All the big games

One evening, while I was running a saloon at Columbia, Missouri, in the absence of business I began carefully to study the characteristics of the loungers about the place. They were all broken-down “bums,” men who claimed to be gamblers, but who were never known to have a dollar 379in their pockets. As I have said, trade during the day had been very quiet, and I felt that something must be done to enliven the proceedings. Taking the gamblers apart, one by one, I lent each one of the four two dollars, with which to sit in a poker game which I told them I was about to open and in which I proposed to take a hand myself. To an old and penniless gambler, the prospect of enjoying all the excitement of poker playing without any risk is an alluring prospect. After I had “staked” them all, I produced a deck of cards and we all sat around the table to play. I had previously prepared a “cold deck,” with precisely similar backs, by taking all the aces from five packs, and abstracting sixteen cards from the original deck, to make the correct number. After playing a few rounds, the deal coming to me, I gave to each man at the table, including myself, four aces. To see the smile of satisfaction which lighted up each one of those four faces was worth all the money that it cost. Every man believed that he had a “sure thing.” Betting began and the limit of each man’s pile was soon reached. One player became so excited that he took off his coat and vest, and placing them on the table said, “let ’em go for what they’re worth; I’ll bet all I’m worth on this hand.” When the hands were “shown down” each man around the board displayed four aces. It did not take long for the true inwardness of the situation to dawn upon the minds of the crowd. A general “guffaw” followed, and I invited all hands to repair to the bar and indulge in a little liquid refreshment. My joke had cost me just $8.00, but the story was soon noised about town, and the following day I did the largest saloon business on record in the town since the first white man erected the little log cabin which marked the site of the present thriving city.

Once, while I was in partnership with a gambler named Martin, to whom I have frequently referred, I received a telegram from a lawyer in Jefferson City, Missouri, urging me to come to the latter place with a view to winning some money at poker. The source from which the invitation proceeded, left no doubt in our minds that it was possible to make a snug little sum, and we accordingly went. My partner represented himself as a drummer for a wholesale liquor house, while I posed as a traveling representative of a concern engaged in the manufacture of playing cards. We were introduced into the poker party without difficulty and with but very little ceremony. We found that there were seven players, and that the ante was five cents. They called it “playing for amusement.” We concluded that it would not be policy on our part to manifest the slightest anxiety to sit in the game, and therefore when invited to play we declined. One of the party repeatedly urged me to 380take a hand, saying that “it was only a five cent ante game which they were playing just for fun.” By way of reply I told him of an infatuated card player who had once entered a gaming house and was accosted with a similar invitation. Shivering and trembling, he declined the invitation, saying that a previous indulgence in the same sort of “fun” had compelled him to wear his summer clothes all through the winter.

Among the players was an individual whose dignified mien I shall never forget. When I was introduced to him he recognized my existence only by the most distant nod. I at once made up my mind that he was a member of that numerous class who, having a little money in their possession, consider themselves the superiors in point of wealth, intelligence and respectability to all the rest of mankind. I made no effort to force my company upon him, nor did I seek to cultivate his acquaintance.

Within a day or two, after much solicitation, Martin and I consented to play. Day by day the demeanor of the arrogant stranger became more and more cordial toward me. At first he condescended to speak to me by name, gradually he so far forgot himself as to offer me his hand, and finally grew so familiar that he used to slap me on the back on any and all occasions, however inopportune. The secret of this change of conduct on his part was that my partner and myself had succeeded in winning between $800 and $1,000.

This sum, however, did not represent a net gain to us, inasmuch as we were obliged to pay the distinguished member of the bar who had introduced us into the game, the sum of $200 as a commission for his services. The limb of the law was so elated over his sudden acquisition of this ill-gotten wealth that in a moment of confidence induced by a too free indulgence in the cup that both cheers and inebriates, he disclosed the secret. The result of this imprudence on his part was that an icy barrier was raised between him and his acquaintances. The stilted individual to whom I have already referred assured me that the attorney little thought that his fingers were “involuntarily contracting in a desire to grasp his throat in a suffocating clutch.” Martin and I left Jefferson City with damaged reputations, but with tolerably well filled pockets. We afterwards learned that the lawyer had been “barred out” from playing poker in any decent circle. This may have proved to have been a blessing in disguise, inasmuch as of all the poker players that I ever saw I think that he knew the least about the game.

Fannie May Harvey was the daughter of Dr. W. C. Harvey, of Roanoke, Howard county, Mo., a physician who, in addition to the social prominence which his profession conferred, had accumulated a competence and enjoyed a lucrative income from his practice. Tenderly nurtured in the surroundings of a home of wealth and luxury, of which she was the pride and pet, gifted with rare graces of mind and person, and endowed with education and accomplishments unusual even for one of her age and station, through the anxious care of parents ambitious for her future, brilliant in wealth and station, May Harvey had reached the bloom of womanhood singularly unspoiled by her advantages and surroundings, and possessed a sweet amiability of disposition and a gentle and loving way that endeared her to all who were brought into contact with her. As one has said, “none knew her but to love her, nor named her but to praise.” My father’s farm was but four miles distant from the home of Dr. Harvey, and being thus almost neighbors, we were thrown into contact at that stage of life when the heart of each was most susceptible to the tenderest and truest impulses of affection. That I should have surrendered to the influence of such a nature all the ardor of a youthful and undisciplined enthusiasm of love was not to be wondered at. That my affection, earnest and sincere, and unbroken as it remains to this day to her memory, should be returned might be wondered at, when it is remembered, as the reader will have before learned, that my name had already been associated with crime. The standing of my family had, however, shielded me to some extent from the consequences of the reckless tendencies of my life, and what might have been characterized by a harsher verdict was to some extent condoned as youthful wildness. This was sufficient to excuse our earlier association, and when the parents of May Harvey had awakened to the serious nature of our intimacy, our hearts had become knit with an affection stronger than parental remonstrance or interference was able to move. Once aroused, Dr. and Mrs. Harvey took active measures to separate their daughter from the danger which they foresaw from such a union. But, as it very often happens, opposition served but to fan the flame of devotion between us, and to strengthen our mutual resolve to unite our love and fortunes in an indissoluble tie. Finding her parents unrelenting, it became evident that the only course was to accomplish our happiness by means of an elopement, and this was carried into effect on the night of August 24, 1870. May’s natural aversion to this extreme and undesirable step, and her knowledge of the anger which it would awaken in the hearts of her parents were undoubtedly overcome not alone by the promptings of her love for me, but by the belief growing out of the tenderness of her heart, that her parents loved her too dearly to be long unreconciled and that regard for her happiness would overcome a temporary displeasure. Well do I remember that night on which she left the home of her childhood, the surroundings of luxury and the love of parents; a sacrifice to a greater love. Before leaving the house she played on the piano and sang “Good-Bye, Old Home,” with an intensity of feeling that none but herself realized. She bade good-bye to several friends with a seriousness which was mistaken for badinage, and I with a horse from the barn being waiting in the vicinity, she was soon speeding on the way to the opening of life’s tragedy. We rode eighteen miles to Renick, where we were married by ’Squire Butler, a justice of that place.

382As may be imagined, when Dr. and Mrs. Harvey learned of the event, their wrath knew no bounds. The brilliant hopes which they had entertained of a career of social distinction for which they had aimed to fit their favorite daughter, and to which they had looked forward to a marriage of wealth as the key, were not only dashed to the ground, but they had the added bitterness of knowing that it was not poverty alone to which their daughter had been wedded, but a poverty tainted by social disgrace, for the object upon whom she had bestowed the wealth of her affection was comparatively an outcast, a gambler by profession, and even at that time resting under suspicion. Looking back now, without prejudice and in the light of a fuller experience, I can hardly feel justified in condemning them for the bitter feeling which they displayed toward me. Yet, at the time, the animosity with which they pursued me awakened a deep, and, as I thought, justifiable resentment, for I had acted with honest motive, and, as I then thought, with pure and unselfish regard for the happiness of one who was dearer to me than life, for even to this day I can say with truth and sincerity that one of the sweetest faces in all the world to me is one that comes to me as a hallowed memory; and the sweetest thoughts are those which cluster around the life which, through good and ill report, we led together. And I can add now without resentment that it was not politic toward me nor christian duty toward her whose life was irrevocably linked to mine, that they should cast her off and bid her never again to darken their doors, and thus add to such unhappiness as her life encountered by long years of cold and unfeeling denial of the boon of forgiveness, for which the heart hungered from the parental love by which her childhood had been blessed and brightened. It is right to say that her father would probably have relented after our marriage but for the influence of her mother, a cold, haughty and determined woman, who said in a voice of steel, “she is dead to us all,” and who kept her relentless renunciation a cruel and living fact for nearly eight years.

Her father said: “As for my daughter—the worst punishment that could be inflicted upon her is to leave her alone with her villain of a husband.” It is sad to think that parental love could so soon become cold, and that a social disappointment should transform a mother’s tenderness into obdurate and unforgiving rancor to last, as it transpired, through so many years. In later years I had a boy whom I loved with all my heart, and had I under any circumstances forsaken him I would have expected God to desert me.

This separation and its cruel circumstances, and the disappointment of her expectation of a reconciliation after reasonable time were very hard upon the tender and affectionate heart of my wife. At times she would weep as if her heart would break, and yet I am confident that at no time, nor in any of the vicissitudes of her married life, did she ever falter in her faith in the love that had led her to make the sacrifice. We struggled along through the varying changes of fortune which make up the gambler’s career; at one time abounding in comforts, at another pinched for the necessaries of life. It is an old saying that love and poverty cannot dwell together in the same cottage longer than between two meals. Out of my experience I can dispute that proverb in at least one exception, and testify that while love and poverty during the ten years we were together struggled through many a close place, love, though sometimes saddened with suffering and misfortunes, survived to the end in all its sweetness and sincerity, trust and hope.

On one or two occasions my wife wrote home, but always received the same reply—“I will never see you again.” After several years’ residence about Roanoke, we removed to Moberly, Mo., and there my wife was seriously ill and was anxious to have her father attend her. He came, and the fact of his visit did her more good than his prescriptions. We were told that her mother came with him on the occasion, but remained at the 383hotel, saying that if her daughter died she would then come and see her. What a grim and terrible illustration of the implacable and unhallowed spirit which now filled the bosom that once had swelled with pride and affection under the love of this unforgiven daughter’s childhood.

Soon after May’s recovery we removed to St. Louis, and here life began to wear a brighter outlook and the future to be gilded with a rosier hue. Dr. Harvey purchased for us a suite of furniture—the only thing he ever gave us after our marriage—and comfort and happiness seemed to give assurance of a permanent stay. But, alas! for a time, only! Soon the old vice of gambling reasserted its alluring sway, with the result which inevitably follows its capricious favors. Straightened circumstances again pinched us with their implacable necessities, and one day my wife sat down and penned the following letter to her mother:

“My Dear Ma:—Since you sent me from you in such deep, and from your point of view, just anger, because of my marriage, I have often longed to be reconciled to you and dear Pa. Is my offense so heinous that you cannot forgive me? The worst that can be said of John is that he is a gambler; God knows that is bad enough, but as a husband he has always been good and kind to me. At present he is doing nothing. Could you see the poverty to which we are reduced, I think you would have some pity upon your daughter. I do not like to ask any favor of you but if you will help us a little now I will pay you back. Will you never soften your heart?

Your loving daughter,
Sealing this letter, which had melted her heart to tears, she handed it to me to mail. I went out, and after remaining a short time, returned but with the letter still in my pocket. A few days passed in which the clouds of adversity had seemed to gather thicker around us, and we were as a last resort, compelled to mortgage our furniture. “Well, John,” she sadly remarked, “it seems as if ma and all the world have forsaken us.” Seeing her so deeply affected, I took the letter from my pocket and placed it in her hand. “Oh!” she exclaimed, “it makes me feel so much better to know that my mother did not refuse my letter.”

Eight years had elapsed since she had looked upon the home of her happy childhood, when at length came an invitation from her mother to pay her a visit. For a long time the pride of the wife and a sensitive spirit wounded by long repulse, battled against the yearning love for father, mother, sisters, and home. At length she decided to go, but when only a few days there, her mother endeavored to persuade her to renounce me. At once her constant and faithful heart revolted, and she went out and ordered a man to call for her trunk. At the family’s entreaties she finally consented to remain, but it was with the understanding that she had made her choice and would abide by it; that if she deplored our misfortunes she did not regret her love. This second separation from home and from the luxury and magnificence which she saw around her, tempting her the more by their inviting contrast to the hard conditions by which experience had tried her married life, have always seemed to me to be the noblest sacrifice and adds a hallowed lustre to the brightness with which memory enshrines the recollection of her unfaltering love and devotion.

Two years more we struggled on through varying fortunes. Her father on one or two occasions visited her, but having failed to separate us, her mother gave no more sign of reconciliation. One Saturday evening my wife and self and our colored boy, Charley, went to market, and while out I purchased for her a satin dress, jokingly remarking that it would “help her to catch a new beau.” She replied, “I might be buried in it.” After purchasing our Sunday supplies, I put her and the colored boy on the car to return home, while I left all that was best and dearest to me to follow the irresistible and fatal fascination of the green cloth table. I gambled till a 384late hour and then started for home. On the street everything seemed to be “turned around” to me, so that I was compelled to ask a policeman for direction home. Arriving, I retired to bed, but a strange and somber feeling had taken possession of me. An unaccountable sadness seized my soul; a vague and irrepressible sense of impending calamity, without any palpable or definable reason, weighed upon me, and I burst into a passion of tears. My wife asked me what the trouble was, but that I did not know myself.

On Monday her mother called during my absence, and induced her to go down town. They remained together at the Laclede Hotel during Monday and Tuesday nights. This absence seemed to intensify the gloomy forebodings which I could neither explain nor comprehend, nor shake off. It almost seemed as if I were going to lose the one joy of my life. The pall of gloom upon my mind was such that sleep or rest was impossible. For hours I would get up and walk the floor, wrestling with the shadowy terror which seemed so close and incomprehensible. Was it the warning from another world of a direful grief so soon to befall? The dread rustling of the wings hovering even now over the happiness of my hearthstone?

Wednesday morning she returned home. I remember that we had a box of sardines, and ate them out of the same saucer. She said we would go down in the same car together and might possibly meet her mother at one of the stores. She requested me to speak to her mother if we met, which I at first declined, but on seeing that it grieved her, consented to. She also requested me to buy some little presents for her little invalid sister, Zollie, whom she tenderly loved, and on leaving her I went to the St. Bernard’s dollar store and made some purchases for this purpose and proceeded with them to the hotel. Enquiring for Mrs. Harvey, I was told that she and her daughter had left for home. “My God!” I exclaimed to myself, “has May forsaken me?” I immediately took a car home, and there, to my inexpressible relief and delight, was May, herself, looking a thousand times fairer than ever before. Doubtless, she had employed this last interview with her mother in endeavoring to promote the reconciliation which her tender heart, filled with affection for both husband and parent, so fully desired. She told a friend of ours that when her mother left her that morning she had said: “Daughter, I would rather see you in your grave than continue to live with that man.” Little she recked that before the sun should go down upon the bitterness of her heart the fell wish would become a tragic reality.

I was at this time interested in a foot race and was in training at Court Brilliant race track. I kissed her good-bye about 10 o’clock of the day her mother left St. Louis, saying that I would be back for dinner between 3 and 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Little did I dream that this embrace had parted us forever on earth! When I arrived home the colored boy, Charley, met me at the door, saying, “Miss’ May fell down stairs and was hurt bad.” Alarmed, I hastened into the house. It was full of strangers. I rushed to the bedside, and there, white and still, lay my wife, the dear one who had so often told me she would lay down her life for my sake. I put my lips to hers; they were not yet cold. With a cry of agony I knelt by her side and my heart seemed to cease to beat. It could not be possible that my May, so full of life when but a few hours before I had left her, was now lying dead before me! That those eyes would never again open to look upon me with an affection that never wearied or grew faint! That those lips were never more to open to speak to me one word of hope or love! Words fail to depict the anguish and the utterness of the loss which it seemed so hard to realize. Death is hard and cruel even when it comes to those whom age or disease has long marked for its own; but how unutterably sad when it comes without warning and sweeps away in one moment the brightness and sweetness of life alike from the victim and from those who are left to mourn!

385I was informed subsequently that in descending the stairs she had caught her foot in her dress and fallen headlong, striking the door sill with her head. She was carried up to her room, insensible, and lay for about three hours in a comatose condition. At length she rose up in bed, exclaiming, “Where is John? Oh, ma! ma! you break my heart! You won’t forgive me! Take down my hair, I am dying!” This was the last effort of consciousness. She lay back in bed and passed quietly into the silent sleep from which there is no waking. She expired at half past three on April 29, 1880.

Her father, who had that morning arrived at the Union Stock Yards, was notified and came immediately, and I have often wondered what were his thoughts as he stood by the bedside of his dead child, to whose life his unforgiving spirit had brought so much sadness. In this trial there was one circumstance that has always afforded me a melancholy satisfaction. Although we had been poor almost the entire portion of our married life, at the time of her death I was in a position to give her honorable and reverent sepulture, and to respect her wishes oft expressed in life with regard to burial. She had always desired to be laid to rest in a corner of the lawn at her parental home, at Roanoke, and there it was agreed her remains should be taken. This time, as she crossed the threshold of the old home, there was no unkind look or word of reproach, for upon her pallid and peaceful brow there was enthroned the majesty of the sovereign fate of all, before which the paltry passions of pride and anger shrink away in shame. As she lay there surrounded by father, mother, sisters and friends, the look of trouble and care which had rested there of late had all disappeared, and only the sweetness and peace of eternal rest remained. Listening to the expressions of love, sympathy and admiration which came from those who surrounded her bier, I could not but think that it might have been better if a few of the tokens of affections now extended around her lifeless form had been bestowed while her warm and loving heart had hungered and yearned in vain during the struggle of our married life. But pride and anger had been allowed to stand in the way of natural affection, and both hearts had suffered. It was now too late for vain regrets to make atonement or to undo the wrong from which only death gave relief to her gentle spirit.

I certainly think if her parents could have seen us on several occasions struggling through the hard places, they would have come to our relief. Her father showed at times that he felt kindly for his child and was willing to take her back into his heart as he had taken her in his arms when a little child, but her mother, who exercised a great deal of influence over him, would not forgive nor allow him to forgive. I suppose she thought she was doing a mother’s duty and that morality compelled her to treat her child as a stranger and an outcast. I have sinned often in allowing the tears to gather in the eyes of my dear wife, but I know this: she was troubled more by the way her parents treated her than by any sorrow that came through my life. True, I was a gambler, and as she said, “God knows, that’s bad enough!” but I was always good to her, and so far as it was in my power, strove to make her happy.

I have sometimes thought that I did her a wrong in our marriage. From the time I was sixteen years of age I had been familiar with the vicissitudes of a gambler’s life, and had always in good luck or bad fortune remained light hearted. If fortune smiled upon me I was the gayest of the gay; if fortune frowned I whistled and waited for a better day. With my wife it was otherwise. She had been brought up so tenderly that she knew not what it was to have a wish ungratified or a want unsupplied. She was not in any way prepared to meet the fickle and uncertain experiences to which a gambler necessarily subjects his family. As a flower bends before the wind which blows too rudely upon it, so she bowed when ill luck brought us to want and privation. The only excuse I have to offer is that I sincerely loved her and thought I could make her life happy. If I failed may God forgive me, but I did the best I could.