In 1992 dockside gambling became legal on navigable waterways in Mississippi, leading to unprecedented growth and challenges. However, gambling has existed in the state for centuries; only the means and scope differ today. Native Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Natchez, the three most historically significant indigenous peoples in pre-European Mississippi, regularly engaged in gambling practices, often centered on the outcome of games such as stickball and chunky, which resembles handball. Hundreds of players spent days competing, while both spectators and players wagered their valuables on its conclusion.
As Spain, France, and England sought control of North America during the seventeenth century, their cultural pastimes diffused across what is now Mississippi. In the 1790s, when the region was a Spanish possession, the Fleetfield Race Track in the early urban center of Natchez provided citizens with opportunities for betting and socializing. By the early 1800s “gambling houses” crowded the narrow strip of land at Natchez-under-the-Hill along the Mississippi River, and as steamboats became common over the next two decades, the area offered ample opportunities to travelers.
Organized religious groups in Natchez, Vicksburg, and other river towns attempted to curb gambling activities, especially after the revivalism of the Second Great Awakening in the 1830s, but Mississippians continued to enjoy betting on activities such as yacht racing, billiards, and bowling. In 1849, Pass Christian, a small town along the Gulf Coast, became home to the first yacht club in the South, regularly hosting races for tourists.
As early as 1847, however, Biloxi had become the most popular tourist destination along the coast. Steamboats brought visitors from New Orleans to such establishments as Madame Pradat’s, the Nixon Hotel, the Shady Grove Hotel, and the Magnolia Hotel, where they enjoyed dancing, hunting, boating—and gambling. After the devastation of the Civil War, passenger rail service was inaugurated between Mobile and New Orleans in 1870, returning Biloxi to its antebellum prominence in the tourist industry.
New Orleanians legalized the lottery in 1868 and prizefights in 1890. Because of the Mississippi Gulf Coast’s proximity and popularity among vacationers and investors from Louisiana, the Magnolia State offered many of the same gambling opportunities. Reciprocity appeared to exist between the two locations. For example, John L. Sullivan fought Paddy Ryan in Mississippi City on 7 February 1882, claiming the title of heavyweight champion of the world in bareknuckle fighting. Sullivan also battled Jack Kilrain in 1889 at Richburg, near present-day Hattiesburg, the last bareknuckle event in Mississippi, which had outlawed such fights. Louisiana subsequently legalized prizefighting, likely in response to the Mississippi ban.
By the early twentieth century shell roads and trolley lines crisscrossed the twenty-two-mile coast, transporting visitors as well as residents. After the United States enacted Prohibition on 1 July 1919, ships from Biloxi and other coastal localities continued to bring illegal liquor from the Caribbean Islands to various Mississippi Sound ports and barrier islands. One attractive location for these clandestine activities was Dog Key (also known as the Isle of Caprice). Three Biloxi entrepreneurs, Col. Jack W. Apperson, developer of the Buena Vista Hotel; Walter H. “Skeet” Hunt; and Arbeau Caillavet pooled resources and opened the Isle of Caprice casino, dance hall, bathhouse, and refreshment pavilion on 30 May 1926. The resort remained in operation until 1932, when the key disappeared into the sound’s waters, taking the casino with it. However, the lure of gambling did not disappear.
Grand Gulf Coast hotels such as the Pine Hills, the Edgewater Gulf, the White House, and the Tivoli enticed tourists even after Prohibition ended in 1933 and into the Great Depression. On 8 July 1937 the Biloxi Daily Herald reported that 254 slot machines had been checked in Gulfport. The Edgewater Hotel was famous for high-stakes poker games and other gambling activities known as the “lounge business.” In addition, some individuals owned gambling machines and paid federal gambling taxes to operate these devices.
Gulf Coast gambling operations expanded during the 1940s and 1950s, driven in part by the thousands of World War II–era troops training at Biloxi’s Keesler Air Force Base. The string of nightclubs along Highway 90 became known as the Strip.
In the 1950s the Biloxi Protestant Ministerial Association called for an investigation into the open nightlife and gambling machine operations. Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver’s Organized Crime Committee investigated gambling in the region, leading to a backlash against some types of gambling machines, including slots, but pinball machines quickly filled that niche. The Fiesta, the Beach Club, Mr. Lucky’s, and Gus Stevens’s Club all offered opportunities for betting in the 1960s along the Gulf Coast. The Biloxi Daily Herald reported 362 residents of Harrison, Hancock, and Jackson Counties had paid 408 gaming device stamps in 1964. After 1969’s Hurricane Camille destroyed many of the clubs along the Strip, the coast rebuilt by courting a new image as a family resort area, not a gaming destination.
In 1988 the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act allowed Indian tribes to open casinos, and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians opened the Silver Star Casino in Neshoba County. Coastal interests began lobbying to reinstate gambling, and on 29 June 1990 the state legislature passed the Mississippi Gaming Control Act, which permitted gambling on vessels docked along the Mississippi River or on the Mississippi Sound if a majority of county residents voted to allow it. Hancock County voters approved dockside gambling in December 1990, with Harrison County following three months later.
On 1 August 1992 the Isle of Capri opened its doors to legalized riverboat gambling in Biloxi, with other establishments soon following that lead. In 2002, according to the American Gaming Association, Mississippi’s thirty casinos employed more than thirty-two thousand workers, had $2.7 billion in revenue, and contributed more than $322 million in taxes to the state.
Hurricane Katrina caused massive damage to the coast’s casinos and hotels, destroying the lower floors of land-based establishments and pushing some floating casinos inland, where they crashed into hotels and other structures. Mississippi subsequently changed its laws to permit casinos to operate on land rather than solely on barges, and the gambling industry helped fuel recovery from the hurricane, especially in Biloxi. Every year since the late 1990s, Mississippi’s gaming establishments have generated gross revenues of over $2 billion and provided annual tax revenue between $250,000 and $300,000. In addition, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians now operates casinos in Philadelphia, Choctaw, and Heidelberg.
- American Gaming Association website, www.americangaming.org
- Deanne Stephens Nuwer, Mississippi History Now website, http://mshistory.k12.ms.us
- Greg O’Brien, Choctaws in a Revolutionary Age, 1750–1830 (2002)
- Denise Von Herrman, ed., Resorting to Casinos: The Mississippi Gambling Industry (2006)