Blacklegs, Card Sharps, and Confidence Men: by Thomas Ruys Smith

By Thomas Ruys Smith

In 1836 Benjamin Drake, a midwestern author of renowned sketches for newspapers of the day, brought his readers to a brand new and surprisingly American rascal who rode the steamboats up and down the Mississippi and different western waterways—the riverboat gambler

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Additional info for Blacklegs, Card Sharps, and Confidence Men: Nineteenth-Century Mississippi River Gambling Stories (Southern Literary Studies)

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Gambling “allowed the poor to challenge the rich”—and that power resonated, even if the challenge was only imaginary (38). Where once the excitement in gambling stories had come from lurid moral instruction or the fantasy of beating the gambler at his own game, now their pleasure came in identification with the gambler himself. Though previously an emasculated coward, the riverboat gambler now represented a potent masculinity. 2 Willett, a newspaperman, was a longtime resident of St. Louis and was quite plausibly influenced by the reminiscences of old-time gamblers in that milieu.

Ann Fabian has traced the riverboat gambler’s newfound popularity to “northern readers” who were “increasingly confined to the small and uncertain gains of wage labor” and therefore entranced by “the Mississippi Valley’s surviving myths of easy wealth” (6). Gambling “allowed the poor to challenge the rich”—and that power resonated, even if the challenge was only imaginary (38). Where once the excitement in gambling stories had come from lurid moral instruction or the fantasy of beating the gambler at his own game, now their pleasure came in identification with the gambler himself.

He gathered up his thimbles, and the whole company followed us to the bar, laughing heartily at the conjurer; for, as he had won some of their money, they were sort of delighted to see him beaten with his own cudgel. He tried to laugh too, but his laugh wasn’t at all pleasant, and rather forced. The barkeeper placed a big-bellied bottle before us; and after mixing our liquor, I was called on for a toast, by one of the company, a chap just about as rough hewn as if he had been cut out of a gum log with a broad-axe, and sent into the market without even being smoothed off with a jack plane; one of them chaps who, in their journey through life, are always ready for a fight or a frolic, and don’t care the toss of a copper which.

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