Richard Canfield was “the greatest gambling asset the United States had ever known.” i And unlike his casino’s original proprietor John Morrissey, he had the respect and admiration of the well-bred.
He was born in 1855 in New Bedford, MA, and wasn’t well educated, but had a bit more schooling than Morrissey. He graduated from grammar school. But he knew his success would come from the money of the rich, not the everyday gambling schlep. In order to gain their approval he believed he needed to be able to mirror the sophistication of their lifestyles.
So he took to reading. Frequently.
Married at 27 he got pinched for running a successful faro house and was sentenced to six months. He used that time wisely, learning about fine art, literature, philosophy and religion. He loved it. All of it. The more he read, the more interested he became.
In 1888 he teamed with gambler David Duff and opened a house close to popular restaurants. The play got so busy his partner couldn’t handle it. Duff would “turn up drunk and make a nuisance of himself, and Canfield bought him out.” ii
He had his eyes set on Morrissey’s old haunt, The Club House in Saratoga Springs, NY. At the time it belonged to Albert Spencer and Charles Reed, a couple of gamblers from NYC.
Reed, eerily similar to Morrissey, was socially unacceptable and Spencer bought him out.
Spencer was more akin to the likes of Canfield. He bought and sold fine art and the pair got along well. A quarter of a million dollars later, Canfield bought the Club House in 1893. He made significant changes, beginning with the name. The Club House became The Casino.
“To be seen at the Casino would be a feather in the cap, a mark of distinction only the wealthy could afford.” iii
He spent a small fortune on food and drink but many thought his efforts were “little more than constructing a veil to hide the evil inside.” iv
They were wrong. When he opened the doors in 1894, the Casino was a smashing success.
Guests were expected to dress well, in their evening clothes and Canfield hired private detectives to ensure the safety of their jewels.
Always thinking ahead, he realized evening clothes may lead to a slight problem. For example, if a gentleman were to be dressed in a tuxedo and tails large amounts of money held in their pockets could ruin the tailoring.
Well, we can’t have that now can we? Of course not!
His solution? Extend credit.
There were 10 other gambling houses in town and none of them would take such a risk. Hell, they thought Canfield was nuts. Not to mention, he also kept a million bucks in his safe … just in case.
Canfield believed paying guests in cash and extending credit made for happy customers.
When he closed his first season he earned $250,000 in gambling profits – his initial investment in the Casino.
He was off to a flying start and 1894 was a good year for Saratoga. Excitement for future seasons generated with enthusiasm.
But Canfield, in spite of this success, met with one struggle after another in the ensuing years.
In 1895 Reformists had every gaming house in the area closed, thus making his second season a bust.
The following year they opened, part in parcel to “many local residents [who] complained about the resulting economic loss, as they too sustained their livelihood either directly or indirectly from the gaming business.” v
Canfield counted over $600,000 in profits that season and was the richest and most well known gambler in America.
He had arrived.
The affluent and social set welcomed him into the fold. A desire Morrissey, almost literally, died trying to accomplish.
But Canfield’s headaches continued.
Years later when the new District Attorney of New York, William Travers Jerome (nephew to racing’s Leonard Jerome), had a bee in his bonnet and singled out Canfield as the one to swat.
Jerome found gambling paraphernalia in the wall of a defunct New York City casino belonging to Canfield and arrested him. However, he had little to get him on so they battled back and forth for two years. The result after $100,000 in legal fees was a $1,000 fine and admission to a “common gambler” charge – a moniker that made Canfield shudder.
In 1903, he promised a lush and beautiful Italian Garden next to his Casino that would further enhance the splendor of Saratoga. He did just that and it was lovely. But, local officials feared that more attention from Reformists would make things difficult for the Casino.
So what did they do? They ordered all houses in Saratoga to operate behind closed doors.
Canfield was fit to be tied.
“They gambled in the Garden of Eden and they will again if there’s another one,” he said. v
The restrictions held his gambling profits to about $400,000 that season. Additional restrictions pressed Canfield to close his Casino in 1904.
1906 presented a problem when the Casino opened with more closed-door restrictions. Come August and the race meet, they shut down after friendly warnings from local sheriffs.
Enough is enough, thought Canfield. He accomplished what he set out to do.
Fed up, he didn’t open the Casino again and put it up for sale in 1907. In 1911, the village of Saratoga Springs offered $150,000 and the deal was done.
Now, fast forward seven years from his decision, the setting is a cold, icy, December day in Brooklyn.
Canfield slips and tumbles down a flight of stairs in a subway station. He fractures his skull in the accident. The following day, the once wealthiest and revered gambler of his time, dies.
Between the years of 1870 and 1907 The Club House and The Casino was seen as THE host to the wealthiest people ever to set foot on American soil. In that day and age casino proprietors struggled to earn acceptance among the wealthy and well bred.
Canfield, through his love of the arts and as a collector, his passion for literature and his envied library along with his knowledge of religion and philosophy, appealed to the sort.
Morrissey, whose status as a championship prizefighter, bouncer and street thug followed him everywhere, didn’t. He died, a relatively young man at 47, knowing the one battle he fought all his life left him laying on the mat, counted out.
Today their building is called The Canfield Casino.
And wouldn’t you know it, John Morrissey – the guy who built the damned thing – gets snubbed from the billing.
Poor Old Smoke. He just couldn’t get a break, could he?
The Canfield Casino serves a rich and fulfilling purpose to anyone with an affinity for Saratoga history. She is the home to the Historical Society of Saratoga Springs. And when you walk through her hallways – and I suggest you do – the rooms are adorned with scenes from lifetimes ago.
It takes little imagination to saunter through the rooms, at your own pace, and hear the noise of these blessed characters spinning a wheel or rolling the dice. You can imagine the smell of rich cigars permeating the air, people laughing and maybe a few grunting with dismay.
Quite simply, with a single walk-thru you are taken back a hundred years in time.
And that is part of the beauty of Saratoga Springs. A great part of her beauty.
Red Smith once wrote to get to Saratoga from New York City you drive north for about 175 miles, tun left onto Union Avenue and go back 100 years.
Drive another mile to Congress Park and tour the Canfield Casino to see for yourself.
I trust you’ll find, like I do, that she is one of the more romantic and often thought of characters of the grand history that is Saratoga Springs.
i. They’re Off … At Saratoga, Edward Hotaling, p. 150
ii. Saratoga, A Saga of an Impious Era, George Waller, p. 226
iii. Saratoga, A Saga of an Impious Era, George Waller, p. 227
iv. Saratoga Lost: Images of Victorian America, Robert Joki, p. 146
v. Saratoga Lost: Images of Victorian America, Robert Joki, p. 147
Bibliographical Sources Used for Research:
– Bartles, John, Saratoga Stories, Gangsters, Gamblers and Racing Legends, Eclipse Press, Blood Horse Publications, Lexington, KY 2007
– Waller, George, Saratoga, A Saga of an Impious Era, FTB: Friar Tuck Bookshop, Ganesvoort, NY 1966
– Hoatling, Edward Clinton They’re Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, NY 1995
– Joki, Robert Saratoga Lost, Images of Victorian America, Black Dome Press Corp., Hensonville, NY 1998