The redemption of “Bolly” Lewis became, almost, a religious parable among Nineteenth Century anti-gambling preachers. Here is the canonical version, as presented in his 1892 book, Fools of Fortune: Or, Gambling and Gamblers, by John Philip Quinn:
“Probably Cincinnati’s most noted gambler was the late “Bolly” Lewis. He flourished during the palmy days of the war. His establishment was one of the finest in the city. One night an army paymaster dropped into his place, and before morning came the unfortunate officer had lost $40,000. This set “Bolly” to moralizing, and from that time he became a changed man. He gave up gambling, became a member of the church, and was prominent in all charitable works. He proved his penitence by restoring the $40,000 to the officer. He went into the hotel business, became part proprietor of the Gibson house, and when he died enjoyed the respect and confidence of the entire community.”
The war in question here is the Civil War, when Cincinnati was headquarters for the Union Army’s Department of the Ohio. According to this story, then, Elias Langham “Bolly” Lewis would have sworn off gambling sometime prior to General Lee’s surrender in 1865.
If that were so, how explain the arrest, on 2 October 1871, of Bolly Lewis at 212 West Fourth Street on charges of running a Faro bank and other gambling activities at that address? Mr. Lewis, according to the legend, should have renounced gambling at least six years previously.
In fact, the newspapers reported, well into 1877, that Bolly Lewis was still involved with gambling and gamblers. He was arrested at least three times in 1877. That year, Lewis retired from gambling in Cincinnati, sold his Elm Street “Club House” and moved to Florida to manage the Duval Hotel in Jacksonville.
Although the real story does not make a tidy fable, Bolly Lewis had his own strong moral compass. To begin with, Lewis did not believe that gambling was wrong. In 1894, sportswriter John B. “Macon” McCormick recounted in the New York Sporting World a conversation he once held with Lewis on the morality of gambling. Lewis said:
“Gentlemen, I am a gambler, but if I thought that gambling was morally wrong I would never turn a card again.”
According to McCormick, Lewis saw gambling no different than insurance. The insurance man, Lewis said, places a bet that your house will not burn down in a year. If he wins, he takes your premium. If he loses, he pays the value of your house. Likewise, grain merchants trade in futures, which are nothing more than a wager on what commodities will sell for months from now. To Lewis, it was all gambling:
“What is he but a gambler? But he, too, can be a pillar of the church and an ornament of society. Now, I have not the beggar’s virtue—patience. I don’t want to wait a year, like the insurance man, or even 60 days, like the grain merchant, to find out whether I have won or lost, therefore I gamble with cards.”
By all accounts, Bolly Lewis was a reasonably honest gambler at a time when cheating was the standard. He attended church almost every Sunday and had a decades-long friendship with the Rev. Henry D. Moore, pastor of the Vine Street Congregational Church. At one time, the newspapers suggested that Lewis and Moore form a duo like the famed evangelical team of David Sankey and Dwight Lyman Moody, with Moore preaching (like Moody) and Lewis singing hymns (like Sankey). That did not come to pass, but the newspapers noticed when the gambler presented a costly silver communion set along with a note to Moore.
“ . . . whose cheerful teaching and harmonial philosophy have contributed so much to strengthen the ties that bind us together as citizens, friends and neighbors.”
Lewis was known as a soft touch. One day, a caravan of poor folks from the North Carolina hills arrived in Cincinnati. On his afternoon stroll, Lewis noticed that none of them had shoes in the middle of November, so he purchased footwear for all 17 of them.
His crowning philanthropy may have been the letter received just before Christmas in 1872 by William Haydock, superintendent of the Cincinnati Children’s Home:
“Dear Sir, Having just concluded a very interesting interview with Mr. Kris Kringle, I thought I would advise you of its nature. The old gentleman looked a little smoky, having just emerged from his chimney ‘away off yonder.’ He was on his way East to purchase his Christmas toys and holiday presents, and he slyly intimated that on his return he would secretly arrive here about three o’clock on Christmas morning, but would remain only an hour, as he must get away before daylight. I asked him if he designed visiting the Children’s Home. He said: ‘Oh, no, that charitable institution never had chimneys.’ But, after being assured that I would be there to receive him, he consented to pay the children a visit. You will please accept the inclosed one hundred dollars, and see that not a single stocking is overlooked. With respect, Bolly Lewis.”
When Elias Langham Lewis aka Bolivar Algonquin Lewis aka Bolly Lewis died in 1889, aged 64, at his sister’s house in London, Ohio, he was mourned by many in Cincinnati. As the Cincinnati Enquirer [21 September 1894] reported:
“Gambler or boniface, he was always a man of his word, and if charity covers a multitude of sins Bolly was fully clothed when he departed this life. The poor of Cincinnati lost one of their best and truest friends when he died. No beggar ever went hungry from his door.”
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities