Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Walking around lucky.

“A man's gotta make at least one bet a day,
else he could be walking around lucky and never know it”

History is rife with dreamers and gamblers. Indeed, gambling and dreaming have always been deeply intertwined. With imagination the only limit, perhaps the dreaming is almost as addictive as the exhilaration of a win?

Recently a team of Australian academics have been investigating the power of these dreams, and the effect they had on a community in Harlem, New York in the 1930’s. Last week I attended a free public lecture at UWA in which Professor Shane White revealed some of the incredible stories they have been preserving in their Digital Harlem archive and blog.

Since the beginning of the 20th century Harlem has been a centre for African American culture – a vibrant business and residential hub with strong traditions of literature, film and music. In the time period between the world wars, a wild craze would hit this community and spread like a fever to every corner of Manhattan. The craze was ‘Numbers’ - a simple lottery game that would quickly create a complex industry.

Every day tens of thousands of people would place a bet on a three digit number. The way a daily random number was generated was truly ingenious – with figures selected each morning from statistics displayed at a local financial institution, the New York Clearing House. At this time, most African Americans were completely excluded from the US banking system, finding it difficult to open a bank account and almost impossible to get a loan.

In a twist of irony an institution that excluded African Americans would provide the basis for a brand new black-owned, black-run business. The Numbers game would soon generate tens of millions of dollars every year and become one of the community’s major employers. ‘Numbers men’ were also often able to give loans to those who had been denied them before.

As the Great Depression took its toll, the dreams of Harlem grew. At its height approximately half of Harlem’s population were betting regularly in this illegal lottery. With a 1 in 1000 chance of winning the odds were all too tempting and runners working on commission could earn $20-$40 per day taking bets. But the real winners were the bankers. The Kings and Queens of Harlem could make $10,000 a day – however if a popular set of numbers came up they stood the risk of having to pay out far more than the income generated from the days takings.

Each morning in Harlem there was a hum in the air before the numbers were announced at 10am. This was more than a lottery; it was a social event, a love affair with numbers that permeated the hearts and minds of Harlem residents. Your three lucky numbers could be extracted from any source; birthdays, the scripture number from a church sermon, the page number from a book. It was said that the luckiest number was the three digit shield number of policemen who had arrested your local runner the day before...

An entire industry sprang up based around dreaming. Many were convinced that their lucky numbers would appear to them in their sleep and ‘Dream Books’ were published to help people interpret the meaning of their dreams. Here you could find symbols, events and objects - all attributed with a three digit number.

Policy Pete's Dream Book (1933) thanks to the Digital Harlem Blog.

For bankers, a danger occurred when a large amount of people would pick the same lucky number. There was always a chance that this number could come up, and in 1931 this actually happened causing many major players to go bankrupt. With the end of prohibition (and huge profits from bootlegging) in sight, white gangsters took their chance to take over this lucrative black industry. Numbers continued however the golden days were over.

An ocean away, the Great Depression stirred the dreams of Western Australia too. Optimists here turned to the ‘four-legged lottery’ to lift their fortunes. On Saturday afternoons illegal bookmakers in suburban pubs and (for those in the know) barber shops would take bets. Like Harlem, it soon became a lucrative industry however took an early hit in 1931 when the Western Australian Government set up the Lotteries Commission as a direct competitor.

Today there are legal lotteries in both the US and Australia in which proceeds are sent back into communities. The way lotteries are run may have changed, but perhaps the dreams have stayed the same.

The University of Western Australia’s Institute of Advanced Studies regularly organise regular free public lectures with speakers from around the globe. It’s an incredible opportunity to get inside the mind of some inspiring thinkers and you can view upcoming lectures here.


  1. That made for a very interesting read Jo!



  2. Glad you enjoyed it Tony! UWA have some fantastic free talks. :-)

  3. G'day Jo... tripped over you a while ago via Celobella - love your site mate! Grew up in Gero mostly - worked all around the Mid West and much like you - left to discover what the world had in store - only to find much of it was so much closer to home then we first realised!

    You've just jogged a memory of a yarn my folks were spinning just recently - about Broome in the 1960's. Their numbers game at that time were ran by a Chinese gent who remained the successful 'lotto boss' for many, many years; simply because the system he had in place was apparently based around the notion of a daily riddle - with hints conceived in Chinese and then translated to English.

    He would provide people with a fixed number of hints and people would take a punt on the answers - twice a day I think - where the runners would bring the answers back to be collated.

    When his son took over - his son conceived the riddle and subsequent hints in English first and had to then translate them to Chinese (if that makes sense). His son struggled to maintain the 'kitty' simply because people like my father could work out the answers a hell of a lot easier as it was based in English first - rather than in concepts rooted in his fathers original Chinese origins. Sorta killed the game as a result and as far as I know, it went downhill from there.

    Some pretty amazing yarns up and down our coast and whilst some of them are relatively fresh (given our newish European and settled history) it's amazing how much is still around about our Aboriginal peoples and their country too. My mob come from up Cape Leveque way and that's a whole other story... ;-) Cheers mate!