Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Fall/105i/Section 50/Ed Wells

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Overview[edit | edit source]

Ed Wells was the owner of an illegal gambling operation in Blank County, North Carolina throughout the early 1900s. He was interviewed by John H. Abner on May 10, 1939, as a part of the Federal Writers’ Project.[1]

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Although the exact date is unknown, Ed Wells was born in the early 1900s to a single mother in Blank County, North Carolina. When Wells was twelve, his mother opened a prostitution operation out of the family house. To protect him, Wells’ mother had him live with a different family across town. Despite being separated, Wells’ mother provided him with spending money that he used to skip school and gamble throughout his youth.[2]

Adult Life[edit | edit source]

When Wells was twenty, his mother died, and he turned to pool and rigged gambling to survive. Eventually, Wells saved enough money to buy an apartment and run an illegal poker operation out of one of the rooms. Early on, Wells took a small percentage of his customers’ winnings to cover expenses. Wells’ customers approved of the cuts as the percentage was lower than other operations around town, allowing Wells’ business to increase in popularity. The operation found immediate success, with Wells to earning over $1,000 per week during peak tobacco season. Due to a federal ban on gambling, Wells had to bribe corrupt local officials to avoid arrest. Although Wells prospered during the tobacco season, he often struggled to cover expenses during the off-season. Eventually, Wells got greedy, and, with the help of one of his employees, Dopey, began to rig games to make more money. As people caught on to Wells’ crooked practices, word began to spread around town, and his popularity and income dwindled. Following his economic troubles, Wells developed gambling and alcohol addictions, putting him in debt, and causing him to lose his car and face eviction. Wells’ date of death is unknown.[3]

Social Context[edit | edit source]

North Carolina Tobacco Industry During the Great Depression[edit | edit source]

Much of the economic hardship experienced by North Carolina tobacco farmers during the Great Depression originated in the 1920s.[4] Unlike the economic prosperity experienced in urban centers throughout the 1920s, overproduction of the tobacco crop, lack of farmland conservation practices, and increased production costs forced rural tobacco farmers into debt.[5] Tobacco farmers were put into greater financial hardship following the stock market crash of 1929, often struggling to provide their families with necessities.[6] Many tobacco farmers had to foreclose on their farms as rural communities experienced increased debt.[7] According to Christina Whitfield, “very few depression-era farmers could rely on the proceeds of tobacco alone,” forcing families to “[divide] their energies between work on the cash crop, substance work, and waged labor.”[8]

As rural tobacco communities suffered, the federal government intervened, passing the New Deal in 1933.[9] The North Carolina tobacco industry primarily benefited from the New Deal’s creation of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA).[10] The AAA limited the quantity of tobacco each farmer planted, in turn increasing tobacco prices across North Carolina.[11] Although eventually deemed unconstitutional, the AAA program was replaced by the Farm-Relief Act, which utilized government subsidies and had a similar impact.[12] Additionally, the federal government introduced the Farm Security Administration in 1937, which assisted farmers in obtaining low-interest loans to invest in their farms.[13] To promote sustained economic prosperity, the federal government implemented the Soil Conservation Service, which educated tobacco farmers on erosion reduction techniques, with North Carolina being the first state in the U.S. to establish a Soil Conservation District.[14]

North Carolina Gambling Laws[edit | edit source]

Gambling was made illegal in North Carolina in 1764, following the criminalization of winning more than five shillings per day in games of chance.[15] Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, North Carolina passed further legislation banning public gaming tables, lotteries, and card games for money in public taverns.[16] In the 1930’s North Carolina outlawed the use of the newly developed slot machines.[17] Early legislators felt that gambling encouraged criminal activity and undermined the value of hard work.[18] North Carolina legislators carried on this sentiment throughout much of the 20th century.[19] Despite being made illegal, Ruth Homrighaus writes that “gambling [continued] to flourish in...illegitimate forms.”[20] With little state or federal regulation on the gambling operations themselves, corruption ran rampant throughout the industry.[21] Often, gambling operation owners who bribed local officials were able to continue their business.[22] Despite legalization efforts from other states, North Carolina continues to maintain some of the most restrictive gambling laws in the United States.[23]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Abner and Massengill, “A Gambler's Philosophy,” 1.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., 2-22.
  4. Bishop, “Agriculture in North Carolina during the Great Depression.”
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Morain, “The Great Depression Hits Farms and Cities in the 1930s.”
  8. Whitfield, “No Time to Play: Tobacco-Growing Families and the Great Depression,” 68.
  9. Bishop, “Agriculture in North Carolina during the Great Depression.”
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Homrighaus, “Gambling.”
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Abner and Massengill, “A Gambler's Philosophy,” 12.
  22. Ibid., 8-9.
  23. Jensen, “Is It Time to Relax the Gambling Laws in North Carolina?”

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

Abner, John. “A Gambler's Philosophy.” Edited by Edwin Massengill. The Federal Writers' Project, 1939.

Bishop, RoAnn. “Agriculture in North Carolina during the Great Depression.” NCpedia, 2010. https://www.ncpedia.org/agriculture/great-depression.

Homrighaus, Ruth. “Gambling.” NCpedia, 2006. https://www.ncpedia.org/gambling.

Morain, Tom. “The Great Depression Hits Farms and Cities in the 1930s.” Iowa PBS, February 12, 2018. http://www.iowapbs.org/iowapathways/mypath/great-depression-hits-farms-and-cities-1930s.

Jensen, Scott. “Is It Time to Relax the Gambling Laws in North Carolina?” Charlotte Stories, May 24, 2019. https://www.charlottestories.com/is-it-time-to-relax-the-gambling-laws-in-north-carolina/.

Whitfield, Christina. “No Time to Play: Tobacco-Growing Families and the Great Depression.” ProQuest, 1999.