SLOTS, PUNCHBOARDS & PINBALL
by Bill Monson
Writing last week about the Shelton Gang in Peoria, I was reminded that Galesburg also had its vice during World War II. The most obvious, of course, were the whore houses on Water Street across from the Santa Fe depot. Anybody going up Broad Street on a Friday or Saturday night--or stopped at the station on one of the many ATSF streamliners which passed through--could see men in uniform lined up outside the houses, waiting.
The Galesburg police looked the other way. Maybe it was out of some distorted form of patriotism since most of the customers were men in uniform. Maybe it was simply payoffs. Whichever, the houses ran; and even grade school kids like me knew about them. Slot machines were also available both at clubs inside the city and at road houses outside. I remember going with my dad to make a delivery of meat and seeing half a dozen slot machines lined up along the wall of a local fraternal lodge.
Most common of all were punchboards.
Punchboards were large cardboard rectangles about an inch thick. Numbers in circles were arranged across the front of them in bright colors. For prices ranging from 25 cents to a dollar per try, a customer could use an attached punch key to poke out a tightly-folded slip of paper under each circle. Unrolling the paper, the customer would find printed what he'd won--from his money back to a prize worth many dollars. Naturally, most of the punches produced no prize at all. I saw these nearly every day in my youth and not in secluded places, either. As I remember, they could be found next to the cash registers of many diners, tobacco stores and news stands. The Rexall drugstore on the northwest corner of Main and Prairie had them. So did the Alcazar bowling alley.
The State of Illinois could never quite decide whether punchboards were illegal, leaving it up to counties or cities to make the decision. Since about one-third of all Illinois countries had gambling, punchboards were common.
At various times, they were sponsored by charities, like bingo, and escaped prosecution. Much of the time, they were the most commonly-observed form of gambling in town and thus first to be prosecuted. However, since they were easily hidden, it was difficult to catch the operators--especially if they had a tip-off telephone call about a raid. It was far more difficult to hide slot machines and prostitutes.
Another form of mob income across Illinois was in jukeboxes and pinball machines. The mobs in Chicago, Peoria and East St. Louis used these to gain a toehold in legitimate businesses. If you wanted a jukebox in your diner or club, you had to use mob jukeboxes and records. Since jukeboxes were not illegal, it was very hard to pin anything crooked on the mobs. Pinball machines were similarly difficult. The mobs usually got a weekly rake-off of the cash used in both--and for that reason, pinball machines went in and out of acceptability with law enforcement and city councils. Some owners even turned regular pinball machines into gambling since you could win free games if you racked up high enough scores. A hot player could use a quarter to rack up four or five free games, then sell them back to the drug store or ice cream parlor. However, the hotshot then had to give up the machine to other players as constant play was where the operator and the mobs made their money. Paltry perhaps, but still a form of vice-- even though pinball machines were based on skill, not chance. In the 70s, The Who made an album and rock opera--"Tommy"--about a pinball wizard, which in 1975 was turned into a movie with Elton John, Eric Clapton, Ann- Margret and Jack Nicholson, among others. Of course, there were numbers games and lotteries, too--illegal in the past but now taken over by the State itself in the form of jackpots, scratchers, etc. The illegal punchboards and slot machines of yesteryear have been replaced by lottery games and riverboat casinos operated in the name of State financing!