“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 the Mississippi
George 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 early education, he 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 punishment.
At the age of ten, Devol ran away, serving as a cabin boy on a riverboat 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.
Fighting would 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. But he grew bored with soldiering and with his pockets filled with his ill-earned gains, he returned to New Orleans, although not for 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 thousands of dollars in the years before the Civil War. Working the steamboats of the South, he 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, Devol 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 saloons, and 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 Wild Bill Hickok. Devol tells the story that when Hickok 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. When Wild Bill protested, the dealer stated that the house limit was $25. “But you took 50 when I lost,” said Hickok, to which the dealer responded, “Fifty goes when you lose.” The quick-tempered 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.
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 lookout for the most notorious of the professional gamblers, including Devol.
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.