By Thomas Ruys Smith

In 1836 Benjamin Drake, a midwestern author of renowned sketches for newspapers of the day, brought his readers to a brand new and incredibly American rascal who rode the steamboats up and down the Mississippi and different western waterways—the riverboat gambler

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Extra info for Blacklegs, Card Sharps, and Confidence Men: Nineteenth-Century Mississippi River Gambling Stories (Southern Literary Studies)

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In 1838, William Gilmore Simms outlined another vital element of the gambler’s iconography that would soon become proverbial: his clothes. In Richard Hurdis, the titular hero is required to disguise himself as a gambler to infiltrate a criminal gang. ” Then, “having a proper regard to the usual decoration of the professed gamblers 16 Introduction: The Many Lives of the Mississippi Gambler of our country, [he] entered a jeweller’s establishment, and bought sundry bunches of seals, a tawdry watch, a huge chain of doubtful, but sold as virgin, gold; and some breastpins and shirt buttons of saucer size” (293).

After dinner, and during the delivery of the toasts, one of the officers attempted to enforce order and silence at the table, when one of those gamblers, whose name is Cabler, who had impudently thrust himself into the company, insulted the officer, and struck one of our citizens. Indignation immediately rose high, and it was only by the interference of the commandant that he was saved from instantaneous punishment. He was, however, permitted to retire, and the company dispersed. The military corps proceeded to the public square of the city, and information was received that Cabler was coming up armed, and resolved to kill one of the volunteers who had been most active in expelling him from the table.

Even when it became evident that Philadelphian Richard Penn Smith was the real author, its importance was diminished little. As John Seelye has made clear, “it was so vivid an account of Crockett’s last adventure that it continued to influence other writers”— down to the present day (xi). This influential extract is an important case in point. Published the year after the lynching of the Vicksburg gamblers, this portrait of “Thimblerig” represents the earliest sustained portrait of a Mississippi gambler—charming, roguish, and rich in ambiguity.

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