Reports were made to the district attorney in this city last week that several gambling dens were running wide open in Platteville. Arrangements were immediately made by Under-sheriff Harcleroad and deputy, Kidd, to apprehend the wrong-doers. On arriving at Platteville and the alleged “dens” were “spotted” and entered it was discovered that someone had tipped the gamblers and they had disappeared with all the “valuable” paraphernalia needed in such business... The supposition is entertained that the ministers who were behind the attempt to arrest the gamblers were too active and their appearances here in Lancaster made friends of the gamblers take notice of unusual proceedings and the Platteville parties were thus informed.”
— Dubuque Telegraph Herald, Sept. 12, 1909
Gambling has always been a problem in Grant County well before some forms of gambling were legalized in Wisconsin.
Small taverns on back roads have often been the home of gambling machines and the devil’s lair that emptied working men’s pockets before their wages got home to buy the children’s food.
In early mining days “gambling dens” hosted such worthies as Patch Eye John, Bloody Kentuck and Bullet Neck Green, who played poker and “old sledge.”
Recently I have begun systematically searching the records of county Justices of the Peace. It is a sad record for the years spanning 1930 to 1956, and gambling is a part of that story. Cases that appear to be a complaint of non-support, disorderly conduct, or nonpayment of debts, if viewed from a higher vantage, may well bear the shadow of ruinous gambling and intoxication.
Slot machines were common in Grant County in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. So were stories of law enforcement officers looking the other way when bingo, raffles, lotteries, payoff pinball machines, punchboards, and slot machines popped up in churches, American Legion Halls, public bars, and hidden gambling dens.
In December 1929 Grant County District Attorney Manfred S. Block published in various local newspapers direct warnings against the use of gambling machines, and other sorts of gambling, including “poultry raffles.” In 1935 state Attorney General James E. Finnegan pointedly advised that “pin ball or whiffle ball machines which pay off in cash or in tokens [were] gambling devices and beyond the pale of the law.”
These machines were “in wide use” throughout the county. They could be found in pool halls, taverns, hotel lobbies, and even candy stores.
Gambling machines were a problem in other areas of the state as well, particularly in northern resorts. The resort owners resisted, openly keeping the machines and resisting the enforcement efforts of state agents. They believed gambling was economically necessary to draw tourists and to keep the bottom line positive. No doubt Grant County owners of drinking and gambling establishments felt the same.
After tougher laws were passed in 1945, the Vilas County News–Review wrote an editorial, saying “Let’s Secede.” They said the “little fellows” would be driven out of the gambling business and “a few will become richer and more powerful and more dangerous.” Thus the involvement of criminal syndicates was conceded.
Then there were the punchboards. These were boards with holes that, for a price, a customer could punch through with a stick or other instrument. Inside he found a piece of paper either showing the amount won, or words such as “try again.” These punchboards were the precursor of today’s scratch-off lottery tickets.
Gambling and moonshine went hand in glove during the Prohibition years. No doubt the slot machines were distributed by underworld syndicates.
In March 1943 Sheriff Aloys Klaas returned from a three-week vacation to find about 100 new slot machines in operation throughout the county. When he started removing them, he said, he was offered a bribe of $400 per month if he would turn his head and permit their operation.
Klaas reported this to Gov. Walter Goodland, who called Sheriff Klaas and Grant County District Attorney John E. Grindell to a meeting in Madison with Milwaukee County District Attorney James Kerwin and Deputy Attorney General J. Ward Rector.
In September 1943 Goodland ordered Grindell to resign or face suspension. Grindell resigned. The specific reasons for the governor’s demand were not revealed.
Little was resolved. In 1941 Congress passed a tax on “coin operated amusement devices” regardless of the state laws that limited or outlawed them. In 1942, the Internal Revenue Service reported that 238,000 pinball and slot machines were in operation, and Wisconsin was number one in the number of slot machines registered with 7,247.
Gambling machines and punchcards kept creeping back into the taverns of Grant County. Legion halls and churches kept having lotteries, bingo games, and raffles.
In February 1956, after a deputy sheriff was fired, Sheriff Robert Seemeyer was accused of, among other things, ignoring gambling activities, including bingo games and dice played at the annual Labor Day celebration of Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Dickeyville (which is still held) and at a veterans rally.
Retired judge A.W. Kopp was selected to head an investigation of the accusations leveled against the sheriff. Kopp selected Leary Peterson of Prairie du Chien to pursue the allegations and question witnesses at an investigative hearing.
A sheriff’s deputy who directed traffic at the Dickeyville event denied seeing bingo games in progress. Peterson went so far as to call Rev. Joseph C. Niglis of Holy Ghost to testify. He freely admitted that bingo, which he called “homer,” was played, but denied being promised immunity from prosecution by the sheriff.
Failing to find specific wrongdoing, Gov. Walter Kohler dismissed the charges against Sheriff Seemeyer. But that was not the end of the matter.
Five months later, in July, the gambling issue was again in the news. The editor of the Grant County Independent, Norman Clapp, who was seeking the Democratic nomination for the Third Congressional District, ran a story alleging that gambling activities had occurred at the American Legion Fourth of July picnic and at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Kieler.
This injected the scent of politics into the whole business. Sheriff Seemeyer was once again accused of ignoring gambling activities while he was at Hazel Green on July 4 directing traffic. Seemeyer was quoted as saying, “I was at Hazel Green to take care of traffic. I wasn’t looking for anything else.” He was also quoted as saying “I’m not so sure it’s up to me to enforce the antigambling laws.”
Religion was also a factor. Methodists and other Protestant denominations had long been opposed to any form of gambling, and advocated strongly for its eradication. In 1954 the Protestant Grant County Fellowship of Churches pronounced “firm and active support to any and all law enforcement agencies striving to eradicate the evil within the county.” In the spring of 1956 they sent a letter to all Grant County newspapers warning, “We have heard of gambling by some public schools and other organizations.”
Catholic churches, on the other hand, used parish activities that included what they considered harmless games of bingo as fundraising tools.
With the Independent coverage, Grant County District Attorney Mark Hoskins launched a John Doe hearing and eventually filed charges against 16 people. He was required to do so by the harsh anti-gambling laws of 1945. Failure to pursue such allegations could lead to the district attorney’s removal by the governor. The individuals charged were fined an average of $35 each plus costs and released.
In the intervening years the law has been relaxed greatly to allow for the kinds of raffles, lotteries, and bingo games we are all familiar with. Charitable bingo was authorized in a 1973 constitutional amendment referendum, and charitable raffles were authorized in a referendum four years later. Pari-mutuel on-track betting and a state lottery were authorized in referenda in 1987. Article IV, section 24 of the state Constitution has been modified to allow other forms of gambling through referenda in 1993 and 1999. Gambling has been expanded to the rivers and reservations all over this country, and even the state runs a lottery and advertises it widely.
Are we better off with widespread legalized gambling? There have been articles in various papers over the years of families’ bankrupted and ruined men committing suicide. The state that profits by it all devotes very little to the treatment of gambling addiction.