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Prologue 1903: Chicago’s Black Gambling World On Friday, June 12, 1903, a twenty-eight-year-old cashier and his employer stepped from the offices of Edward Rueb & Co., commissioners, on West Randolph Street in Chicago. Ernest Naoroji, a native of Ceylon, had worked for almost two years at Rueb’s firm. Recently, an audit of his accounts had turned up discrepancies in excess of $3,000. When confronted by Rueb, Naoroji had admitted to doctoring the company’s books. The two men were now on their way to Prairie State Bank, where Naoroji was to make good the shortage. The cashier’s explanation touched Rueb. Although both a university man and a scion of a high-caste Indian family, Naoroji had found himself excluded from the society of his business associates because of his dark complexion. In compensation, he had taken to passing his leisure hours at an establishment that drew no color line, the saloon and gambling house run by John “Mushmouth” Johnson at 464 South State Street. An inexperienced gambler, Naoroji was immediately identified as an easy mark. Quickly his losses had eaten up his salary and the money he received from abroad. And so he had begun diverting funds from the company deposits with which Rueb had entrusted him. At the bank Naoroji asked for his safe deposit box and took out a roll of bills, later found to contain $110. While Rueb was counting the money Naoroji said, “That’s the best I can do; good-bye.” Then he pulled a revolver from his pocket and shot himself in the head. The following day Chicago’s daily newspapers gave the story extensive play.1 They stressed not only the sensational character of the tragedy but also 2 Prologue its connections with “Mushmouth” Johnson, already well known to readers as the richest and most powerful of the city’s black gambling lords. Naoroji’s death, they reported, had so moved Rueb that he had gone to the police and demanded that Johnson’s State Street haunt be shut down. On Sunday a Tribune reporter stopped in at the saloon to investigate. He found Johnson a picture of untroubled composure: Half a dozen stud poker games were in operation, and the checks were piled high in front of most of the white and black gamblers who surrounded the tables. “Mushmouth” Johnson, serene and smiling, stood by and watched the play . . . “The police have been asked to close your place, ‘Mushmouth,’” was suggested . “Mushmouth’s” smile only grew a little broader. “But the men who are pushing this thing mean business this time.” “Mushmouth” continued to smile. “They say your ‘pull’ will not save you—that your finish has come.” A black hand went to the upper pocket of a fancy vest and drew forth a fresh cigar. “Mushmouth” lighted it and continued to smile. And those who know “Mushmouth” best say he well may smile. Even should the city authorities be aroused to activity, he still would be the richest negro in Chicago, his wealth having been made in the saloon and gambling house which has been winked at by the police for so long, despite the fact that there is no attempt at secrecy there. While it is true there have been raids on the place, “Mushmouth” nearly always has had the “tip” in advance, and by the time the police arrived the gambling had stopped. Thus, as a political leader among the negroes, Johnson is so secure in his position that he has little fear for the future. While others are gambling under cover, his doors are wide open, and he beams a welcome on all who enter.2 Then as now, Johnson and others in his trade have been painted an irredeemably mercenary and socially destructive lot. Rueb, for example, put the full blame for the death of Naoroji squarely on Johnson’s shoulders: “To my mind ‘Mushmouth’ Johnson is as guilty of murder as though he had placed the revolver to Naoroji’s head and pulled the trigger.”3 Yet their notoriety also bred fascination. White thrill-seekers had early on discovered the spectatorial lure of Chicago’s vice world. During its worst days in the 1880s, they had flocked nightly to the Old Levee district, drawn by lurid tales of its flagrant depravity. “Many whose lives were passed in vales of peace and happiness thought the sights of the city unseen until they had been through the ‘bad Prologue 3 lands,’” recalled one...


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