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The Boodlers


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

On this date in 1890, Senate Bill Number 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 while having a very small tax base. 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 within the state 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 in 1893 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.”

As with many questionable events during the late 1800s, Alexander McKenzie and his political machine were working behind the scenes. Just prior to statehood, McKenzie had met with George Spencer, the lottery company’s lawyer, in New York to plan how to bring the gambling conglomerate into the fledgling state. When statehood actually took effect, they kept a lottery exclusion clause out of the state’s new constitution and drafted Bill 167.

Most of the state’s newspapers were in favor of the move, especially when the company offered to change its name to the North Dakota Lottery Company. The company also promised to make deposits in rural banks that would allow farmers to borrow money at only 3% interest.

As drafted by McKenzie and Spencer, the bill allowed only the Louisiana Lottery Company – or its appointed representatives – into the state. Anyone else trying to sell lottery tickets in ND would be fined. The wording of the bill also would (quote)...render the State powerless for fifty years to restrict and regulate the corporation. (end quote)

UND officials openly opposed the lottery. So did the state’s first governor, John Miller, who was offered $100,000 to not veto the bill. When Miller refused to play the game, McKenzie thought they might get rid of the governor by making him a senator and sending him off to Washington.

As the debate raged, big money began to change hands, and Gov. Miller hired a Pinkerton detective, who posed as C. Wilson, a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. Wilson was a charmer, and he soon ingratiated himself with many of the boodlers. Over and over, he heard talk about bribes as high as $10,000 being offered to (and accepted by) corrupt legislators. On February 10th, a month after arriving, Wilson revealed his true identity to astonished legislators, and the following day, the Bismarck Daily Tribune reported that the lottery bill was indefinitely postponed, “...because they could not agree on all of its provisions...” That day, as Wilson and another detective left town, an attempt was made on their lives, but they got away unscathed.

(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)

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm