Johnson, John V.

views updated

John V. Johnson

Gambling house owner

Long before the lottery became legal in Illinois, John V. "Mushmouth" Johnson owned several gambling houses in Chicago, the first African American to do so. By delivering votes, Johnson influenced Chicago politics, thus providing protection for his enterprises. He gave generously to philanthropic endeavors to help his race, establishing a precedent that other gambling tycoons would follow. Personally, the "Negro Gambling King of Chicago" declined to engage in gambling.

The details of Johnson's early life remain obscure. Accounts of his death mention a mother and two sisters. Born in St. Louis, Johnson moved to Chicago in 1875. For about six years, he worked as a waiter at the Palmer House. In 1882, he became a floor man in Andy Scott's gambling house at 205 South Clark Street. Scott eventually gave Johnson an interest in the business.

Later, Johnson partnered with white men, George Whiting and Al Bryant, to open a gambling house at 311 Clark Street. Herbert Asbury characterizes this venture as "the best-known cheap resort in Chicago" for nearly ten years. The resort welcomed people of all races and social status to play its full complement of games. Unlike other gambling houses that required higher stakes, Johnson's business welcomed bets as low as a nickel. According to Harold Gosnell, "'Craps' and draw poker almost eliminated the more aristocratic games of faro and roulette" in the Clark Street establishment.

Gosnell describes Johnson as "a hard-headed business man and at the same time something of a sentimentalist." Johnson showed no mercy when people pleaded for the return of lost money. But when the sons of distinguished black families came gambling, he often gently advised the young men about gambling's dangers. "Whether this action was motivated by race pride, a desire to avoid personal embarrassment, class consciousness, or a carry-over of early religious training cannot be ascertained," states Gosnell.

Johnson eventually sold his interest in the partnership with Whiting and Bryant. In 1890, he opened his own saloon and gambling house, the Emporium Saloon, at 464 South State Street, in the midst of Chicago's Whiskey Row. Gosnell describes the Emporium as "a meeting-place for railroad men, waiters, porters, and professional gamblers—Chinese, Negro, and white." The gamblers bet each other, rather than the house, but the gamekeeper claimed a portion of each winning.

Johnson also owned the Bad Lands, the Little Cheyenne, and other gambling halls. For seventeen years, he reigned as king of Chicago's gambling czars. The city's best-known gamblers frequented Johnson's saloons, often playing tournaments that lasted for days.

Gains Political Power

Johnson knew the importance of developing a network of friends. Some accounts indicate that he supported the Republican and Democratic parties equally. Although he declined direct involvement in politics, he attended conventions, gained a reputation for political power, and encouraged blacks to register and to vote.

For delivering votes, First Ward Democrat Roger C. Sullivan ensured protection of Johnson's businesses. Under Sullivan's direction, "Hinky Dink" Mike Kenna and "Bathhouse" John Coughlin, a local alderman and committeeman, usually kept Johnson's properties free from police raids—or at least forewarned him.

According to Robert Lombardo, Johnson "held the distinction of being the 'man to see' in Chicago's Chinese quarter. He reportedly sold protection to over twenty Chinatown opium dens and gambling halls where Fan Tan and Bung Loo card games were played." Asbury states that Johnson charged three dollars per week per table.


Born in St. Louis, Missouri
Moves to Chicago; works at Palmer House
Takes job in gambling house
Opens Emporium Saloon
Mayor revokes Johnson's license
Opens Frontenac Club
Dies in Chicago on September 13

When the game policy, a precursor of lottery, was introduced into Chicago, Johnson was "probably the first important black gambler to see the potential of policy," according to Lombardo. Players usually placed a "gig," a three-numbered bet, or sometimes a "saddle," only a two-numbered bet. Policy writers recorded the numbers in a book. Drawings took place at least once a day, usually three or four times a day, allowing twenty-four numbered balls to come into play from a total of seventy-eight.

Nathan Thompson observes that "by the turn of the century, Policy was becoming good business. Everybody was playing—society folks, teenagers, housewives, the poor and the wealthy; and for church folks Policy was a welcome change from Bingo." Through the late 1890s, Johnson promoted policy. With Tom McGinnis, he operated two policy companies known by the names "Union" and "Phoenix." Asbury comments that "The Citizens' Association procured a hundred and fifty indictments against Mushmouth Johnson and others for operating policy games, but none went to jail."

The city council's graft committee, however, watched Johnson carefully. People testified that they found it nearly impossible to win at the Emporium and that, if they did win, the gamekeepers tried their best to collect these winnings. According to Lombardo, the committee saw Johnson "as a 'card cheat' who robbed patrons 'stone blind' at his craps, hand faro, and draw poker tables." In 1903, Mayor Carter Harrison revoked Johnson's license.

Survives Anti-Policy Legislation

In 1903, the Reverend Reverdy Cassius Ransom, pastor of Chicago's Institutional AME Church and Settlement House, denounced policy and its evils from the pulpit. After the firebombing of Ransom's church, Edward Morris, a prominent black lawyer, helped Ransom lobby Republican representative Edward Green to introduce anti-policy legislation. Johnson's rival Bob Motts may have also encouraged Green. According to Thompson, the 1905 law imposed sanctions on "all persons involved in the game from the policy racketeer to the caretaker of the building in which the gambling was conducted."

Johnson closed the Emporium, but on May 1, 1906, with Tom McGinnis and Bill Lewis, Johnson opened Frontenac Club on Twenty-Second Street. This gambling hall, near the city's Levee red-light district, catered only to white men. Admittance consisted of a ready display of at least ten dollars. During the first year, the owners took in about two hundred dollars a day and divided the profit.

According to Thompson, Johnson's "exceptional gift for profanity" earned him the nickname "Mushmouth." But his generosity to Chicago's black community gained him respect. He funded the local Old People's Home and helped the needy. Through his mother, he contributed generously to Chicago's Bethesda Baptist Church. Other black gambling czars would follow Johnson's tradition of philanthropy.

Johnson died on Friday, September 13, 1907. A huge crowd attended his funeral at the Institutional AME Church, including police inspector John Wheeler. Johnson's mother, Ellen Johnson, and his sisters, Louise Ray and Eudora Johnson, came for the funeral. Some accounts indicate that Johnson's money may have helped establish Binga State Bank, the nation's first black-owned bank, in 1908. Eudora Johnson had married Jesse Binga, the bank's founder.

Some sources speculate that Johnson acquired a fortune of $250,000. But shortly before his death, he estimated his assets at under $15,000. Asbury quotes Johnson as telling a friend, "I have spent more than $100,000 for fines … and a huge sum for police protection. I have had to pay out four dollars for every one I took in at the game."



Asbury, Herbert. The Gangs of Chicago: An Informal History of the Chicago Underworld. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1986.

Drake, St. Clair, and Horace R. Cayton. Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City. Rev. and enl. ed., Vol. 2. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970.

Gosnell, Harold F. Negro Politicians: The Rise of Negro Politics in Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.

Thompson, Nathan. Kings: The True Story of Chicago's Policy Kings and Numbers Racketeers, An Informal History. Chicago: Bronzeville Press, 2002.


Lawrence, Curtis. "Bronzeville's Policy Kings Were Early Venture Capitalists." Chicago Sun-Times, 7 July 2003.

Lombardo, Robert M. "The Black Mafia: African-American Organized Crime in Chicago 1890–1960." Crime, Law, & Social Change 38 (2002): 33-65.

                                    Marie Garrett

About this article

Johnson, John V.

Updated About content Print Article