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Historical True Crime

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PLAYING THE PONIES

Anybody who saw the movie The Sting, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, remembers the elaborate book-making setup where the obnoxious "mark" placed his bets amid the hustle and bustle of clerks and gamblers and the clatter of telegraph keys as the announcer called the races from distant tracks. Had you been in Boise a century ago you too could have placed bets on horse races as they were being run on tracks across the country.

In 1904 a Statesman reporter described the scene at a local betting parlor: "Again the merry clicking of the telegraph instrument is heard at the Hoffman and the calls of the operator as he reels off the races, while tout and talent glue their eyes to the big blackboard and allow their imaginations to transport them to the track as easy money sensations chase up and down their backbones." These words come remarkably close to describing the scene in The Sting, although this wasn't one, except that bettors certainly got stung. Today at Les Bois Park television screens make it unnecessary to imagine the action as you had to in Boise a hundred years ago.

Western Union supplied the wire service necessary to provide Boise's horse race gamblers with accounts of races as they were run on faraway tracks. Boise's city council licensed the operation, at first for $25 per month, then for $50, and finally, in an apparent effort to close it down, jumped the fee to $200 a month. If that was what the city fathers intended, they succeeded, at least temporarily.

The betting parlor closed its doors on February 29, 1904, the day its monthly license expired, but by mid-March reopened. The proprietors had been placed in a difficult situation, since their contract with Western Union had to be honored whether they were open or not, and it called for a $3,000 penalty if they canceled.

Since the wire service contract had been negotiated on the basis of the $25 per month city license fee, the proprietors hoped that the council would bail them out by a allowing a temporary reduction until the Western Union contract expired. We have not been able to find out the outcome, since the papers don't mention it again. Our guess is that the proprietors were stuck, since reform was in the air across the country in 1904, and all forms of vice, including gambling, were being targeted.

Police raids on illegal or unlicensed gambling establishments have continued to make the news from that time until the present. Across Idaho, when county ordinances were involved, the local sheriff did the raiding. We'll tell you more about gambling on the Idaho frontier next time.:

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