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Dakota Datebook

The Boodlers


Today’s story is about boodlers. Definition: those who obtain money through corruption.


On this date in 1890, Senate Bill 167 was introduced to the state’s first legislature. Three days later, the state’s first Chief Justice, 31-year-old Guy Corliss, sent a telegram to President Harrison that read, 


“Gamblers are seeking to fasten Louisiana Lottery on North Dakota. Bill passed one house. People demoralized. Public sentiment prostituted. Pressure of national sentiment our only hope. You, the cabinet, the senators, and the nation speaking through Associated Press dispatches can save us this infamy. I implore your aid.”


On the surface, the lottery bill didn’t sound all that bad. North Dakotans had inherited a heavy debt from the Territory, and the new Constitution had established a number of expensive institutions. To address this financial burden, the Louisiana State Lottery Company offered to move in, liquidate the state’s debt, make annual contributions for maintaining North Dakota’s schools, provide seed for hard-hit farmers, erect a large modern building and employ hundreds of clerks.


Historian Elwyn Robinson writes, “The Louisiana Lottery sold tickets throughout the nation and distributed nearly $15,000,000 in prizes at each drawing. It was to lose its charter in Louisiana ... and so was seeking a new base for its disreputable operations. It offered North Dakota $100,000 for the first year and $75,000 annually thereafter for a charter.” The company also promised to make deposits in rural banks that would allow farmers to borrow money at only 3% interest.


As with many questionable events during the late 1800s, Alexander McKenzie and his political machine were working behind the scenes. McKenzie met with the lottery’s lawyer in New York to plan how to bring the lottery into the fledgling state. They managed to keep a lottery exclusion out of the state’s constitution and they drafted Bill 167, which allowed the Louisiana Lottery into the state.


Governor John Miller was offered $100,000 to not veto the bill, but he refused. Miller subsequently hired Pinkerton detectives who learned of bribes as high as $10,000 being offered to (and accepted by) corrupt legislators. The revelations led to the lottery bill being indefinitely postponed. As the Pinkertons left town, an attempt was made on their lives, but they got away unscathed.


Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm


Sources: North Dakota History: Journal of the Northern Plains, Summer 1967, Vol 34, #3, pgs 210-223; The Boodlers by William E. Sherman; History of North Dakota, Elwyn Robinson, 1995, pgs 219-20

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