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Looking back to the 1949 Derby season gambling raid

May 05, 2022
The Brown Hotel Post Card

The Brown: officially a hotel; unofficially the largest of the illegal casinos in this area in the early 1900s.

Derby weekend. It starts with drinking, gambling and the usual good times, and ends with the hotel doors chained shut and the casino shut down for good.

Don’t worry — that scenario won’t play out here for Kentucky Derby weekend here in a few days at French Lick. But 73 years ago, something like that went down here in French Lick. Ten years before “The Day the Music Died,” it was “The Day Gambling Died” in French Lick.

Back in those days, it was the great paradox: gambling was technically illegal, but it’s why so many people came to visit French Lick and West Baden. It was the worst-kept secret in town. Places like The Brown, the Elite Club and The Gorge operated as legit businesses like hotels and supper clubs, all the while running underground gambling operations that proved to be far more lucrative.

And for decades, they got away with it. Mostly, anyway.

That was because the men who owned the hotels — Thomas Taggart at French Lick Springs Hotel, and Lee Sinclair at West Baden Springs Hotel — were influential politically and used their clout to help everyone look the other way when it came to illegal gambling. Taggart especially. His hotel was located directly across the street from The Brown, and every night, it was a common sight to see hotel guests dressed to the nines and flocking across the street to partake in the entertainment at The Brown.

The Brown Hotel

The Brown in its earlier days.

 Sinclair and Taggart also had the backing from the communities of French Lick and West Baden, who saw gambling as essential to the vitality of this Springs Valley area. Periodic casino raids did occur, including one decades earlier in 1906. That one did end casino operations in “the big” hotels — up until then, guests could gamble in French Lick and West Baden Springs Hotels themselves. But that shutdown only shifted the activity to those other secret (or not-so-secret) locations in town.

The gambling scene began to wane over the years, with the Great Depression and World War II. Then came the final blow to all the fun and games in 1949.

Casino chips from the former Brown Club.

Casino chips from the former Brown Club.

 James Vaughn’s “Dome in the Valley” book shares a passage from the Indianapolis Star on Derby Day, May 7, 1949:

“Governor Henry Schricker, who campaigned for ‘clean government’ in a trademark white hat, had sent Indiana State Police to close down the Springs Valley casinos the previous weekend (April 30-May 1).”

And, with a twist of irony, another news account noted where the governor would be spending Derby weekend:

“Governor Schricker, prior to his departure today to attend the Kentucky Derby, made it clear that the gambling casinos at French Lick are going to stay closed during this lucrative Derby weekend.”

old gambling items

Relics from the area's illegal casinos are on display at the French Lick West Baden Museum.

Interesting to note: local legend had held the gambling raid happened *on* Derby weekend. Back in the day, folks would come stay at French Lick Springs Hotel, take a train to Louisville on Saturday for Derby festivities, then return to French Lick to party it up the rest of the weekend. Tales have circulated about Derby-goers returning to The Brown and unable to get back to their hotel rooms because the doors were chained shut. Maybe those stories got embellished over the years; maybe there’s some truth to them if guests returned after a few hours surprised to find everything shut down.

Either way, history can’t repeat itself this time. Gaming is on the up-and-up these days at French Lick Casino, so no need to look over your shoulder when you visit here for some fun and games.

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