To see the billboards and hear the radio ads for casinos along the Mississippi River today, one hardly could know that 180 years ago gambling was the scourge of the lower Mississippi Valley and that one town -- the City of Vicksburg, to be exact -- was so plagued by practitioners of that trade that its citizens took matters into their own hands.
The Vicksburg waterfront, in those times, was the favored resort of gamblers and their confederates – a wide range of characters considered unsavory by decent townfolk: murderers, swindlers, itinerant preachers, clock peddlers, and steam doctors, – “steam doctor” in those days referring to a certain species of medical quack purporting to effect cures by means of a steam therapy. In the dens of iniquity where such miscreants gathered, they preyed upon the unwary and gullible, and, especially the young, the old, and the defenseless. Many a young planter, pockets filled with his year’s earnings from the sale of cotton, lost it to Vicksburg cardsharps in a brief flurry of drinking and gambling.
In their environment, the gamblers were a law unto themselves with no regard for the rules of society. Because of their doings, Vicksburg became known in those times as the Sodom of the South. The solid citizens of the city, though, soon had enough.
On the 4th of July, 1835, as the respectable citizens of the town celebrated Independence Day with, among other things, a public barbecue and an exhibition by the local volunteer military company, there arose "some difficulty" between one of the gamblers – one Francis “Frank” Cabler -- and a Mr. Fisher, a member of the soldier troop. Harsh words passed between the two, escalating into fisticuffs. When Cabler drew a knife, Fisher's comrades seized the gambler, tied him to a tree, and administered a whipping of 32 lashes. They followed that punishment with an application of tar and feathers, then released the wretch with orders to leave Vicksburg within 24 hours.
The incident festered with the town folk overnight. The next day the militia resolved to end the gambling in Vicksburg for good and to tar and feather anyone who got in their way. Arrayed in full military regalia, they proceeded, without warrant or any other authority of law, to the gambling quarters. There, they went from house to house, destroying faro tables and any other gambling paraphernalia they could find.
As the vigilantes sought entrance to the establishment of a gambler named North, shots were exchanged, and a member of the militia group, a Dr. Bodley, was killed, as was one of the gamblers. Bodley was a substantial citizen, well-liked and respected in the community. His comrades were incensed. They took the five gamblers they were able to catch, summarily tried them before a “court of uncommon pleas,” as one paper described that lynch mob, hauled them to the city gallows and hanged them without "benefit of law or gospel." The gamblers who escaped the sentence of Judge Lynch fled, some finding refuge across the Big Black River in Clinton, Mississippi.
Word of the fate of the gamblers spread, and striking fear into the hearts of those who lived on the edge of the law, and inciting boldness in the more solid citizenry. Down river in Natchez about a week later, the townspeople, apparently inspired by events in Vicksburg, gave the denizens of the Under-the-Hill district notice that all persons of disreputable character should vacate the city within 24 hours or face justice according to the Vicksburg plan. Not long afterward, a steamboat docking at Natchez reported seeing downstream-bound flatboats filled with refugees from Under-the-Hill – in that case, not all male gamblers, but mostly Under-the-Hill ladies of something less than sterling reputations.
The story of the Vicksburg Gamblers appeared in papers throughout the young nation. Some editors roundly condemned the mob’s disregard of the legal process; others excused it on the ground that the frontier situation along the river required such harsh measures.
For better or worse, the vigilante action apparently put an end to much of the lawlessness in Vicksburg. Things quieted down considerably thereafter. The gamblers who escaped, though, may have had their revenge on the Hill City for the indignities visited upon them and their fallen comrades by the Vicksburg vigilantes. A series of fires plagued the city beginning some three years later – one of which a gambler admitted to have set in retaliation for the hanging of his comrades.
The influence of the gamblers and their cohorts, while perhaps diminished in Vicksburg by the 4th of July lynchings, did not come to an end along the River. One notorious gambler showed up in the newly formed (1836) Coahoma County not long afterwards and was elected to the board of supervisors. That, however, is another story for another day.
James T. McCafferty is a lawyer and award-winning writer who grew up in the Mississippi Delta and now resides in McComb. He is the author of many magazine and newspaper articles, two children’s books about Delta bear hunter Holt Collier, and the full-length The Bear Hunter: The Life and Times of Robert Eager Bobo in the Canebrakes of the Old South. For more information see his website: www.canebrakes.com.