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Smashing Slot Machines

Smashing Slot Machines (6/10/35)

Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID: WHi-15862

Slot Machines

The current discussion about whether to allow expansion of DeJope from a bingo hall into a full-fledged casino recalls the time a century ago when Madisonians had “slot machine fever.” In August 1903 a reporter from the Wisconsin State Journal counted twenty nickel slot machines around the Capitol Square and twenty more in the rest of the city. Those around the Square took in $300 daily. On average, a machine gobbled up $15 each day and paid out $3 worth of cigars.

Starting at the west end of Main Street fronting the Square and proceeding east, the reporter entered establishments and counted slots. Charles Kirch’s Elite Buffet at 23 West Main had a machine with three rows of five cards; each row could be played simultaneously. Winners got chips good for five cents in trade (drinks or cigars).

Next door at 21 West Main, Marsh Fenner had two machines in his billiards and cigar establishment. Louis Haak had one slot at The Office Bowling Alleys, 17 West Main. John Damm had another in his cigar and tobacco store at 7 West Main.

When the reporter entered Ferdinand Josten’s cigar store at 3 East Main he noted players lined up three and four deep waiting to feed the slots. There was another machine at Caspar’s Place, the saloon and restaurant of Caspar Mayer at 11 E. Main. There was a slot machine in the Sexton & O’Neill drug store at 29 East Main (the corner of S. Pinckney and Main Street), and one in the cigar store of Charles W. Heyl at 110 East Main.

James McCormick had one machine in his Senate Exchange at 18 East Mifflin. Earl G. Farlin had three in his billiard hall at 12 South Carroll. John Ripp had one in his saloon at 116 East Washington, and Henry J. Shaughnessy had one next door at The Fountain House, 114 East Washington, a saloon, pool and billiard hall.

Over the course of a year the take from all the slot machines in Madison was $108,000, or nearly the cost of Madison’s recently completed new high school.

Dr. Edward Birge, acting president of the University of Wisconsin, dueled unsuccessfully with the Common Council to get the slots outlawed because university students were spending so much of their time and money playing them.

The earliest known illicit gambling hall in Madison was established in 1838. That year Jacob George and Abner Nichols built a two-story frame building on the corner of Main and Pinckney streets that they intended to use for a grocery. Since the license fee for groceries was four times as high as those for taverns, they applied for the cheaper tavern license. For some reason they were refused, and so declared that if they could not keep a tavern they’d keep something worser. “And so, without a license, Uncle George opened a worser, where men at the first session of the Legislature could buy strong drink and, in a dark cellar, they could fight a certain wild animal, whose den was there.”

Just before the Civil War Curtis B. Wicks reportedly managed a faro bank, commonly referred to as a “gambling hell,” in the second story of the Fairchild Block, raking in thousands of dollars. His wife Nellie, an excellent player and accomplished singer, presided at an elegant piano.

As late as the mid-1920s illegal gambling continued. Anton Bruno, who operated a pool hall at 734 West Washington Avenue, was arrested on October 30, 1923 for having “slot machines of a gambling type” on his premises. On January 12, 1924, at the height of the Rum War in the Greenbush, Julius Ucello, a neighbor, was shotgunned a few feet from Anton's home at 627 Milton Street. The killer threw the weapon into Bruno's back yard. Anton had just picked it up when police arrived and confiscated it from him. Apparently some in the rival gang believed he had turned the weapon over willingly and threatened his life. Bruno began carrying a .38 revolver for protection. On the evening of February 23, 1924, as he walked home from work, he was shot with a sawed-off shotgun as he turned up Milton Street towards his home. He never had time to draw his weapon. His killer was never caught.

Mark Gajewski