The Bookshelf: How New Hampshire Ushered in America's 'Lottery Age'

Oct 16, 2015

These days lotteries are everywhere. Walk into most convenience stores and you’ll see scratch tickets on sale. Big Powerball payouts stretching across state lines make headlines, but fifty years ago the idea that lotteries were sinful and contributed to society’s moral decay was more widespread than it is today.

You may be surprised to learn that in the 1960s New Hampshire was the first state to launch a legal lottery. It came after a fight involving politicians of opposing sides, religious moralists, mob members, and the FBI.

In his new book, American Sweepstakes: How One Small State Bucked the Church, the Feds, and the Mob to Usher in the Lottery Age, New Hampshire author Kevin Flynn tell the story of how the state’s lottery came to be. Flynn is an Emmy award-winning former journalist and the author of four books of true crime reporting and he’s on the board of trustees for the New Hampshire Writers' Project. He spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello, and offered his five book recommendations.

Kevin Flynn's Top 5 Book Recommendations

1. Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon. "Before he created The Wire, Simon wrote the best true crime book of the modern age. Embedded for a year in the Baltimore homicide unit, rather than following one case, Simon wrote of at least a dozen crimes investigated by detectives. Not every murder had a resolution. (His book was the basis for the NBC cop drama of the same name.)"

2. The Fifties by David Halberstam. "A compelling examination of many of the events that shaped the decade, Halberstam mastered the skill of telling the side anecdote that shaped each character. What other authors would use as footnotes, he used to create a rich narrative which informs the reader. It's a technique I've tried to use my own nonfiction writing."

3.  Queenpin by Megan Abbott. "Blowing up on the charts, and soon to be on TV, Megan's works The Fever and Dare Me deconstruct noir by placing it in high school. But her early work, Queenpin, is the quintessential period noir story. There is not a book in which the dialog is more fun to read (and read aloud) than this. What would be hackneyed and cliché in the hands of other writers is penned masterfully in this novel."

4.   The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz. "A tour-de-force of language, some in English some in the Spanglish, this book is a joy to read (though likely hell on his spell-check). Though you know his fate, the heartbreaking story of Oscar is one that stays with you. Interestingly, the best of this narrative happens within the numerous footnotes. Díaz deserved the Pulitzer."

5.   The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. "What can be said about this book that hasn't been said a million times before? But its take on desperation and poverty feel very modern in uncertain economic days. There but for the grace of God… Never has a writer captured humanity on the page like Steinbeck. And the last sentence of every novel is always the most powerful."

So the lottery began with a push from one politician, Larry Pickett. Tell us a little bit about him.

Larry Pickett was a former mayor of Keene. He had a career in Vaudeville before he went into politics and he was a great orator. He had the idea of running a sweepstakes window at a racetrack and money raised from that effort would go towards pensioners and other charities and he tried for ten different years, or  I should say ten different sessions of the legislature, to bring about a sweepstakes.

I should note that the first lottery wasn’t a scratch ticket and it wasn’t a numbers draw. It was a sweepstakes which is a two-part process. The first part, player’s name would be drawn, and those players would be matched with a race horse. And then the second part would be, they would hold the race and if that horse was in it and if they won, then that player won the jackpot. So, it was a little different, but it was the kind of thing that it took a while for the political support to get there and it finally did in 1963.

Before 1963, though, the only lottery in existence in the United States was actually sort of an illegal one, people buying tickets for the Irish Sweep.

Yeah, you know the history of lotteries dates back centuries. I mean, the Chinese used the lotteries to pay for part of the Great Wall, and General George Washington used the lottery to pay for the Continental Army and there was sort of different efforts to raise public funds through the use of lotteries.

But by the 1890s, the had become so corrupted that congress had to step in and ban them from the mails, because that was sort of the way that tickets got across the country. So there were lotteries before that, but they went underground.

One of the most popular and the one that people were the most familiar with started in the 1930s in Ireland, it was the Irish Sweep— same process, people’s names were drawn, matched to race horses. These tickets were illegal in the US but they were openly sold in bars and taverns and social clubs and anybody who wanted to get a ticket could.

But sometimes they were confiscated at ports, and lost, and sometimes they were stolen, and there really wasn’t much oversight of this.

Yeah, the Irish sweep, you know, was supposed to be raising money for the national hospital system in Ireland, but it wasn’t the government that ran it. It was a private company, and they skimmed a lot of money off of it, and they were able to have, you know, two pairs of books, and the way they were able to smuggle these illegal tickets back and forth across the ocean was they smuggled it along with IRA supplies and weapons because the guys who ran the sweeps were, you know, former IRA guys.

So it wasn’t until decades later we found out it wasn’t just got old Irish Pluck that was running the Irish Sweep.

Easy to how politicians might be reluctant to get involved in something like this. New Hampshire’s democratic governor John King, who, by the way, you really humanize well in this narrative.

Thank you.

You really make him come alive. He really struggled with whether to sign off the bill that made it to his desk. Ultimately though, he did sign off on it, and then what happened to the lottery?

It ended up being both a national sensation and a national scandal. The media was terribly against it. Virtually every editorial writer in New Hampshire and across the country was writing about the sweeps. They said it would give New Hampshire a bad name. It would ruin the character of bucolic New Hampshire.

They said that it was going to leave us ripe for communism and for people to open charge accounts, which apparently was a specter of a really bad thing. You know, nowadays everybody’s got a debit card, but I digress. So it was reviled in the media, the justice department got involved. They were pointing to federal laws  that said you cannot take gambling paraphernalia across state lines. This was a major rub, because obviously they wanted tourists to come to New Hampshire and buy sweepstakes tickets, but if they took that ticket across state line, the FBI said they could arrest that person. So the threat of arrest was there hung over everybody’s head, but still New Hampshire forged ahead and tens of thousands of people came to New Hampshire in the spring and summer of 1964 to get a legal sweeps ticket. 

Why don’t we still have the sweepstakes anymore? There was the racetrack, Rockingham Park, in Salem, but the sweepstakes stopped. Why?

The popularity of the sweeps kind of wore off. It was no longer a novel thing. And there was also a problem with the US Supreme Court. Eventually a guy who was arrested—and people were arrested with lottery tickets from New Hampshire—one guy took the case to the US supreme court and the high court sided with the justice department and said that yes taking these tickets across state lines violates laws.

That put a damper on sales, each year it just kind of went down and went down. Also, you know, what turned the sweeps around were the advent of other states starting their own sweepstakes and lotteries, and then numbers draws, scratch tickets— these were the popular, you know things that, you know, were making way more money in the lottery sphere and New Hampshire finally did away with the sweeps and in 1972, in order to put its resources towards a fifty-fifty ticket,  50/50 raffle.

So alternative means of gambling popped up in its place.

Yeah,  the lottery has, you know, evolved over the years, scratch tickets are, you know, primarily the retail item of choice. You can always remember those stories about giant Megabucks or Powerball jackpots and people lining up out the door to get those tickets. And we seem to forget that none of that probably would have come about had New Hampshire failed.

If the sweepstakes had failed, then a lot of those things probably wouldn’t have come about. Other states wouldn’t have started sweepstakes and wouldn’t have started lotteries. And today there would be no mega jackpots to win. And I always say, well forget the American dream, without lotteries what would be the American daydream?

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