Broken Bandits

By Bill Elliott

 

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Though my article is about a piece of history and not a sermon, it has made me think that we citizens of Louisiana sometimes behave like a flock of sheep. We are perfectly comfortable with only looking at the patch of moving ground a few inches in front of our lowered heads which bump the backside of the guy ahead of us when the guy behind us bumps our backside causing us to inch forward. The dogs that keep us huddled together bark and snap and yelp and move us along hither and thither as they wish, taking a bit of fleece here and there from each and every one of us and we either care not or dare not look up to see what is happening. Occasionally a sheep raises his head, breaks from the flock and begins shouting "Look what they are doing!  Look where we are going. Stop! Stop before it's too late," so loudly that the interruption cannot be ignored.  We begin to bleat at the  noisy offender, softly at first in irritation at being invaded by thought, then, as more sheep chime in, the bleats become louder and louder and gather an edge of fear which is fed by the sheer mass of the now noisy flock.

Outsiders, alerted by the noise, begin to take note that the flock is disturbed and inquire as to the nature of the disturbance. At the approach of the outsiders the dogs move back from the flock and with their ears flat against their heads and their heads down on their paws, lay motionless and quiet in tall grass, pretending to be indifferent, until the flock quiets down and the curious interlopers direct their attention elsewhere. The dogs then begin to move about the flock again, gently at first so as to not frighten anyone, then more forcefully with the barks, snaps, and yelps and the gathering of fleece that gives them pleasure. The dogs are experts at their instinctual task and know that a tasty bit of extra alfalfa can go a long way in quieting a pesky sheep.

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My history project started out as personal and uncomplicated.  I have always vividly remembered a picture in a newspaper that I saw as a child. It was a huge pile of slot machines that had been broken and smashed and I remember they were being dropped into a river. At eight years old my thoughts were of how much fun it would be to play with the broken slot machine parts.   Even though I eventually grew up, the memory hung around as a "Someday I will look that up."   Well, it took me sixty years to pull that lever and when I did I hit a jackpot of Louisiana culture and history.

Determined to get closure, I dusted off fragments of my shabby memory, made a best guess of when I saw the picture, and began stroking my computer. Bits and pieces of information soon became a story that kept growing larger and larger. Captivated, I ended up following the history of the Louisiana slot machines into the annals of organized crime, congressional investigations, and blatantly corrupt state and local political structures that were accepted by the Louisiana citizenry as the norm.

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The U.S. Senate Kefauver Committee report of 1951 found that in the mid-thirties, the then governor Huey Long actually invited the slot-machine business into Louisiana. Long was intending to legalize the machines and tax them for various State purposes. But as it turned out, he was assassinated and his plan was never completed.  Meanwhile, organized crime had already acted enthusiastically on the opportunity to place the slot machines in parishes and cities about the state.

By the early 1950's gambling of all types was rampant in Louisiana, the state was inundated with one-armed bandits, and the laws were being openly ignored. The irony was that there was a license tax of $100 per year on each machine even though it was illegal to possess a slot machine in Louisiana.  Act 6 of 1948 (Louisiana) Section 1(d) amusingly  stated in part "…if it is determined, after proper judicial proceedings, that the tax has been evaded, the court is to declare the property forfeited and order it to be sold at public auction.  Since it is illegal even to possess a "slot machine" in Louisiana a rather unique situation might arise where the court must order sale of property the possession of which is illegal and which may be destroyed by state officers at any time."

Eventually Louisiana elected a reformer, Governor Robert Kennon, who served a single term from 1952 to 1956.  Kennon appointed a remarkable man, a Colonel Francis C. Grevemberg, to serve as Superintendent of the Louisiana State Police. Grevemberg was a hero of WWII, a man's man that believed in the supremacy of the public good and the law of the land. He was no coward.  He was no bleating heart. Despite death threats to his person and threats of his children being kidnapped, he did his job with a fervid passion that changed the face of Louisiana as being the most corrupt state in the nation.

Grevemberg would conduct surprise raids with his troopers. In order to keep his targets from being forewarned he limited the knowledge of a planned raid, not only in his own organization, but also by keeping it secret from local sheriffs and police. When slot machines were found in a Grevemberg raid his troopers were under orders to destroy them on the spot. Over seven thousand slot machines were destroyed during the time he served and it is reported that many thousands more were pulled from service.

Here is how a gambling raid in Southwest Louisiana would be conducted. Plain clothes troopers from Lafayette would gather evidence and rent a room that was far away from regular police headquarters to act as a temporary headquarters for the raid. This kept the offenders from being tipped off by increased activity at the regular headquarters. No other law enforcement agencies were notified of the impending raid.  Headquarters would be called and teams of patrolmen who knew nothing of the raids would arrive at the rented room, receive a briefing, synchronize watches,  and set a time of fifteen minutes later under radio silence to descend simultaneously on offending establishments on the highway west of Lake Charles and near the Texas border.

Grevemberg did show us that one man with dedication and persistence can make a difference. His extraordinary life and efforts became the subject of a Universal Studios movie from the latter 1950s called "Damn Citizen."

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Admittedly I have been distracted from my original task which was to find out what happened to that pile of busted up slot machines in the picture.  I really want to play with those parts. Oh well, perhaps in my next sixty years……


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