George Devol - Old West Card Sharp
"I don't know just how
thick my old skull is, but I do know that it is pretty thick, or it would
have been cracked many years ago, for I have been struck some terrible
blows on my head with iron dray-pins, pokers, clubs, stone-coal, and
bowlders, which would have split any man's skull wide open unless it was
pretty thick. Doctors have often told me that my skull was nearly an inch
in thickness over my forehead."
- George Devol, Forty Years a Gambler on
H. Devol was the greatest riverboat gambler in the history of the
Mississippi River. He was also a con artist, a fighter, and a
master at manipulating men and their money.
Born on August 1,
1829 in Marietta, Ohio, George
Devol was the youngest of six children. His father was a
ship carpenter and was often away from home. Though Devol had good opportunities for an early education,
didn’t like school and spent most of his time playing hooky. The
unmanageable boy was also prone to fighting, coming home almost daily
with scratches and bruises from his numerous scuffles. When a teacher
attempted to discipline him with a hardy whipping, he would turn on
them, hitting them with stones that he carried in his pocket. While his father was away building boats much of the time, his mother
would be forced to call in a neighbor or passerby to help with his
At the age of ten, Devol
ran away, serving as a cabin boy on a river boat steamer called the
Wacousta. Evidently, Devol
did a good job in this capacity as he soon took a better paying job on
a boat called Walnut Hills.
Another boat came
soon after – the Cicero, where Devol
learned to play "Seven-Up” and the art of bluffing. Seeing the
high lifestyle of the professional gamblers on the boat, Devol
was determined to follow in their footsteps, and by the time he was in
his teens, he could deal seconds, palm cards and recover the cut.
continue to be a natural part of his life, and he soon developed
skills with a gun, never hesitating to pull it.
By the time the
Mexican War broke out he was on a boat called the Tiago. Soon, Devol
thought it a good idea to go to war and got a job as a barkeeper on
the Corvette, bound for the Rio Grande and Mexico.
While aboard the Corvette he met a man who
taught him how to "stock a deck.” Upon reaching the Rio Grande
and joining the forces, he quickly set about utilizing his newly
learned skills to swindle the other soldiers. Soon, he grew bored with
soldiering and with his pockets filled with his ill-earned gains, he
returned to New Orleans, but didn't stay long.
At the tender age of 17, Devol's
pockets were filled with almost three thousand dollars as he headed
back home to Ohio, laden with gifts for his family.
While back in Ohio he
mastered the games of Faro and Rondo. Continuing to hone his skills, Devol
made hundreds of thousand of dollars in the years before the Civil War.
Working the steamboats of the South, he soon joined in with other card
sharps including Canada Bill Jones, Bill Rollins, Big Alexander, and many
others over the years.
One trick that Devol
liked to play was betting against ministers, who inevitably lost their
meager wages to the professional gambler. However,
would always return their money, along with this advice: "Go and sin no
more." But to the many soldiers, paymasters, farmers,
thieves, and businessmen, he was not so kind.
When the war was over, the railroads began to
head west with settlements sprouting up all along the way. Many of
these burgeoning towns, often filled with railroad workers, miners and
cowboys, provided all manner of vices including prostitution, numerous
the ever present gambling halls. Supplying perfect opportunities for Devol's
operation, he began to follow the railroad expansion between Kansas
City and Cheyenne in the early 1870s.
According to his own account, Devol
was working the Gold Room Saloon in Cheyenne when he encountered
tells the story that when
placed a $50 bet, he lost. He then placed another $50 bet, winning
the hand that time; however, the dealer handed him back only $25.
Bill protested, the dealer stated that the house limit was $25.
"But you took 50 when I lost,” said
to which the dealer responded "Fifty goes when you lose.” The quick
Hickok wasn’t about to accept those terms "sitting down” and quickly
whacked the dealer on the head with his walking stick, turned over the
table, and stuffed his pockets with the till.
Playing Faro during the days of the Old West. This image available for
On another occasion when Devol
was working the railroad route, he beat a railroad director out of $1,200.
This one time winning game resulted in Devol's
profession being quickly curbed when the outraged official prohibited
gambling on trains. Further, the Pinkerton agency was hired to be on
the look out for the most notorious of the professional gamblers,
In 1892, Devol
published his autobiography, Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi,
telling of his life and most likely exaggerating much of it. Shortly after he published his book, the great days of railroad and
riverboat gambling were over. At the insistence of his new wife, he
retired from gambling for good in 1896 and spent the last years of his
life selling his book.
It is estimated that
won over two million dollars in his forty years of gambling.
However, when he died in Hot Springs,
1903, he was nearly penniless.
of America, updated November, 2012
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