“Slot Machines Are Illegal,” proclaimed an Idaho Statesman headline on March 25, 1903. “In response to an inquiry by county attorney A.H. Darbyshire of Albion, Cassia County, Attorney General John A. Bagley has expressed the opinion that all slot machines, whether paying in cash or checks calling for merchandise, are gambling devices and any person operating or patronizing them is guilty of a misdemeanor.”
The story continued: “Slot machines paying in currency, checks or merchandise are in operation in every county in the state, and according to the attorney general’s opinion, every one of them is in contravention of the law. A distinctive feature of the opinion is that it makes the patron equally liable with the owner or operator of the machine.”
Most sources agree that the nickel slot machine devised for gambling was invented in 1894 by a German immigrant named Charles Fey, of San Francisco. His “Liberty Bell” machine featured three spinning wheels put into motion by a lever pushed by the patron. The “jackpot” of 10 nickels was paid if three Liberty Bells in a row turned up. The craze for playing the machines caused San Francisco to ban them in 1909.
Liberty Bell machines, or something similar, had reached Boise in May 1894, when the Statesman reported, “The officers are waging war on the nickel-in-the-slot gambling machines.”
New laws banning gambling of any kind were enacted year after year, without notable results. On May 8, 1897, the Statesman noted that all gambling had stopped at midnight in compliance with a new law enacted by the Legislature, and a month later reported that the Idaho Supreme Court had ruled on an appeal by Boise gambling interests that the law applied to Boise, no matter what local ordinances permitted it. On Sept. 3, 1897, after a four-month suspension of gambling, the District Court ruled that gambling could start up again, which it promptly did.
“Some enterprising individual has been playing havoc with the nickel-in-the-slot machines,” reported the paper on June 18, 1898. “He discovered a method whereby he could, by opening the contrivance with one nickel, keep the wheel revolving without depositing additional coins. In this manner he admits he has made $2 to $5 per day.”
In Lewiston in April 1898, a masked man robbed a faro table in a saloon of $403, and in May that year a Statesman headline once again reported, “End of gambling. Games closed up at 12 o’clock last night. Played to the last minute. Twenty-one dealers continued to shuffle the cards until the stroke of the hour of midnight.” In November 1898, Boise police raided the Anheuser Beer Hall, broke up its “gambling furniture” with an ax and fed it to the fire.
Police continued to raid the back rooms of saloons year after year and nearly always found some kind of illegal gambling going on. In Nampa in June 1903, “Last night the city council placed a quietus on gambling which has been so flagrant in the town for the last two months. Nickel-in-the-slot machines which have been occupying conspicuous places on the streets were also ordered off the thoroughfares. This wise and judicious movement has been under consideration by the council for some time, and will certainly meet with the approbation of our citizens.” Well certainly not by all of them!
Slot machines of the kind popularly known as “one-armed bandits” were still illegal in January 1945, when Boise police and Ada County sheriff’s officers raided clubs across the city and confiscated their machines. Hillcrest Country Club yielded nine machines; Elks Club, 10; Eagles Club, six; Royal Club in the Owyhee Hotel, five; Moose Lodge, five; and Gremlin’s Roost in Hotel Boise, one.
Chief of Police George Haskin told the Statesman that no arrests had been made but that he thought some would be. His problem was deciding which of the city’s leading citizens to arrest, since dozens of them were surely guilty of illegal gambling.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.