All Bets Are Off:
Anthony Comstock, the Post Office Department and the Battle Against the Lottery


The Tipping Point

Graphic from Marshall Cushing’s The History of Our Post Office, p. 534
Marshall Cushing’s The History of Our Post Office, p. 534
Marshall Cushing’s The History of Our
Post Office
, p. 534

As 1890 began, the Louisiana Lottery seemed untouchable, but in July the House Committee on the Post Office and Post Roads drafted its own bill hoping to close previous loopholes and end the Louisiana Lottery once and for all. While it was met with considerable debate in the House, the bill passed with only minor amendments. It passed through the Senate with no debate and was signed into law by President Harrison in September.

The first section of the law declared “defined nonmailable items” as registered postal cards, circulars, list of drawings, lottery tickets, drafts, money orders, and newspapers or publications carrying advertisements of lotteries, gift concerns, or similar enterprises offering prizes dependent on chance. Anyone who knowingly delivered or deposited this type of mail would face a misdemeanor and a $500 fine and/or one year imprisonment for each offense. The law did not fully dismantle the Louisiana Lottery, but was aimed to significantly cripple it.

The day after the act’s signing, Postmaster General Wanamaker officially notified all 62,401 postmasters and sent out regulations and procedures on how best to enforce the act. Employees at the Louisiana Lottery Company were directed not to mail letters relating to lottery business. Wanamaker boasted in his annual report that business in their New Orleans office had “fallen off one-third” and registered mail and money orders had “almost discontinued.”1

The Louisiana Lottery saw even more defeats in the following years. In 1893 the constitutional amendment to renew the Louisiana Lottery’s charter was defeated, and as a result, the charter officially expired at the end of the year. In the 1893 Postmaster General Report, Postmaster Wanamaker noted a significant drop in lottery business in the mail. “In conclusion,” he wrote, “the antilottery law has been observed.”2

Despite the law and the expired charter, the Louisiana Lottery lived on. In 1894, the Louisiana Lottery Company moved its headquarters to Honduras and renamed itself the Honduras Lottery. The Honduras Lottery also set up shop in Tampa, Florida where the directors took advantage of a Florida law that banned state lotteries but not foreign ones. Many of the first-class letters that passed through the mail in 1894 slipped past the postmasters who were powerless to open or stop them.

With growing frustration from the post office department, evangelicals and lawmakers, Senator George Hoar of Massachusetts took the lead in pushing through a bill with the intent to crush the Louisiana Lottery once and for all. The bill would suppress lottery traffic through interstate commerce and the postal system, and Hoar presented petitions from various evangelical groups and businesses to underline the importance of the legislation. The bill became law on March 2, 1895 with only a few minor amendments.3

Many rejoiced in the ultimate victory of the post office department over the lottery. “The long fight for anti-lottery legislation, which began in several states sixty years ago has now triumphed in every State in the Union and in the national government…” the editor of The Outlook wrote. “The lottery is now an outlaw, from one end of the country to the other end of our country.”4

Postmaster Wanamaker concurred in his 1898 annual report. Of the 67 fraud orders issued in 1897, only five were related to lotteries or gift enterprises. “The results of [1895 lottery act] have been very satisfactory… and have resulted in greatly purifying the mails; so much so that I think it is safe to state that there is less fraudulent business conducted through the [mail] than ever before,” concluded the postmaster.5 The fight, originally waged and hard fought by Comstock, seemed to be over.

1) Report of the Postmaster General, 1890, 14-16.

2) Report of the Postmaster General, 1893, 584.

3) Fowler, Unmailable, 87.

4) The Outlook, Mar. 9, 1895.

5) Report of the Postmaster General, 1898, 23.