By Diane Euston
The Hannibal Bridge, spanning the Missouri River in 1869, brought more than just the railroad to Kansas City. It put the city on the map, and capitalists, businessmen and cattlemen flooded the area to set up businesses. The population of Kansas City exploded from just over 32,000 people in 1870 to nearly 56,000 ten years later.
In those days, some men made their living with a set of cards and chips. They operated under their own set of laws and retired from their transient lives on steamboats to set up shop in Kansas City. On Main Street, between 2nd Street and Missouri Avenue in a section of “Old Town,” gambling establishments quickly crowded these city blocks.
Men from the pages of history books, including Frank and Jesse James, Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickock and Doc Holiday, were known to venture to this section of the city. In these early days, cattlemen from all over the country could come to Kansas City and spend yearly earnings in one exciting weekend in a gambling house.
One of the best-known card dealers during this time period was a man named Bob Potee, and his story, oftentimes repeated long after his death, has been partially fictionalized. This handsome dealer came to Kansas City to make a fortune but met a tragic end.
Robert Potee, the Plasterer
Although most accounts put Bob Potee’s nativity from wealthy Virginia stock, the infamous gambler came from humble beginnings. Born in the early 1830s in Cincinnati, Ohio, Bob was one of ten children. His father, Peter (1809-1872), was reared in Baltimore, Md. and was trained by his father to be a plasterer. They lived in Cincinnati in a modest but comfortable home.
Bob followed in his father’s footsteps in his early years, but when his mother died in 1845, his father was inconsolable and lost control of his life. Peter was arrested for vagrancy in 1846 and was sent to jail “on bread and water.” In 1849, his father was arrested again for “wandering about by night and day, without visible means of gaining a livelihood.”
To no surprise, Bob also turned to the streets as a teenager. He was arrested for breaking and entering as well as stealing bank bills.
In August 1852, Bob married Emily Lemmon and started a family. He worked as a plasterer, but he had his eyes set on a different lifestyle that would benefit him financially. He turned to gambling, and it turned out he was pretty good at it.
An unidentified Kansas City gambler recalled in 1899 that Bob was an “educated, fine-looking fellow and as square a man ever to be.” He recollected that Bob took to the river when he learned to play poker, and he became known up and down the Mississippi River from St. Louis to New Orleans.
The truth was that Bob got his start further north on the Mississippi River in Dubuque, Iowa. Around 1857, Bob relocated his family to the river town. Although it isn’t clear when he picked up the cards, his lifestyle in Dubuque indicates he was living well-beyond what a plasterer would have afforded. He lived in a large house known for its beautiful yard full of flowers and mingled with the upper-class of the town.
It’s likely that by this time, Bob found his fortune traveling up and down the river as a card dealer. Unfortunately, his wife passed away in Dubuque, leaving him with six children.
Bob didn’t stay single for long. He quickly married Cornelia Rice (1836-1910), an assistant principal of a school in Cincinnati. Cornelia wasn’t fond of the traveling dealer’s lifestyle, so Bob promised her that he would soon quit gambling. The couple moved to St. Louis where she raised his children as he continued, promises broken, to make his living moving town-to-town as a card dealer. Around 1870, Bob followed some of his transient gambling friends to Kansas City.
Battle Row: Blocks of Gambling Houses
As Kansas City’s population drastically increased, so did the lawlessness of the town. Starting in the early 1870s, the city was quickly being overrun by gambling houses. To ensure the safety of the growing city, gambling houses were confined to Main Street from 2nd St. to Missouri Ave. Because of the continuous gun battles and lawlessness of the area, Main St. became known as “Battle Row.” Ironically, the police station and City Hall were located across the street from these establishments.
Some of Kansas City’s most infamous gambling halls included the Senate Pool Hall at 5th and Main. It was a resort for hundreds of cattle and river men. Politicians also frequented the barroom where many political meetings were held in front of a poker table.
Marble Hall at 522 Main St. near the City Market started as a billiards hall in 1866, but by 1872, it was one of the largest gambling houses in the city. Despite protests, it was open even on Sundays, and on the wall entering the establishment was “a voluptuous female figure in a state of nudity.” Marble Hall was a favorite of the James Brothers and Wild Bill Hickock. It was owned by Joe Bassett.
Usually, the gambling houses were on the second floor with a saloon on the first floor. A dummy waiter would be used to run cocktails to the space above.
Although poker was commonly played, the most common games in the 1870s and 1880s were roulette and a card game called Faro. Faro, a “gentleman’s game,” was truly a game of luck. The game consisted of a dealer, a “lookout” that sat in a high chair and watched the plays and a “case keeper” who kept track of the cards. The dealers worked shifts of eight to 12 hours and were paid $10 a shift plus a percentage of the earnings. Other less important gambling halls engaged in playing keno.
When Bob sauntered into the city, he was in the company of some of his old friends from his riverboat days. An expert dealer like Bob “never lacked a job in those days.” Bob quickly opened an operation above Strein’s restaurant and saloon at 3 Missouri Ave. Quickly, locals began calling it “King Faro Number Three” or “Number Three.”
Bob brought class to gambling in Kansas City. Number Three was known for its lavish furnishings, velvet carpets, large windows covered with lace curtains tied back with brass cornices, mahogany tables, large, overstuffed chairs and crystal chandeliers.
Gambling in this era was a respectable profession, and the men engaged in the business always dressed to the nines. Bob always wore a long-tailed coat, a tall hat made of silk and carried a gold-headed cane. He was “a very fine looking, gentlemanly, and intelligent man.”
Bob left his family in St. Louis to make his fortune here.
The Dutchman’s Con
One day, an old Dutchman from Cincinnati sauntered into Number Three. The old man played all night long and until noon the next day. His successes led to $4,000 being tucked away in his jeans.
The Dutchman grew tired of gambling in the morning and asked the handsome dealer, Bob Potee, if he was up for a bet. “I’ll bet you a thousand I can shut one eye and look at the sun longer’n you can,” the Dutchman proclaimed.
Bob looked at him curiously and then agreed to go outside with the man. The Kansas City Star wrote, “Both of em’ shut up a peeper and began to stare” into the sun.
Three minutes crept by, and Bob started tearing up. He professed he couldn’t handle staring too much longer. Shockingly, the Dutchman stared up into the sun with no reaction.
A friend of Bob’s “began to get crafty and suspicious, and sneaking up beside Dutchy, he poked his finger right square into his blooming blue eye.” It turned out the Dutchman had a glass eye!
Bob claimed the thousand dollars, and witnesses agreed that he had earned it.
Battle Row was rarely a dull place to be, and sometimes losses at the table resulted in guns being drawn. One story shared far and wide about Bob involved an unnamed gambler who, while playing Faro at Number Three accused Bob of swindling him.
Bob was especially proud of his reputation as being an honest man, so an accusation of being a cheat by a drunk stranger was unheard of. Bob calmly left his hands on the table when the stranger jumped to his feet and pointed a Colt .45 square at his face.
The stranger demanded he spread the cards out so he could prove he was cheated. Bob refused, stating calmly, “Sir, cheating is a word never used in the same sentence with my name.”
In a flash, two shots were fired inside Number Three. One hit a lamp and the other met the stranger; he laid dead on the floor. Bob’s hands never left the table. As the stranger was carried off, Bob calmly announced, “New hand being dealt.”
Another incident at Number Three was documented at the time in the newspaper. Gambling halls, including Number Three, were open 24 hours. Bob and his partner, Mr. Bishop, took turns working as dealers. Bob worked the morning shift and was relieved by Mr. Bishop in the evening. An out-of-towner named Bill Knowlen had quickly developed a reputation as someone who quarreled with others.
Knowlen complained openly that he believed Bob had cheated him, and because Bob “was an exceptionally honorable and punctilious gambler,” he sought out Knowlen to confront him.
About 10 in the morning on July 15, 1872, Bob ran into Knowlen on the street and asked him to come upstairs to Number Three so they could talk it out. Bob called him a liar and drew a Remington pistol; he claimed later he was going to just strike him in the head with the butt of the gun. A quick scuffle had the gun in Bob’s hand discharge accidentally into the ceiling.
Knowlen rushed from the building and yelled that he “would come back shooting.” About 45 minutes later, he was true to his word when he arrived with a six-shooter in his hands.
Bishop tried to block the man from entering Number Three. During the commotion, Bob was able to rush down the stairs and outside. Knowlen ran to the window with his gun and shot Bob in the right arm. Bob quickly turned around and shot up at Knowlen. Knowlen was hit directly in the stomach.
Within 20 minutes, Knowlen was dead and Bob had surrendered to the police. Despite his injury, Bob was thrown in jail. The police determined Bob shot in self-defense and he was released the next day.
Evidence presented to the grand jury suggested that the bullet that killed Knowlen couldn’t have been fired from Bob and came from an unknown location; regardless, Bob became known as “killing a man” and likely welcomed that reputation in his chosen field of work.
The End of Bob Potee
Bob’s second wife, Cornelia filed for divorce yet continued to raise his children in St. Louis. Bob quickly remarried in 1880 while continuing operations at Number Three.
The gambling laws were getting tighter in Kansas City, Mo., and by 1881, gambling was illegal. This halted much of the operations and hindered the livelihood of men such as Bob Potee. Most of these men moved their operations to the Kansas City, Kan. side, as gambling had yet to be outlawed.
While visiting his wife Laura in Atchison, Bob complained of “trouble in his head.” On July 9, 1883, he returned to the city and was walking with a friend in West Kansas. Bob inquired whether suicide would still pay out a life insurance policy. The friend brushed him off, but then Bob quietly told him that if anything were to happen to him, Joe Bassett – the card dealer who once owned Marble Hall and was a competitor– should be called. “Tell Joe Bassett to give me a decent burial,” he said as he continued down the street.
Within a few hours, his friends in West Kansas were missing him at the gambling houses.
Bob, dressed in his finest clothes, calmly walked to a mill near the Kansas River and sat on top of a lumber pile. Around noon, he removed his coat and vest and gently placed them on the edge of the water.
Dressed still in his stovepipe hat and with his gold-headed cane, Bob walked into the water and disappeared.
His body was recovered hours later.
When his wife received the news that her husband was dead, her pet mockingbird which was “very much attached to Mr. Potee” had the same reaction she did. The “little fellow screeched as if in pain, so loud it could be heard a block away.”
The bird accompanied her to Kansas City and kept flying about the house, room-to-room. The day after Bob died, the bird fell over dead. His wife had the little bird stuffed.
His funeral took place in Kansas City, and his body was escorted by Joe Bassett across the state to Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis. Accompanying the body was the stuffed mockingbird. The mockingbird was mounted on an artificial tree above his grave, “where it will remain silent and sentinel over the dead.”
Revisiting Battle Row Today
This story of Bob Potee is just one example of how so many characters – often forgotten – called Kansas City their home. Bob’s brief stay in the city encapsulated a time in our history where gamblers, prostitution and barroom operations openly carried on in a small stretch of Old Town.
Today, it’s hard to imagine this activity as all of these locations have been destroyed. As the city grew, so many landmarks were taken down. Number 3, the infamous gambler’s paradise operated by Bob Potee, was razed along with 125 other historic buildings in 1953. In its place is today’s 1-35 and the ramp to the Heart of America Bridge and 9 Highway.
But in Old Town on Battle Row – in the section of the city that is coveted today- once stood dozens of crowded gambling houses. These “knights of fortune” like Bob Potee operated with their honor and reputation on their sleeves. Battle Row was Bob’s playground, and its demise as the city grew was too much for him to handle.
As one old-time gambler explained, “Bob’s word was as good as a bank.”
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com