The politics of the "policy" game

William Rockhill NelsonThe long effort to get “policy” gambling off the streets of the two Kansas Cities resumed early in 1893 with attacks by William Rockhill Nelson’s Star on “policy boss” Ed Findlay and his associates in Kansas City Missouri’s City Hall. “Policy” schemes, or the “numbers game,” sold tickets that paid a few dollars – sometimes quite a few dollars depending on the amount paid for the ticket -- to purchasers who guessed a combination of numbers drawn from a “policy wheel.”

Nelson’s campaign against Findlay and the policy racket was part of his relentless attack on the Democratic machine that ran Kansas City politics; the Kansas City Mail described it as a “bitter personal feeling between Nelson and Findlay. They both need reformation.” When Marcy K. Brown, County Prosecuting Attorney, described in the Star as “the Candidate of the Thugs and Gamblers,” ran second to his opponent in city voting in the 1892 elections – though not in Jackson County as a whole -- the Star crowed that despite efforts of “every rough, tough, hobo, gambler and crook in Kansas City” to secure Brown’s election, the city “has washed its hands of him.”

Nelson resumed the attack on the “push” and its connection to Findlay in a January editorial that described Findlay as having been only a run of the mill gambler until the gang of “petty criminals and vagrants” he commanded drew the attention of machine politicians and turned him into a political boss:

He furnished money and men when they were needed, and they furnished him not only immunity from punishment by law, but the right to name candidates and pack primaries. Incidentally they gave him an absolute gambling franchise in Kansas City.

Findlay interfered with elections, intimidated opponents, and made “direct attempts to swindle school children out of their pocket money” by setting up policy “shops” near public schools. It was the last that most aroused Nelson’s ire: nobody in the city, said the Star, wanted policy shops and public schools in the same block.

Yet the shops continued to operate and city government seemed unprepared to close them down. The shop at 502 Independence Avenue was, said the Star, open “for the special convenience of the Washington school pupils and there are many boys who know it.[…] Findlay, in his greediness to get the nickels and dimes of the school children, has establishedHumboldt School ‘branches’ near other schools,” including Humboldt Ward and Lincoln High  Schools.

The Times and Star jointly created a fund aimed at collecting evidence on violation of gambling laws, but, lamented the Times, it hadn’t been much used. Part of the reason was that policy shops could appear and disappear at a moment’s notice. Another reason, said the paper, mounting its favorite hobby horse, was the “fee system,” by which county constables were made the instruments of machine politicians. Findlay’s monopoly over gambling in the city was assisted by constables ready to raid games that hadn’t paid Findlay a percentage. The Times wanted to see a salary system instituted that would remove the pay of constables and criminal court officials from “the politics which revolves around fee-fed offices.” Selling policy tickets was a state offense, the paper argued; therefore the powers of the city’s police commissioners and mayor to enforce the law were limited, in the absence of a local ordinance. Chief Speers noted that none of the hundred arrests he had made under state law had led to a conviction.

Two days later, reported the Star, Mayor Cowherd called on the city council to pass just such an ordinance, on recommendation of the police commissioners and with the approval of the city’s respectable gamblers, its “sporting men,” one of whom – quite possibly a contrivance of the paper -- described policy as:

 a cheap game that can be indulged in by poor people, women and children, who don’t stop to think that the odds against them are so great as to give them no chance of winning. The colored people are fiends at the game and I know of many cases where colored servants invest every cent of their earnings in trying to beat the game. White women are equally fascinated by the game […]

The same dubious informant argued that the “Johnson law,” an 1881 Missouri law that made running a gambling operation a felony, had gone too far, threatening legitimate “speculators” like him while benefiting:

 men of the Findlay class who are not any too conscientious in the way they accumulate money, [who] organize around them a gang of loafers who are groomed in ward politics until they develop into repeaters and ballot-box stuffers and finally acquire an influence in the dominant political party which gives them eventually practical control of the criminal courts. This is evidenced by the passive actions of Prosecuting Attorney Brown, Police Judge Johnson and, with a few exceptions, the justices and constables of the respective districts, some of them being boon companions and in some cases former employees of Findlay.”

His solution: repeal the Johnson law and pass laws to prevent “women and minors from participation in the game […]."

On the other side of the river, in Kansas City, Kansas, where no “Johnson law” existed, gambling thrived: “The basis of all the gambling business in Kansas City is on the KansasChicago Policy Tickets from 1950s side of the line,” noted the Times in reporting the efforts of a Wyandotte County state senator to pass a comparable anti-policy law on the Kansas side. The Times approved the initiatives of the senator and Mayor Cowherd, arguing that “the gambling evil would seem to be much worse than the drink evil. It displaces habits of industry and thrift and fosters nearly every vice. Nothing else so ravages the healthy ideals of civilized morality.”

If so, Kansas City, Kansas, was unhealthier morally than Kansas City, Missouri, since alcohol was banned in the former while gambling was banned in the latter, if only theoretically in both cases. As the Kansas City Mail put it, “The Kansans can stand policy shops but can’t bear to have a saloon around. With the Missourians it is different. The latter are death on gamblers.” In April a citizen filed a complaint with the Wyandotte County Attorney charging that the Police Commissioner knew all about policy shops in the city but was doing nothing to suppress them.

The anti-policy ordinance backed by Cowherd on the Missouri side made slow progress through the two houses of the bicameral Kansas City, Missouri, city council as councilmen threw up roadblocks. One alderman who’d offered an amendment to punish the parents of children who sent their children to buy policy tickets was resentful he’d been accused of impeding the ordinance’s passage: “I am not owned by the gamblers,” he protested, a denial that in itself was an index to the state of city politics. The ordinance passed and Chief of Police Speers dutifully promised to “rip things wide open and make no mistake about it either […]. The drawings commence Monday and then watch out.”

The next week the Times headlined one story “War Begins,” describing police raids on two gambling dens: “Tammany hall at 922 Main street and Gus Bachman’s place at 13 East Eighth Street. Both places yielded a total of 106 men, including proprietors, dealers, cappers [people employed to inveigle the unwary into gambling] and frequenters.” There was, however, no mention of raids on policy shops; it’s possible the operators arrested were nothing more than Findlay rivals. The story mentions they were to be tried before Police Judge Frank G.  Johnson, whom the Star regarded as a member of the corrupt “push.” Four months later, as public sentiment continued to demand closing of policy shops, Speers’ men arrested policy men in the same area, one at 803 Independence Avenue, and another on Grand, near Seventh.

Chicago Policy wheel from 1950sThe four men arrested were brought before Judge Johnson’s court, promising  to fight the case “to the bitter end.” Ed Findley hired lawyers to defend them by questioning the constitutionality of the city ordinance, but for a time it appeared that the judge intended to “decide for the people,” as the Times put it. Then “influences were brought to bear” and Johnson dismissed charges against three of the four men. The city ordinance against policy shops was, the judge said, unconstitutional because it was not in harmony with state law on the amount of fines to be levied against offenders.  The policy men, reported the Mail, “are jubilant over the turn affairs have taken and believe they will be allowed to ply their trade undisturbed.”

It was just another example, harrumphed Nelson’s Star, of the “gang’s” influence: Judge Johnson was “the pet candidate of the ‘gang’ which is organized in Kansas City for plunder.” This time, the paper thought, the gang would finally go too far: “the more material they provide the quicker and the surer and heavier will be the retribution.” Chief of Police Speers was described in a Journal story as being “much perturbed” by Johnson’s decision, conceding that the city now had no way to suppress policy shops. He told the paper: “We have ‘em now on every corner, by the side of every church and school house, […] and it would not surprise me if they apply for permission to establish a shop in the drill room under police headquarters."

The Times took a less strident view of Johnson’s decision, saying nothing of the influence of the city hall “gang,” but positing that the discrepancy between city ordinance and state law was not significant.  As a police judge, Johnson should also have taken the public interest into account, the paper argued: the policy game:

appeals to and attracts the young, the weak, the ignorant and the poor; all those classes about whom the city should throw its mantle of protection. […] Police magistrates […] should not concern themselves too much with grave constitutional questions, but rather in all possible cases affecting public morals execute well-intended laws as they  find them, conscious that if in so doing private rights have been invaded, an upper court, which makes a specialty of constitutional law, stands ready to remedy the evil.

The Mail, which enjoyed its position as also-ran and iconoclast in the Kansas City newspaper wars, mocked “the combine organs,” as it called the major dailies, for censoring Judge Johnson “for exercising his judgment and discretion,” and later published a mock-serious letter by one calling himself “Policy,” suggesting that Kansas City go into the policy business: “They could use the big jury wheel,” he wrote, “and County Clerk Burr could turn the crank twice a day and money would just flow in.” The scheme would solve budget problems: “the fellows who play policy would eventually pay all the taxes […].”

After Judge Johnson’s decision, Findlay’s operations resumed full speed, reported the Star. After a “shop” was opened near police headquarters without being raided, “the word was passed around the old times had come again. The boss gambler was again in the saddle and there would be no more raids. […] Findlay, Kline and the indiscriminate horde of white and black fellows who thrive upon the nickels and dimes of school children and other patrons, are reaping a harvest while the authorities are idle.”

Judge John W. Wofford of the Jackson County Criminal Court dealt unfavorably with the city’s appeal of the Johnson decision, writing that the city ordinance “deprives the trial court of the descretion [sic] that the state law vests in the trial court and says that the trial court shall not have the right to impose a fine of $1, but shall impose a fine of not less than $25.” Therefore the city ordinance was not “in harmony” with state law and was void.

For the Journal, which had given only lukewarm support to the anti-policy crusade from the outset, the judge’s decision was correct:  “the judiciary should be defended from the attacks of a paper [the Star] whose sole object appears to be the running of municipal affairs according to its code, regardless of whether the law sustains that code or not.” In making his decision, the judge was not necessarily “an aider and abettor of criminals,” as the Star suggested, but because the decision goes against the wishes of the Star, or more accurately, its editor, “the paper which so suddenly turned against the policy shops last year, that paper would besmirch an honorable gentleman who supposed that he was elected to the bench to administer the law without favor.”

Although anti-gambling laws were different on the Kansas side, things were not much different when it came to “policy shops.” An accused policy wheel operator came before Police Judge S.S. King in October, with the case argued over the question of whether “policy” was a gambling game – hence illegal – or a lottery.  Judge King decided that it was a kind of lottery, which was forbidden in state law only by a “’weak jest’ of a law without a penalty,” nor was there any city law on the subject. The judge thought the city might enact such a law, but the Democratic Times considered it unlikely, since prominent Republican officials “reaped quite a fortune in the way of a ‘rake off’ from the local policy men each year.” The Republican Journal offered no such insinuation, simply quoting King’s opinion that the city had the power to pass an ordinance “prohibiting and punishing all games, including the game of chance called policy or lottery.”

When the city took no action, the state’s new Populist governor Lorenzo Lewelling, intervened in November, ordering the police department to close all policy shops by the middle of the month in a tone of shocked righteousness that recalls Louie’s shock in Casblanca at discovering there was gambling going on:

 there are numerous lotteries doing business in Kansas City, Kas., among which are the Little Louisiana, Mexican, Winn and Co. and one by Peter Kline. These lotteries are taking thousands of dollars from the poor people of this and other states. These lotteries are run by a class of swindlers in open violation of law and should be prosecuted and their business broken broken up. […] You will see to it that these institutions are broken up and their owners prosecuted.

The Journal, no friend of the Populists, thought it was a political ploy to discredit the city’s Republican police commissioners by giving them a task they could not achieve, given Judge King’s decision, so that Lewelling could fire them and choose their successors. Perhaps to counter Lewelling’s edict or the Times’ insinuation that they were in the gamblers’ pockets, or merely to appear virtuous, Kansas City, Kansas, passed an anti-lottery ordinance without opposition. The Times treated the ordinance as a farce “not worth the paper it is written on,” since it did nothing to remove the objections of Judge King. The fact that there had been no opposition showed that the policy men had no fear of the measure. A local attorney is quoted as saying:

If it was a vital question with them they would make a fight. In fact, if the Council had any idea that the passage of the ordinance would drive the lotteries out of town it would not pass the measure at all. As it is, the Councilmen can please the church people by passing the ordinance, and still not interfere with the operation of these concerns.

The city politicians on the Missouri side were faring no better: a Congregational Church pastor called them “anarchists” – not the bomb throwing anarchist who’d been the nation’s bÍte noire since the Haymarket events in Chicago seven years earlier, but an “official” anarchist  “who abuses his official position to make void all such laws as do not agree with his own judgment or the wishes of his friends.”

1893 ended with no resolution of the “policy” matter. The “numbers racket” was still in the news four years later when Ed Findlay and fourteen other Kansas City, Missouri, gamblers, including the notorious “Pinky” Blitz were indicted by a grand jury and arrested. Findley was charged with “maintaining a lottery or policy,” and faced a felony conviction that could send him to jail for up to five years. Findley was said in the Gazette  to look “very plainly worried” but the story gives the impression that he didn’t have much to worry about. Investigating committees from the Missouri Senate and House had been appointed to look into corruption of city government by gambling interests, but were stumbling over each other, and the indefatigable Chief Speers had been replaced by a police chief much more accomodating to gambling interests. The House committee was shortly to arrive, the paper reported:

not so much to investigate crookedness in the police board and its protection of gamblers as to attempt to prevent the Senate committee from accomplishing anything, perhaps by aiding in the intimidation of witnesses, which, it is generally believed here, has already been commenced by the police department.

The Senate Committee listened to the testimony of a widowed mother who had been made destitute by the gambling habits of her son. When he lost his overcoat gambling, she toldJim Pendergast the committee:

It was a saloon – Pendergast, I think, was the name – and there was a man there and I told him about Harry. […] I told him about Harry, and said I wanted to get his overcoat back. He told me to bring Harry back, and I did and the man recognized him and gave him his money back, and he got his overcoat out.

The Pendergast in the story is James Pendergast, boss of Democratic politics in the First Ward, and older brother of Tom Pendergast, Harry Truman ally and for fifteen years boss of Kansas City machine politics. Tom Pendergast was still overseeing the city’s famously corrupt gambling scene, including the numbers racket, forty years after Harry got his overcoat back.

 44 U.S. states now have state lotteries, many of them operated on almost exactly the same "numbers game" basis as Ed Findlay's, and appealing to the same demographic. There's one significant difference: the state's take is typically 50%, rather than the 20-40% of Findlay's time.

January 14, 2015