Arts & Culture

In Kansas City’s thriving gambling houses, he was the courtly king

Men trying their luck “bucking the tiger” at a faro table in the 1800s.
Men trying their luck “bucking the tiger” at a faro table in the 1800s.

Visits to the riverfront of old Kansas City are rare, admittedly, but should one find oneself within a stone’s throw of the muddy current, please, at least, please reflect on Bob Potee.

Potee was a pillar of one of the town’s most flourishing industries after the Civil War: games of chance. Cattlemen, gunslingers, merchants and travelers just off the steamboats or trains would try to “buck the tiger” — the big cat’s image was printed on the backs of many playing card brands — at his Faro No. 3 on Missouri Avenue, just off Main Street.

In Potee’s rooms above Stein’s restaurant and saloon, one could find roulette wheels, stud poker and lesser games amid polished mahogany inlaid with mother of pearl, fine carpets and glistening mirrors. Two life-size nude statues flanked the door, one or the other “Lady Luck” to be caressed by incoming punters looking for a little advantage.

Such establishments, frequented by characters like Bat Masterson, William Cody and Bill Hickok, were thick in the rough little town. An old photograph of Main Street shows Joe Bassett’s sign for his Marble Hall. Other sharpers were Doc Frame, Major James S. Showers and Colonel Rickett, who ran the Senate Saloon.

Some said Showers had dealt faro to Henry Clay and Daniel Webster at the Palace of Fortune, better known as the Hall of the Bleeding Heart, back in Washington, D.C.

Most of the good stories here seem to involve the Virginia-born, gentlemanly Potee. Such as the night one nameless whiskey sipper found himself down to his last bet at Bob’s table, and, as the pasteboards showed their faces, decided something was amiss.

“This deuce didn’t come outa’ that deck,” he shouted. In a second, the man was on his feet with a Navy Colt pointed directly at Potee’s forehead.

The retellings vary slightly. The best version has Bob quietly keeping his hands on the table and suggesting the fellow sit down: “Perhaps you’re mistaken, Sir. Cheating is a practice far removed from my name. Neither gentlemen nor hog thieves speak of it in my presence.”

In the silence came the click as the Colt’s hammer pulled back. What happened next, happened fast. A bullet knocked out the lamp above the table. A second shot came as players scrambled in the dark for those nudes and the stairs.

When they came back with a light, the story goes, there sat Bob Potee, palms still on the table. Also resting face down on the green baize was a corpse.

“We will start with a fresh deck when the layout is cleared,” he said.

Once a “high-rolling Dutchman from Cincinnati” challenged Potee to a wager on who could stare at the sun the longest. The stunt involved a glass eye, of course, which, when discovered, led to the forfeiture of the Dutchman’s stake.

In 1881, the farmers and Methodists in Jefferson City decided that such sin was intolerable and passed the Johnson anti-gambling act. Some dealers just shrugged and moved their games to Kansas City, Kan. Some downsized to dingy backrooms. Who needed fancy carpets, anyway?

Maybe the gentile Potee did. Depressed, deciding he had no place in a world without the soothing click of a roulette wheel, he donned his silk top hat, pulled on his gloves, picked up his gold-headed walking stick and strolled down to the river. He did not stop until the waters closed in over his head.

“Plant me decent,” asked the note he’d left. And he was, sermonized over by the Rev. Samuel Bookstaver Bell, Presbyterian preacher and veteran of the California gold fields. Potee’s pallbearers, six tall gamblers in their best duds, then loaded him on a Virginia-bound train. The dealing, as the song goes, was done.