The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.
No political issue in recent memory has aroused as much controversy as the decision of Centre Wellington to allow slot machines at a proposed racetrack adjoining Elora.
This was not the first time slot machines have been an issue in Guelph and Elora – in 1931 this form of gambling became the focus of police.
It is perhaps useful to review some of the background to gambling and slot machines.
Gambling has been known in all societies in recorded history, and its relationship with governments has been one of continual evolution. Gambling is mentioned at several points in the Bible, but many Christians view the third commandment as a prohibition of it. Gambling and lotteries helped finance churches in the middle ages, but protestant denominations, for the most part, prohibited gambling.
The British government began sponsoring and licensing gambling under Elizabeth I, but even then, the socially destructive aspects of gambling, and in particular, its tendency to aggravate poverty, were recognized. Consequently, restrictions on gambling increased over time, and particularly in the early 19th century. The famous pronouncement of the Italian statesman Conte Camillo Cavour, made 150 years ago, that lotteries are “A tax on imbeciles,” has been repeated many times since.
At the same time, governments coveted the revenue that gambling could provide, either through licensing fees or a portion of the gross revenue. Governments have always expanded gambling opportunities as far as the social and religious climate of their time allowed.
There are few arguments either in favour of or against gambling that have not been made at some time in the last 400 years.
Slot machines are, in essence, a mechanical form of lottery.
The first appeared in the mid 1880s, at about the same time as other intricate machines such as typewriters came on the market. They were not common, though, until after the First World War. Slot machines of the post-WWI period became standardized; the player deposited a coin and pulled a handle, which set three wheels spinning.
If the same symbol showed on all three wheels, the player won. The payoff could vary between two and 200 of the coins deposited. Most machines of the 1920s worked on nickels, but there were also 10 cent and 25 cent machines, and even some that took pennies.
Some models of slot machines carried elaborate decoration, and are now collector’s items, and quaint artifacts compared to the electronic slot machines of today.
As in most jurisdictions in North America, most forms of gambling were illegal in Ontario in the 1920s. The state of Nevada would be the first to break the trend by legalizing gambling in 1931.
Nevertheless, slot machines proliferated during the 1920s, under the control of both big-time racketeers and small operators.
Slot machines were ideal for illegal gambling: they could be moved from place to place, and did not require an attendant.
Consequently, not all were in secret gambling halls or other dens of iniquity. They found their way into backrooms at barber shops, pool halls and even grocery and drug stores.
Some operators found ways of skirting the law. One was to have the machine pay in candies, rather than coins. These “legal” machines frequently underwent modifications back to coin payoffs. This resulted in a cat-and-mouse game with authorities.
With the relaxing of prohibition in Ontario in the late 1920s, police spent increasing amounts of time dealing with gambling infractions.
Locally, slot machines do not appear to have become common until 1929 or 1930. By then, there were dozens of the machines in stores and shops, all purporting to be the “legal” type, paying off in candy. The OPP, working closely with Guelph city police, gathered information during 1931 on machines reported to be modified to pay in coins.
On Friday, Dec. 4, 1931, the combined forces decided to act. In Guelph, three carloads of officers, accompanied by a truck, visited the businesses on their list. The result was quite a haul: a truckload of slot machines and 12 arrests in the city. Those taken into custody were owners of tobacco shops, lunch counters, corner stores and other retail businesses.
Police spent the weekend examining the machines. Justice moved quickly in 1931: the cases were scheduled for court the following Monday.
In Elora, the OPP raided two main street premises. Arrested were Sidney Scott, operator of a pool room across Metcalfe Street from the Dalby House Hotel, and Edison Brown, who ran a confectionery and ice cream parlour on Geddes Street across from the library.
Things were livelier than usual in magistrate’s court on Dec. 7.
The police dragged most of the machines into court, and experts demonstrated how they operated, and how they had been modified to pay in candy. An expert for the defence stated that, if coins found their way to the payoff slot, the machines had become defective.
It appears that the modifications to the machines were done in such a way that they could be changed at will from candy to coin payoff and back again. The case for the defendants was undermined by the fact that none of the machines contained any candy when seized.
On the strength of the evidence, magistrate Frederic Watt found six of the Guelph men guilty, and fined them $50 and costs, each on charges of keeping a common gaming house.
Those convicted were H.J. Reinhart, Walter Baulk, Wellington Singular, M. Bizbizian, W.G. Wilson and the Ritz Cafeteria. The magistrate adjourned charges against Ken Seller, One Minute Lunch, and the Carden Street Shoe Shop. Charges against a further three were dropped.
The similarities of the machines seized at Guelph indicated that the same operator had installed them all. Those at Elora had no pretense of a candy payoff. They issued forth with a handful of nickels when police hit the winning combination.
Magistrate Watt fined Sid Scott and Edison Brown $50 and costs each.
Both Scott and Brown had been in business in Elora for years, operating small businesses. The $50 fines represented a considerable penalty – equal to two or three weeks’ net income for them.
Scott had opened a garage in 1918, but an injury prevented him from doing much physical work. When he opened the poolroom in 1920 it was controversial. He was loudly opposed by T.E. Bissell, Elora’s major industrialist, who claimed a poolroom would ruin the youth of the village and entice his workers into unwholesome activities.
Nevertheless, Scott received permission for the hall, which he modified in 1924, moving the pool tables to the back room and selling tobacco, soft drinks and magazines in the front portion.
As it turned out, incidents there were rare, and Scott managed to scrape a living out of the combined store and poolroom.
Edison Brown opened his confectionery and ice cream parlour in 1922. An avid horticulturist, he was also the Elora agent for Dales Flowers. He and his wife supplemented their income by making floral arrangements for weddings and funerals. At best he managed a modest living.
Both Scott and Brown saw a slot machine as a source of a little extra income. They did not own the machines – they merely received a percentage of the money wagered in them.
Interestingly, neither the Elora nor Fergus newspapers made a mention of the arrests and convictions. Obviously, sympathetic editors concluded that Scott and Brown received sufficient indignity and embarrassment from stories in the Guelph, Kitchener and Toronto papers.
The OPP continued its investigations after the Elora raid, and two weeks later there were more arrests.
The prize this time was Albert Musselman of Kitchener. He owned the machines found on the premises of Scott and Brown. Musselman faced two charges, but Crown Attorney J.M. Kearns agreed to withdraw the second if Musselman pleaded guilty to the first.
Musselman accepted the offer, and received a fine of $50 from Magistrate Watt for keeping a common gaming house.
Both Scott and Brown survived the wrath of Elora moralists, and operated their businesses successfully for many more years.
It seems that, given the modest scale of this gambling (just a single five-cent machine in each store), the modest means of Scott and Brown and the civic-mindedness of both men, Elora residents were willing to turn a blind eye to the slot machines.
I cannot help but wonder if Sid Scott and Edison Brown would appreciate the irony that, 70 years after their convictions, the same government that prosecuted them is actively promoting the installation of several hundred slot machines in Elora.
*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on June 23, 2000.