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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Wagering Once Was Part Of Local Politics

Harrison defeated Cleveland, and Mr. Cornell gave Mr. Jennings a wheelbarrow ride around the village of Hempstead, Cornell decked out in bandanas and Jennings covered in flags. They followed a decorated wagon that carried a small orchestra. McKinley beat Bryan, and Dr. Burns paid off his bet by treating Mr. Hay to a wheelbarrow ride up Prospect and Sea Cliff Avenues, and then hosting a supper for scores of invited guests at the Colony Hotel on Glen Cove Avenue. The “freak election bet”—particularly the public, good-natured wheelbarrow ride down the main street—was ingrained in local political culture for generations. “At the end of the wheelbarrow ride,” a November 1920 advertisement suggested to those settling up election bets near Syosset, “stop in and refresh yourself with Reid’s Ice Cream.”

This tradition of prominent citizens and political leaders showing that they were good sports lasted longer in mostly-rural Suffolk County than in Nassau, where Republican domination was more complete and the traffic heavier. A 1932 bet between leaders of the Italian-American Association resulted in a mile-long barrow ride down Hempstead Turnpike in Elmont for the Roosevelt backer, with a band leading the procession, but I imagine it caused some grousing among pedestrians and drivers.

Those well-publicized wagers of local foods made by mayors and governors on Super Bowl teams are a vestigial form of the public election bet, but mostly it misses the point. It isn’t supposed to be about a sandwich. It’s about making peace at the end of a hard-fought contest and demonstrating to everyone that we’re a civil, civic-minded community. We’re in it together.

Not all the betting was civic-minded. Wagering was tightly bound up in our elections from the beginning of the Republic. A century ago, you could find all kinds of wagers being made in hotels and taverns of Long Island villages, some of it dutifully reported in the weekly newspapers (two fancy geese against a peck of potatoes. A horse, carriage and harness worth $175 against two cigars). But the entire country paid attention to Wall Street, the election betting capital of the United States.

The equivalent of hundreds of millions of today’s dollars were bet each year in parlors set up in the hotels and brokerage houses of lower Manhattan. The largest operations had their own “commissioners” to record and hold bets, and to report current odds to the press. Some of these commissioners became celebrities, early versions of today’s television pundits. Jack Doyle’s odds on everything from yacht racing to mayoral elections were often reported as the “official” New York odds. When he moved his operation uptown, he became “The Broadway Betting Commissioner,” though he insisted that he was a hobbyist who didn’t take the traditional five percent commission for holding wagers. On Long Island, the focal point of serious election gambling was Fred Schumm’s café on Fulton Street, just across from Borough Hall (Prohibition forced him to convert the restaurant into a hat store). He held millions in election bets and he was sometimes described as the most trusted man in Brooklyn public life.

Election betting wasn’t just a sport. Before the rise of scientific polling in the late 1930s, it was the only way to gauge public interest in campaigns and to make predictions. Only once between 1900 and 1940 did the final New York odds miss in a Presidential election; when President Wilson edged out Charles Evans Hughes in 1916, the odds had favored Hughes, 10-9.

Several factors killed election gambling as a public activity in New York, including legalization of horse track betting in 1939 and Mayor LaGuardia’s famous campaigns against gambling. Opinion polling slashed the relevance of betting commissioners. By the end of the 1940s, the public election bet was no more.

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Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net