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A Gambler's Punishment

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Most nineteenth century steamboat passengers probably never knew that the pistons of the steam engine that turned the great paddles moved back and forth at a steady and silent twelve times each minute. But at least one passenger aboard the steamer "Eclipse" learned that figure the hard way, and so completely that it is likely he thought of it long afterwards in the middle of the night.

Smith Mace was a professional gambler aboard the Eclipse. During one trip, he won a thousand dollars from another young passenger at three-card monte—one of those sure thing games. Normally, professional courtesy would have allowed him this bit of legal thievery, but for some reason, the captain of the Eclipse took exception. He organized an impromptu "indignation meeting" and appointed a committee to institute proceedings.

The committee impaneled a jury, Smith Mace was duly tried and found guilty of "all the rules, customs, and proprieties of sporting."  He was given a choice of sentences: either return the money to his victim, or be tied for one hour to the horizontal piston rod, where there would be just room for him to walk back and forth with each in and out movement of the piston.

When Mace refused to return the money, a rope was secured to the piston rod and tied around his neck in such a manner as to just allow him to turn. He commenced his walk ten feet forward, ten feet back. It was absolutely necessary for him to keep his eye on the rod, and turn exactly with its backward movement, or it would have torn his head from his shoulders.

Only once during the hour was Mace asked if he would be willing to give up the money. "Go away," he said, "I have no time to talk."

At the end of the hour, having walked just over two and one-half miles, Smith Mace was released and put off the boat at the next stop. Had he stumbled, he would have gone down in history as the first man to be hanged horizontally. As it was, he was the first professional steamboat gambler put in a situation where a pair of feet beat a winning hand.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.