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A Paradise of Gamblers

by Edgar Fawcett

1891

Many religious journals throughout the country have poured eulogies upon the pious head of our Postmaster General because of his raid against all letters bearing the least uncanny relation to that abhorred criminal body, the Louisiana Lottery. In one sense this action is not ill-advised; the national laws against gambling are distinct, and even if they were unjust their existence would be no excuse for their infringement. The highly moral action of Mr. Wanamaker, however, happening as it does at a time when his own relations with the hazards and plots of Wall Street have grown the talk of our entire country, teem with a suggestion that should be patent to thousands. If gnats are strained at and camels are swallowed, there is certainly a pardonable satire in congratulating those who devour the latter on their noteworthy powers of digestion. As an immoral institution the Louisiana Lottery, evil as it is, cannot be compared with Monte Carlo, which arrays itself in facile splendors of enticement and smiles in mirrors and gildings on the rash gamesters whom it ruins. But the Louisiana Lottery, which of late it has become the fashion to revile, devises its chief gains in a much less faulty manner. For such disbursements as one dollar, two dollars, five dollars, a good deal of golden expectancy and anticipation can be enjoyed, and there is no confirmed proof whatever that the citizens who are rash enough to expend these massive amounts have ever been swindled at the monthly New Orleans drawings. Indeed, they have ample proof, if they care to sift it, that somebody in Maine, or Indiana, or California, has received a small fortune for part of a ticket purchased at the same cheap terms as their own. Naturally, unless they were complete fools, they knew previous to their investment that the chances against them were extremely large, and that their prospect of winning anything very handsome was about equal to that of their being struck by lightning or having an unknown relative leave them a fat legacy. Could it once be proved that the Louisiana Lottery is really dishonest in its dealings—really more dishonest than the bright-lit bar-room that shiningly says to one, “Come and get drunk in me if you choose, but if you don’t choose drink only as much as you want in me, and if you don’t choose to enter me at all, avoid me forever and a day”—then the iniquity of the whole organization could not be scorned in terms too harsh. But at present all indictments against this particular species of gambling would seem to be just as airy as those against the alluring tavern. The “prohibition extremists” are like lawyers who can never make their case, yet are incessantly fuming against their own failure. These extremists forget that their shadowy moral client is plaintiff in a kind of curious divorce-suit, where the defendant is human nature and the co-respondent human will. It is most probable that men will continue to get drunk just so long as education remains for them an incident force of inferior potency. As to their liking and upholding certain milder games of chance (after the style of the Greeks, let us say, at their very highest period of culture), that is perhaps not an educational question at all, but one of simple diversion. There are kinds of gambling, however, with which no believer in racial progress will admit that the loftier forms of civilization can possibly deal, and foremost among these must be counted the reckless license, the odious libertinage of venture which now shames a republic never tired of vaunting its virtues to the transatlantic monarchies from which it sprang.

He who would note and study, in all their terror, melancholy, and pathos, the selfishness and avarice of his fellow-men, might search the whole known globe and never find a field for his observations at once more fruitful and more discouraging than that of Wall Street. To realize in its full glare of vicious vulgarity the influence of this environment, let us take the case of some refined young man just after he has quitted school and entered the office of a thrifty broker—perhaps a warm friend of his father, who hugs the keenly American doctrine that a youth should be put in the way of piling dollars together as quickly as possible after he leaves the educational leash. By degrees this young man will discover that the only difference between Wall Street and a huge, crowd-engirt gaming-table is one between simplicity and complexity. He will see that the play of the former is far more difficult to learn and that it requires a number of croupiers instead of one. He will see that these croupiers are in most cases men whose names posterity will hand down, if it hands them down at all, as those of stony egotists, and sometimes of gigantic thieves. He will gradually gain insight into certain of their methods, as when, only a few years back, one or two of them seized an entire railroad under cover of what was the merest parody of purchase and opposed both to law and to public policy, afterward defending their outrage in the courts through the brazen aid of venal judges and bringing to Albany (headquarters of their attempted theft) a great carload of New York ruffians, each with a proxy in his soiled and desperate hand—an instrument almost as illegal as the pistol which those hands had doubtless too often fingered if not fired amid the squalor of their owners’ native slums.[1]

The neophyte in speculators’ creeds and customs may amuse himself, however, with reminiscences like the preceding only in a sense of that proud historic retrospect which concerns past radiant records of “the street.” He may, if so minded, con other pages of its noble archives, and dazzle his young brain with admiration for the shining exploits of “Black Friday,” an occasion when greed held one of its most sickening revels, and a clique of merciless financiers gathered together so many millions of gold coin that its price bred fright among the holders of depreciating stocks. Agony, ruin, the demolition of firesides, resulted from this infamous “corner” wrought by a league of miserly zealots. But our young student of Wall Street annals will soon harden his nerves against any silly commiseration. As well soil the glory of Lexington or Bunker Hill by brooding over the pangs of those who were its victims. All great victories necessitate bloodshed. It is not every man who can wrest vast wealth from the turmoils of a “Black Friday.” … And so, after turning the pages of a revolting chronicle, all of which teem with calamity to the many and plethoric gain to the bullying and insolent few, he surveys that active boil and ferment of the present, seeking to discern there some course of trick and scheme by which he too may fatten his purse, even though he blunts conscience into a callous nullity. Between old days and new he finds but slight difference. Rises and panics prevail now as then. The “margin,” beloved of the wily broker, first lures and then robs the trustful buyer. “Pools,” open and secret, grasping and malicious, may wreak at any hour disasters on the unwary. “Points” are given by one operator to another with the same mendacious glibness as of yore. The market is now dull with the torpor of a sleeping cobra, now aflame, like that reptile, with treacherous and poisonous life. In its repose as in its excitement our novice begins to know it, fear it, and heartily love it besides. The chances are nine out of ten that he loves it too much and fears it too little. Its hideous vulgarity has ceased to shock him. Its “bulls,” with their often audacious purchases of stock for which they do not pay but out of whose random fluctuations in value they expect to reap thousands from the “bears,” who sell in a like blind, betting-ring fashion; its devices of “spreads,” and of “straddles,” which are combinations of “puts” and “calls” whereby the purchaser limits his loss and at the same time suits the chances of his winning to those of vacillant prices themselves; its unblushing compromises on the part of debtors with creditors, fifty cents on the dollar being frequently paid by bankrupts to the extent of one, two, or three hundred thousand dollars, in order that they may resume their highly legitimate undertakings and perhaps grow rich again in company with their fellow-gamblers; all these, and many more features of Wall Street life, equally vivid and equally soiled by sordid materialism, have at length wrapped the mind of this young observer in their drastic and sinister spells. When he “starts out for himself,” as he is presently quite sure to do, his ultimate success is enormously doubtful. His reign as a leading personality in Wall Street means to have been a Childe Roland who, indeed, to the Dark Tower did actually come. The horn that such a victor lifts to his mouth has been wrought, as one might say, from the bones of some comrade slain in the same arduous pilgrimage, and the peal of triumph which his lips evoke from it might be called a blending of countless wretched cries from the lips of other perished strugglers in the same daring design. Great success with him, if he achieves it, will be—what? An almost Titanic power to torture and affright at will hundreds, thousands of his fellow-men. He will have before him the example of a man who locked up $12,500,000 in one of his riotous assaults against honest stock-exchange dealing—money notoriously not his own. He may desire to imitate that course of behavior which had Samuel Bowles abducted and unlawfully imprisoned because he published in his paper the truth about Wall Street trickery and villany, or which sandbagged Dorman B. Eaton in the streets of New York for having fought with legal weapons of honest denunciation that malodorous craft of a compact between incarnate kleptomania in finance and the unspeakable “boss” burglar of Tammany Ring.

But needless are further details of those abominations on which our rising young aspirant may turn an envious eye. He cannot but acquaint himself with the whole horrid list of chicanery, since its items are rungs of the ladder on which he himself may hereafter seek to mount. If he aims to be a great Wall Street spider he must perforce fully acquaint himself with what material will go toward the spinning of that baleful tissue, his proprietary web. It must be woven, this web, out of perjuries and robberies. Its fibres must mean the heart-strings torn from many a deluded stockholder’s breast, and the morning dew that glitters on it must be the tears of widows and orphans. The laws of a great republic are the foliage (alas, of a tree not too sturdy!) on which its devilish meshes are wrought! There is no exaggeration in stating that the financial history of the past three decades in America has been one of peerless turpitude. Rome under the dying glories of the empire scarcely parallels its knavish gluttonies of illegal seizure. And Wall Street has been the boiling point of all this infectious train of outrages against a patient people—one that presumes to rate itself really democratic, and to sneer at countries over seas in which to-day a Crédit Mobilier, a Pacific Railroad atrocity, a Manhattan Railroad brigandage, would make Trafalgar Square or the Place de la Concorde howl with savage tumult.

But let us return to our would-be Wall Street magnate. Suppose he has not the “grit” or the “go” (or whatever it would be termed in that classic purlieu so noted for elegance of every-day rhetoric) either to crown himself with the tarnished crown of a monetary “king” or even to hold a gilt-edged but scandal-reeking portfolio at the footstool of some such reigning tyrant. In this case he may join the great rank-and-file of those whose pockets have become irremediably voided and who seldom refer to Wall Street unless with muttered curses while dragging out maimed careers in various far less feverish pursuits; or he may, on the other hand, drift into that humble crowd of petty brokers (“curb-stone” or domiciled) whose incomes vary from fifteen hundred to as many thousands a year, and who pass hours each day in envy, whether secret or open, of the dignitaries towering above them. As one of these inferior persons his existence will continue, no doubt, until he changes it for the tomb: and meanwhile what sort of an existence has it been? All the finer human aims have appealed to him as pearls appeal to swine. He has, perhaps, possessed faculties which might have allowed him to shine ably and yet honorably in the state or national congress, whose votes his friends and rivals, to ensure the passage of their unscrupulous railroad-bills, have bought so often and with such bloodless depravity. But these faculties have been miserably misused. He may have loved some woman, and married her, and begotten children by her; domestic affection may have warmed his being, just as it does that of many a day-laborer. But in the arid air of Wall Street all his intellectual and ethical possibilities will have wilted and died. Lust for greater riches and a mordant, ever-smouldering disappointment at not having attained them, will replace the healthier impulses of adolescence. Books will have no savor for him; men of high attainments, unless their coffers brim with lucre, affect him no more than the company of the most unlettered oaf. He becomes, in other words, the typical Wall Street man, and he becomes this with a stolid indifference to all known motors of mental betterment.

It is not in any sense an attractive type. The Wall Street men are lilies that toil and spin (“tiger” lilies, one might term them, in remembrance of the old gambler-slang about faro and roulette); but their industries, however distinct, are what the political economists would call those of non-productive consumers. They are active drones, to speak with paradox, in the great hive of human energy. Like all gamesters, all men who live by the turning of the dice-box, they have a devil-may-care demeanor, now and then rather sharply peppered with wit, though wit not always avoidant of the obscene. For the most part, they are as ignorant of the large onward push of human thought as if they were farmers in some remote county of Arkansas. And yet they affect, at all times, an amusing omniscience. To “know it all” is a phrase beloved as sarcasm by their nimble vernacular, and though this (like “Come off!” and “Look here, what are you giving us?”) is a form of speech incessantly on their lips, one is prone sometimes to reflect how amazing is the meagreness of real knowledge which their “knowing it all” piteously represents. They are sometimes keen sportsmen, but a good many scamps, dolts, and cads are that. Their acquaintance with contemporary literature could be summed up by stating that if you should ask an average number of their class whether he had read the last novel of Mr. James, he might pull his moustache (the Wall Street man usually has a moustache, and often a symmetric and well-tended one) desiring to learn whether you had reference or no to G. P. R. James, of the “two horse-men” celebrity. Their ignorance, however, is not equal to their self-sufficiency. Almost whenever the average Wall Street man goes into good society he makes himself more pronounced there by his assurance than his culture. Of the latter quality he has so little that the best clubs of which he is a member tolerate rather than accept him. In most cases he is deplorably curt of speech and brusque of deportment. Suavity, repose, that kindliness which is the very marrow and pith of high-breeding, shock you in his manners as acutely by their absence as if they were rents in his waistcoat or gapes in his boot-leather. The “bluff,” impudence, and swagger of the Stock Exchange cling to him in society like burrs to the hair of horse or dog. He would be far more endurable, this socially rampant and ubiquitous Wall Street man, if he revealed the least shred of respect for those ideas and faiths on which his hard, cold course of living has necessarily trampled rough-hooved. He is so bright and intelligent, as a rule, that you wonder why he is so phenomenally vulgar. But his brightness and intelligence are of the quality, nearly always, that throws into hysteric giggles the “summer girl” on piazzas of third-rate hotels. Ordinarily, too, he has not the faintest conception of how deeply and darkly he bores people who would live apart from him, from his bejewelled and supercilious wife (her pretty head always goes an inch further backward when “Tom” or “Dick” has “made a strike in stocks”), and from the French maid, with her frilled cap, whom his children gabble to in their grammarless American-French, but whose unctuous idioms are Sanscrit alike to madame and himself.

Conceive that you or I shall wish to talk with the ordinary Wall Street man, on the piazza of his watering-place hotel, on the deck of his record-breaking steamer. (When he goes to Europe, which he incessantly does, he invariably takes a record-breaking steamer in preference to all others.) What does he know? What can he tell us? Politics? He reproduces, if he be a Republican, the last tirade of his favorite newspaper in behalf of protection and Mr. Blaine. If he be a Democrat he will spout the last editorial of his favorite newspaper in favor of free trade and Mr. Cleveland. History? The Wall Street man rarely knows in what year Columbus discovered America, and would be in straits wild enough to horrify that talented arch-prig, Mr. Andrew Lang, if you mentioned either Cortes or Pizarro. Fiction? He admired Robinson Crusoe when a boy, and since then he has read a few translated volumes of Dumas the elder. Poetry? He doesn’t like it “for a cent”; but he once did come across something (by Tennyson or Longfellow—he forgets which) called “Beautiful Snow.” That “fetched him,” and “laid over” any other verse he recollects.

Here, let us insist, is no aimless travesty of the average Wall Street man, but a faithful etching of him, apart from those more sorry lineaments which might be disclosed in a portrait painted, as it were, with the oil of his own slippery speculations. If he resents the honest drawing of his well-known features, why, so much the better. His indignation may be fraught with wholesome reactions. Perhaps he will have his defenders—interested ones, of course. We may pluck the cactus-flower with hands cased in buckskin, and swear that it harbors no sting below its roseate and silken cockade of bloom. Prejudice is too often the saucepan on which we cook our criticisms; and when these are done to a turn we cast the vessel into a dust-bin, trying with mighty valor of volition to forget that it even exists as old iron.

Never was more blatant humbug aired than that about our “brilliant” Wall Street financiers. Their “brilliancy” is merely a repulsive egotism in one of its worst forms,—that of cupidity. They are like misers with longer, quicker, and more sinewy fingers than other misers, in the gathering together of dollars. Their shrewdness may be exceptional, but a quality which consists half in accurate guessing and half in bullying defiance is hardly worthy of the name. As for their “nerve” and “coolness,” these are not endowments that in such connection can be admired or praised. For surely the gambler who cannot face bravely those very slings and arrows of variant if not always outrageous fortune which form the chief indices of his dingy profession, cuts a mean enough figure in the cult of it. “Jim” Fisk had traits like these, but who now applauds them? As well admire the courage of a house-breaker in scaling a garden-wall at midnight, or his exquisite tact in selecting a bed-chamber well-stored with jewels and money. The so-called “great men” of Wall Street are foes of society—foes merciless and malign. Their “generalship,” their “Napoleonic” attributes are terms coined by people of their own damaging class, people with low motives, with even brutish morals. It is time that this age of ours, so rich in theoretic if impracticable humanitarianisms, forebore to flatter the spirits which work against it in its efforts toward higher and wiser achievement. The anarchists hanged in Chicago were men of mistaken purpose and fatuous belief. But at least they were conceivably sincere, however dangerous to peace and order. These czars and tycoons of finance, on the other hand, are scoffers at the integrity of the commonweal, and have for their Lares and Penates hideous little gods carved by their own misanthropy from the harsh granite of self-worship. Every new conspiracy to amass millions through wrecking railroads, through pouring vast sums upon the stock market, through causing as vast sums to disappear from public use, stains them blacker with the proof of their horrible inhumanity. Even death does not always end their monstrous rapine, for when they pay what is called the debt of nature they too often fling, in their wills, a posthumous sneer at that still larger debt owed to their fellow-creatures, and make some eldest son their principal heir. Charity may get a few niggardly thousands from them, and handsome bequests usually go to their younger children; yet the bulk of the big gambler’s treasure passes intact to one who will most probably guard with avid custody the alleged prestige of its possession.

But we should remember that on many occasions it is not even a game of chance with these potentates of Wall Street. They play, as it were, with marked cards, and can predict to a certainty, having such mighty capital at their disposal, just how and when particular stocks will rise or fall. Spreading abroad deceitful rumors through their little subservient throngs of henchmen brokers, they create untold ravage and despair. Fearful cruelty is shown by them then. The law cannot reach it, though years of imprisonment would be far too good for it. Families are plunged into penury by their subtly circulated frauds; forgery and embezzlement in hundreds of individual cases result; banks are betrayed and shattered; disgrace and suicide are sown broadcast like seeds fecund in poison. One often marvels that assassination does not spring up in certain desperate human hearts as a vengeance against these appalling wrongs. Murder is ghastly enough, in whatever shape it meets us, and from whatever cause. But if Lincoln and Garfield fell the prey of mad fanatics, it seems all the stranger, as it is all the more fortunate, that agonized and ill-governed human frenzy should thus far happily have spared us new public shudders at new public crimes.

Conjecture may indeed waste its liveliest ardors in seeking to determine what place this nineteenth century of ours will hold among the centuries which have preceded and are destined to follow it. But there is good reason to believe, after all, that in one way it will be held remarkable, perhaps even unique,—as an age of violent contrasts, violent extremes. Here we are, seeking (however pathetically) to grapple with problems whose solution would wear an almost millennial tinge. There are men among us—and men of august intellects, too—who urge upon society the adoption of codes and usages which would assume, if practically treated, that the minds and characters of mortals are little short of angelic. And coevally with these dreamers of grand socialistic improvement, we are met by such evidence as that of Wall Street, its air foul with the mephitic exhalations that rise from dead and rotting principle. When the state is corrupt, and large bodies of its citizens are not only corrupt but wholly scornful of every fraternal and philanthropic purpose as well,—when communities like this of Wall Street, cold-blooded, shameless, injurious, are bowed to as powers, instead of being shunned as pests, then the ideals of such men as Karl Marx and his disciples loom distant and indefinite on the horizon of the future. Tritest of metaphors though it may be, all civilization is a garden, and in this garden of our own western tillage Wall Street towers to-day like a colossal weed, with roots deep-plunging into a soil they desiccate and de-fertilize. When and whose will be the extirpating hand?

Here dawns a question with which some modern Sphinx may defy some coming Œdipus. Let us hope it will prove a question so adequately answered that the evil goddess using it as a challenge—the conventional deity of injustice, duplicity, and extortion—will dramatize her compulsory response to it by casting herself headlong into the sea!