The Ordeals of a Great Depression Gambler The Impact of Gambling and Education on Poverty by Joshua Pontillo


Born well before the Great Depression, Ed, whose full name is not given, was in his late thirties during 1939. He told his life story to an interviewer about what it was like to be a gambler lacking education and living in poverty in North Carolina. The interviewer was working for the Federal Writers' Project, a New Deal program which sought to capture the lives of everyday people.

Federal Writers' Project

Beginning as a New Deal program to employ writers who were devastated by the global depression, the Federal Writers' Project recorded the everyday lives of Americans (Hirsch, Mangione, 3,15). However, "Congress response to national adversity, not out of a desire to support a rediscovery of American culture" (Hirsch, 1). From the beginning of the project, it was focused more on providing jobs and less on historical preservation (Hirsch, 2). Ed was one particular individual whose life story was preserved by the Federal Writer's Project. However, many of the writers were unreliable as they sought to further their own personal writing careers and would often rewrite what they were told by their interviewees (Hirsch, Mangione, 2,14). There were also numerous other problems associated with the recordings of the life histories such as not utilizing audio recorders and the writers not abiding by their written guidelines (Hirsch, Mangione 5,16). Although these problems are not present with Ed's life history, his full name was left undisclosed, so his actual identity is not certain.

Streets of small North Carolinian city

Life History

Upbringing and Educational Issues

Ed began the life history by telling the interviewer that his mother was a prostitute and that he was unaware of who his father was. His mother sent him while he was young to live with relatives because she did not desire to expose him to her lifestyle. It did not take long before Ed started skipping class and he revealed that he never graduated from school. It has been stated that "educational research has consistently found home background (socio-economic status) to be an important determinant of educational outcomes, and economic research has shown that education strongly affects earnings," so the fact that Ed dropped out is not unfathomable as well as the fact that he lived in poverty (Van der Berg, 3). Common to the times in which Ed lived, it was common for individuals, especially those in rural areas to not graduate from school (Van der Berg, 11).

Ed would often go to poolrooms when he cut class – this is where he learned to gamble and cheat. Eventually, he dropped out and started to “make a living” from the income he acquired from gambling. Ed told the interviewer extensively about his numerous cheating techniques which he would use to better his odds while gambling. Ed also informed the interviewer that certain times of the year such as "cotton season," the time in which farmers harvested their cotton, he could expect to make more money because more people were likely to gamble and they were also more likely to have higher bets.

North Carolinian students in a crowded classroom

Life as a Gambler

Eventually, Ed established his own underground gambling ring which he ran for income. It was common during the time to pay off local authorities – something which Ed also had to do (Illegal, Spapens, 404-406). It is worth mentioning that the Great Depression was the era in which gambling was on the rise, particularly under the rule of the Italian Mafia and other large mobs (Illegal). According to the Oxford Handbook of Organized Crime, "The notorious Al Capone, for example, also operated gambling dens where punters could not only bet on the horses but also play roulette, craps, and cards"(406). Oftentimes, the Mafia would run large-scale gambling rings and local ones were managed by individuals such as Ed (Spapens, 404-406). It was not uncommon for individuals, such as Ed, to use their gambling establishments for their sole source of income (Illegal, Spapens, 404-406).

After encountering a young homeless man nicknamed "Dopey," Ed took him in as a protégé and taught him how to gamble and cheat. He also provided Dopey with a house to live in and gave him chores to work. Together they often attempted to set up rigged matches at Ed’s gambling ring. Rigging matches was common in illegal gambling rings (Illegal, Spapens, 404-406). Ed admitted that it was difficult to keep a gambling ring going because he felt compelled to cheat so that he could win money, but also did not want his “business” to have a bad reputation because that would cause people would avoid it. Ed also admitted that he regretted not getting a “respectable” career when his mother died when he was twenty (the details of her death were never elaborated on).

Poverty and Economic Uncertainty

To add to his list of problems and worries, Ed told the interviewer that, at the time of the interview, he felt as though he would lose his “business” and that he and Dopey would have difficulty finding jobs to make ends meet. The gambling ring business was clearly a well-established one which existed in numerous small cities throughout North Carolina at the time -- "the illegal gambling market in the city seemed ‘disorganized’ and composed of numerous groups who sometimes worked together but competed for market share on other occasions" (Spapens 406). Ed made it evident that there was competition in the city in which he ran his business, and his gambling ring required difficult choices to be made. Ed had numerous payments to make, including one he had to a “crooked lawyer” which had to be paid weekly or he would be reported, which was a common practice for gambling ring owners (Illegal, Spapens, 404-406). Already, Ed was behind on payments and almost certain that he would lose his gambling ring -- his only source of income. The interviewer does not state what became of Ed or Dopey and whether they lost their business and, if so, whether or not they found a new occupation.

Playing dice in the street

Works Cited

Abner and Massengill. “A Gambler’s Philosophy.” Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Web.

Hirsch, Jerrold. "Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers' Project." Univ of North Carolina Press, 2004, pp. 1-40. Google Scholar.

"Illegal Gambling: Crime Inc.—The Underground Economy." Films Media Group, 2011,

Mangione, Jerre. "The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers' Project, 1935-1943." Syracuse University Press, 1996, pp. 3-96. Google Scholar.

Spapens, Toine. "Illegal gambling." The Oxford handbook of organized crime, 2014, pp. 402-418.

Van der Berg, Servaas. "Poverty and education." Education policy series 10, 2008, pp. 1-34.

Picture Sources

Delano, Jack. Interior of general store and poolroom at Stem, Granville County, North Carolina. May 1940. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photogrammar., Accessed 10 February 2017.

Delano, Jack. Overcrowded school room in Fayetteville, North Carolina. March 1941. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photogrammar., Accessed 12 February 2017.

Lange, Dorothea. The main street, Fayetteville Street, of Siler City, North Carolina. Contrast with picture of same scene taken twenty five years ago. July 1939. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photogrammar., Accessed 10 February 2017.

Wolcott, Marion Post. Shooting craps by company store, Osage, West Virginia. September 1938. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photogrammar., Accessed 10 February 2017.

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