Sunday, March 17, 2013

Casey Places His Bet

Brooks Block the scene of a superbly executed
State Police daytime raid on Casey’s.
Thomas E. Casey was an entrepreneur and knew he needed adequate space for a new venture in Canton that would change the ordinary lives of the everyday man. Walking up Washington Street on a late July afternoon in 1938, Casey a bright 32 year-old upstanding citizen of Canton saw just such an opportunity.

Born in 1906, Casey was a newspaperman of sorts. Working for the Canton Journal, and subsequently the Norwood Messenger and Boston Record. These were jobs, yet Casey wanted a career and during the depression a quest for “easy money” would take Casey down.

At the intersection of Bolivar and Washington Streets stood the massive and imposing Brooks Block, originally built around 1856, the building was the cornerstone of the community. Over the years the corner landmark was home to the post office, the telephone exchange, a string of drugstores, the police department and several fraternal and social organizations. In 1887, the upper stories of the building were renovated and the Odd Fellows Hall occupied the third floor. In 1905, another grander renovation was completed transforming the stunning reception hall.

A majestic space by all accounts, Odd Fellows Hall was large enough to host weddings and huge parties. Shows, musicals, and all sorts of entertainment were the order of the day. And on one occasion George Polley, “The Human Fly” wowed hundreds of onlookers as he nimbly scaled the façade without the aid of ropes or harness. It was a magnificent stunt worthy of the building. And, yet, by the summer of 1938 Brooks Block was showing its age and the Canton Lodge of Masons was moving out of their spacious third floor space to a new home. A sign went up “space for rent.”

And that is when Casey saw the prospects of his business venture brighten considerably. Over the next two month, Casey planned to build one of the finest establishments ever seen outside of Boston. His “parlor” would occupy the entire third floor. Casey knew he would do well. There were plenty of customers that worked in the radius of our small suburban town. And, while times were indeed tough in 1938, the Work Progress Administration (W.P.A.) was busy with all sorts of local projects right here in Canton.

The W.P.A. was the most ambitious New Deal Agency that had been created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Employing millions of unemployed, the main thrust was to carry out construction projects. In 1935, when the Canton Post Office was built, a New Deal project included the painting of the mural celebrating Paul Revere’s Copper Industry in Canton. And, over the course of nine years, Canton received many additional benefits that added badly needed pay to suffering families’ wallets.

In Canton, the W.P.A. projects included bridges, dams, sewer lines and sidewalks constructed by local laborers from all across town. The hot argument surging through town in 1938 was whether to accept federal aid to build a new High School on the land known as the French Estate on Washington Street. The town meeting that year voted against the question, but in true Canton fashion it took nine years to settle the question and new High School was built in 1947. 

All the men that were building the new bridges and sidewalks across town had money and it seemed to Casey that he could give them a place to spend it. In the central room, Casey installed three 20-foot long tables with benches so the patrons would be comfortable. After all, they would be spending considerable time in his establishment. On the third floor of Brooks Block, Casey built glassed in teller windows. A state-of-the-art amplification system was installed, along with special staging and an elevated illuminated board. To complete his operation, Casey installed dozens of phone lines, not all that difficult considering that the building was once home to New England Telephone.
The scene of the crime; on the third floor of the
Odd Fellows Hall sixty-five men
gathered to gamble their depression era paychecks.

What Casey had built over the course of several weeks was one of the most “well-equipped horserace betting establishments” in this section of eastern Massachusetts. Unfortunately for Casey, it was also highly illegal. Illegalities aside, it made no matter to the patrons, however, who flocked to the new scheme in droves.

These patrons were largely the working classes from all the surrounding towns including Boston. Word of Casey’s pari-mutuel betting parlor spread like wildfire and it was extremely successful. It was a very well run operation. In the center of the room sat the men who were placing bets on several of the horse races of the day. On a giant board illuminated by floodlights, were posted the names of the horses running in the afternoon races across the country. The exact odds as those at the tracks were posted on board around the room. And, the battery of telephones was used to take and place bets as well as receive results almost instantaneously.

Throughout the day, the results were announced to the crowd and time stamped bets at the teller windows “prevented the operators from being defrauded.” It was perfect in every way, and well received by the men digging sewers for the W.P.A. In 1938, it turns out the biggest celebrity in America was a horse named Seabiscuit. The story was classic; a horse that rose to greatness with the assistance of a “a half-blind prizefighter and failing jockey, a mute mustang breaker, and a bicycle repairman-turned-overnight millionaire racehorse owner. Against the dreary backdrop of the waning depression, the W.P.A. workers found inspiration in this amazing animal. It is no wonder that Casey had hit upon success from these men’s hopes.

Unfortunately, a byproduct of gambling is losing and the wives of those government workers were not amused by their husband’s diversions. Reportedly, a wife of one of the losing gamblers dimed out Casey to the Massachusetts State Police in Framingham. A newspaper reported the cause of the complaints came “from the wives of W.P.A. workers and other men of low income, who declared that their husbands were losing their pay the bookie office.” Poor Casey had barely been in operation a week or two when a raid was planned.

On September 15th “in the heart of Canton’s business district” the state police gathered outside the entrances to Brooks Block. Word in a small town travels fast, and soon “hundreds of townspeople gathered in Canton Square and along Washington Street to watch the long arm of the law fall upon Casey. Unfortunately for the wives who complained so vociferously, the “raid was timed to coincide with the running of the fifth and sixth races at the various tracks, when the largest number of betters would be wagering their money.” The plan was to capture as many patrons as possible and send a clear message to gamblers.

As the troopers of the flying squadron waited for the signal, they were armed with “sledgehammers, axes, and jimmies. At about five o’clock, perhaps as the fifth race at Pimlico began, more than sixty-five men were awaiting the outcome of the race. As the horses entered the first turn, the doors to the third-floor room splintered open, chaos ensued and the unlucky men were huddled into the corner of the grand betting parlor.

For the gamblers the outcome that day was bleak. “Residents of not only Canton but Brockton, Stoughton, Boston, Norwood, Milton, Braintree, Foxboro and Walpole were among those trapped.” Casey was arrested on the charge of maintaining and promoting the enterprise. Immediately after notifying the sixty-five men of their arrest, Lieutenant John McLaughlin of the State Police informed them that they could only leave the place upon posting a $25 bail – a sum equal to $402 today.  That princely sum was reduced to $10 as a result of the scofflaws’ inability to pay.

Albert A. Ward, the Canton bail commissioner set up a table in the room and one by one the men had to positively identify themselves and post bail. Owing to the fact that many of them were unable to post bail, Casey himself posted bail for many of them. As soon as the last man was out of the room, the State Police took axes to every piece of equipment in the room destroying Casey’s illicit dream. Arraignments were held in Stoughton and Casey was fined $520 (almost $10,000 in today’s economy) and the cases against the 65 others were dismissed.

Much to the embarrassment of the wives and families of the gamblers, every one of their names were printed in the paper the next day. Familiar Canton names such as Podgurski, McSorley, Sykes, Shea, Pocaro, and Sims were among the roll call of men playing the ponies that fateful afternoon.

As for Casey, soon thereafter he entered into business with his father involving a different vice, that of maintaining a liquor parlor, and all quite legal this time around. A resident of 315 Walpole Street, his house is still standing. Casey became a special police officer, operated a taxi business and by the time he died in 1958, at age 53, a well rehabilitated upstanding man of the community. In 1943, an epic fire tore through Brooks Block destroying the magnificent building. Seabiscuit was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and lost to Lord of the Rings. 

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