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Blacklegs, Card Sharps, and Confidence Men

Nineteenth-Century Mississippi River Gambling Stories

Thomas Ruys Smith

Publication Year: 2010

In 1836 Benjamin Drake, a midwestern writer of popular sketches for newspapers of the day, introduced his readers to a new and distinctly American rascal who rode the steamboats up and down the Mississippi and other western waterways—the riverboat gambler. These men, he recorded, “dress with taste and elegance; carry gold chronometers in their pockets; and swear with the most genteel precision. . . . Every where throughout the valley, these mistletoe gentry are called by the original, if not altogether classic, cognomen of ‘Black-legs.’” In Blacklegs, Card Sharps, and Confidence Men, Thomas Ruys Smith collects nineteenth-century stories, sketches, and book excerpts by a gallery of authors to create a comprehensive collection of writings about the riverboat gambler. Long an iconic figure in American myth and popular culture but, strangely, one that has never until now received a book-length treatment, the Mississippi River gambler was a favorite character throughout the nineteenth century—one often rich with moral ambiguities that remain unresolved to this day. In the absorbing fictional and nonfictional accounts of high stakes and sudden reversals of fortune found in the pages of Smith’s book, the voices of canonized writers such as William Dean Howells, Herman Melville, and, of course, Mark Twain hold prominent positions. But they mingle seamlessly with lesser-known pieces such as an excerpt from Edward Willett’s sensationalistic dime novel Flush Fred’s Full Hand, raucous sketches by anonymous Old Southwestern humorists from the Spirit of the Times, and colorful accounts by now nearly forgotten authors such as Daniel R. Hundley and George W. Featherstonhaugh. Smith puts the twenty-eight selections in perspective with an Introduction that thoroughly explores the history and myth surrounding this endlessly fascinating American cultural icon. While the riverboat gambler may no longer ply his trade along the Mississippi, Blacklegs, Card Sharps, and Confidence Men makes clear the ways in which he still operates quite successfully in the American imagination.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Series: Southern Literary Studies

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-iv


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pp. vii-ix

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Introduction: The Many Lives of the Mississippi Gambler

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pp. 1-24

Almost two centuries after Benjamin Drake introduced his readers to the “numerous and peculiar race of modern gentlemen” (27) to be found on the steamboats of the western rivers, the iconic Mississippi River gambler still occupies a symbolically potent role within the American imagination. As Jackson Lears has rightly asserted...


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From Social Relations in Our Southern States

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pp. 27-30

Not Plug Uglies and Rip Raps do we purpose to discourse about at this time, gentle reader, for such doughty shoulder-hitters and short-boys are not the necessary out-growth of Southern institutions, but only vegetate in the purlieus of the cities of the South, just as Dead Rabbits, et id omne genus of outcasts and vagabonds, grow up within the shadows of the marble palaces...

Early Days

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The Vicksburg Tragedy

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pp. 33-37

The following account of some proceedings of the citizens of this town, which will excite the attention of the public, was prepared by a witness of the acts detailed, and the correctness of the account may be relied on: Our city has for some days past been the theatre of the most novel and startling scene that we have ever witnessed. ...

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From Col. Crockett’s Exploits and Adventures in Texas

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pp. 38-49

There was a considerable number of passengers on board the boat, and our assortment was somewhat like the Yankee merchant’s cargo of notions, pretty particularly miscellaneous, I tell you. I moved through the crowd from stem to stern, to see if I could discover any face that was not altogether strange to me; but after a general survey, I concluded that I had never seen one of them...

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Putting a Black-Leg on Shore

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pp. 50-56

A numerous and peculiar race of modern gentlemen, may be found in the valley of the Mississippi. A naturalist would probably describe them as a genus of bipeds, gregarious, amphibious and migratory. They seldom travel “solitary and alone”; are equally at home on land or water; and like certain vultures, spend most of their winters in Mississippi and Louisiana...

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From Richard Hurdis; or, The Avenger of Blood

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pp. 57-65

My first object was to alter my personal appearance, so as to defeat all chance of recognition by any of the villains with whom I had previously come in collision. This was a work calling for much careful consideration. To go down to Mobile, change my clothes, and adopt such fashions as would more completely disguise me, were my immediate designs...

Antebellum (Mis)Adventures:

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From Excursion Through the Slave States

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pp. 69-74

Upon embarking on board of this steamer I was certainly pleased with the prospect that presented itself of enjoying some repose and comfort after the privations and fatigues I had endured; but never was traveller more mistaken in his anticipations! The vexatious conduct of the drunken youth had made a serious innovation upon the slight degree of personal comfort...

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Sketches from the Spirit of the Times

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pp. 75-82

Among the passengers who came aboard at New Orleans was a “split me” young buck from New York, on a tour of pleasure through the Western States. He had never before been far from Broadway, and he regarded the time spent away from that fashionable resort as so much time thrown away; it was a blank in his existence that could never be filled up. ...

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The Bivouac; or, A Night at the Mouth of the Ohio, A Sketch of Western Voyaging

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pp. 83-90

A few years since I was on my way to St. Louis, and took passage at Cincinnati on board the steamer Chief Justice Marshall, which was bound to New Orleans, but from which I was to disembark at the mouth of the Ohio, there to wait for some New Orleans boat going up to take me to my destination. Our travelling party consisted of three ladies...

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Taking Good Advice

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pp. 91-94

“POOR fellow! if he had only listened to me! but he wouldn’t take good advice,” is the trite exclamation of the worldling when he hears that some friend has cut his throat, impelled by despair, or has become bankrupt, or employed a famous physician, or is about to get married, or has applied for a divorce, or paid his honest debts, or committed any deprecated act...

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From Zilla Fitz James, The Female Bandit of the South-West

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pp. 95-106

I was born in New Orleans, May 17th, 1827, of respectable parents. My father was a dealer in tobacco, snuff, and segars, and kept a store in Poydras street, at the time of my birth. But I was doomed not to know much of a parent’s care, for when only four years of age, that scourge of the south—the yellow fever, crossed our threshold, and bereft me of both father and mother...

Turning the Tables

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Breaking a Bank

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pp. 109-112

Captain Summons was a very clever fellow and the “Dr. Franklin” was a very superb boat, albeit inclined to rock about a good deal, and nearly turn over on her side when visited by a breath of air in the least resembling a gale. Captain Summons was a clever fellow. All steamboat captains are clever fellows, or nearly all...

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Dialogue Between a Gambler and a Travelling Agent

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pp. 113-118

Jonathan Green, the self-styled “Reformed Gambler,” spent the 1830s gambling throughout the Mississippi valley; he spent the 1840s trying to prevent others doing the same. Even though his antigambling campaign ultimately failed to gain the kind of widespread support enjoyed by other popular movements of the time (abolition and temperance in particular)...

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How Dodge “Dodged” the Sharpers

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pp. 119-129

Where’s the man residing in any part of the United States, that has not heard of OSSIAN E. DODGE, the joker, vocalist, and delineator of character? Echo answers, whar?—we will therefore give a dodge of Dodge’s. Some few years since, when the demoralizing habit of gambling was still greater than at the present day, the inveterate punster and Yankee vocalist...

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The Gamblers Outwitted

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pp. 130-135

The following story was narrated by a gentleman who desires his name withheld from [. . .] the public: “Any man living on the lower Mississippi twenty years ago, who was not in favor of playing all sorts of games for all manner of sums, would have been at once pronounced no gentleman or a minister of the Gospel. ...

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From The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade

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pp. 136-141

“And now,” said the stranger, cordially retaining his hand, “you know our fashion here at the West. It may be a little low, but it is kind. Briefly, we being newly-made friends must drink together. What say you?” “Thank you; but indeed, you must excuse me.” “Why?” “Because, to tell the truth, I have to-day met so many old friends, all freehearted, convivial gentlemen, that really, really, though for the present I succeed in mastering it...

Gamblers and Slaves

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From Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter

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pp. 145-147

At eight o’clock on the evening of the third day, the lights of another steamer were seen in the distance, and apparently coming up very fast. This was a signal for a general commotion on the Patriot, and everything indicated that a steamboat race was at hand. Nothing can exceed the excitement attendant upon a steamboat on the Mississippi river. ...

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From Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb

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pp. 148-152

The reader will remember that this brings me back to the time the Deacon had ordered me to be kept in confinement until he got a chance to sell me, and that no negro should ever get away from him and live. Some days after this we were all out at the gin house ginning cotton, which was situated on the road side, and there came along a company of men, fifteen...

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From The White Slave; or, Memoirs of a Fugitive

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pp. 153-165

The stage coach stopped for dinner at a dirty, uncomfortable tavern, the management of which seemed to be altogether in the hands of the slaves, of whom there was a great superabundance, the landlord being a sort of gentleman guest in his own house. The head servant of the establishment, a large, portly, soft-spoken mulatto, but very shabbily and dirtily dressed, seemed...

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From Hatchie, The Guardian Slave; or, The Heiress of Bellevue

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pp. 166-171

On board the Chalmetta, Maxwell discovered an old acquaintance in the person of a notorious gambler,—a class of persons who congregate on Mississippi steamers, and practise their arts upon the unwary traveller. This person, who went by the name of Vernon, was well known at the faro and roulette boards in New Orleans. ...

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The Pilot’s Story

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pp. 172-176

William Dean Howells may not be renowned for tales of life on the river frontier, but years before his friend Mark Twain put his imaginative copyright on the Mississippi, he published this poetic account of a tragic episode of riverboat gambling. Though touching on the classic antebellum themes of the tragic mulatta and the slave lost at the card table...

Gilded Age Memories

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From The End of the World: A Love Story

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pp. 179-190

It was natural enough that the “mud-clerk” on the old steamboat Iatan should take a fancy to the “striker,” as the engineer’s apprentice was called. Especially since the striker knew so much more than the mud-clerk, and was able to advise him about many things. ...

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From Wanderings of a Vagabond: An Autobiography

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pp. 191-204

A few days after the events recorded in the last chapter, I found myself a passenger on board the “Mediator,” gliding along the picturesque banks of the lower Ohio, onward bound for New Orleans. The boat was crowded with passengers—men, women, and children—the greater part of whom were residents of the Crescent City...

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The Professor’s Yarn

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pp. 205-210

Here is a story which I picked up on board the boat that night. I insert it in this place merely because it is a good story, not because it belongs here—for it doesn’t. It was told by a passenger—a college professor—and was called to the surface in the course of a general conversation which began with talk about horses, drifted into talk about astronomy, then into talk about the lynching...

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From Old Times on the Upper Mississippi

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pp. 211-214

Volumes have been written, first and last, on the subject of gambling on the Mississippi. In them a small fraction of truth is diluted with a deal of fiction. The scene is invariably laid upon a steamboat on the lower Mississippi. The infatuated planter, who always does duty as the plucked goose, invariably stakes his faithful body servant, or a beautiful quadroon girl...

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From Flush Fred’s Full Hand; or, Life and Strife in Louisiana

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pp. 215-223

The good steamer Sabine, Captain Spillers, was slowly making her way down the lower Mississippi. Slowly, because the river was at an uncertain stage. There had been a big rise, accompanied by an extensive inundation, and while it lasted the largest boats had been free to go wherever they pleased, as long as they kept between the two banks...

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From Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi

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pp. 224-237

My Dear Reader: I first saw the light of day in a little town called Marietta, at the mouth of the Muskingum River in the State of Ohio, on the first day of August, 1829. I was the youngest of six children, and was the pet of the family. My father was a ship carpenter, and worked at boat-building in the beginning of the present century. ...

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Three Portraits of “Canada” Bill Jones

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pp. 238-249

There are some men who naturally choose, or, through a series of unfortunate blunders, drift into the life of social outlaws, who possess so many remarkably original traits of character that they become rather subjects for admiration than condemnation when we review their life and career. On first thought it could hardly be imagined that one who has been all his life...


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From Poker Stories

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pp. 253-264

By the time J. F. B. Lillard collected these accounts of gambling on the Mississippi, those sharpers who had worked the steamboats in the antebellum golden age of river travel were a dying breed. Whether or not the memories contained in Lillard’s collection are authentic, they provide a very useful summation of the shifting attitudes toward gambling and gamblers. ...

Works Cited

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pp. 265-271

E-ISBN-13: 9780807137369
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807136362

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Southern Literary Studies