Creoles "Johnny Crapaud;" crapaud in French means frog, because Frenchmen ate frog legs. When the Americans saw the frogs huddled around playing, they called it Johnny Crapaud's game. The Americans took an interest in the game and named it crapaud. The word was shortened to craps, and craps it remains. But the street named Craps was changed to Burgundy Street on 20 November 1852.

VI. Pre-Civil War Riverboat Casinos

In the mid 1850s, McGrath and Company opened a casino on Carondelet Street in New Orleans renowned for "elegance and a variety of services." Other such luxury businesses followed. By mid nineteenth-century, riverboat casino gambling was an institution. Between 1835 and 1861, some 700 professional gamblers made their living on the Mississippi River from St. Louis to New Orleans.

Louisiana's secession from the Union in January 1861 and the Civil War halted casino operations as martial law was imposed in many parts of the state. Riverboats were pressed into war-time service. In New Orleans a volunteer company of professional cardsharps, pretending to serve the Confederate cause, was known as the Wilson Rangers. When ordered out to drill, they galloped to the back of the city where the commanding officer issued the order: "Dismount! Hitch horse! March! Hunt shade! Begin playing!"

VII. Post-Civil War Lottery

The Louisiana Lottery was the brain child of a New York syndicate operator Charles T. Howard who moved to New Orleans in 1852. The carpetbag legislature of 1868 was eager to license gambling, and it is reported that Howard spread around $300,000. The Louisiana State Lottery Company, New Orleans based, was licensed for a twenty-five year, tax-free "ticket gambling" monopoly, obligated to donate $40,000 a year to New Orleans' Charity Hospital.

In the first year, the Lottery's profit was in excess of $1 million. Hamilton Basso said that the Louisiana Lottery "gave New Orleans a fine opportunity to increase its reputation for wickedness and corruption!" The drawings of the infamous Lottery company were honest, but the company considered all unsold numbers as belonging to the company. And if one of those unsold numbers was drawn, the company was the "winner." In order to keep its monopoly on this lucrative endeavor, the Lottery bribed numerous state officials and legislators and minimally extended its support to the levee system and schools. In spite of public opinion and newspapers denouncing greed, the Lottery charter survived the repeal efforts of reform-minded legislators.

In 1869, the Legislature again legalized gambling and required each casino to pay a tax of $5,000 to the state.

By 1892, the anti-gambling forces achieved victory with the election of Murphy J. Foster, Governor (1892-1900). During Foster's administration voters rejected a constitutional amendment to further extend the Lottery's charter, and the Legislature passed a bill to outlaw ticket sales in the state after 31 December 1893. The Lottery Company fled to Honduras and into extinction. (Gov. Murphy Foster is the grandfather of now-Gov. Mike Foster who campaigned as a reform governor and sailed to victory in 1996).

The end of the lottery did not stop gambling in Louisiana. For the next century gambling survived in numerous forms: horse racing, cock fights, card games including Cajun boure, pin ball payoffs, punch cards, numbers games, and sports betting. During the 1930s and 1940s, illegal gambling flourished with slot machines readily available and plush casinos operating in suburban areas.



Busbice, Roger and John Keeling
1993 "Fortune Favored Few, A History of Gambling in Early Louisiana." Louisiana Political Review, No. 14, July.

Castellanos, Henry C.
1905 New Orleans As It Was. Second edition. New Orleans: Pelican Publishing Company. Republished, 1961.

Chase, John
1960 Frenchmen, Desire, Good Children. New Orleans: Robert L. Crager.

Gandolfo, Henri A.
1981 Metairie Cemetery, An Historical Memoir. New Orleans: Stewart Enterprises, Inc.

Garvey, Joan B. and Mary Lou Widmer
1984 Beautiful Crescent. New Orleans: Gramer Press Inc.

Leavitt, Mel
1982 A Short History of New Orleans. San Francisco: Lexikos.

McGill, John
1997 Personal communication, 2 July.

to appemdix 2logo2in.GIF (2402 bytes)