“They delight in their present low, lazy, sluttish, heathenish, hellish life, and seem not desirous of changing it.”
— Rev. Charles Woodmason, 1766
“Violence is as American as cherry pie.”
— H. Rap Brown
America has got to start being honest with itself.
I’ll be honest.
I really didn’t see what all the hand-wringing was about over the recent police brutality protests-turned-riots. Self-important pundits right and left clutching pearls over the notion that anyone would burn their own city to the ground in the face of invincible corruption. I was just surprised that’s as far as it went.
But then again, I consider myself exceptionally American. That is, a degenerate — unfazed by violence and weak for vice.
It took torching a city, and consequently many more across America, to simply begin the process of any kind of justice for George Floyd. The cop responsible was charged with second-degree murder. Would this have happened solely with peaceful protests? Hard to say. We saw the frothing-at-the-mouth response to athletes simply taking a knee. It doesn’t pay to play nice in America. The flip side to systemic change has always been chaos and the thirst for blood. It’s a silent understanding that to get anything done in America requires lawlessness and the threat of violence — if not violence itself.
Seeing images online of Target and Wendy’s (and any other box store or corporate chain) reduced to smoldering rubble made me swell with pride to be an American. And there ought to be plenty more of that to go around as long as the rich get richer in 2020, and as long as police department budgets swell in tandem with homelessness.
But I’m not here to write yet another thinkpiece about current events. Rather, these current events got me thinking about the historical character of our country, and how any freedom that we enjoy today came from undermining the culture’s sense of law and order — whether overtly, as with demonstrations, or covertly, as with organized crime. I’m not pro-lawlessness (not entirely anyway), but it’s a necessary antipode to law and order (something Trump and the rest of these hypocrites love beating the drum about).
Every time the police are seen beating and teargassing unarmed Americans on video, we’re reminded of the interests they’re there to protect, and the status quo they’re there to uphold. It says something when we have more sympathy for a looted Starbucks than some kid lying face down in the street with his skull kicked in.
There’s always been a class war in this country, and the ruling class has always held the rubric for what decent and respectable America is all about. But that’s only half the story. And we’re always morbidly surprised when the other half shows up to crash the party.
Vices like gambling, booze, and prostitution (and the violence sure to follow) are shamed at best, and outlawed at worst. They’re also American staples. If it weren’t for the marriage of vice and crime, our beloved police would be out of a job. And if it weren’t for vice and crime, we wouldn’t be the country we are today.
America isn’t honest with itself. It’s not exceptional, at least not in the way we think. It’s not blessed by God, and it certainly shouldn’t be the only world power. (Like if American hero Jesse James had been the most powerful man on the planet. God help us.) I love and I hate my country, as most Americans do, one way or another. You can’t love what it is without hating how it came to be. Its past is colored with blood and rape and theft and genocide and slavery. Quite colorful.
What conservatives will never admit (or liberals, for that matter, as righteous moralism these days is pouncing from both sides) is that it’s our proclivity to reckless abandon, and even violence, that keeps us free — that defines our freedom— that makes our wild unruliness forever coveted by the rest of the world. We owe our liberties to this kind of macabre wit unique to America. How many of our heroes have met violent and infamous fates that we can’t help but romanticize?
As writer and professor Kurt Hemmer once wrote in the introduction to On the Run with Bonnie & Clyde by John Gilmore:
“Death in an automobile…is a particularly American death: James Dean, Jackson Pollack, Jayne Mansfield. When you add guns, like JFK, Tupac Shakur, or the Notorious B.I.G., it is even more romantically American. In the perverse American psyche, sex, guns, and cars swirl around in one intoxicating cocktail.”
I’d add a jigger of gambling to that mix. It’s in our unclean American blood.
Land of the Free, Home of the Compulsive Gambler
It’s often thought America’s love affair with gambling began with Las Vegas, but our vice runs much deeper. Lotteries, after all, were what bankrolled the infrastructure of the American colonies. Everything from roads to the Ivy League colleges that still stand today.
Horse racing was established in the Virginia colony as early as 1610, attended by casual and rowdy crowds. Dice and cards were brought from Europe. Gambling was the new attitude for the new settlers to pass the time and get their kicks in the new world.
The Aristocracy and the Puritans, naturally, had a disdain for gambling, as they believed it encouraged idleness when they needed every hand to work in carving out a foothold in the new world. In 1638, the Puritans of Massachusetts passed America’s first law against gambling, citing unproductive time, fraud, and corruption of youth. Eventually Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and New Jersey followed suit. Even George Washington was warned to control gambling among his men in the Virginia Militia.
And so the age-old American vice spat was born: the moral authorities versus the poor and working classes (who were left with little to no distractions from their labor). Puritanical work ethic versus Lady Luck. The transatlantic elite wasted no time associating slothfulness with corruption in the new world.
Author Matt Wray writes, “Indeed, the reputation of the colonies as places where the poor, the indigent, and the criminal could be redeemed through hard work served as a major ideological justification for the entire colonial enterprise.” Ironic, of course, that idleness was an affront to those who took pleasure in exploiting a working class. Here here.
Of course with gambling came booze. It was this marriage of vice and debauchery that united America before America was united. In fact, the class line was very visible here. “Lower class taverns were the first racially integrated public spaces in America,” author Thaddeus Russell writes. “The less ‘respectable’ a public house was, the more likely it was to facilitate the mixing of races.”
Lotteries were eventually banned, along with any form of gambling designed to support the colonies. This wouldn’t last long, though, as America was hungry for independence, and General George Washington needed money for a war to fight. The first national lottery was enacted to fund the Revolutionary War and took place on March 1, 1777.
Even still, the elitist disdain against gambling remained, even among our founding revolutionaries. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Gaming disrupts our disposition and teaches us a habit of hostility toward all mankind.” He was also known to keep detailed records of his backgammon winnings.
In the newly liberated United States, gambling flourished, despite it still being technically illegal. In 1790, the Association of the District of Southwark for the Suppression of Vice and Immorality was just one of many anti-vice organizations founded in early America, and which set their sights on gambling halls, dance halls, brothels, and low-class taverns. Then you have Andrew Jackson, who was known as a legendary backwoods hustler — especially in horse racing — who once shot a man in a dual over a gambling debt.
America certainly had an identity crisis. One that persists.
In the early 1800’s, it was illegal to gamble anywhere in Louisiana except for New Orleans, where the first casinos, or “carpet joints,” sprang up. The Crescent City House was opened by one John Davis in 1827, a full-service casino opened 24 hours. Its tables were imported from Europe, it introduced the first comp’d meal, and it offered a buffet supper that was a precursor for Nevada casinos.
It was also at this time that the craft of bartending came into its own. Though the history of booze is always hazy (not a coincidence), the modern cocktail is undoubtedly an American invention, originating somewhere in the triangular area of New York City, Albany, and Boston. The written record of the American cocktail begins with an article in the April 1803 issue of the Farmer’s Cabinet, a newspaper in Amherst, which entailed the line, “Drank a glass of cocktail — excellent for the head.” It was a concoction of bitters, sugar, water, and booze of any kind, and was particular helpful in curing hangovers. This soon spread across the country, and when the ice industry was born in the 1820’s, the sky was the limit.
It was clear was that gambling and booze were coming of age together like twin siblings on a tandem bike. The moralists were left foaming at the mouth, and a brutal cultural battle was brewing on the horizon.
String ’Em Up: Gambling Hells and River Boats
Vicksburg, Mississippi was one of several cities during the 1820’s and 30’s that was built on gambling.
Gambling halls, or gambling “hells” if you were the opposition, were accepted by the prominent of the city. The city was filled with these hells, particularly in one popular part of the city called the Landing, and oftentimes the games were crooked. An entire year’s cotton profits could easily be lost in a single night’s fury of booze, games, and shady ladies of the bordellos. It all ran rampant. The Vicksburg waterfront had quickly become known as the Sodom of the South. This created tension among those who wished to distance themselves from the notoriously savage reputation of frontier life.
Though, all the moralizing that went on came from the upper crust. Gambling and its ensuing vice had all but been adopted by the majority of residents — some more unabashedly than others. As author and professor of history Joshua D. Rothman puts it (emphasis mine):
The merchants, doctors, lawyers, and planters who constituted Vicksburg’s budding elite may have believed professional gamblers threatened their moral integrity, but most people in Vicksburg were essentially speculators who had risked migration to the [Old] Southwest for the allure of fast profits almost unimaginable everywhere else in the country. In a very real sense, nearly everyone in Vicksburg was a gambler.
On July 4, 1835, it came to a head when a gambler got into a fistfight with a fellow citizen and member of the local militia. When the gambler pulled a knife, he was overtaken by townsfolk who then proceeded to tar and feather him and ran him out of town.
That was the tipping point. The next day, angry mobs posted signs around the city demanding that all gamblers leave within 24 hours.
Most relented, but a few gamblers refused, and barricaded themselves in one of the hells. The vigilantes descended on the Landing, and mobbed from hell to hell, raiding each one. Any proprietor hosting a faro game was sure to get the boot. It was only a matter of time before they reached the barricaded gamblers. They busted into the casino, guns blazing, shots were exchanged, and eventually the mob dragged the gamblers out, strung ’em up, and hanged them in the city square. It would be another 24 hours before the bodies were finally cut down and buried in a ditch.
Vicksburg was purified.
But you can’t keep degenerates down long, even with the threat of public executions. Gamblers and hustlers and ladies of ill-repute sought refuge from the recent wave of anti-gambling sentiments on the riverboats of the swampy Mississippi.
As riverboats were used to ship goods from the south to the north, cardsharps had all the restless and fleeting clientele they would ever need. Riverboat captains were against gambling, though, and whenever any were caught, they would dump them off on small islands, stranded. That changed once gamblers got wise and started paying captains off. The slaves and deckhands would play dice and cards below deck while the rich would enjoy lavish saloons above.
The transient nature of riverboat culture, and the coming-and-going of fresh marks in different cities, ensured a hustler’s longevity. By the mid-1800’s, there were as many as 2,000 people gambling on about 700 boats. The riverboat gambler carried its own romantic myth — audacious vagabonds dressed to the nines, swindling unhip rubes out of their money. Three-card Monte was particularly popular. Head-butting heathens born to gamble (as all true Americans are) like George Duvall rose and fell, fear and admired as legends of the Mississippi.
Ultimately, it was the looming and ominous Civil War that put an end to the free-wheeling mores of river boat folk of the Mississippi. And, as the 19th century progressed, trains would eventually become the preferred mode of transportation.
Drunks and cardsharps and fast guns found themselves moving on where anyone would to get their kicks — out West.
Damn Rascals & Pure Rush
I’m not talking about the famed Old West badlands of Arizona or New Mexico. Though plenty red-blooded Americans were certainly in those parts too — where loose money, loose women, and lawlessness were as pervasive as the heat and dust. No, I’m talking about a city that couldn’t be further from its gambling and vice-filled roots than it is today. I’m talking about San Francisco.
What drove wild-eyed and insatiable Americans to the West? Gold. The biggest gamble of all. Plenty lost on their long journey to the golden coast. When they got here between 1835 and 1851 — in America’s completed conquest of Manifest Destiny and stolen land — what did these gold rushers do? Gamble some more. And they gambled hard.
“Forget Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Reno, Monte Carlo and Macao: The most gambling-obsessed city of all time was San Francisco during the Gold Rush,” writes Bay Area writer Gary Kamiya.
But of all the gold and silver towns that sprang up like wild along the frontier, San Francisco was the mecca, described as the greatest carnival of gambling in history. Add to that the fact the new art of the American bar was spreading west just as quickly, there was a fantastic cocktail (so to speak) of vice. One notable bartender was Jerry Thomas — who would go on to write the famed How to Mix Drinks or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion— and instead of mining gold, found it easier to mine it from the miners with a few easy pours.
In 1850, San Francisco had one thousand gambling hells, one for every twenty-five people. Hells were erected like palaces, and resembled the modern casino we know of today, tolerated (but just barely) by locals due to the heavy license fees it took to run just one. For years, gamblers and prostitutes were staples in society high and low. It didn’t matter if you were from Mexico or China, if you were rich or poor, or if you couldn’t even speak English, anyone could order a drink and place a bet on a Faro table. As it was in the pre-Revolutionary days, vice leveled the sociopolitical playing field. And while there’s been no time like it since, the high of gambling gold runs deep in our patriotic DNA.
Heavy sacks of gold dust were bet on a single hand. Pros like Jim Rynders were known to have won $89,000 (over $2 million today) in three days, but lost $100,000 the next week. Kamiya quotes historian Hubert Bancroft, “The gambler ‘deals his game with the most perfect sang-froid, and when undergoing the heaviest losses there is no trembling of fingers or change of expression.’” No matter, when all you had to do was mine for more gold the next day.
So many prospectors were heavily armed that cheating was surprisingly rare. The law was hell law. Brawls and belligerence contrasted the dangling chandeliers illuminating great works of art on the wall. As Kamiya writes, “according to Bancroft, the gambler’s ‘swiftest vengeance and cruelest butchery seem rather the result of policy than passion. … He is as ready with his pistol as with his toothpick, but he never uses it unless he is right; then he will kill a man as mercilessly as he would brush a fly from his immaculate linen.’” The dealers remained preternaturally cool throughout, all while guns plowed holes in the walls and floor. “Keep it down, you damn rascals.”
But, as always, righteous opposition to such unchecked vice reared its ugly head. Even during the Gold Rush, gambling was still technically illegal, and frustration was mounting against a complicit police force who simply took their bribes during the day and gambled them away at night.
One of these killjoys was the editor of the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin named James King. Since the city had become a worldwide destination, King fretted over its image. He launched an ongoing campaign about the gambling “epidemic” and even listed the names of prominent (or notorious) gamblers. The city became divided. King seized on the perfect scapegoat when a known Faro dealer, Charles Cora, was charged with murdering a federal marshal. The jury, though, was convinced that Cora acted in self-defense, but he was ordered to stand another trial and was placed back in jail. King was livid. “Gamblers, we warn you,” he wrote, “remember Vicksburg.”
King’s editorial slant had caught up to him, and in just the next month, rival newsman James Casey shot him dead in the street. (Personally, I much prefer this to a Twitter spat.) Casey had been an outspoken opponent of King’s moralist tirades. King’s supporters wasted no time to mob up and storm the jailhouse holding Cora and Casey. They were dragged out of their cells and hanged in the street.
In the years that ensued, ordinances were passed, raids become common, and by 1873, the major hells were shut down.
The message was clear, (regardless of the fact America had for hundreds of years already been the home of gamblers and boozers), moralists had no tolerance for allowing the country to fall into vice or moral depravity — even if it meant resorting to vigilante justice and mob violence. O, America.
From Prohibition to the City of Sin
As underground gambling and frontier life sauntered along toward the Twentieth Century, cocktails were well into their renaissance. By 1880, modern classics arrived in the form of the Martini, the Manhattan, the Fizz, the Sour, and the Julep. The bartender and their dazzling concoctions became a wonder for those who traveled here from foreign countries.
As we entered the Twentieth Century, horse racing saw a huge comeback. The shady art of the bookie was perfected since there was little to no oversight and they could do as they pleased. That didn’t last long, by 1910 reforms had outlawed horse racing and pretty much every other form of gambling for over a decade. After World War I, horse racing came back yet again, and bookies got creative about skirting the law. But then there was the fixing of the 1919 World Series, which almost ruined baseball forever. Gambling and its insiders were given a bad name, and not without reason.
More significant, though, is the fact that Prohibition had kicked in. While the art of the cocktail suffered (well-crafted drinks were now reduced to harsh batches of bathtub gin), backroom gambling roared into the 1920’s. But as the high of the 20’s was abruptly ended by the Great Depression, one state was willing to put it all on the line by changing its laws. In 1931, Nevada set the stage for a gambling renaissance and decided to legalize (and tax) the gambling halls that already existed.
Since the Los Angeles mayor at the time was staunch about upholding the city’s anti-gambling laws, swinging Angelenos took their gambling prospects to the dusty cowboy town of Las Vegas. Angelenos like Guy McAfee, commander of the LAPD vice squad, who soon quit the force and bought the Paradise Club on Highway 9. He brought it to life and proved there was was viable and lucrative business to be had in the new oasis. The El Rancho Vegas, The Frontier, The Apache Club, and The Boulder Club soon followed.
By the end of World War II, gambling was a billion dollar industry in Las Vegas. Investors took notice.
Bugsy Siegel, also known as the president of Murder Inc. (the mob’s notorious group of hitmen), was one of them. He had a vision to build the biggest casino Vegas had ever seen, and called it the Flamingo. Backed by East Coast mob money, his vision slowly came to life. Though he wanted his vision to exude sex appeal, glam, and style, the building process was anything but. It soon became clear Siegel didn’t know the first thing about construction, and the project went way over budget. On top of that, Siegel was siphoning mob money into his own pocket. On June 20, 1947, Siegel was gunned down by a barrage of bullets through the windows of his girlfriend’s Beverly Hills home. His vision went on without him, and with the Flamingo’s model, the mob quickly took over Vegas and made it America’s first 24-hour city.
And that’s what Vegas remains today. City of Sin. A playground into which we dump and absolve all of our guilt. It’s even in the advertising: What Happens Here Stays Here. There’s a silent understanding that Vegas represents everything that the rest of the country, and all its moral fiber, is against. The forever pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, simply won by the turn of a card or the click of a slot, with all the hard work of drinking in the streets with enough sense to find your hotel room again.
Nation of Killer Slugs
As of 2019, there are 465 commercial casinos in America. Doesn’t seem like too much for such a vast land. On the other hand, over half of the leading casino companies worldwide are US-based. Kind of makes you proud. Meanwhile, there are over 14,000 McDonald’s chains. Why are we still so timid as a gambling people, despite it laying the foundation for the very country that we kill to defend?
If the moralist argument for outlawing gambling is that it creates a milieu of political corruption, unchecked addiction, and exploitation of the poor, then why is it largely favored for Native communities? Not that they don’t deserve the revenue, they deserve that and a whole hell of a lot more. But isn’t that just yet another slap in the face to Native communities? They may indulge all they want and we somehow shouldn’t (because, after all, aren’t they just savages), and we can carry on feeling better about ourselves and the horrors of the past? Sorry for being the bearer of bad news, but nothing will absolve us of those sins. We should not simply reserve the right to degeneracy to marginalized communities. The right to be a degenerate should be reserved for every living, breathing American.
What does freedom have to do with morality, anyway?
Being a violent, drunken, gambling degenerate is our natural birthright. And it’s something these holy rollers better get hip to quick. Gambling is the American religion and Lady Luck our almighty deity.
I wish we didn’t blow it. You don’t get too many shots at a New World.
Hunter S. Thompson once wrote:
“The premise was very simple: that human beings acting in a sense of enlightened self-interest are smart enough to do the right thing, and know the truth. America could have been a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race. Instead, we just moved in here and destroyed the place from coast to coast like killer snails. Everybody wants power over a country that’s had its day. I think we’re finished.”
One could spend days daydreaming about the kind of true cultural hybridity that would have resulted had those seekers for spiritual freedom communed with the natives of this land — rather than slowly decimating them. What would America look like today had we taken on a third mind from two colliding worlds? But we chose fear over love, and, ironically, destruction over any real discovery. And this is who we are.
There’s no redemption, just acceptance. Maybe if we do that, we might finally start some healing. Until then, we are exceptional, only in that we are exceptionally violent. We are the brute of the world. Let’s drink to that.