Old-Time Lotteries

By Sidney Perley

The state of public opinion at the present time in reference to all means of obtaining money by chance makes the history of our old-time lotteries interesting.

In the first years of the settlement of this region, the chimerical schemes of lotteries were not known here. But towards the close of the seventeenth century they began to develop; and early in the eighteenth century the attention of the public was forcibly drawn to them by the demoralizing influences of that system of money getting, or money losing.

The attention of the provincial general court was drawn to the matter, and Nov. 4, 1719, an act was passed forbidding the existence of lotteries under a penalty of two hundred pounds for each offence, a fine of ten pounds being put upon ticket sellers, etc. Finding that these heavy penalties did not have the effect desired, April 26, 1733, the fine was greatly increased. The promoters of the lottery were doomed to pay a fine of five hundred pounds, and those persons who assisted in printing or writing tickets, notices, and so forth, one hundred pounds, and for exposing for sale or selling tickets two hundred pounds for each ticket so exposed or sold.

The preamble to the law of 1719, states that " there have lately been set up within this province certain mischievous and unlawful games, called lotteries, whereby the children and servants of several gentlemen, merchants and traders, and other unwary people have been drawn into a vain and foolish expense of money, which tends to the utter mine and impoverishment of many families, and is to the reproach of this government, and against the common good, trade, welfare and peace of the province," and declares all lotteries to be " common and publick nuisances."

Since the passage of the severe act of 1733, already referred to, it is probable that no private lottery of any considerable extent has been carried on in Massachusetts.

In spite of the severe language of the general court in 1719, and its confirmation in 1733, there came over the legislature in effect at least, an idea that what was obnoxious and utterly wrong for individuals to do was all right if done by the body politic. It was one of a series of instances of perversion of human judgment in which it is deemed that the end justifies the means. The ease of procuring large sums of money by means of lotteries came to be more thoroughly understood, and when the provincial treasury was very much depleted, Feb. 4, 1744-5, an act was passed establishing the "Massachusetts Government Lottery," to raise seventy- five hundred pounds for the service of the province. Twenty-five thousand tickets were issued and sold for thirty shillings each. There were five thousand four hundred and twenty-two prizes, divided as follows, viz: two of twelve hundred and fifty pounds each; four of six hundred and twenty-five; six of three hundred and seventy-five; eight of two hundred and fifty; sixteen of one hundred and twenty-five; thirty-six of sixty- two pounds, ten shillings; one hundred and fifty of thirty pounds; and fifty-two hundred of three pounds, fifteen shillings each. The total amount of the prizes, thirty-seven thousand, five hundred pounds, equalled the amount of the proceeds from the sale of the tickets. The profit was obtained by every winner paying over to the province twenty per cent of his prize.

This, the first public lottery here, soon succeeded by others. The second of these was one for raising twelve hundred dollars to defray the expense of building and maintaining a bridge over Parker River in Newbury. The act was passed Jan. 29, 1750-1, at the request of the town of Newbury. In this lottery, the amount deducted from each prize was ten per cent, of the same. With the funds thus raised the bridge was built in 1758. More money was needed, however, to meet unforeseen charges, and April 28, 1760, the general court passed another act establishing a lottery to raise six hundred dollars for that purpose.

April 21, 1761, The Lords of Trade in London wrote to Governor Bernard, at Boston, stating that several laws had been passed providing for the construction of ferries, roads, etc., by lotteries, and that it "is a mode of raising money that in our opinion ought not to be countenanced, and hardly to be admitted into practice upon the most pressing exigency of the state, more especially in the colonies, where the forms of government may not admit of those regulations and checks which are necessary to prevent fraud and abuse in a matter so peculiarly liable to them." They say they cannot, therefore but disapprove these laws upon general principles; and when they considered the unguarded and loose manner in which they were framed, the objections were so many and so strong that they should have thought to have laid them before His Majesty for his disapprobation had they not been restrained by the consideration that the purposes for which they were passed, had been carried into full execution; and that it was their duty to desire that the governor would not for the future give his assent to any laws of the like nature.

Notwithstanding these objections, the general court extended this lottery for raising three hundred pounds more Feb. 24, 1763.

The first lottery to build Parker River Bridge was managed by Thomas Berry, John Greenleaf, Joseph Greenleaf and Joseph Atkins, esquires. There were six thousand tickets, at two dollars each, which were sold by the managers and at various stores in Boston. The largest prize was a thousand dollars.

The second lottery was managed by Daniel Farnham, Caleb Gushing, Joseph Gerrish, William Atkins, esquires, and Patrick Tracy, merchant. This lottery will be found advertised in the Boston Gazette of May 19, 1760, the announcement being headed by one of the coarsest wood-cuts of a three-arch bridge ever seen. There were five thousand tickets, at the price of two dollars each; and sixteen hundred and fifty-five prizes. The largest prize was five hundred dollars.

The lottery for building the Parker River Bridge was followed by an act of the province, passed Jan. 11, 1758, establishing a lottery to build bridges over the Saco and Pesumpscot rivers, Sir William Pepperell being at the head of the managers. April 29 following, a lottery was created for raising money to pay the expense of the expedition against Canada. Then followed, in quick succession, other lotteries for various purposes, as for paving Boston Neck and Prince Street in Boston, for removing rocks and shoals in Taunton Great River and for rebuilding Faneuil Hall after the great fire of 1761.

An act for raising the sum of thirty-two hundred pounds, by means of a lottery, for building a hall for the students of Harvard College to live in, was passed, June 25, 1766, and consented to by Governor Bernard after the Lords of Trade had so permitted. In their communication consenting to it, they state that "they are still of the opinion that lotteries in the American colonies ought not to be countenanced, and are fully convinced that the too frequent practice of such a mode of raising money will be introduction of great mischief; yet, in consideration of the general propriety and utility of the service to be provided for by the bill submitted for approval, we have no objection to your passing it into a law, desiring at the same time that it may be understood that such a permission shall not be drawn into precedent in any other case whatever."

Lotteries continued to be established for various public purposes, as for building paper, woolen and cotton mills; academies and schools; for the benefit of Harvard and Dartmouth colleges and Brown University; canals, streets and bridges; houses of religious worship, Congregational, Episcopal and Roman Catholic;1 the Washington monument; for the improvement of beaches; the assistance of needy individuals, etc.

Finding that the lottery idea had been carried far enough, March 6, 1790, the general court passed an act speedily closing up those already established. The act establishing the last lottery in Massachusetts was passed June 13, 1815. This was for the purpose of building a bridge over Connecticut River, between Springfield and West Springfield. A road in Gloucester was built by the aid of a lottery m 1797.

In 1791, the proprietors of the cotton manufactory in Beverly, the first in America, were helped by the gift from the State of seven hundred tickets in two of the State's lotteries.

There is always an interest in winners of prizes in lotteries. A few names of such have come down to this generation. In 1786, upwards of a dozen poor widows of Marblehead were the fortunate owners of the ticket that drew a prize of fifteen hundred dollars. A poem on this occurrence, written in Marblehead, was published in the Columbian Centinel of April 24, 1790.

Joseph Hovey of Boxford drew a prize of a thousand dollars in a State lottery in November, 1790. With this money, he purchased the farm which is now the site of the Barker Free School in West Boxford, where he afterward lived and died.

In 1817, the capital prize of ten thousand dollars in the Union Canal lottery was drawn by a ticket that had been sold in Newburyport in quarters. The owners of three of the quarters were Samuel Burrill, a tailor, Woodbridge Noyes, a ''horse-letter," and Mrs. Bass, widow of Bishop Bass. The name of the owner of the remaining quarter has not come to the knowledge of the writer.

AHGP Massachusetts

1. An instance of the Roman Catholics thus raising money occurred in Philadelphia, early in the century.

Source: The Essex Antiquarian, Volume I, Number 5, May 1897

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