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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Drunks, Gamblers, Thieves, and Other Pioneers


We easily get the impression that all our pioneer ancestors were hard-working, upstanding, church-going pillars of a proud community. That's because they were the ones who took the pictures, wrote the histories, and operated the libraries and museums where such records are kept. But in reality they shared the world with "such unpleasant sights as often greet the eye on a rainy day in frontier settlements - too much dram drinking, and an occasional stupid fellow taking a drunken snooze in the mud at the roadside."

Like any town on the edge of the wilderness, Madison attracted disreputable characters who could not survive in a more civilized society. One of these, remembered by many early settlers, was an eccentric drunk who went by the single name Pinneo. He came to town about 1837 when the first Capitol was being built, and with a partner set up a crude operation splitting shingles to cover the houses going up. According to an early settler he and his friend were "the kind of pioneers it necessarily takes to build up a new country. They were good workmen, and useful in their way, and when on a bender, they were the liveliest as well as the noisiest boys in the country."

When Pinneo's wits "had failed to provide the means of getting drunk, he would retire to his cabin, work steadily and quietly until a customer came for shingles, for which terms of payment were positive - cash down. When once in possession of money, there was no more work in Pinneo, who would, by a more direct route, reach town in time to get glorious long before the purchaser made his appearance with the shingles. After he had endured a week's drunk, his red face and bare breast shone in the sun with a peculiar brilliancy, and he was a sight as seen in the morning after a night's lodging under a tree, or under some outhouse shelter, as he shook himself and started for his morning potation at the nearest drinking house.

"He had not worn shoes for years, and in his drunken frolics he had acquired the habit of kicking out grubs and roots with his bare toes. This he was often induced to do for a drink, and many was the grub kicked out of King Street by Pinneo long before Nicholson pavement or the office of Street Commissioner was thought of. His feet looked, in shape and color, like mud turtles, and his toes resembled so many little turtle heads half drawn in, so bruised and battered were they by hard usage."

Pinneo was a permanent resident, but other disreputable characters arrived every autumn and centers of vice sprung up to cater to them. A bar and gambling house known as the "Tiger" was located on Pinckney Street, near the Capitol. A subsequent owner recalled that it "was said to have been a place where much money was won and lost at faro and other games during the sessions of the Legislature; an incident not remarkably creditable to our early legislators, although, perhaps, as much so as the incidents of some of the years since that time. It may be supposed that as the times and methods of living were then crude, the Legislature and legislators would partake of the same characteristics. I have the impression however, that those early bodies would compare quite favorably, both in talent and definite ideas with most of their successors."

"In those times," Madison's first historian noted, "when the Legislature assembled, it seemed to call together the worst elements of society. Faro banks, a thing called 'the Tiger,' and other gambling institutions, were said to exist, and to be run with great boldness, and in defiance of both moral and civil law, and many poor wights were said to be stripped of all the money they had. Bad whisky, in large quantities, was said to be consumed, much to the damage of the consumer. Lager beer had not then been inaugurated, but other vile drinks equally detrimental were said to be in common use."

Rev. Alfred Brunson, elected to the legislature in 1841, was disgusted to see that it operated under a "system which was afterwards known as the 'Forty Thieves,' who ruled the Territory and the State for years, on the principle 'to the victor belong the spoils.' Bad as this Legislature was in this and some other respects, the citizens of the place said it was a great improvement upon its predecessors. Whether this was a fact, or a mere compliment of flattery, I had no means of knowing. The next session, composed chiefly of the same men, was like unto the other."

[These quotes are from Daniel Durrie's 1874 History of Madison]


:: Posted in Madison on April 27, 2006

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