Regulation of Gambling in Colonial and Antebellum New Orleans

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Oath of Thomas Hackett regarding gambling taking place at the house of Harris. Signed by James Mather and mark of Thomas Hackett.

Photo Credit: Feb. 19, 1820. John Minor Wisdom Collection, Box 8, Folder 20 #321, Louisiana Research Collection, Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane University, New Orleans.

Gambling, drinking and other vices have been woven into the fabric of New Orleans since its inception. While under French rule, the citizens of New Orleans could both spend their time gambling at card tables and worshiping in churches. Henry Rightor described early New Orleans “as an El Dorado by the gamblers, who flocked to the city from all parts of the country and of the world”. [1] While under the rule of France, Spain, and the United States successively, authorities attempted to decrease the prevalence of gambling in the city; more often than not, these attempts proved futile.

The Colonial Era

During Louisiana’s French colonial era, its citizens were thought to be morally corrupt. The Commissaire-ordonnateur of the colony of Louisiana, Edme Salmon, called the average citizen a “drunkard and a gambler” who “spent on Sunday all of the money he had earned during the week”. [2] Priests in New Orleans also took notice of this phenomenon as church attendance in the colony was very low. Thus, in 1723 the Superior Council of New Orleans banned all games of chance involving quantities of money over 100 livres. [3] Two years later, gambling during religious services was also banned. [4] However, the general population of New Orleans disregarded these laws, which were not strictly enforced. Gambling was banned altogether in 1733 and then again in 1744; still, these prohibitions had little success in the colonial city.

By the early 1750’s, gambling was thought to be a major issue throughout Louisiana. [5] The colony’s governor at the time, Louis Billouart de Kerlerec, initially attempted to enforce the gambling bans and reissue its regulations outlaw the practice. These measures proved unsuccessful because gamblers included high-ranking military officers, and participants “never play[ed] two consecutive nights in the same place.” In response to the failed attempts to prohibit illicit gambling, authorities acquiesced and opened a government-run gambling house in New Orleans during the Carnival season in an attempt to contain and supervise the vice. [6]

Gambling’s legal status in New Orleans itself was inconsistent throughout the 19th century. In 1808, the mayor of New Orleans passed several ordinances outlawing the practice. Owning a gambling house within the city became punishable “by a fine of fifty dollars for the first offence, one hundred dollars for the second, and for the third offence, besides the latter fine, the offender shall suffer twenty days imprisonment”. [7] In addition, “the cards, dice, or other devices used in gambling, as also the money staked…” could be seized and confiscated on every offense. [8] Simply being in a gambling house could induce a fine from ten to fifty dollars. These ordinances also gave the mayor the power to pardon fines for people involved in gambling if they provided information on illegal gambling.

Antebellum New Orleans

When Louisiana became a part of the United States in 1803, the city of New Orleans had more gambling houses than Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, and New York combined. [9] Although the federal government made gambling illegal in the territory of Louisiana in 1812, the city of New Orleans was exempted. New Orleans gambling houses in the early 19th century were not elegant and players were often cheated. This atmosphere began to change when John Davis opened up his “palace of chance” on the corner of Bourbon and Orleans Street in 1827. [10] His was the first elegant gambling house in New Orleans; Davis’ establishment was comparable to a modern-day casino. Davis essentially controlled all of New Orleans’ gambling scene until 1832, when the Louisiana legislature allowed anyone to open a gambling house for an annual fee of $7,500. [11]

Authorities attempted to clean up the city in 1835 by outlawing gambling once again. Those caught gambling faced imprisonment up to five years and fines up to $10,000. [12] This measure was once again largely unsuccessful because the citizens of New Orleans disregarded the law and returned to visiting hidden gambling establishments. The Panic of 1837 caused gambling in New Orleans to dissipate until approximately a decade later. Gambling in the city was reestablished in the mid-1840’s when the Mexican-American War began. New Orleans was established as a base of operations during this conflict, and the war brought with it many soldiers and thus additional potential gamblers. New Orleans also became a stop on the way to California for many in search of gold. It was at this time that New Orleans gave rise to another elegant casino. In the 1850’s, McGrath and Company opened up a gambling house on Carondelet Street. Unlike many other gambling locations, gamblers were not cheated, in stark contrast to other spots in the city, especially riverboat gambling establishments. By 1860, 557 gambling boats were operating on the Mississippi River, and almost all were thought to cheat players with card tricks. [13] Riverboat gambling establishments were the antithesis of the elegant casinos that were established on land. Gambling in New Orleans boomed until the start of the Civil War when the Confederate, and then the Union army occupied the city, marking the end of the antebellum era.

Works Cited

  • Forman, B.R., “The Amusements of New Orleans,” in Standard History of New Orleans, Louisiana, Giving a Description of the Natural Advantages, Natural History in Regard to the Flora and Birds, Settlement, Indians, Creoles, Municipal and Military History, Mercantile and Commercial Interests, Banking, Transportation, Struggles against High Water, the Press, Educational, Literature and Art, the Churches, Old Burying Grounds, Bench and Bar, Medical, Public and Charitable Institutions, the Carnival, Amusements, Clubs, Societies, Associations, etc., ed. Henry Rightor (Chicago: Lewis Publishing Company, 1900), 470.
  • Brasseaux, Carl A., “The Moral Climate of French Colonial Louisiana, 1699-1763,” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 27, no. 1 (1986): 37.
  • Brasseaux,“The Moral Climate of French Colonial Louisiana,” 38.
  • Brasseaux, “The Moral Climate of French Colonial Louisiana,” 37.
  • Brasseaux, “The Moral Climate of French Colonial Louisiana,” 39.
  • Brasseaux, “The Moral Climate of French Colonial Louisiana,” 39.
  • “An Ordinance Concerning Games of Chance,” in Police Code: Or Collection of the Ordinances of Police Made by the City Council of New Orleans; to Which Is Prefixed the Act for Incorporating Said City with the Acts Supplementary Thereto, ed. J. Renard, (New Orleans: J. Renard, 1808), 258.
  • “An Ordinance Concerning Games of Chance,” in Police Code: Or Collection of the Ordinances of Police Made by the City Council of New Orleans; to Which Is Prefixed the Act for Incorporating Said City with the Acts Supplementary Thereto, ed. J. Renard, (New Orleans: J. Renard, 1808), 258.
  • Precht, Jay, “Legalized Gambling,” KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, ed. David Johnson, Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, accessed 17 June 2016, http://www.knowla.org/entry/769/.
  • Taylor, Troy, Wicked New Orleans: The Dark Side of the Big Easy, (Charleston, SC: History Press, 2010), 52.
  • Taylor, Wicked New Orleans, 52.
  • Taylor, Wicked New Orleans, 53-54 .
  • Thompson, William Norman, Gambling in America: An Encyclopedia of History, Issues, and Society, (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2001), xi.

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