‘Pernicious and destructive’ or ‘tax on the willing': lottery laws in Delaware and the United States
In the first decade of the 20th century, John M. Rogers was one of Wilmington, Delaware’s most prominent and respected residents. He lived in one of the large houses on Delaware Avenue with his wife and children. He served on the Wilmington Parks Commission, the Wilmington Board of Trade, and was president of the local photography club. He owned a machine tool company in Gloucester City, New Jersey and a hotel in Atlantic City. His main business, however was a printing plant, the John M. Rogers Press, at 6th & Orange streets in Wilmington. On May 1, 1906 Rogers’s comfortable life in Wilmington came to an end when the United States Secret Service raided his print shop. Rogers’s plant was printing more than reports for the city government and advertising brochures. He was also printing tickets for the nation’s largest illegal lottery.
In colonial times and in the early period of US history lotteries were often considered a respectable and harmless means of raising money for both private and public projects. Thomas Jefferson called the lottery a “… tax laid on the willing only.” In Delaware, the colonial legislature banned lotteries in 1772, as “pernicious and destructive to frugality, industry, trade and commerce, … introductive of idleness and immorality, and against the common good and welfare of a people.” But by the 1790s the state legislature was authorizing lotteries to build a courthouse in Dover and piers in the harbor at New Castle.
During the 19th century, as lotteries became larger and more commercialized, they began to be looked at more as a form of gambling and a social problem. Reformers argued that they encouraged immorality and preyed on the poor, who could least afford them. State after state passed laws outlawing lotteries until by the 1860s, only a few states, including Delaware, still allowed them. In 1887 Delaware joined the majority of states and banned lotteries again.
By the end of the 19th century the largest lottery in the United States was the Louisiana State Lottery. Founded by a New York gambling syndicate in 1868 in a Louisiana desperate for cash after the Civil War, the Louisiana Lottery sold tickets in every state in the US as well as foreign countries. Estimates of the Lottery’s earnings varied but newspapers estimated the annual gross receipts of the Louisiana Lottery to be $4,000,000. Other sources put the amount as high as $30,000,000 per year. The Lottery itself kept quiet about its earnings. Although lotteries were illegal in most states it was difficult for state governments to keep the Louisiana Lottery out. Eventually, the federal government passed a law (Act of Sept. 19, 1890, ch. 908, § 2, 26 Stat. 465) making it illegal to send lottery tickets and other items through the mail. Its operations now illegal, the Louisiana Lottery went underground, changing its name to the Honduras National Lottery. Although nominally headquartered in Honduras, the Lottery still did most of its business in the United States, including printing its tickets in John M. Rogers’s printing plant.
Along with raiding Rogers’s Wilmington printing plant, the Secret Service made arrests across the country. In 1907, 32 men pled guilty and paid fines totaling $284,000 and the Lottery was shut down for good. John Rogers paid $10,000 in fines and his printing plant was auctioned. He left Wilmington for New Jersey where he continued running his machine tool plant in Gloucester City until his death in 1910. His home at 1301 Delaware Avenue was purchased by the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington for use as the Bishop’s residence.
Lotteries remained illegal in the United States until the 1960s when states looking for new sources of revenue started to authorize lotteries again. Delaware reauthorized its state lottery in 1974 and today the lottery is bigger than ever. In 2012 the Delaware Lottery contributed $269 million to the State’s General Fund.
John M. Rogers and Henry C. Conrad, Courtesy of the Delaware Historical Society.
Louisiana State Lottery tickets, Wikimedia Commons
Louisiana State Lottery drawing. KnowLa.org
For more information see:
G. Robert Blakey & Harold A. Kurland. Development of the Federal Law of Gambling. 63 Cornell L. Rev. 923 (1977-78)
A.R. Spofford. Lotteries in American History.