Gambling has been part of life in Idaho since its earliest days, and most of the time it has been illegal, although enforcement of laws against it has often been lax.
In September 1892, gambling was wide-open in Boise. The Idaho Statesman noted, “At the present time five faro and four crap games are ‘running’ in the different resorts in the city.” That October, “A white man who hails from Spokane has been running a fan tan game in Chinatown. The pigtails are winning, and they are correspondingly happy. They consider it great sport to beat the white dealer.”
In DeLamar in December 1893, a man named Scott borrowed $200 from a friend and began playing cards. “He worked a bright game and fleeced the boys out of about $1,100 and skipped the town. A party was organized to hunt him up and bring him back, but so far he has eluded his pursuers.”
In February 1898, the Boise City Council adopted an ordinance listing forms of gambling thereby declared illegal: “faro, monte, roulette, lansequenet, rouge et noir, rondo or any game played with cards, dice, or any other device, for money, checks, credit or any other representative of values.” Anyone found guilty of operating or playing such games faced a fine of $40 to $200, and imprisonment of up to 60 days. Anyone who refused to testify at a trial on illegal gambling was also subject to the same penalties.
Mayor James Hawley told Boise police officers in January 1904 that they could smash in the doors of suspected gambling joints. In Hailey later that month, while the Methodist conference was in session, ministers from around Idaho made an anti-gambling gesture by burning a deck of playing cards. This gave the Idaho Statesman the opportunity to quip, “There goes the last cold deck in Hailey,” and to recall lines from a popular poem that went, “The boy stood on the burning deck.”
When Boise police raided the Owl Cigar Store at 4:30 a.m. on Jan. 29, 1906, they found the place crowded with 19 men, either playing draw poker or watching the games.
Although the place had the reputation of being a gambling joint, it had not been raided before. Officers marched all 19 men to the police station in City Hall, where they were questioned. At first they all claimed that they had not been playing for money, but only for “peanuts and candy and like articles.” Their names were taken and they were let go for the time being. The Statesman reported, “They and their friends talked rather too much during the day, however, tending to confirm the officers in their opinion and three of the men previously examined at police headquarters were arrested, this time on a charge of vagrancy.” Upon being confronted with the prospect of a jail sentence for this offense, the men admitted that they had been playing for chips that were cashed in the cigar store for money after the game was over.
When James Connolly, part-owner of the Owl Cigar Store, was fined $100 and costs, he promptly gave notice that he would appeal. County Attorney James F. Koelsch announced that appeals by others of those arrested must be made immediately or he would proceed against them under state law. Jack Troy, Connolly’s partner in the cigar store, was not charged because he had not been present at the time of the raid. Frank Fugi, a Japanese man who was playing a hand in the poker game that was interrupted so unceremoniously by the police, pleaded guilty and paid a fine of $40 and costs, the minimum permitted by the city ordinance.
Next week, “one-armed bandits” become popular with the gambling public.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.