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Mississippi Steamboats

The Internet Cardrooms of 1814

by James McManus |  Published: Mar 14, 2007


Steamboats now strike us as quaint curiosities, things only children or unadventuresome nostalgia buffs can get much of a charge from. But when ships with no sails first appeared, decked out instead with smokestacks and paddlewheels, not to mention promenades, cattle pens, and three-story hotel-casinos, these bellowing steam-powered extravaganzas were as colossally strange to the ears, eyes, and dreams of antebellum America as any Spielbergian starship.

Steam power arrived in the United States in August 1787, when inventor John Fitch's trial run of a 45-foot craft on the Delaware River was witnessed by members of the Constitutional Convention, including Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. This boat and others designed by Fitch were mechanically sound but proved neither seaworthy nor cost-effective. It was left to Robert Fulton and Livingston to improve his designs, building vessels that could profitably move cargo and passengers along eastern rivers.

The New Orleans, Fulton's first craft designed for the swifter, more treacherous currents of the Mississippi, capsized because it was top-heavy. After tweaking the design, he gave the same name to another boat, and this one succeeded with colors flying. One hundred and forty feet long and 28 feet wide, the second New Orleans could haul 100 tons of freight and 50 passengers 10 miles per hour downstream, 4 mph while paddling against the current. Female passengers slept in a cabin belowdecks, men in more elegant quarters in the roundhouse above, with views of the river and the landscapes beyond it. Besides keeping women sequestered from ruffians, the arrangement shielded them from the midnight card games it was assumed they'd be scandalized to witness, let alone participate in.

When Fulton and his partners began providing reliable service between New Orleans and Natchez, Mississippi, in 1814, using boats twice as fast as the New Orleans, they changed the nature of commerce in America. Purchasing the Louisiana Territory had been one thing, integrating it with the rest of the United States quite another. Now that was beginning to happen. Fulton's boats made it inevitable that river ports would thrive, inland towns wither. With virtually no roads west of the Appalachians, exploiting the 10,000-mile network of rivers proved the most practical way to move humans, rumors, opinions, newspapers, books, mail, agricultural products, and card games from point A to point B. Steamboats and the waters they plied amounted to the information superhighway of 1814 and beyond. When Robert Fulton died the next year, the loss of his innovative genius was considered a national calamity.

Steamboats changed the nature of warfare, as well. In December 1814, Capt. Henry M. Shreve deployed the sidewheeler Enterprise to deliver a vital cache of supplies from Pittsburgh to Gen. Andrew Jackson outside New Orleans. Not needing favorable currents or winds, Shreve's boat was even able to run the gauntlet of British guns below the city to bring more supplies to Fort St. Philip.

By 1820, New Orleans was the wealthiest city in the United States, and by far the most culturally diverse. At least 400 gaming dens were open for business, most of them saloons in the district known as "The Swamp." Proprietors used any means necessary to tempt the hundreds of passengers, traders, and boatmen coming ashore every day. The fluid population of 20,000 denizens probably did as much dancing, feasting, music-making, carousing, and card-playing as the rest of the country combined. In a place far removed both morally and geographically, visitors and even many residents thought of the Crescent City as a temporary address, both a decadent resort and the anteroom to unexplored parts of the continent where they hoped to make their fortune. In the meantime, they tended to favor Creole poque.

Nor were they unaware that Andrew Jackson, "Old Hickory" himself, gambled heavily on cockfights, thoroughbred races, and card games; that twice in his life, he had staked all he owned on a bet; that he had even killed a man, and almost died himself, in a duel to settle a racing dispute. Yet in 1828 and 1832, he would be elected president of the United States, bringing fearless frontier values directly into the White House. From there, they emanated back across the nation again, stoking an atmosphere in which taking outsized chances felt utterly natural. One emphatic if misspelled piece of advice the president gave his nephew about a horse race is now thought to capture the entire spirit of Jacksonian America: "You must risque to win."

After the War of 1812, Jackson's comrade in arms, Capt. Shreve, had launched commercial steamboats that extended service to Louisville by 1823. Before Fulton and Shreve, moving bulky products by ox-drawn cart between Louisville and New Orleans took two or three months. A steamboat made the trip in six days.

With New Orleans, Natchez, and eventually St. Louis home to an expanding fleet of floating casinos, a piece of those risqué ports could steam into sleepy provinces 1,500 miles away, right on schedule. This world-shrinking development was similar to what occurred in the middle of the 20th century, when cheap airline travel made Las Vegas accessible, or when virtual cardrooms at the dawn of the 21st enabled poker players to compete internationally while staying home in their pajamas.

The prototype luxury steamer was Capt. Shreve's George Washington, a lavish double-decker launched in 1825 with twin smokestacks, dozens of ornate staterooms, three saloons, and a card parlor. Shreve and his competitors soon began to outdo themselves, proffering hand-carved staircases, cut-glass chandeliers, bone china, and the cuisine of famous chefs to attract a well-heeled clientele to their $200,000 showboats.

The crews of these waterborne Bellagios were the envy of just about every young man who set eyes on them. When 8-year-old Sam Clemens glimpsed his first steamboat in 1844 from the dock at Hannibal, Missouri, he immediately resolved to get a job working on one.

Even a lowly striker, whose main job was shoveling coal into a hellacious furnace 16 hours a day, impressed young Sam as "notoriously worldly, and I just the reverse." Much worse, a striker "had money, too, and hair oil … No girl could withstand his charms." Even so, the most envied man was the pilot, who earned $300 a month when a kid from a small town would be lucky to make $1.

By the time he was 27, Clemens managed to become a pilot himself, though his career was cut short when the Civil War closed the river to commercial traffic. Forced to write for a living instead, he chose as his pen name the steamboatman's cry signaling a safe depth of two fathoms: Mark twain! "The Professor's Yarn," his tale of an elaborate poker con in Life on the Mississippi, became a classic of American literature.

So, was poker a crooked, shameful, righteous, or even a legal pastime? No widely acceptable answer to this question has ever been given – nor will one, at the rate we are going. Back in 1823, for example, the Louisiana Legislature legalized most forms of gambling, poque included. Six of what they called "temples of chance" were licensed in New Orleans. Most of these "temples" were tarted-up saloons, but in 1827, an émigré from Saint-Domingue named John Davis introduced a more ambitious version of the casino to America's Venice-on-the-Mississippi. His complex of buildings along Orleans Street between Bourbon and Royal included the Davis Hotel, the Orleans Ballroom, and the Theatre d'Orleans. The hotel and gaming parlors provided free rooms, drinks, and meals for as long as a customer was willing to gamble. And the higher stakes he played for, the more luxurious his accommodations would be. Anticipating hoteliers from Bugsy Siegel to Steve Wynn, it was said that John Davis could lodge you, feed you, amuse you, and fleece you, all in one city block.

By 1835, however, growing concern over the adverse social effects of gambling convinced the legislature to repeal its licensing act and pass laws subjecting the keepers of gambling dens to $10,000 fines or imprisonment. Such laws could never stamp out wagering, of course, but they did encourage any number of card players and saloonkeepers to move their operations upriver, or to make the steamboats themselves a fleet of branch offices.

While 20-card pokuh continued to be played in New Orleans, it reached the rest of the country mostly by riverboat. Then, as now, onboard gaming was relatively free of legal or moral censure, even as the sidewheeling casini wound their way through the Bible Belt.

Meanwhile, a new breed of cardsharp evolved to take advantage of these riverine venues. Moving on and off the packets in well-oiled teams, they deployed a variety of ruses and tools to fleece – not by expert play and good luck, but by cheating and threats of violence – any passenger foolish enough to gamble with them. By the 1830s, between 600 and 800 sharps were at large on the rivers. But in this Jacksonian era of gambling, gunplay, and bold speculation, many Americans considered them bona fide businessmen, at least as legitimate as Federalist bankers charging interest in far-off Manhattan. And whatever their moral or cultural standing, the sharps became so much a part of riverboat life that many captains believed it was bad luck to leave port without one on board.

The sharps' targets, of course, were the unending supply of passengers with money to lose. With little else to do for a week – no cellphones or laptops, no spa gyms or seatback TVs – after-dinner poker was what a sporting Southern gentleman did.

And without credit cards or electronic bank transfers, they all carried gold and/or cash. Some plantation owners even traveled with slaves and property deeds, often wagering them as part of the pot. As riverboat gambler Tom Ellison recalled, "It wasn't at all uncommon to hear an old planter betting off his Negroes on a good hand. Every man who ever ran on the river knows that these old planters used to play in their lady servants, valuing them all the way from $300 to $1,500. I saw a little colored boy stand up to $300 to back his master's faith in a little flush that wasn't any good on earth."

Another sharp-eyed chronicler, Alexis de Tocqueville, steamed south from Pittsburgh aboard the packet Louisville, arriving in New Orleans on the first day of 1832. Having interviewed President Jackson and spent months on western rivers, he concluded: "Those living in the instability of a democracy have the constant image of chance before them, and, in the end, they come to like all those projects in which chance plays a part." This was true, he deduced, "not only because of the promise of profit but because they like the emotions evoked." Or, as Jackson himself might have put it, they must risque to gain pleasure and profit.

It remains unclear which games of chance Tocqueville witnessed, though one of them was almost certainly 20-card poker. This was the game played by Speaker of the House Henry Clay aboard the steamboat Helen M'Gregor back in 1829. That high-stakes action was described in the diary of English actor Joseph Cowell, the earliest-known written account of our national pastime. He called it "a high-gambling western game, founded on brag," and made note of its guarded rituals: "Players pack [the cards] in their hands, and peep at them as if they were afraid to trust even themselves to look." Cowell also recognized that such gambling excursions provided an annual opportunity for Americans to slip free of everyday constraints and mix it up with blacklegs and vagabonds. Once on the river, he observed, "All moral and social restraint was placed in the shade."

Then there was Jonathan Green's An Exposure of the Arts and Miseries of Gambling. Published by the reformed cardsharp in 1834, it described the rules of poque – the "cheating game," as he called it – being played aboard Mississippi steamers. While admitting poque was harder to cheat at than three-card monte, the crusading author strummed a chord that would reverberate throughout the 19th century: that high-stakes poker is usually about opportunities to swindle, not to fairly outplay, one's opponents.

Next issue: The Cheating Game. spade


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