Throughout the 19th century New Orleans was famous for its gambling hells and for being the home of gamblers. ‘The passion for gambling is deeply seated in our natures,’ wrote one Orleanian journalist (New Orleans Daily Democrat Sep 10 1877) and J. M. Scanland argued that gambling to Orleanians was an ‘inherent mania’ that had ‘existed in some form among them from the foundation of the city, and their speculation in John Law’s “bubble” boom bonds’ (Freeland Tribune May 20 1895 pg 4.) Laws against gambling were passed and repealed, ignored and circumvented and licenses for gambling houses were also periodically issued for large fees. In 1885 (the year of the Cotton Centennial Exposition), much newspaper correspondence came out of New Orleans, and much of this marvelled at the extent to which gambling ran in the city. In consequence, as a gambling city, New Orleans was dubbed the ‘wickedest city in the union’ (The Semi-Weekly Journal Mar 6 1885.)
The forms that gambling took were varied. The first large-scale gambling house was opened in New Orleans in the late 1820s by opera impresario John Davis, Sr., and the games of chance available, roulette, vingt-et-un, and faro were of European origin. This was so-called high-toned gambling where wealthy planters and ne’er-do-wells won and lost fortunes and murders and suicides were plentiful. Craps and poker added to these games of chance and both originated in New Orleans. Keno, a lottery based game said to be of Chinese origin, arrived in the 1860s and soon became the most popular game of chance played in the city. One famous gambling den on Royal street in the 1880s according to reports could house a 1000 keno players. There were also poolrooms where bets would be taken on just about anything from horse-racing, baseball and boxing, to the results of elections. In the 1890s the slot machine arrived and flourished in the void created by one of the periodical suppressions of gambling houses. And though the houses remained illegal from the 1890s they still operated openly on many of the most popular thoroughfares as the New Orleans Guide of 1902 helpfully pointed out with addresses to illustrate.
It is difficult to say how many gambling houses there were at any given time. So many came and went and so many went unobserved by the authorities. It has been estimated that between 1830 and 1850 there was somewhere in the region of five hundred gambling-houses in New Orleans (Asbury, The French Quarter 218.) In 1885 a journalist estimated that there were around forty gambling-houses on St Charles and Royal in the vicinity of Canal Street. Establishments came and went with their proprietors fortunes, the season, and the anti-gambling laws that were periodically passed and repealed. In 1852 gambling houses were considered too numerous and the city revoked all licenses. In 1870 the Louisiana State Legislature legalized gambling and imposed an annual tax of $5000 on gambling establishments (The South-Western Jan 12 1870.) The city was again overrun by gambling hells and the law was repealed at the next meeting of the legislature. A system of tolerance, bribery, and licensing succeeded into the early 20th century. In 1920 the Higgins Act tried to close down gambling houses by making it illegal for the house to take a percentage and still they remained.
The reason why gambling became such a prominent and legendary part of the character of New Orleans is complex. The answer takes in geography, class, politics, and the basic condition of humanity. One side of the story is simply the story of our inability to see the future, our proneness to feelings of uncertainty, our proneness to misfortune, and the blessings of wealth and the curse of poverty in a capitalist society. New Orleans was a city of intractable land beset with hurricanes, fevers and plagues, and chance seemed to play an excessive part in fate in a city where poverty was a condition frequently met by suicide. And so public gambling houses, where fortunes could be won and fate defied, once established in New Orleans were hard to shift for the influence they wielded through large sums of money over the populace and politicians alike.
New Orleans gambling story: