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River Gambler

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Gambling was present on most passenger boats on the Upper Mississippi River, but it never reached the Hollywood proportions of riverboat gambling on the Lower Mississippi, where plantations, horses, and women were won and lost on the turn of a card. Upper Mississippi gamblers were content if they made two or three hundred dollars a week.

Except, perhaps, for Bill Malen. Bill and three of his cronies frequented some of the more famous steamboats, such as the Fanny Harris, in the decades before the Civil War. As was typical, they often worked in pairs, pretending to be strangers until introduced to each other by a prospective victim. Bill and his friends played with marked decks, carefully shaved so that they knew which card was which, then rewrapped and sealed and replaced behind the bar as a new deck. Bill would lose a couple of hands, call for a new deck from the bartender, and then open the already marked deck.

What set Bill Malen apart was his love of acting. He often boarded a steamboat playing the part of a settler, an immigrant, prospector, Indian agent, lumberjack, merchant. His ability to play close attention allowed him to be all shapes and conditions of human being—a one-man ship of fools.

Bill Malen disappeared when the Civil War began. Until a river pilot serving in the Ninth Army Corps in Virginia in March of 1865, just before the final advance on General Lee, came across a very intoxicated ambulance driver on his way to a review of troops. The pilot recognized Bill Malen disguised in a new role of mule driver. Bill was returning to camp, where, in his drunken state he would be an easy mark at the evening poker game with the boys.

For Bill Malen, it could not have been just the money. What mad river fates looked down on this world and toyed with such gifts: putting cards into Bill's hands rather than a volume of Shakespeare, and sending him out onto a deck instead of a stage, where he could have played both Falstaff and Prince Hal in the same play?

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