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It’s hard to believe, but for more than two decades in the 1900s gambling was illegal in the Silver State—only officially, that is.
Just after midnight on July 28, 1911, Sheriff Joseph Harris twice knocked softly—careful surveillance had revealed the code—on a door inside the Commercial Hotel in Elko. Acknowledging the correct signal, the sentry admitted Harris and a few of his friends, who promptly flashed their badges.
“Gentlemen,” Harris addressed the assembled roulette and faro dealers and players, “you must stop this. You are all under arrest.”
Though gambling had been illegal in Nevada for nearly a year, the bettors and dealers were so dumbfounded the law was actually being enforced that they meekly acquiesced. According to the Nevada State Herald in Wells, “For some time it had been known to the sheriff that gambling was conducted at the Commercial Hotel, in violation of the law, but that officials had been powerless to secure evidence that would be sufficient to convict.”
Rumors were rampant that Harris and his men harbored little interest in cracking down on the players or the houses. “Some have even gone so far as to charge that the sheriff was paid to let these games run,” the Elko Independent reported.
Some decried the sheriff’s department’s actions and their potential effects on the area’s tourism, especially since a handful of wealthy Easterners—part of a leisurely coast-to-coast automobile caravan—were swept up in the raid.
Harris and his deputies secured the premises and gathered evidence while players cashed in their chips and were remanded into custody.
It may come as a surprise that Nevada hasn’t always lived up to its reputation as a live-and-let-live Wild West haven for people to indulge their whims. But from the discovery of the Comstock Lode through the Great Depression, gambling was a tug-of-war issue between individual liberties and Victorian values. The Territorial Legislature banned gaming in 1861 before the pastime’s moral issues took a backseat to economic realities. As various mining camps around Nevada began to fail, communities legalized gambling in 1869 as a bulwark against declining state revenues. The turn of the century brought another mining bonanza, and townsfolk once again took up gambling’s social consequences.
In the first decade of the 1900s, Reno had become Nevada’s major city. A religious reawakening spurred by a revival meeting that brought crusading evangelist E.J. Bulgin to town coincided with the rise of the Progressive Movement and the desire of women’s groups to reestablish Victorian values.
The Los Angeles Herald reported that the revival concluded with more than “250 persons having professed conversion. Owing to the interest in reform aroused by the meetings, a monster mass meeting was held at which an anti-gambling league was organized to drive gambling from the city. The league is circulating a referendum petition and expects to have the matter submitted to the voters.”
Though hardly a hotbed of Progressivism (Nevada was one of the last Western states to grant women the right to vote), freewheeling Reno and Las Vegas presented tempting targets for the reformers who took aim not only at gambling, but also lenient divorce laws, prostitution, and alcohol. The citywide referendum failed, but the machinery was in place for success a year later.
The anti-gamblers’ efforts came to fruition during the 1909 session of the Nevada State Legislature. Lawmakers banned slot machines, “bank games” such as faro and roulette in which gamblers played against the house, horserace bookmaking, poker, and even whist and bridge games for the home, effective October 1, 1910.
The day before, “…the gambling houses were thronged, and men seemed possessed of an insane feverishness and mad desire to wager their money,” reported the Reno Evening Gazette. “They were banked three or four deep by noon.”
Women—not just the divorcees in town to satisfy Nevada’s then 90-day residency requirement before breaking their matrimonial state—“who have lived all their lives without ever entering gambling houses went with husbands, brothers, or friends on the last day,” noted the Carson City Daily Appeal. “Scruples were speedily overcome by the stylishly gowned women…They stood next to gaunt, unkempt men at the roulette wheels, and bandied words with thieves and bums at the craps tables.”
As midnight approached, the state’s slot machines fell silent, and roulette wheels ground to a halt—for a day or so, long enough to move them to basements and backrooms where patrons could gamble far from the garish light of day. The ban marked the final, hollow Nevada victory for anti-gambling forces.
The San Francisco Post presumptuously noted that “With the closing of the gambling houses in Nevada, one of the worst remaining relics of the ‘wild and wooly’ west has passed out.” The New York Times chimed in, “Gambling is dead and Carson City…is closed.”
But gambling was not dead—or even much wounded. As evidenced by the Commercial Hotel’s blasé flouting of the new law, the miners and merchants of Elko, Reno, the fledgling railroad whistle stop known as Las Vegas, and other Nevada towns demanded to make a bet once in a while. Unable or unwilling to enforce the ban, most Nevada communities turned a blind eye. Lawmakers went back and forth over the next several years, at turns liberalizing and tightening gambling regulation.
Though the reformers’ “victory” officially survived for more than 20 years, the ban accomplished little other than to drive the card games and dice tables into back rooms and basements and to remove the little regulation and taxation to which the pastime had previously been subjected. In fact, the underground gaming and drinking establishments’ cash businesses in Reno soon came to the attention of the criminal element. Pretty Boy Floyd and John Dillinger found the speakeasies, floating craps games, and prostitution operations perfect venues for acquiring and laundering their loot.
Finally, with the Great Depression gripping the state, gambling as a social issue faded away, and gambling as a revenue producer emerged. Freshman Assemblyman Phil Tobin defied religious groups and conservative businessmen to introduce the “Wide Open Gambling Bill of 1931.” It breezed through both houses of the Nevada Legislature, became law on March 19, 1931 (the same day Nevada’s six-week residency divorce law went into effect), and provided the foundation upon which the state’s 1900s economy was built.
The Nevada Territorial Legislature prohibits gambling
Oct. 31, 1864
Nevada becomes 36th state
Gambling is legal in Nevada
America’s Progressive Era
Las Vegas established
Oct. 1, 1910 Nevada
Anti-gambling law becomes effective
March 19, 1931
Gambling re-legalized in Nevada