• 8 •
The man first boarded the steamboat at Natchez and took one of the vessel’s best cabins. When the boat arrived in New Orleans, he notified its officers that he would not be disembarking but would keep his cabin and stay on the boat on its return trip to St. Louis. When it reached St. Louis, he again declined to get off and made arrangements to take it back to New Orleans. At New Orleans, he bought passage back to St. Louis. For two months he stayed on the steamer as it voyaged between New Orleans and St. Louis, which raised vexing questions in the captain’s mind. Elderly and friendly, the man jovially mingled with the other passengers, warmly greeting them, offering them cigars, buying them drinks, sitting with them and talking and apparently enjoying their company. The captain decided the mysterious passenger was not a gambler, to whom destinations were also unimportant. Nor was he, as passengers occasionally were found to be, a thief or a murderer hiding out from the law. He just didn’t seem that sort. The captain couldn’t stop wondering about the man.
At last, with as much tact as he could manage, he asked the man if he would mind telling him why he was making the repeated trips.
“Of course, sir, I’ll tell you,” the old gentleman answered. “It’s the finest way to pleasure myself that I know. No hotel in America can equal this. The finest food — your wild game, your glazed fish, your roasts, sauces and pastry! My cabin — it’s as finely equipped, as well decorated, as any room I’ve enjoyed in my life. The bar, the cabin, the promenade — nothing to match them, I tell you. And the company! I meet all my friends, the best people in the world. Why should I want to leave?”
Beaming with satisfaction, the captain treated his happy passenger to a drink at the bar.
That is a story out of Mississippi River steamboat lore which has in it enough truth to make it believable. Samuel Clemens, whose charming powers of observation of his fellow humans, augmented by his experience as a Mississippi River steamboat pilot, provided him broad knowledge of steamboats and their passengers, was among others who agreed with that traveler. People, Clemens wrote, compared Mississippi River steamboats to other things they had seen, “and, thus measured, thus judged, the boats were magnificent.... The steamboats were finer than anything on shore. Compared with superior dwelling-houses and first-class hotels in the [Mississippi] valley, they were indubitably magnificent, they were ‘palaces.’ To a few people living in New Orleans and St. Louis they were not magnificent, perhaps; not palaces; but to the great majority of those populations, and to the entire populations spread over both banks between Baton Rouge and St. Louis, they were palaces; they tallied with the citizen’s dream of what magnificence was, and satisfied it.”1
Clemens’ intimate knowledge of Mississippi River steamboats dated back at least to 1856, when he decided he would become a pilot, a job that he officially began when he got his pilot’s license in 1858 and that ended when he quit it at the beginning of the Civil War in 1861. He described the Mississippi River steamboat as he knew it :
When he [the passenger] stepped aboard a big fine steamboat, he entered a new and marvelous world: chimney-tops cut to counterfeit a spraying crown of plumes — and maybe painted red; a pilot-house, hurricane-deck, boiler-deck guards, all garnished with white wooden filigree-work of fanciful patterns; gilt acorns topping the derricks; gilt deer-horns over the big bell; gaudy symbolical picture on the paddle-box, possibly; big roomy boiler-deck, painted blue, and furnished with Windsor arm-chairs; inside, a far-receding snow-white “cabin”; porcelain knob and oil-picture on every stateroom door; curving patterns of filigree-work touched up with gilding, stretching overhead all down the converging vista; big chandeliers every little way, rainbow-light falling everywhere from the colored glazing of the skylights; the whole a long-drawn, resplendent tunnel, a bewildering and soul-satisf ying spectacle! In the ladies’ cabin a pink and white Wilton carpet, as soft as mush, and glorified with a ravishing pattern of gigantic flowers. Then the Bridal Chamber ... whose pretentious flummery was necessarily overawing.... Every stateroom had its couple of cozy clean bunks, and perhaps a looking-glass and a snug closet; and sometimes there was even a wash-bowl and pitcher, and part of a towel which could be told from mosquitonetting by an expert — though generally these things were absent, and the shirtsleeved passengers cleansed themselves at a long row of stationary bowls in the barber shop, where were also public towels, public combs, and public soap.
Take the steamboat which I have just described, and you have her in her highest and finest, and most pleasing, and comfortable, and satisfactory estate....2 Another who knew the Mississippi River steamboat well, writer Arthur E. Hopkins, recorded his description:
Steamboating had a romance and glamor never attained in any other kind of transportation. The large sidewheel passenger steamboat was beautiful. Her lines, with a graceful sheer, made her set on the water like a swan; the ornamental railings were filigree of woodwork; her smokestacks towered high above the water line and their tops were cut to represent plumes or fern leaves. From the hull to the hurricane deck the boat was painted a glistening white, with the tops of the wheelhouses a sky blue, as was the breeching around the smokestacks. The pilothouse with its ornamental crown added to the appearance of the entire structure. The dome of the pilothouse matched in color the wheelhouse. A red line near the top of the hull extended from the stem to the stern, and the skylights or ventilators over the main salon were of stained glass. The main cabin, which extended nearly the full length of the boat, was done in white and gold; the walnut or rosewood of the panels at the stateroom doors provided an agreeable contrast.
There was usually a small landscape over the stateroom doors.... The bridal suites and the ladies’ cabins were models of decoration; French plate mirrors in hand-carved and gilded frames adorned them; marble-topped tables, deeply velveted upholstered chairs and settees were provided; and a piano of the best make completed the furnishings.
The name of the boat painted on the sides of the wheelhouses was a triumph of the sign painter’s art; it was frequently done in gold leaf. Sometimes immediately above the name of the boat was painted a landscape or figure. The boat’s colors were beautiful. Flying from the forward flagpole, called the jackstaff, was a long flag outlined in red, white, and blue, with the name of the boat in red on white ground.... Inboard on each wheelhouse was a flagstaff which flew burgees bearing the names of the cities between which the boat operated. On the flagstaff at the rear of the texas the union jack was flown and on the rear flagstaff, called the verge-staff, flew the Stars and Stripes....3
“In the middle of the nineteenth century,” another veteran steamboatman remarked, “many an artist whose canvases found no market in the older cities, found ready bidders for his brush to decorate the thirty-foot paddleboxes of the big side-wheelers with figures of heroic size.” The paddle-boxes of the Minnesota Belle, he observed, “were decorated with pictures the same on each side, representing a beautiful girl, modestly and becomingly clothed, and carrying in her arms a bundle of wheat ten or twelve feet long, which she apparently had just reaped from some Minnesota field.... The Northern Belle also had a very good looking young woman upon her paddle-boxes. Evidently she exhibited herself out of pure self-satisfaction, for she had no sheaf of wheat, or any other evidence of occupation. She was pretty, and she knew it.”4
All the steamers with “Eagle” in their names seemed to have a huge eagle embellishing their paddle-boxes; the steamer Minnesota bore a reproduction of the state’s coat of arms; boats named for noted persons tended to reproduce a likeness of their namesakes on their paddle-boxes. But most sidewheelers, according to one account, offered paddle-box decoration no more original than a sunburst, outside of which, along the curved edge of the wheel’s housing, was painted the name of the line or company that owned the boat.
Frederick Law Olmsted, the nineteenth-century landscape architect who made a name for himself not only as a creator of New York’s Central Park but as a travel writer, described less grand, smaller steamboats, many of which operated on the Mississippi’s tributaries:
They are but scows in build, perfectly flat, with pointed stem and square stern. Behind is one small wheel, moved by two small engines of the simplest and cheapest construction. Drawing but a foot of water they keep afloat in the lowest stages of the rivers. Their freight, wood, machinery, hands and steerage passengers are all on the main deck. Eight or ten feet above, supported by light stanchions in the floor used by passengers, one long saloon 8 or 10 feet wide which stretches from the stern to the smoke pipes far forward.
The saloon is lined on each side with staterooms, which also open out upon a narrow upper gallery. Perched above all this is the pilot house, and a range of staterooms for the officers, pilots and visiting pilots, popularly known as “Texas.” Inveterate card players retire to this “Texas” on Sundays when custom forbids cards in the saloon. A few feet of the saloon are cut off by folding doors for a ladies’ cabin. Forward of the saloon the upper deck extends around the smoke pipes, forming an open space, sheltered by the pilot deck and used for baggage and open-air seats.
Such is the contrivance for making use of their natural highways. And really admirable it is, spite of the drawbacks, for its purpose. Roads in countries so sparsely settled are impractical. These craft paddle about, at some state of water, to almost everyman’s door, bringing him foreign luxuries, and taking away his own productions.5
By 1859, during the Mississippi steamboat’s heyday, there were thirtytwo elegant passenger steamboats operating between New Orleans and St. Louis. The steamer Eclipse, in the years before the Civil War, was widely considered the most outstanding of them all, in size, speed and luxury. In 1853 it made the 1,440-mile trip from New Orleans to Louisville in four days, nine hours and thirty-one minutes, a record-breaking time made all the more remarkable because of the vessel’s size. It measured 363 feet long and 36 feet in the beam. (In comparison, the modern Mississippi River excursion steamboat Mississippi Queen measures 382 feet in length and 68 feet in the beam.) Eclipse’s saloon glistened with gilt and was adorned with rich, colorful paintings. The saloon was divided roughly in half, according to gender, and at the men’s end stood a gilt statuette of Andrew Jackson, and at the women’s end stood a matching statuette of Henry Clay. Included among the lavish furnishings was a piano for the use of passengers. Special sleeping rooms were available for the passengers’ servants. The boat could accommodate as many as 180 passengers, along with its 121-member crew. Most extraordinary of all its attractions, the Eclipse’s accommodations included no less than forty-eight bridal chambers, a telling testimony to the steamboat’s power to inspire romance in the bosoms of its passengers. Other usual amenities aboard steamboats included a post office, a laundry and a library.
A steamer’s main cabin at dinnertime. Also called the grand saloon, the main cabin, located on the boiler deck, served at various times as a sumptuous hotel lobby, a lounge, a dining room, a ballroom or a concert hall. For first-class passengers the grand saloon was the magnificent great hall of a wondrously beautiful floating palace, illuminated by glistening cut-glass chandeliers, decorated with oil paintings and thick carpets. At dinnertime “steaming foods [were] piled high on the long linen table cloth,” one passenger reported, “...with attentive waiters standing at the traveler’s elbow, waiting with more food ... neither homes nor hotels of the [eighteen] fifties were ever like this” (Library of Congress).
To a great many, a voyage as a passenger on a Mississippi River steamboat was, as one writer of the early twentieth century called it, “a luxurious orgy.” The grand saloon was more comfortable, more ornate, more sensuous than the parlors or sitting rooms of the passengers’ homes, which, in the custom of their times, they entered and used only on special occasions. For those passengers the Mississippi River steamboat’s saloon was the magnificent great hall of a wondrously beautiful floating palace. “The wooden filigrees that stretched down the long aisle in a tapering vista illuminated by the glistening cut-glass chandeliers; the soft oil paintings on every stateroom door; the thick carpets that transformed walking into a royal march; the steaming foods piled high on the long linen cloth in the dining room, with attentive waiters standing at the traveler’s elbow, waiting with more food, and gaily colored desserts in the offing — neither homes nor hotels of the [eighteen] fifties were ever like this.”6 At various times the grand saloon could be a sumptuous hotel lobby, a lounge, a dining room, a ballroom or a concert hall, depending on the occasion and the arrangement of its furniture.
The steamboat’s cuisine, included in the price of a cabin passenger’s ticket, was an immensely important part of the cabin passenger’s travel experience, not to mention the commercial success of the boat. Food and supplies were brought aboard at port cities and were also procured at landings along the river as the boat proceeded on its run. Chickens, pigeons, lambs and pigs were taken aboard as well as fruit, vegetables and fresh eggs. The animals were kept alive on the boat until the menu called for them to become dinner. Breads, pastries, cakes and other desserts were prepared in one of the boat’s two galleys, the bakery ordinarily a part of the larboard (rivermen’s usual term for the boat’s left side) galley, and the meats and other courses prepared in the starboard galley. Meals were usually elaborate. One of the steamers offered its cabin passengers thirteen different desserts — six of them concoctions of custard, jelly and cream in tall glasses, and seven of them pies, puddings or ice cream. Another offered fifteen desserts. Some steamboats on the first day of their voyage served a dinner that was so heavy it left some passengers squeamish about taking in another full meal during the rest of the trip. The usual fare in early steamboat days was homey American food, but later, as the boats and their first-class passengers became more upscale, some French haute cuisine became de rigueur.
Less upscale was the boats’ drinking water, which was served at every meal. It came, like the boat’s water for its boilers and its passengers’ washbowls, straight from the river, sediment and all. It was believed to be good for a person’s system that way. Fortunately for the squeamish and finicky, coffee and tea, disguising the river water, were also served with meals.
At dinnertime a Mississippi River steamboat of standard elegance in the 1850s would provide as many as twenty-five waiters and attendants to take care of its passengers’ prandial desires, and the saloon’s lavish dining tables looked as if they were spread for an elaborate wedding reception. When it was time to take their places at the tables, the women passengers — the ladies — would process from their end of the saloon to music played by the boat’s own band — whose members in some cases were all women — and when dinner was over, the ladies would march out to music . Everything considered, a cabin passenger’s life aboard a Mississippi River steamboat was, as one old steamboat hand put it, “some powerful fine livin’.”
The usual Mississippi River steamboat had four decks. The first, or low
Stairway leading up from a typical steamboat’s boiler deck, the deck above its main deck, to the hurricane deck, or promenade deck. At right in this photograph is the purser’s, or clerk’s, office. Passengers reached the boiler deck by climbing gracefully curving stairways that rose from the steamer’s main deck near the bow of the boat (Library of Congress).
est, was called the main deck, which stood about four feet above the surface of the river. That was where the boat’s machinery was mounted, with the boilers positioned forward and the engines positioned between the two huge paddle wheels. Some of the boats, of course, had a single paddle wheel, mounted on the stern. Also on the main deck were the galleys, space for freight and space for deck, or steerage, passengers, whose low fares entitled them to little more than passage and a sleeping spot on a cot, a bench or on the boards of the deck itself. Ten to eighteen feet above the main deck and reachable by a pair of curving stairways near the bow, was the boiler deck, or saloon deck, on which were the passenger staterooms, the barroom, the saloon — or main cabin — and the boat’s offices. A promenade, like a porch, encircled the staterooms on the outside and could be accessed from the staterooms, from the saloon or from gangways, allowing cabin passengers to stroll or sit — on benches or chairs — and watch the passing scenery on the river and along the shore.
Interior of a stateroom. The grand saloon on either side was lined by staterooms with doors that opened into the saloon and also with doors that opened onto a porchlike promenade that encircled the boat’s superstructure, allowing first-class passengers to stroll or sit and watch the passing scenery on the river and along the shore (Library of Congress).
Above the boiler deck was the hurricane deck, or promenade deck, with a cluster of cabins called the texas, in which the boat’s officers were quartered. On top of the texas stood the pilothouse, or wheelhouse, some fifty feet above the water, presenting a commanding view of the river that lay before the bow of the boat. (A common belief is that the texas was so called because in the 1840s staterooms were named after the nation’s states and the cabins that were occupied by the boat’s officers, a recent addition to the steamboat’s design, were named texas for the state of Texas, which in 1845 was the nation’s newest addition. Another explanation for the name is that the officers’ staterooms were the largest on the steamboats and therefore they received the name of the then-largest state, Texas. One other popular belief is that the cabins occupied by passengers and the boats’ officers were called staterooms because they were named after states. However, the term stateroom, or state-room, had been used to mean a grand room in a palace or mansion before it was ever applied to a cabin on a steamboat or ship.)
A first-class ticket on a Mississippi River steamboat traveling upstream might cost as much as twelve and a half cents a mile, but about half that amount when the boat was headed downstream. In either case, fares were often negotiable with the captain, who in eagerness to take aboard as many paying passengers as possible would stop en route to pick them up when they hailed him from the shore, day or night.
For passengers who were unable to foot the expense of a first-class ticket, travel on a Mississippi River steamboat was considerably more austere and mean than it was for cabin passengers. Negro slaves and steerage-class white passengers, whose passage from New Orleans to St. Louis might cost as much as three dollars each, were quartered on the main deck, finding room wherever they could in between stacks of freight, forbidden to ascend to the upper decks. For sleeping, they brought their own bedding or did without. The boat provided a stove for cooking, but the deck passengers had to supply their own food, which was usually sausage, dried fish, or crackers and cheese — and a bottle of whiskey to wash down all that dry food. The deck passengers included farmers who had given up trying to wrest a living from poor soil in the eastern U.S. and were seeking more promising farmland in the West, and immigrants straight from Europe, seeking new lives in a new land, looking for a job and a place to start. Some others were simply restless individuals on the lookout for something better, something different, often bringing their wives and young children along with them on the quest. Others were peddlers, traveling with their wares from town to town, wherever the boat would stop.
Still others, particularly in the Mississippi steamboat’s early days, were flatboat or raft crewmen who had come down the river on their vessels, which had been broken up and sold as lumber at their destination, and were returning to their homes upriver aboard a steamboat. They were a raffish bunch who treated the steamboat ride as a boisterous vacation, swilling rum and singing and shouting and firing their pistols into the air throughout much of the night. The negro slaves traveling as deck passengers, some of them bought in New Orleans and on their way to new locations, some being taken to New Orleans to be sold, were, like the flatboat crewmen, also temporarily free from their usual hard work, and many of them made the most of their trip, singing and dancing and generally celebrating the time aboard the boat as if it were a holiday. Charles Dickens, the British novelist, traveled aboard a Mississippi River steamboat in 1842 and complained that the passengers on the main deck kept him awake at night with their noise, shooting guns and singing hymns.
Music was one of the big attractions of Mississippi River steamboats. A brass band or an orchestra became standard equipment on the boats. It played for passengers in concerts and for dances during the voyage and it played for townspeople when the boat docked. Perhaps even more enjoyable to passengers was the music made by the free Negroes who worked as waiters, barbers, porters and deckhands aboard the steamboats. “They played stringed instruments,” one observer commented, “and sang as only they could play and sing those haunting, joyfully sad melodies and hymns.”7 The calliope, or steam organ, or steam piano, was invented in 1855 (by Joshua C. Stoddard of Worcester, Massachusetts) and, although intended by its inventor to replace church bells, it soon found itself adopted by steamboat owners, who mounted the instruments on the exterior of the boats and had them played to charm not only the boats’ passengers but people along the shore, the distinctive, cheery sound audible many miles away from the river.
The calliope, however, received mixed reviews once passengers had experienced it while aboard a steamboat. One long-time pilot on the upper Mississippi, George Byron Merrick, although acknowledging that music was important to passengers, did not think the calliope’s tones made the sort of music that boosted the boats’ passenger business:
In the flush times on the river all sorts of inducements were offered passengers to board the several boats for the up-river voyage. First of all, perhaps, the speed of the boat was dwelt upon.... After speed came elegance —“fast and elegant steamer”— was a favorite phrase in the advertisement....
After elegance came music, and this spoke for itself. The styles affected by river steamers ranged from a calliope on the roof to a stringed orchestra in the cabin [saloon]. The “Excelsior,” Captain Ward, was the first to introduce the “steam piano” to a long-suffering passenger list. Plenty of people took passage on the “Excelsior” in order to hear the calliope perform; many of them, long before they reached St. Paul, wished they had not come aboard, particularly if they were light sleepers. The river men did not mind it much, as they were used to noises of all kinds, and when they “turned in” made a business of sleeping. It was different with most passengers, and a steam piano solo at three o’clock in the morning was a little too much music for the money. After its introduction on the “Excelsior,” several other boats armed themselves with this persuader of custom; but as none of them ever caught the same passenger the second time, the machine went out of fashion. Other boats tried brass bands; but while these attracted some custom they were expensive, and came to be dropped as unprofitable.
The cabin [saloon] orchestra was the cheapest and most enduring, as well as the most popular drawing card. A band of six or eight colored men who could play the violin, banjo, and guitar, and in addition sing well, was always a good investment.... They also played for dances in the cabin, and at landings sat on the guards and played to attract custom. It soon became advertised abroad which boats carried the best orchestras, and such lost nothing in the way of patronage.8
After-dinner activities aboard the steamers varied widely — and simultaneously. Passengers were allowed to amuse themselves as they pleased, so long as they did not infringe on the rights of others and did not interfere with
A steamboat calliope. Music was one of the big attractions of Mississippi River steamboats, and the calliope, invented in 1855, soon became a standard feature on steamers. It was mounted on the boats’ exterior, and its distinctive, cheery sounds charmed not only the boat’s passengers but people along the shore (Library of Congress).
the crew and the workings of the boat. “There might frequently be seen in the ladies’ cabin a group of the godly praying and singing psalms,” one traveler recalled, “while in the dining-saloon, from which the tables had been removed, another party were dancing merrily to the music of a fiddle, while farther along, in the social hall, might be heard the loud laughter of jolly carousers around the drinking bar, and occasionally chiming in with the sound of the revelry, the rattling of money and checks, and the sound of voices at the card-tables.”9
Many steamboats had a rule that prohibited gambling after 10 P.M., but the rule was largely ignored, and it was not unusual for card games to last through the night and into the dawn of a new day. Some boats posted signs warning that gentlemen who played cards for money did so at their own risk. In the convivial atmosphere that prevailed after dinner in the saloon, members of the crew —“uncouth pilots, mates, and greasy engineers”10—sometimes joined well-dressed passengers at the card tables. The most common card games were poker, brag (similar to poker), whist, Boston (which required two decks of cards), and old sledge (also called seven-up). Other popular games included vingt-et-un (or blackjack), chuck (or chuck farthing, a cointossing game), three-card monte and faro.
Of all the passengers who ever boarded a Mississippi River steamboat, none were more remembered, or more written about, than the professional gamblers. At first they were regarded merely as very good players and accepted by fellow passengers as such. “The card tables of a steamer were free to all persons of gentlemanly habits and manners,” George Byron Merrick wrote. “The gambler was not excluded from a seat there on account of his superior skill at play; or, at least, it was an exceedingly rare thing for one person to object to another on these grounds. Pride would not permit the humiliating confession.”11 Curiously, men who refused to associate with gamblers in ordinary circumstances ashore felt themselves in no way compromised by sharing a card table with them on a Mississippi River steamboat.
Pots were not big on the upper Mississippi, the playing passengers not being the wealthy planters that many passengers on the lower Mississippi were. Some did come aboard wearing broad money belts, though, laden with twenty-dollar gold pieces, and gamblers were usually satisfied to pick up two or three hundred dollars a week from those gold-bearing passengers.
Collusion was common. The professional gamblers often worked in pairs, coming aboard separately, pretending not to know each other, not speaking to each other until introduced, usually by an intended victim. They were convincing actors, playing a variety of roles to help lure suckers into a game. “At different times they represented all sorts and conditions of men — settlers, prospectors, Indian agents, merchants, lumbermen, and even lumber-jacks,” Merrick wrote, “and they always dressed their part, and talked it, too. To do this required some education, keen powers of observation, and an all-around knowledge of men and things. They were gentlemanly at all times — courteous to men and chivalrous to women. While pretending to drink large quantities of very strong liquors, they did in fact make away with many pint measures of quite innocent river water, tinted with the mildest liquid distillation of burned peaches.... They kept their private bottles of colored water on tap in the bar, and with the uninitiated passed for heavy drinkers.”12
The professionals apparently cooperated in a sort of a gamblers’ fraternity that in effect granted informal franchises to particular individuals to work particular boats and discouraged encroachment by one gambler on the territory of another. Gamblers did occasionally switch from one steamboat to another, but only by agreement with their affected brethren.
Over time, the professionals developed a successful modus operandi. Once they had lured one or more victims into “a friendly game,” the professionals, in the early hands of the game, would deliberately and cheerfully lose large pots to each other, and when the game had proceeded to the point where the intended victims felt comfortable and confident, one of the professionals would announce that the boat had reached his town and would disembark at, say, Prescott, Wisconsin, or Hastings, Minnesota, or Stillwater, Minnesota, and his partner would continue on to St. Paul, with the intended victims still at the card table with him, now ready to be fleeced.
“The chief reliance of the gamblers,” steamboat traveler John Morris related, “lay in the marked cards with which they played. No pack of cards left the bar until it had passed through the hands of the gambler who patronized the particular boat that he ‘worked.’ The marking was called ‘stripping.’ This was done by placing the high cards — ace, king, queen, jack, and tenspot — between two thin sheets of metal, the edges of which were very slightly concaved. Both edges of the cards were trimmed to these edges with a razor; the cards so ‘stripped’ were thus a shade narrower in the middle than those not operated upon; they were left full width at each end. The acutely sensitive fingers of the gamblers could distinguish between the marked and the unmarked cards, while the other players could detect nothing out of the way in them.”13 The professional gambler might spend hours stripping the cards in his stateroom, then replace them in their cartons, reseal the cartons and return them to the bar to be repurchased later, the bartender obviously being in collusion with the gamblers.
The deft hands of the professional gambler, who by the 1850s was perceived by Mississippi steamboat passengers as an ipso facto card sharp — rather
George H. Devol, whose daring exploits made him one of the most famous Mississippi River steamboat gamblers. Many steamboats had a rule that prohibited gambling after 10 P.M., but the rule was largely ignored, and it was not unusual for card games to last through the night and into dawn of the next day. The most common card games were poker, brag, whist, Boston, blackjack and chuck (Library of Congress).
than merely an unusually skillful player — were the key to his sure-thing success at cards. Dealing from the bottom of the deck in order to give predetermined hands to anyone at the table, was a technique believed to have been developed by a man named Wilson and first made its appearance on the Mississippi and other western rivers around 1834.
Detection, or even suspicion, of cheating was the chief occupational hazard of the Mississippi River steamboat gambler. Stories about threats to the gambler’s life abound. One gambler, who had been particularly successful happened to overhear several of his victims conspiring to kill him and take back the money they had lost to him. He slipped away and found a place to hide near the pilot house, then bribed the boat’s pilot to have him pull over close to the river bank at the first opportunity and let the gambler jump off the
boat. The pilot did so, and the gambler leaped from the boat. He landed in shallow water and sank to his waist in the mud of the river bottom, trapped by the muck while his angry victims, having discovered his escape, began firing pistols at him. The steamboat continued on its way, and the gambler was soon out of range of the gunfire. He was finally rescued by slaves who had been working in a nearby field and were drawn to the river bank by the sounds of the gunfire. Responding to his yells for help, they got a long pole and pulled him to safety. He then waited on the bank for another passing steamboat to stop and pick him up.
That same gambler, George H. Devol, who had begun his career on the Mississippi River as a steamboat cabin boy, was later in a similarly dangerous situation aboard another boat he was working. The men he had fleeced had become drunk and set out to find him and recoup their losses. He came out of his hiding place on the boat long enough to find some dirty clothing, which he put on, then smeared his face with grime and mixed in with the boat’s roustabouts on the main deck. When the boat tied up at its next stop, he hefted a piece of freight and fell in with the roustabouts filing down the stage, hauling freight ashore. Thus he escaped once more, while his menacing victims searched for him on the upper decks.
In his memoir Devol told his own story of outwitting a desperate passenger who pulled a pistol on him after losing his entire bankroll to Devol playing monte, a game in which three cards are placed on the table face up and the bettor, after selecting one of the cards and having the dealer shuffle and manipulate them face down, then must pick from the three face-down cards the one he had selected:
I was playing monte one night on the Robert E. Lee when a fellow stepped up to the table and bet me $800.... When he had lost his money and spent a few moments studying, he whipped out a Colt’s navy [pistol] and said, “See here, friend, that is all the money I have got, and I am going to die right here but I will have it back.”
I coolly said, “Did you think I was going to keep the money?”
He replied, “I knew very well you would not keep it. If you had, I would have filled you full of lead. I am from Texas, sir,” and the man straightened himself up.
Pulling out a roll of money, I said, “I want to whisper to you.” He put his head down, and I said, “...I didn’t want to give you the money before all these people because then they would all want their money back, too. But you offer to bet me again, and I will bet you $800 against your pistol.”
That pleased him. “All right,” he said, and the $800 and the pistol went up in my partner’s hands. Over went the wrong card. I grabbed the pistol, and told my partner to give me the stake money. Pulling the gun on him [the Texan], “Now,” I said, “you’ve acted the wet dog about this and I will not give you a cent of your money, and if you cut any more capers, I will break your nose.”14
The gambler wasn’t always the winner, though. He could be outsmarted occasionally. The hero of one story, apparently an old one on the river, was a bank clerk who left New Orleans bound for Pittsburgh on bank business, carrying $100,000 in cash in his trunk. Several professional gamblers found out about the clerk’s mission and bought tickets on the same boat with him. Once the trip started, it wasn’t long before the gamblers had drawn the clerk into a game of brag, at which they allowed him to win several hands to set him up for the kill. At what they figured was the right moment, he was dealt a very good hand, and one of the professionals was dealt an even better hand. The betting went back and forth between the clerk and the professional until at last the clerk had bet all the money that he had on the table. At that point the gambler raised him five thousand dollars and when the clerk said he was out of money and asked the gambler to show his hand, the gambler refused and demanded the clerk come up with five thousand dollars to see his bet or forfeit the pot.
“I go you five thousand better and give you five minutes to raise the money,” the gambler told him.
The clerk slowly got up from the table and strode to his stateroom, went in and unlocked his trunk, then returned to the table with a package containing the money that he was taking to Pittsburgh. “You will not give me a sight for my money?” the clerk asked the gambler.
“No, sir,” the gambler replied. “I went five thousand dollars better and gave you five minutes to raise the money. One minute of the time remains.”
“Then, sir,” the clerk declared, tossing the money package onto the table, “I see your five thousand and go you ninety-five thousand dollars better — and give you five minutes to raise the money!”
Unable to come up with that huge amount, the gambler and his partners abruptly withdrew from the table, leaving the pot — and the money package — to the clerk. At the boat’s next stop, the gamblers got off to return to New Orleans, outmaneuvered and several thousand dollars lighter, but ready to take a new ride on another grand steamboat.