Dealing in the Delta: Card Readers and Riverboat Cheats of the late 1800s
Guest post by Sandra Jones
The Mississippi River Delta is known for its Blues music, smoky-voiced singers, and banjo players who have long immortalized pacts with the Devil on lonesome Southern highways. However, few people today know the stories behind the songs and the true tales of how cunning men and women found ways to earn a living from travelers through these isolated parts. Some even managed to become rich doing so.
When I wrote my historical romance, Her Wicked Captain (Samhain Publishing/Nov. 2014), I had one goal in mind: recreating the lower Mississippi River setting of the 1850s. Having grown up in the foothills of the Ozarks, all I knew about Delta history was what I’d read in Mark Twain novels. I also liked the quiet beauty I’d seen when visiting the ox-bow lakes, the Spanish moss of the trees, cotton fields, and the multitudes waterfowl filling the wetlands. My romance would take place on an opulent steamboat with this natural beauty of the river drifting past.
However in writing historical fiction, I’ve sometimes found that research leads me in different directions. What I didn’t expect to learn was just how wicked these “River Rogues” truly were. They were criminals, swindlers, and even a few murders, but had their own codes of morals. My research led me to first-person accounts of dime novel shenanigans and all-out chicanery — whether truth or fiction. Most of the characters who penned their own autobiographies preferred to embellish their tales a bit, but perhaps you’ll agree with me there’s bound to be some grain of truth to every story.
From the French Quarter of New Orleans to St. Louis, travelers in the mid-late 1800s enjoyed the speed of steamboats and railroads, but spending days idle, they soon turned to gambling and other sports to fill the time. The hero of Her Wicked Captain is patterned after the riverboat captains and gamblers of those days. Part dandy and part pirate, these men lived out of a suitcase, always following the money, looking for the perfect passengers to bilk at the card table.
Cardsharps and Confidence Men
In the early 1800s, men enjoyed poker in New Orleans, and the amusement traveled north on waterways to gambling dens in river ports. There, transient pioneers were easy prey for confidence men as they passed through, looking for a night’s entertainment. In order to attract a certain clientele, these men dressed as dandies, affected charming manners, perfected slights of hand, and became increasingly dependent on their skills at pistols. They became to be known as nefarious individuals. Soon professional gamblers began to be blamed for various crimes whether guilty or not, and in Mississippi in 1835, five cardsharps were killed by a lynch mob. Eventually gamblers found riverboats more suitable to the lifestyle they needed. Onboard these ships they found travelers in need of entertainment, and the boats offered a quick getaway when trouble followed.
George H. Devol, one legendary Delta gambler, wrote an autobiography of his escapades (Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi) in which he brags of earning hundreds of thousands of dollars from his opponents. He grew up in Ohio the son of a Christian family, but became a runaway by age ten. On the Mississippi, he took work as a ship’s cabin boy, and there he learned the tricks of his future trade. A precocious adolescent, he came to enjoy fighting and card-playing better than the hard work of a ship’s crewman, so he began boarding the steamboats as a passenger, challenging unsuspecting travelers at poker. With jaded morals and a slanted view of what was right or wrong, he took money from soldiers, exchanged counterfeit money, and offered no apologies for besting “suckers.” As Devol himself relates, “I caught a preacher once for all his money, his gold spectacles, and his sermons. Then I had some of those queer feelings come over me (and when they came upon me I could not resist their influence), so I gave him his sermons and specks back.”
Yet throughout the memoir, Devol describes many instances of generosity and sympathy for those in need. When one of the steamboats he traveled on exploded an engine, he shares his horror at the sight of the tragedy and relates his utmost respect for the heroes who pulled countless victims from the water. He also speaks of “crooked” partners and “wolves” with whom he was eager to part ways. One might think Devol was a hypocrite, but no one can deny he was a colorful character.
Another notable Delta gambling devil was Canada Bill Jones. A favorite partner of Devol’s, Jones was known as one of the greatest players of three-card-monte who ever lived. A smooth talker, Jones won over Mississippi travelers with his “gawky” appearance and way of asking foolish questions. People easily fell for his innocent act, and the gamblers’ partnership was a lucrative one. Their escapades took them from the paddlewheelers to the railways where they had a few close calls. At one point on the way to Vicksburg, an unhappy card player pulled a Bowie knife on Jones, causing Devol to draw his “Betsy Jane.” The pair of gamblers yanked the train’s bellcord and leapt to the next platform, barely escaping with their lives.
The Arkansas “Seer”
Every historical romance hero needs an equally compelling heroine, especially one who can be the perfect match for a devilish gambling rogue. For a woman who could hold her own against these tricksters, I looked no farther than the Delta itself, finding one such lady in history, Caroline Tracy Dye.
Ms. Dye was born into slavery in South Carolina in about 1843 and was brought to Arkansas by Nancy Tracy after the death of Tracy’s husband. The Civil War gave Caroline freedom, but also helped create her reputation as a psychic when she accurately predicted the arrival of a Tracy family member thought to have died in battle. Later moving to Jackson County, Arkansas, people soon came to seek her out for their fortunes. Over a single deck of playing cards, Caroline read fortunes, helping her clients locate missing items, solving relationship problems, and finding stolen livestock. Some affluent customers became so dependent on her word, they made no decisions without her.
Dye’s reputation spread across the country, making her know to President Woodrow Wilson, and local railways brought her so many visitors that the Newport-Memphis train was nicknamed the “Caroline Dye Special.” This combination of wit, unsavory reputation and yet respected intelligence made her the perfect fodder for my story’s romance heroine.
Ms. Dye never asked for a dime, but people offered her money for her predictions. She was able to buy bonds with her earnings and was rumored to have hidden a fortune at the time of her death in 1918. Her notoriety is shrouded in conjecture as various authorities argue about the date of her birth and death. Others claim she was a practitioner of dark arts, root-work, and hoodoo. Blues songwriters served to further her legacy by immortalizing her in songs such as “Aunt Caroline Dyer Blues” (1930) by The Memphis Jug Band and “Hoodoo Women” (1937) by Johnnie Temple. She’s also known as the inspiration behind W.C. Handy songs, including the gypsy of “St. Louis Blues” (1914). A lady of brains and fortune, she was both feared and respected — a true Delta legend.
Sandra Jones is the author of historical romances for publishers including Avon Impulse and Samhain Publishing. Her latest novel is the first in a new series, The River Rogues, set in the American South of the 1850s. About Her Wicked Captain, she warns “there’s not enough moonshine on the Mississippi to keep this fortuneteller from saving The Devil’s Henchman, a high-stakes gambler — and her childhood friend — from his boss’s cruel attentions. Touches upon issues of child abuse, revenge, and redemption.”