Idaho History

Cracking down on gambling in Idaho in early 1900s

Enforcement of laws against illegal gambling was so lax in early Idaho that when raids did come they nearly always caught the gamblers by surprise.

Politics and payoffs played a big part in the spotty enforcement of city ordinances in many towns. "Why raid us now when we've been running wide open for a year?"might well have been the complaint of the proprietors of gaming houses after one of the occasional crack-downs.

A so-called "private club" in Pocatello was raided by police in July, 1905, after the mayor got his hands on one of the keys issued all too freely to members of the gambling public. Two "well-known knights of the green cloth" were arrested and $160 in cash was seized. Cards, chips, gaming tables and "various gambling devices" were also confiscated, to be publicly chopped up later. In what was perhaps an excess of zeal, the officers also raided Pocatello's "leading colored man's club" and interrupted a crap game. The city attorney was ordered to draw up the necessary charges against all those, black or white, caught in the police net. The Pocatello Tribune noted that "up to date the men involved figure as John Doe, Richard Roe, and others of the same family."

Methodist ministers attending a conference in Hailey in August, 1904, prevailed upon the police to shut down card games that were running openly in most of the city's saloons. They watched with evident satisfaction as the wicked pasteboards were burned, leading the local paper to quip "there goes the last cold deck in Hailey," and to paraphrase the old poem that goes: "the boy stood on the burning deck." In response to the rather naive suggestion that the gamblers would then have to go to work, the paper agreed, but added "they're going to work, but they didn't say who."

A candidate for mayor of Weiser that year spoke in favor of permitting gambling to continue in that town, so long as fines were collected regularly to support the city's government. If this sounds cynical, it follows a pattern long established in other Idaho cities, and is akin to Boise's 19th century practice of rounding up prostitutes regularly and fining them $13 dollars each. "Sin fines" took the place of today's "sin taxes" on tobacco and alcohol.