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Bizarre History of Cape May > King Cotton gambled away much of his money in Cape May

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Long ago, just before the Civil War and soon after it, people subtly tolerated gambling in Cape Island/Cape May. It wasn’t legal and it wasn’t illegal, either. The general attitude seemed to be, “Well, let it happen, but don’t tell me about it.”

It wasn’t like today’s Atlantic City, where skyscraper hotels and their casinos beckon the rich, the poor and those in between to take their money. Instead, there were innocent looking houses that belied what went on inside of them. It wasn’t always gambling either.

Many of the gamblers were southerners who sold their cotton to the North in those pre-war days, then went to New York to collect their money and spent much of it at the gambling tables and other pleasures at the cape on their way back to the southlands. One of their favorite stopping places was a site which has gone down in history as the Blue Pig.

At first glance, today’s newcomer in Cape May might think the Blue Pig is a new character in a Walt Disney movie, Blue Pig sharing the billing with Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse and Minnie too. Where there once was “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is it possible that the latest offering is “Blue Pig and the Seven Piggies,” it is being asked?

Hardly. Built in 1845, the Blue Pig in its heyday was a two-story gambling house on the property of Congress Hall at the corner of Perry Street and Beach Avenue across the street from the ocean. It was said the location was convenient for losers to drown their tears in the ocean if not drowning themselves.

One story that has survived all these years is that a Louisiana man named Palmer lost $60,000 on one night, part of $100,000 he squandered during his 14-day visit. Early the next day, as the sun was rising, the loser wiped out all his personal debts by shooting himself in the head.

Another story claimed the widow of the proprietor left an estate of $1 million dollars, all from her husband’s house winnings. Then there was the story about another widow, this one from New York, who won $50,000 one night and quickly returned to Manhattan before the management could win it back.

The Blue Pig was run by a man named Henry Cleveland and he ranked at that time among the most famous gambling entrepreneurs in the nation, right up there with the high and the mighty in Saratoga Springs and Saratoga, two of Cape May’s tourism and gambling competitors. So successful was he that he drew the nation’s top gamblers to the resort, a plus for tourism at that time.

One of his guests was a Tennessee gambler named Pettibone who enjoyed the cape so much he spent several summers there as a tourist and better. Cleveland was especially pleased to host him because Pettibone was one of the wealthiest of his visitors and one of the most colorful. He was married three times and then started the cycle all over again by remarrying his first wife.

Eventually the Blue Pig moved to a structure at the corner of North and Congress Streets, according to historical accounts, but its future faded out with the passage of time, its building later turning out to be a private dwelling.

But gambling did not fade out. Others came along, one of the most prestigious called Jackson’s Club House, which today stands as an upscale bed and breakfast house at the corner of Columbia Avenue and Stockton Place under the name of the Mainstay Inn.

The Jackson Club House was built in the 1870s during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant. The Civil War hero visited Cape May twice, once with his family and another time on an all-male trip with members of his cabinet. It can be reasonably inferred that the purpose of his cabinet trip was not solely to enjoy the seashore air.

The year of 1872 was a significant one linking the renamed Cape May with national events.

That was the year that Ulysses Grant was elected president for his second term, defeating Horace Greeleyo, who was no stranger to Cape May. Some years earlier, in something of a grand and colorful effort, the newspaperman led a delegation by boat from New York to woo the vacationing Henry Clay to come to New York. They met others with the same idea in what was then known as Cape Island but their efforts were unsuccessful. Greeley was to die soon after the election of 1872.

It was in that year, however, that Jackson’s Club House was born to the accolades of a local newspaper which thought it was the greatest thing that happened to the city since the southerners introduced mint juleps. Overlooked or unaware was the fact that the Jackson House was to offer attractive young women as incentives to gamble or enjoy other pleasures.

Cape May likes to tell ghost stories. One bed and breakfast house contends that to this day the ghost of a long ago prostitute still floats around its premises and when women and their husbands vacation there the ghost attacks the women in protest. Another story claims ghosts have discovered nearby Higbee Beach, which humans sometimes use for nude bathing. It has not been explained, however, what ghosts look like when they shed their sheets.

Not much has been written about the Jackson Club House. It was one of those places that many people knew about but the less said the better. After all, Cape May had a conservative image to protect and gambling and drinking and unattached women, even their ghosts, did not fit that image.

Supposedly, according to limited historical accounts, there were three gambling houses in the town: the Blue Pig, the Jackson Club House and one at the corner of Ocean and Columbia. But the Jackson was the king of them all (the queen too).

It was socially correct at that time for women to attend teas while their men went to sessions where they smoked cigars, drank hard liquor and told hard stories. Today, of course, much of that discrimination has been eliminated.

Well ahead of their times, the people at the Jackson Club House did it in style. The building was considered an architectural gem, so much so that the Ocean Wave said it made other “mansions” look “shoddy.” Whether that made any difference to the men inside the house is a matter of conjecture for they were interested in architecture of a different nature.

 

(Some of the information in this article was researched at the reference department of the county library in Cape May Court House.)


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