Odd connections in historical fiction: the lottery, Cuba, New Orleans, and Little Birds

It has been a while since I posted here on the weblog. I think of it as a bone pile, a huge mountain of stuff that should be sorted and ordered and made useful, but: no time. 

Today I’m using it to record an odd set of coincidences that shouldn’t surprise me, really. Historical fiction research often results in this kind of Frankenstein-ian monster, a creaky breathing thing with real potential but at the same time, offputting.

My friend Jason did some research for me last year in the DC libraries, and in the process he ran across reports about Italian immigrants in 19th century New Orleans being lynched. I’m very interested in the huge pile of docs he put together but I haven’t allowed myself to jump in because I’m trying to get this new novel moving. Little Birds is set in New Mexico territory in 1857, you see, so no excuse to be wandering around New Orleans.

But of course I have to get these two people from New York to New Mexico, and that means (1) early train travel — not as well documented as you would guess, unfortunately; (2) St. Louis in its time as doorway to the west — also not as well documented as I would like (for instance, if you can find a street map — any street map, no matter how rough — of St. Louis ca. 1857, you are the more creative researcher than I); (3) travel by steamboat on the Missouri River from St. Louis to Independence (there is more, but not enough information on this).

It’s the last bit I’ve been working on lately, this morning going through Hiram Martin Chittenden’s 1903 History of Early Steamboat Navigation on the Missouri River (Volumes 1 & 2). As anticipated there were lots of missionaries traveling west (Jesuit, Mormon, etc etc) and the whole Bleeding Kansas business had New Englanders headed for Kansas territory (you thought the Civil War started in 1861 when Beauregard opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston?)… but really what I’m looking for are odd bits like this:

It so happened that two St. Louisans, Sam Gaty and a man named Baldwin had recently won a prize of forty thousand dollars in the Havana lottery, and were using it in building a boat […] Captain La Barge made the annual voyage of 1855 in this new boat.

$40,000 in the Havana lottery? That was a huge amount of money at this point. So off I go to look into the Havana lottery and I discover… that I’m back in New Orleans, where the Cuban lottery was very, very popular. In fact, all lotteries were so popular that they were the primary way of funding all kinds of projects you would expect to be financed by taxes.  From a website which is much too short for my tastes:

By the 1810s the number of lotteries began to rise exponentially, making way for an entirely new profession, the lottery broker. Once sponsoring parties had been granted a franchise, the middleman-broker would oversee every aspect, including ticket sales, advertising, and payouts. Many lottery brokers would go on to stellar careers in banking, such as ticket salesman John Thompson, who founded the Chase National Bank (Chase Manhattan) in 1873. Although states began outlawing lotteries in the 1830s, they remained popular throughout the century; believing as much in luck as in the self-made man, Americans continued to buy lottery tickets in the hopes they could obtain something for nothing. Capitalism by Gaslight

So now I’m straddling New Orleans, St. Louis, the Missouri River, and I’m also back in Manhattan and I’ve got this very interesting character giving me the eye. He’s a lottery broker. Originally from Cuba. Or maybe Italy. A brand new copper by the name of Oscar Maroney who likes card games knows him, and can tell some stories. This lottery broker wants a spot in Little Birds, and he’s going to be persistent about it, I can tell. 

Meanwhile I’ve got to get these two characters off the train, through St. Louis and onto a steamboat on the Missouri.  One of them is wondering about maybe a detour to New Orleans, and he’s over there talking to a good looking young guy who has just starting his apprenticeship as a steamboat captain on the Mississippi. Name of Sam.

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