At the onset of his retelling of “The Killing of Bill The Butcher,” (The Gangs of New York, Chapter V, Section 1) Herbert Asbury paints an accurate picture of the proliferation of gambling dens and gamblers in Manhattan, circa 1850s-1860s. As Asbury notes, the extent of these gambling operations was laid out in a report made at a public meeting by Jonathan Harrington Green, executive agent for the New York Association for the Suppression of Gambling. By Green’s count (in 1851), there were over 6000 gaming establishments in the city, which flourished thanks to payoffs made by the owners to ward politicians. Asbury merely mentions that Green was a reformed gambler, and says nothing else about the man. Green, it happens, was an extremely interesting man.
Jonathan Harrington Green included autobiographical episodes in several of the books he wrote, most notably 1847’s Gambling Unmasked!; or the Personal Experience of J. H. Green and Twelve Days in the Tombs, or a Sketch of the Past Eight Years. In these he describes his early life as an apprentice, and his path toward becoming a professional gambler, starting when he was arrested for guiding a stranger to a den where the stranger was victimized by a con man running the shell game. He went on to become one of the most infamous Mississippi Riverboat gamblers of the century between 1832 and 1842.
Green revealed the cheats used by professional gamblers in a series of books, including An Exposure of the Arts and Miseries of Gambling and Gambler’s tricks with cards, exposed and explained, and also Gambling in its infancy and progress. Green remains a primary source on the history of poker in America, as well as for the sleight-of-hand deceptions perfected by early gamblers.
Green’s writings make it clear that–after his reform epiphany in 1842–he viewed gambling itself as a vice, whether the games were played with or without cheating. He asserted that gambling only led to guilt and ruin, yet he appeared to have no animosity towards the games themselves, and continued to write about their history, mechanics, and strategies.
Green’s anti-gambling advocacy and books likely garnered him some income during the 1840s, but he needed a different field of endeavor to conquer. He ventured into the business of textile materials, taking an interest in the relatively new rubber industry. Green opened a rubber manufacturing factory in Trenton, New Jersey in 1850, but it failed two years later. (This was just about the same period when the Goodyear Brothers were starting to make a success in the same industry.)
Rubber was the focus of over twenty patents that Green filed over the next thirty years: Rubber coatings, rubberized fabric, painted rubber, a process to remove paint from rubber, rubber billiard cue tips, etc. He moved from New Jersey, to Indiana, Kentucky, Iowa, and Philadelphia. Along the way he enlisted in the Union Army in 1861, serving as a Captain for an Indiana infantry unit. He lost his first wife in 1863, and immediately remarried. With his second wife, he started a new family of seven children, all born after he was 50 years old.
Several biographies mention that (in the late 1850s) Green briefly worked for the U. S. Secret Service; however, that office was not established until long after Green’s experience, which was as an agent hired by the solicitor of the United States Treasury Department. In that capacity, Green was supposed to help root out counterfeiters. However, one of the men he suspected turned the tables and had Green arrested in New York City for possession of fake bills, which caused Green to spend time in jail before it was sorted out.
Green spent his last two decades in relative poverty. He had several legal entanglements, which revolved around his efforts to entice investors to provide him capital to pursue his inventions. In effect, he sought out others to gamble on his ideas–and frequently disappointed them, leading to accusations that he had misrepresented the risks.
Green became ill in Philadelphia in 1887, still responsible for many children who could not yet care for themselves. His second wife, Cinderella Chisman, had died in 1884. Most biographies assert that Green died in 1887 in Philadelphia, but he did not.
Following one of his oldest daughters, now married, to Dayton, Ohio, he entered a convalescent home for Union soldiers. He stayed there two years, and then took one last gamble: he signed himself out of the hospital on Christmas Eve, 1889. He likely spent his last year with daughter Margaret Heather Walker (later Sallume) before his death in November 1890 in Indiana. Margaret became a successful writer herself, but claimed no credit; she stated that a spirit came to her and dictated the poems and fiction she put to pen.