Friday, July 25, 2014

Something fishy: Shad, gambling and the Duke of Gloucester

Researching New Jersey history, I'm often fascinated to find the stories of individuals who, while massively influential in their time, have faded back into obscurity. Maybe they're still talked of regionally, their stories well known in local history, but no longer with the same degree of reverence or scorn as in their day.

One I discovered recently is said to have created what the New York Times of his time described as "New Jersey's darkest disgrace, the most cancerous growth on all her territory. Here every vice is licensed and all that is worst in man or woman is catered to by a horde of men who have lost all that is born in them of decency and of honor and chastity, of all the attributes that make man higher than the beast."

Who was this man, once so reviled but now anonymous? Billy Thompson, or, to his 19th century contemporaries, the Duke of Gloucester. Long time readers might remember him as the politically connected entrepreneur who sold his Gloucester City mansion and property to the U.S. Government for a new Philadelphia immigration station.

Billy Thompson, from a 1893 profile
in the New York Times.
Thompson immigrated to New York at the age of 13 during the depths of the Irish Famine, seeking to forge his own version of the American dream. After a short stint in Boston, he returned to New York and then moved southwest to Philadelphia. A job in the billiards room of the city's Continental Hotel soon evolved into restaurant management and bartending, allowing him to build hospitality and people skills that would serve him well throughout his life. Apparently, it's also where he gained a sharp political sense from the well-connected men who frequented the bars.

Across the Delaware, Gloucester City was already a well-known resort, judged in some eyes as a poor man's Atlantic City. Envisioning the location's greater potential, Thompson leased the Buena Vista Hotel in 1870, developing it into one of the city's most popular inns among politicians and other celebrities. When the owners refused to renew his lease two years later, he simply bought an adjacent plot of land and built his own hotel.

One could say that Thompson's success was fishy from the start. The Delaware being an abundant fishery, the Buena Vista was well known for its planked shad dinners. Again seeing an opportunity, Thompson leased the city's shad farms and bought up about three and a half miles of the coastline along the river. And when the Philadelphia ferry companies refused to extend their hours to accommodate the growing numbers of customers frequenting the Thompson Hotel and restaurant, the entrepreneur bought his own ferries. His 24 hour service proved so popular that it the older company went bankrupt, enabling Thompson to buy controlling interest in it, too. To address the visitors coming by land, he also built his own railroad. Gloucester City was soon filled with pool halls, drinking establishments and "bawdy" houses, sounding a bit like a 19th century Las Vegas.

Not surprisingly, Thompson's growing wealth and success, combined with shrewd people skills, translated to political might. Serving for many years as a city councilman and county freeholder, the Duke of Gloucester became was the most powerful Democrat in New Jersey. Though he was elected to only two terms in the state assembly, he was said to control the legislature from his Gloucester City base.

The most blatant of Thompson's self-serving legislative ventures was the legalization of open gambling, first and foremost to benefit a racetrack on his Gloucester City property. In a classic New Jersey political coincidence, the speaker of the assembly was to be the starter at the track, which likely would have helped Thompson override the governor's veto had most of the Trenton legislators not already been in the Duke's pocket.

By 1890, with the law bent to his will, Thompson used his track to rake in money in just about every way possible. People rode his trains and ferries to Gloucester to stay in his hotel, many of them Philadelphians who flocked across the river to escape their city's restrictive Sunday blue laws. They ate at his restaurant and placed wagers at his track with bookies who paid him sizable daily tributes to take bets. He created a massive local economy in which he was the largest beneficiary by far, and his customers could see it in the form of "Thompson's Castle," the riverfront mansion he built for himself, his wife and 10 children.

The impact of his success didn't go unnoticed, particularly by the strong temperance forces monitoring the excesses of vice and sin on riverbanks. In its scathing assessment of Thompson's excesses, the Times quoted a man who'd been found guilty of stealing from his employer to finance his visits to Gloucester City: "The money for the stolen goods, all I could earn and $60,000 of my wife's money have all gone to pay for Billy Thompson's castle on the Delaware!" Within five years, sentiment changed in Trenton and gambling was, once again, outlawed in New Jersey.

Undeterred, Thompson announced a new, more wholesome attraction for pleasure seekers. He purchased a 900 acre tract of land on Fancy Hill in present day Westville, just down river from Gloucester City, and promised to build a temperance park where churches and religious societies could enjoy all manners of outdoor activities. As in his previous ventures, he arranged for boats to bring Philadelphians to the park and built a rail line from Camden.

Washington Park, as it was called, held just about every kind of wholesome amusement available at the time. In addition to one of the largest Ferris wheels in the country, several carousels and a four-story tall slide/flume ride were there to ride, and several ball fields were available for athletes to play on. Picnic groves and restaurants satisfied hungry park-goers, and at night, fireworks and a light show entertained those who hadn't yet had enough. Tens of thousands of children flocked to the park on designated days when they could enter at no charge.

The park burned to the ground in a 1909 fire, but Thompson rebuilt it, no doubt feeling that he'd finally having found a socially acceptable way to get people to part with their money. By then, though, he'd lost a good bit of his political power along with his wealth and, to some degree, his health. Well into his 70s, he died in Belfast, Ireland, on a 1911 trip back to his birthplace. Escorted to his final resting place by what's said to be one of the city's longest funeral processions ever, Thompson was buried in Gloucester City's Old St. Mary Cemetery.

Finding Billy Thompson today is a bit of a challenge for researchers. Local historians know his name and story -- a good part of Gloucester City's history centers on his works -- but locating information about him anywhere else takes time and patience. For all of his influence, I was surprised to see he didn't even warrant an entry in the Encyclopedia of New Jersey. It all gets you thinking: the names and machinations of all of our influential contemporaries, so powerful now, could and probably will eventually be lost to time, only to be unearthed by curious New Jerseyans of the future.

Ashes to ashes...  We all end up the same, high and mighty or obscure and humble.

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