01 August 2013

A Washington Gambling House

Correspondence of the Boston Post.
Washington, Oct. 25, 1868.

One of the most celebrated and successful sports of this or any other country, was buried in this city on Sunday week. the occasion of his death affords me an opportunity of giving your readers a sketch of the man and a description of his gaming house. Let it serve as a warning, not as an example.

He had been a resident of Washington some fifteen or twenty years, during which period he amassed great wealth by gambling, or, to use the mild and honest language of the avenue "he realized an ample fortune out of his successful operations of his house." His "house" being the most elegant, and his bank the most weighty and substantial in the country, it has been for years the fashionable and fascinating resort of wealthy planters, fast Congressmen, aspiring diplomats, and ambitious sportsmen from every part of the world. For many years past he has lived in the most luxurious style, having, like a certain other rich man, "been clothed in purple and fine linen, and faring sumptuously every day." In person he was above the medium size, fat and sleek, of pleasing address, and a generous disposition; exhibiting in his general deportment to strangers the characteristics of a well-fed, good-natured clergyman rather than those of a heartless, unrelenting gambler.

His reputation for generosity was widely established. If a college was to be endowed, a church built, or private charities to be dispensed, his was sure to be among the most munificent of the donations. His wife, now a widow, was of good parentage, possessing social qualities, which, combined with the dazzling allurements of wealth, ensured her troops of admirers and courtesans. Rolling along the avenue in her magnificent equipage, which far exceeds in richness and style that of the President of the United States, or that of any other gentleman in Washington, she looked a very queen — being quite undisturbed by any thought that her presence sent a dagger to scores of hearts whose patrimony, unlawfully obtained, had contributed to her enjoyment, in the same proportion that its loss has added to the woes and wretchedness of the beholder.

His "establishment" was upon Pennsylvania avenue, between the National Hotel and the Capitol. Let us approach and look at it.

You enter by a door of variegated stained glass, which, by gas light, reflects all the colors of the rainbow. Ascending a flight of stairs you reach a door, pull the bell, and instantly a small aperture opens, and you are greeted with a pair of red eyes and a double row of ivory, set in black, which nominally belong to Sambo, but which, in fact, at the property of the proprietor. A glance suffices. You have filled Sambo's eye and are deemed passable. The door is at once opened and you are ushered into the ante-room, the vestibule of hell. The room is not large, but elegantly appointed — the chief attraction being the sideboard, which is of solid marble and white as Diana's breast. Here are arranged in long and gleaming columns, decanters of cut glass sparkling like brilliants, filled with the choicest nectar, and blushing to the very [n.l.] with the glowing vintage of the olden time. If you pass this rubicon without tasting the sparkling but dangerous waters, it is not from any dearth of hospitality on the part of your persuasive host. The spacious "sporting hall" is now visible.

This floor is covered with carpeting from the Orient, of immense cost and marvelous beauty. The walls are adorned with superb paintings of the old masters and the new, while pendant from the windows hang curtains of embroidered lace, covered with golden tapestry of Oriental magnificence, with mirrors of mammoth size reflecting your focus and features from a score of gleaming embrasures. Along the hall, at convenient distances, are ranged circular tables of polished rosewood, around which are seated numbers of thoughtful, anxious, dark-visaged men, who heed you not — their eyes having another and stranger attraction. One would naturally suppose this to be a theatre for jests, drollery and song, or bacchanalian revelings, or pugilistic encounters. Far from it. On the contrary all is hushed, silent, sepulchral.

"No real voice or sound,
Within these cheerless walls is found."

You are oppressed with the fearless stillness and awful silence which pervades the place. A laugh, a joke, or even a curse, would be a sensible relief. But you hear nothing of this. An occasional long breath of half subdued sigh is all that tells the ear that those mad devotees are possessed of lungs and life.

An hour's inspection satisfies your curiosity and you are about taking your departure, when a soft hand taps you on the shoulder, and a low voice "Please don't leave, sir, supper will be ready in a few minutes." As precisely 10½ o'clock the doors of the dining hall are thrown open, and "supper's ready," proclaims an immediate armistice between the combatants, and invites to a more healthy and rational duty. The long tables groan beneath the burden of gold and silver plate, and the heaps of delicacies which surround and adorn them. Here are venison from the brown forests of Maine, turkeys from the broad savannahs of the West, canvas-backs from the placid Potomac, trout from Superior, and salmon from the St. John's; together with fruits, flowers, and wines for every taste and from every clime.

The repast over, you are permitted, with a patronizing invitation to "call again," to make your retreat to the open air, there to thank heaven that you are not a worshipper within the magnificent yet cheerless abode.

One night's work, a few days previous to the close of the last session, made sad havoc among the coffers of this den. It is said that a distinguished Senator won on that night $180,000, which broke the bank and caused a temporary suspension. A new house, however, was soon purchased by him, and was magnificently decorated, when the "King of Terrors," the great unbeaten and unchallenged, stepped in and closed the game of life forever.

November 10, 1858. Louisville Daily Courier 27(114): 1.