The Vagabond: Blind tigers and gambling houses in Etowah County - Part I

January 18, 2019 chris
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By Danny Crownover

Back in 1882, the first prohibition law was forced upon Gadsden and Etowah County by a legislative act without vote of the people. Some of the events that followed included the advent of the blind tiger and its fellow traveler, the gambling house.

Although Gadsden had 21 volunteer policemen who carried badges and clubs and served in frequent shifts, day and night and without a cent of pay, the blind tiger was something new and difficult to handle. It was not until the following year in 1883 that the public began to realize the issue that confronted this section of Alabama, and it was generally confessed that the problem probably could not be satisfactorily solved by ordinary means.

Perhaps the situation could be best described by the report of the circuit court grand jury in March of 1883. L.W. Dean, highly cultured and esteemed as one of the best businessmen in the state, was foreman of that jury. He is believed to have written its final report, which said in part:

“While we take pleasure in saying that there is a general decrease in crime, we cannot pass over this occasion to call attention to two great evils in our community that are increasing to a fearful magnitude. One of these evils is the systematic violation of the prohibition law. While that law has worked wonders in doing away with whiskey selling and drinking and largely has benefited the mass of the people, there has been inaugurated an odious system of selling whiskey, rapidly developing into immense proportions in daily, flagrant and fearful violations of the law. Though covert, its effects are open and widespread. This system is known as the “blind tiger” and is springing up everywhere in town and county. At these institutions, the old tiger can secure the fiery element that feeds his vitiated appetite, and the minor boy can deposit his dime and draw the poison that drags him down from all future usefulness and marks him as an enlisted soldier in the great army of drunkards. The blind tiger is hiding from public view, and the law cannot reach him. He is a pestilence without a remedial agent in the materia medica of the law.

“The other great evil to which we have referred is the gambling dens that seem to be springing up in our midst. These institutions are in violation of all law, [both] human and divine. Gambling is the great evil of the age. No man can make a good citizen [and] a good businessman and devote his time and thoughts to the trade of gambling. The habit produces a state of unrest in the mind. It corrupts the principles of the moral man, makes him disregard the rights of his fellows, makes him forget the means by which he secures his stake, makes cashiers of banks defaulters, makes state treasurers to flee the country at a loss of millions to the people of their states and makes thieves of clerks and bankrupts merchants. There is no evil that festers upon the body politic like this monstrous, fearful and gigantic system of gambling. Every state and county officer, every grand juror [and] every good citizen is responsible for the abatement of this evil to the extent of his best ability.”

That was a severe indictment of the little town of Gadsden and Etowah County. So now The Vagabond will discuss blind tigers on the Coosa River.

A blind tiger basically was a place on the river where alcoholic beverages were sold illegally; they sometimes were referred to a speakeasy or a blind pig.

In August of 1883, two little boys who had been swimming at the shoals of the Coosa River at what is now Moragne Park in Gadsden sat on a log and watched an interesting battle between several men and a woman on the floating blind tiger of Joe Legner. The fracas started with the arrival of Jim Bunch, a village trouble-maker. As soon as Bunch crossed the narrow gangplank to the boat, he let it be known that he was going to be the boss of the boat by shoving the customers around and by laying his rough hands on the woman bartender, who happened to be Legner’s common law wife.

Bunch’s claim to being the “Bull of the Woods” was disputed by none other than Tate Condon, one of the most picturesque character in the history of this area. Other passengers chimed in with a challenge and Jim started to use his fists, lashing out at anything and everything in sight.

Jim eventually picked up the woman bartender and tossed her into the river, where she shouted and struggled and called for help. Someone told her to let down her feet and wade out into the river, which she did.

Just as it seemed that Jim Bunch was about to make a clean sweep of the opposition, Tate Condon grabbed a ketchup bottle and tapped him on the head with it, knocking him unconscious.

When he came to, Bunch walked uptown and into Mac Commins’ barber shop. He asked Mac to look at his bloody head and see if he needed a doctor. Mac sent for Dr. John B. Liddell, and several stitches were required to close the wound on Bunch’s head.

As soon as he was released, Bunch made a beeline for the blind tiger with the avowed purpose of “whipping everybody on the boat.” He was overtaken by policeman Morris, however, and brought back to town.

Bunch was a miner and was always in trouble with the police, usually because of his tendency to fight. He was a regular patron of the numerous blind tigers that flourished in the early 1880s, particularly two that were operated on boats that were pulled up and down the Coosa, always in the vicinity of Gadsden.

The Legner boat was fitted up with living quarters in which was stored a stock of moonshine whiskey. On the open deck was a dining table where most of the drinks were served. Sometimes at night the table was removed and the drinkers enjoyed a bit of dancing.

At the time of the Jim Bunch melee, Joe Legner – sometimes spelled Legnier – was a baker who thought he could make more money bootlegging than by making bread and cakes. He was in jail at the time of this particular fight on the charge of selling whiskey and assault.

One day at the Broad Street wharf, Legner got into a small bateau with a friend to get to his floating saloon. As they were passing the Kittrell sawmill, Legner fell out of the boat and was drowned. His body was found and fished out from under a long raft of logs.

Blind Tigers were also seen during the period of U.S history known as Prohibition from 1920-1933. With the passing of the 18th Amendment in 1920, prohibition of alcohol hit the United States with a bang. Bars across the country held huge “Last Drink” parties counting down to the hour of temperance. The old Motlow Saloon downtown on Broad Street was recorded as having such a party.

The name “Blind Tiger” was referenced back to boats around the steamboat days after Prohibition. Most travelers boarded steamboats, and when they did, they seemed to leave both the law and their inhibitions behind.

Once on board, patrons were sold tickets for “entertainment,” which would start when a blinded stuffed tiger or blinded stuffed pig was placed on the counter. Along with every admission, the customer was treated with a free glass of whiskey or some other alcohol. Men often gambled  right out in the open while whiskey and beer, oysters and other delicacies were served from the storeroom. On the river, the law was what the captain said it was.

Prohibition did take its toll, however. On the Coosa River, public pressure closed some steamboat bars, and gambling was slowly reduced to a friendly game of very high stakes in the privacy of the cabins. Not all captains gave in, but those who did (or did not) could be identified by the excursion trade they attracted.