Second Wave: Mid-1800’s to Early 1900’s

The expansion of the western frontier spurred the second wave. As the country moved westward, the frontier spirit continued to spread. Mining booms increased the rush to the Far West. Miners lured by the promises of easy and abundant riches, personified the frontier spirit better than the explorers before them. Mining was a gamble, and risk-taking was valued for it represented an opportunity for great wealth. These were restless and ambitious people who had high expectations.15 Probably nowhere was this more apparent than in California.

Gold Rush Set Off a Gambling Boom in California. The gold rush brought a huge increase in the amount and types of gambling to California. San Francisco replaced New Orleans as the center for gambling in the United States. The market for gambling space was so strong that a mere canvas tent, 15 by 25 feet, cost $40,000 annually, payable in advance with gold dust.

The apex of California gambling was from 1849 to 1855. Gambling became widespread throughout the state whether it was in Mexican towns like Monterey, mountain towns like Mariposa, or growing cities such as Sacramento. During this period, gambling tended to be integrated. Patrons included women, blacks, and Chinese. By 1850, both the state and cities were licensing gambling establishments to raise money.

As settlers spread beyond California, so did gambling. In general, gambling and the west were intimately linked. Gambling was especially widespread in the mining camps that multiplied as the miners spread across the west searching for new strikes.

Public Opinion Quickly Turns Against Gambling. Laws against gamblers and gambling began to be enacted in California. As with the rest of the United States, the desire for respectability and a recognition of the social ills tied to gaming led to limits on gambling. The Legislature made most types of gambling illegal. However, the Legislature’s initial aim was more to target the professional gambler than gaming in general. Gamblers were affiliated with municipal corruption and were blamed for the depression that was occurring at the time.16 Lynching of professional gamblers occurred in San Francisco in 1856, in part a result of the fight for political control of the city. The gamblers were strong backers of one political faction.

Initially, the state laws were weak and had little real effect on gambling. The statutes outlawed specific games, making the laws difficult to enforce as new and unnamed variants were used and only light penalties were provided. However, the laws were gradually strengthened. In 1860, all banking games were banned. (Banking games are those where the player bets against the house.) Initially, the laws tended to focus on those who ran the games, not the players. In 1885, this was changed so that it was illegal to play. Finally in 1891, the statutes made the penalty for playing equal to the penalty for running the game.

The Prohibition Did Not Eliminate Gambling But Drove it Underground. Even in California, where most gambling was illegal, the first slot machine was invented and premiered in San Francisco in 1895.17 It was not specifically outlawed until 1911.

Nevada bounced between legalizing and banning gaming. Gambling was legal in Nevada between 1869 and 1910. As a result, gaming activity moved from California to places such as Virginia City, Nevada. Although legally protected, during this time gambling never reached the size in Nevada that it did in San Francisco.

Another effect of the antigambling laws was to stratify gaming activity more. One result was the prevalence of Chinese gaming houses that catered only to Chinese. There were also large Chinese-run lotteries that appealed to non-Chinese. Enforcement of the gaming laws became a method of discrimination.

Los Angeles also had gaming activity, but it was overshadowed by San Francisco. Like the city itself, gaming in Los Angeles had more of a Hispanic flavor and occurred on a smaller scale. The city eventually banned gambling which led to a number of illegal clubs and the spread to permissive suburbs.

Lotteries Began a Comeback. Following a long national tradition, the South turned to lotteries to generate revenue to rebuild the war-ravaged region. The Louisiana lottery was the most notable because of its unseemly end. In 1868, the Louisiana Lottery Company was authorized and granted a 25-year charter. A carpetbagger criminal syndicate from New York bribed the Legislature into passing the lottery law and establishing the syndicate as the sole lottery provider.19 The Louisiana Lottery was an interstate venture with over 90% of the company’s revenue coming from outside Louisiana. This lottery was a prolific money maker. Attempts to repeal the 25-year charter were defeated with assistance of bribes to legislators.

Scandals and antigaming sentiment led to additional state and federal legislation against lotteries. In particular, religious leaders led the move against them.20 By 1878, Louisiana was the last of the legal lotteries in the country. The Louisiana Lottery survived until Congress enacted a prohibition against moving lottery tickets across state lines by any method. This act led to the abolition of the Louisiana Lottery in 1895. When the lottery was disbanded, it was discovered that promoters had made huge sums of ill-gotten gains. The Legislature was riven with accusations of bribery. By the end of the century, thirty-five states, including California, had in their constitutions prohibitions against lotteries and no state permitted the operation of lotteries.

Lotteries Were Not the Only Source of Gambling Scandal. Horse racing was plagued by fraud. The odds and payouts were often faked. The parties taking the bets, known as the bookmakers, often owned horses and were able to influence the race. “Ringers,” horses that were fraudulent substitutes and were either much quicker or slower than the expected entry, were often raced.

The second wave of legal gambling, was relatively short-lived. Scandals and the rise of Victorian morality led to the end of legal gambling. By 1910, virtually all forms of gambling were prohibited in the U.S. The only legal betting that occurred was in three states which allowed horse racing, but even that number shrank in the ensuing years.21 The feelings against gambling ran so strong that Arizona and New Mexico were forced to outlaw casinos to gain statehood.22 However, the prohibition did not stop gambling. There were many types of illegal gambling houses. Some operated openly for many years. They, of course, had to pay protection money to the law enforcement authorities.

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