On this date in 1835, five professional gamblers were strung up in Vicksburg.
It was an event more adjacent to than constituent of the slave rebellion panic shaking Mississippi, for the men were neither slaves nor their confederates and they were not struck down for threatening the Slave Power; at best, the uneasiness of possible insurrectionary stirrings abroad informed the tense background, or offered the post hoc justification — but these lynchings were a different thing that inhabited by chance the same time and place.
A Mississippi River boomtown “created by the easy credit of the Jacksonian ‘flush times’ and the scramble for wealth coincidental to Indian removal,” wrote Joshua Rothman,* Vicksburg had become a haven for faro players and other imps. The reports of this date’s events run thick with moralizing but as Rothman observes,
The merchants, doctors, lawyers, and planters who constituted Vicksburg’s budding elite may have believed professional gamblers threatened their moral integrity, but most people in Vicksburg were essentially speculators who had risked migration to the Southwest for the allure of fast profits almost unimaginable everywhere else in the country. In a very real sense, nearly everyone in Vicksburg was a gambler.
Then as now the high rollers at the tables of casino capitalism make free to snort at their louche progenitors and their marked cards and cathouse molls; gambling was a top-shelf moral hazard throughout 19th century America.
Whatever uneasy accommodation Vicksburg’s respectable had made with their cardsharps came to an abrupt end at an Independence Day barbecue that Fourth of July, when a player got into an altercation with a civilian and, ejected from the festivities, boldly returned to the scene armed, looking for trouble. Incensed townspeople overpowered him and drug him out of town to tar and feather him and order him out of town.
The summary executions that will follow two days hence would be widely condemned as news of the event echoed to the corners of the Republic, but that condemnation would always be attenuated by the nigh-universal public disapproval attached to gambling. A dispatch from Vicksburg that reached many other newspapers — we’re quoting it from the July 31, 1835 Richmond (Va.) Whig; one may find the piece in its entirety here — trowels on thick paragraphs of sermonizing before we come to the narrative: “shameless vices and daring outrages … destitute of all sense of moral obligations … intent only on the gratification of their avarice … vile and lawless machinations … every species of transgression … drunken and obscene mirth …” Et cetera, et cetera.
Now that we’ve forded this mighty river of invective, we find the townspeople of Vicksburg post-tar-and-feathering, “having thus aggravated the whole band of these desperadoes,
and feeling no security against their vengeance — the citizens met at night in the Court house, in a large number, and there passed the following resolutions:
Resolved, That a notice be given to all Professional Gamblers, that the citizens of Vicksburg are resolved, to exclude them from this place and its vicinity; and that twenty-four hours notice be given them to leave the place.
Resolved, That all persons permitting faro-dealing in their houses, be also notified that they will be prosecuted therefor.
Resolved, That one hundred copies of the foregoing resolutions be printed and stuck up at the corners of the streets — and that this publication be deemed notice.
Most of Vicksburg’s wagering fanciers took the ultimatum seriously and blew town. They were wise to do so.
On the 6th, as promised, Vicksburg’s soldiery marched door to door through a roster of homes suspected of hosting illicit gambling and there “dragged out every faro table, and other gambling apparatus that could be found” … until,
At length they approached a house which was occupied by one of the most profligate of the gang, whose name was North, and in which, it was understood that a garrison of armed men had been stationed. All hoped that these wretches would be intimidated by the superior numbers of their assailants, and surrender themselves at discretion, rather than attempt a desperate defence.
The House being surrounded, the back door was burst open, when four or five shots were fired from the interior, one of which instantly killed Doctor Hugh S. Bodley, a citizen universally beloved and respected.
The interior was so dark that the villains could not be seen, but several of the citizens, guided by the flash of their guns, returned their fire. A yell from one of the party announced that one of the shots had been effectual, and by this time a crowd of citizens, their indignation overcoming all other feelings — burst open every door of the building and dragged into the light, those who had not been wounded.
North, the ringleader, who had contrived this desperate plot, could not be found in the building, but was apprehended by a citizen, while attempting in company with another, to make his escape at a place not far distant. Himself, with the rest of the prisoners, were then conducted in silence to the scaffold.
One of them not having been in the building before it was attacked, nor appearing to be concerned with the rest, except that he was the brother of one of them, was liberated. The remaining number of five, among whom was the individual who had been shot, but who still lived, were immediately executed in presence of the assembled multitude. All sympathy for the wretches was completely merged in detestation and horror of their crime.
The whole procession then returned to the city, collected all the Faro Tables into a pile and burnt them.
The names of the individuals who perished, were as follows: North, Hullams, Dutch Bill, Smith and McCall.
Their bodies were cut down on the morning after their execution and buried in a ditch.
It is not expected that this act will pass without censure from those who had not an opportunity of knowing and feeling the dire necessity out of which it originated. The laws, however severe in their provision, have never been sufficient to correct a vice which must be established by positive proof, and cannot, like others, be shown from circumstantial testimony.
It is practised too, by individuals whose whole study is to violate the law in such a manner as to evade its punishment, and who never are in want of secret confederates to swear them out of their difficulties, whose oaths cannot be impeached for any specific cause.
We have borne with these enormities, until to have suffered them any longer would not only have proved us to be destitute of every manly sentiment, but would also have implicated us in the guilt of accessories to their crimes. Society may be compared to the elements which although “order is their first law,” can sometimes be purified only by a storm. Whatever therefore sickly sensibility or mawkish philanthropy may say against the course pursued by us, we hope that our citizens will not relax the code of punishment which they have enacted against this infamous and baleful class of society — and we invite Natchez, Jackson, Columbus, Warrenton, and all our sister towns throughout the State, in the name of our insulted laws — of offended virtue and of slaughtered innocence, to aid us in exterminating this deep-rooted vice from our land.
* “The Hazards of the Flush Times: Gambling, Mob Violence, and the Anxieties of America’s Market Revolution,” The Journal of American History, Dec. 2008. Also recommended: Rothman’s book Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson.