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All or Nothing

02/01/2012 03:58AM ● Published by Style

Each Sunday, the miners in the vicinity of Old Dry Diggings (Placerville) made their weekly pilgrimage to town to sell their gold dust and buy provisions.

After six days of arduous labor in the diggings, throngs of miners crowded the narrow streets to socialize, enjoy some theatrical or musical entertainment, or to patronize the pool rooms and bowling alleys. Most headed for Ben Nickerson’s U.S. Trio Hall, Milton Elsner’s Eldorado Hotel, the Jenny Lind, the Empire House Hotel or one of the other numerous early gambling houses, tents, booths and saloons.

When John Carr arrived in Placerville in August 1850, he found 50 to 60 shake houses strewn along one street. The largest four houses in town were lively gambling establishments, bustling with gaming activities. Tables covered with stacks of gold and silver Mexican coins and operated by professional gamblers called “sports,” tempted the miners to try their luck at a game of faro, lansquenet or three-card monte.  

The presiding “sports” were considered by many to be the “aristocracy” of the mining camp. Generally, they dressed in “store-bought” suits and boiled white shirts which sharply distinguished them from the amateur, flannel-clad miners. Frequently, well-painted and elegantly-attired female “sports,” ran the tables, thus adding spice and excitement during the early years of the Gold Rush when women were so scarce.

Early gambling houses provided the miners with a place to congregate and visit with friends, chosen perhaps because they offered more plush surroundings than the average miner’s tent or cabin. Besides cards, these gaming establishments often offered billiard tables and 10-pin alleys, which awarded other means of entertainment and friendly competition.

In between the largest gambling houses in Placerville and vicinity, there existed every conceivable variation of gambling establishment, lurking in the corner of just about every hotel, saloon, barroom, billiard parlor or bowling alley in the western part of the county, needing only the owner’s permission to rent the space. No camp proved too small to warrant such a “civic improvement.”

Attitudes toward gamblers usually proved favorable at first. But, even the popular Lucky Bill Thorrington, famous for amassing $24,000 in two months at thimble rigging (a game played with three cups of walnut shells and a dried pea) was once run out of Placerville when he relieved a prominent local citizen of $2,000 in a card game.

Certainly, gambling could instigate violence. John Carr saw New Orleans’ Dick Crane stick a knife in the chest of a man who accused him of cheating. A monte dealer at the Eldorado Hotel became unpopular when he refused to pay off an $800 bet. He wound up with a rope around his neck and a 15-minute allowance in which to “pungle up the dust.” Wisely, the dealer paid up.

Although the State Legislature passed an anti-gambling bill in 1855, officials in El Dorado County did not enforce it with special ardor. Those few who were prosecuted generally managed to be acquitted of any charges.

Inevitably, though, county residents came to view gambling as a pestilential pastime which sapped the life’s blood from the community. In time, the professional “sports” moved on, leaving the locals to play poker, rondo and monte on their own – illegally.

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