On the tavern tour I usually focus on our forefathers’ love of libations...and the ensuing chaos that comes from over the inevitable indulgence. No doubt, drink was the favored vice of Old Charleston but gambling runs a very close second. In London, people bet on everything; from whether or not the constable could catch the pickpocket, dog fights, and even how long someone would last with the rope upon their neck while on the gallows. Gambling and drinking certainly went hand-in-hand and inn, pubs, and taverns often had both vices on display.
Being a good British colony, we continued this tradition. As the wealth of the "Holy City" increased, so did the number of establishments looking to siphon it off. The type of games greatly varied. For your pleasure there was Chuck-a-luck, ninepins, whist or piquet. Being a cosmopolitan place, we did not just stick with the English ones. One traveler wrote that the 1790 refugees from San Domingo had introduced "all the new French games" to Charleston and that "aristocracy and sans culottes (slang for the common people of France) mix in friendly intercourse and indiscriminately surround the tables. It is asserted that they play very high."
Two of the most famous gambling dens in antebellum Charleston were on Legare Street and Society. Miss Polly Rupel ran the Legare street establishment, where according to Thomas Pinckney Lowndes "the elite of society...risked their hearts and small change at cribbage." The Society Street den was written up in an 1835 newspaper lamenting the misfortune of a "young man from Sumter District who was decoyed into [this place] and a notorious individual, after getting him intoxicated, 'eased' him out of One Hundred and Seventy-Five Dollars." The writer shared that this unfortunate individual was "resolved to commit Suicide" and voiced a call to action for Christians to "scour these demons out of our city."
I’m not much for games of chance; I think my luck will fare better in the taverns. I do miss the great names they used to have, though. Anyone up for a game of "snap and rattle," "faro-faro", or "rowley-powley?"
Michael D. Coker is a Charleston native, published author, and licensed tour guide. He has worked in local museums for 15 years, and has developed a reputation for his extensive knowledge of history. You can reach Michael by email by clicking on the links above.