Palm Beach Icon: E. R. Bradley — Part I

Featured image
Who better to chronicle the saintly life of E. R. Bradley, one of Palm Beach’s sacred icons, than sports writer and novelist Paul Gallico, the author of The Poseidon Adventure? Image Chronicling America, Detroit Free Press, January 20, 1946.

Edward Riley “E. R.” Bradley earned a considerable bankroll traveling from mining camps to border towns to Chicago’s underworld with the same deck of cards, pair of dice, and roulette wheel that brought him to Palm Beach in 1898. More than a century later, Bradley, and his younger brother John Roger “Jack” Bradley to some extent, are still revered, their lives as saloon gamblers and racetrack bookmakers eclipsed by their renown as legendary philanthropists, racehorse owners and millionaire entrepreneurs. Along with their presence in Palm Beach’s social pantheon, they remain admired for operating what is believed to be the longest running illegal gambling casino in the United States.

A previous New York Social Diary feature High Rollers: Gambling on Palm Beach focused primarily on E. R. and Jack’s escapades at Palm Beach. While gaps in their chronicle still exist, additional first-hand accounts now provide a closer look at actual happenings rather than the retelling of anecdotes. In as much as Jack Bradley eventually settled in Colorado and New York, becoming a celebrated world traveler and big game hunter, it was E. R. who was the Bradley family’s front man and figurehead in Florida and Kentucky. Even so, notwithstanding the subject of countless publicized stories, unearthing E. R. Bradley’s actual past proved challenging, as he remains today as much an enigma as when he first opened the Beach Club.

In an interview for the Historical Society of Palm Beach County on March 30, 1962, Thomas S. Bohne, E. R. Bradley’s private secretary from 1926 until 1946, recalled, “He loved to gamble, so as long as he loved to gamble, he would be on the right side of the table. He opened up in the Southwest. He went around following the carnivals. He went from town to town down to Guadalupe for the fiestas. They were always on the road because the Army chased them out.”

“Saint Edward of Lexington.” TIME magazine story on E. R. Bradley, May 7, 1934. “I’d gamble on anything.”

The making of a legend

Upon E. R. Bradley’s death, The Palm Beach Post described him in 1946 as having “an ample fortune made in real estate and investments … a nationally-known capitalist, sportsman and philanthropist.” At the time, Bradley owned The Palm Beach Post, Post-Times and Palm Beach Daily News.

“During the summer of 1946 I was with my family at the King’s Inn in Highlands, North Carolina, when someone knocked on the door and told my father there was a phone call for him. In those days, you had to go down to the lobby to take the call. When he got back to the room, he told us E. R. Bradley died,” recalled lifelong Palm Beach resident David Reese, whose father Claude Dimick Reese was Bradley’s godson.

“I remember there was a long moment of silence, as if the world had stopped,” recalled Reese, whose grandfather Thomas Tipton “Tip” Reese who worked for the Bradleys at the same time he was Henry Flagler’s railway agent in West Palm Beach, and later, would become Paris Singer’s first treasurer of the Everglades Club. How Tip Reese worked for the resort’s most powerful men, who historians once perceived as conflicting personalities, illustrates the incongruities that make Palm Beach’s history much more dimensional than photo ops and golf scores.

Considering the Bradleys’ role in turning Palm Beach into an international resort destination, “The Monte Carlo of America,” their social climb merits particular consideration, a whirlwind ascent from a western Pennsylvania steel mill to Wild West railroad towns, El Paso’s “Sin City,” and Chicago’s bookie joints and racetracks, before reaching the Kentucky Derby’s Run for the Roses and Palm Beach’s fabled El Dorado.

Numerous published reports loosely recount Ed and Jack Bradley’s odyssey before they opened the Bacchus Club in St. Augustine, sharpening their skills in wolf dens and tiger alleys. If all, or some part, of these reports are factual, the Bradleys then parleyed their winnings into an organized gambling conglomerate throughout the Southwest and Midwest.

On Chicago’s Clark Street, the Bradley setup was part of the syndicate of gamblers commanded by “Boss” James Condon, according to the Chicago Tribune. Contrary to local historians, it was Condon who sent the Bradleys, along with E. R.’s longtime dealer, Mose Cossman, to open the Bacchus Club in St. Augustine, not a doctor prescribing the Florida climate for E. R.’s health. During this period, E. R.’s name did not appear on the sports pages. Instead, it was mentioned by Chicago’s daily newspapers when they published accounts on the inner workings of the city’s gambling syndicate.

Most of the past more than seven decades of Bradley memoirs present the same blurred juggle, having left the first nearly four decades of E. R.’s life an episodic puzzle. Most often the subject for sports writers, foggier aspects of their storybook past have been overlooked. Did E. R. leave Johnstown in 1874 or 1880? Where and when was he in Arizona? Were they ever in Arizona? Were they in New Mexico at the same time they were in Texas? Were the brothers really all-in for their early ventures or players with a piece of the game, partners fronting a greater syndicate? How did square gamblers, albeit well-dressed with good taste, achieve great wealth with a safe full of IOUs?

“He loved Palm Beach. He said because it gave him his pleasure, his horse farm, and his livelihood, he could raise all his tables.” Thomas S. Bohne, March 30, 1962.

Historical footnotes

I assumed “The Life and Career of Edward R. Bradley,” written as a master’s thesis in 1992, would answer and document most of E. R. and Jack’s untold aspects. Alas, the 98-page chronicle on “one of the two most influential men in the history of Palm Beach” provided more of an introductory outline, considering it was based mostly on available pre-digital research materials. Thus, the author concludes, “Despite his fame, Bradley was a private man … there is much we will never know about the life and career of E. R. Bradley.”

The author also warns the reader he was unable to verify certain biographical aspects, utilizing “drifted westward …” “drifted on …” or “drifted from” to move the narrative. Indeed, E. R.’s stint as a Pony Express rider or an Indian scout may have been fabrications or exaggerations. For me, unfortunately, the author also relied on secondary sources now contradicted by today’s more verifiable 19th-century records.

Published in 1911, Serving the Republic, Memoirs of Civil War Life and the Military Life of Nelson A. Miles, a matter-of-fact autobiographical account, is available online at Google Books. After perusing Miles’ fascinating narrative, I failed to connect Miles account with Bradley’s timeline, thou sometimes geographically close. But, then again …

The thesis timetable has Bradley hopscotching from Pennsylvania to St. Louis to Arizona to Silver City, New Mexico, where the author claimed Bradley made his first fortune. From there, he moved to Kingston, 50 miles east of Silver City, having developed expertise as a faro dealer. Known for his sense of class and fair play, E. R. was said to be joined in Kingston by his younger brother Jack. By then, Jack Bradley was supposedly already an accomplished gambler, albeit he would have been age 17 at the time. Having absorbed this sequence of events, I began to find a range of discrepancies with the established timetable.

In another biographical account, written years before the masters thesis, an author detailed a quixotic tale of Bradley’s formative years. “What is known is that at age 14, Edward Bradley was working as a roller in a Johnstown steel mill before heading for Texas in 1874 to work on a ranch. During the Wild West era, he traveled about, working as a cowboy, a scout for General Nelson Appleton Miles during the Indian War campaigns, and was a friend of Wyatt Earp’s.”

Yet another author declared that in 1882 Ed left his brother Jack to run things in Kingston while he went to “Hell Paso,” 130 miles to the south, to set up a gambling club. Another Bradley biographer maintained it was late 1884, not 1882, when both brothers left Kingston for El Paso, bought the Cactus Club, renaming it the Bacchus Club.

In October 1907, bartender and saloon owner Theo Eggers told the El Paso Herald that “John Bradley and his brother Ed Bradley came to El Paso and opened the Bacchus Club on Christmas Eve 1886.”

Thus, what I anticipated would be an undemanding article resulted in weeks of panning for established facts about the elusive Bradleys. After all, at the time gambling was an honored profession. I realized it was going to be much like my earlier search for “Who was Chris Dunphy?” A question even Sports Illustrated never definitively answered.

Nonetheless, I trudged through chronicles and interviews about gamblers and gunfighters in New Mexico’s late 19th-century silver mining camps. As well, interacting with archivists and curators who maintained accessible contemporaneous records about Who’s Who in 1880.

Did E. R. Bradley really make his first fortune in Silver City, New Mexico?

New Mexico & Texas

Fortunately, the Silver City Museum and Library has an archive documenting the area’s 19th century history. “There are no accessible resources confirming that either Edward R. Bradley or his brother John R. Bradley ever lived or gambled in Silver City. They did live in Kingston, 50 miles east of Silver City. They did run a gambling house there, not necessarily owned it, for about two years before moving to El Paso,” said Ashley Smith, the museum’s registrar and collections manager. “They probably came to Silver City periodically for supplies, as this was the largest nearby town,” Smith added.

Ken Dayer, the director of Silver City’s library and museum, is familiar with the Bradley brothers’ presence in New Mexico and added, “From available records it appears the Bradley brothers started out in Kingston as miners, quit that, and started gambling under the tutelage of Lottie Deno, in Kingston,” said Dayer.  Lottie Deno is the subject of Cynthia Rose’s book Lottie Deno: Gambling’s Queen of Hearts and the Legends of America website. The gambling house was most likely owned by Deno and her husband Frank Thurmond who owned several establishments in Kingston, and later, in Deming.

Concerning the Bradleys in Silver City as documented by Cunningham’s thesis, “There is no definitive citation for this source in Robert K. De Arment’s book,” according to Dayer. “It might probably have come from the book Beyond the Mississippi by Albert D. Richardson. But, at the point when Richardson mentions Silver City, he is talking about someone else other than Bradley.”

Dayer also points to timely issues of the Silver City Enterprise newspaper. When John Bradley’s patronage of the Cook expedition to the North Pole became international news, the Silver City newspaper reported on September 10, 1909, “J. R. Bradley got his start in Lake Valley in the early 1880s working in a gambling house. He is well remembered by old-time Silver City people, having made frequent trips here during his residence at Lake Valley. Bradley ran a roulette wheel and dealt a faro game in Lake Valley for several years.”


Founded in 1882 and described as “one of the wildest towns in the Wild West,” Kingston was built around the discovery of the Solitaire Mine’s silver ore lode. The town provided all the necessary essentials, such as hotels, saloons, brothels, and gambling halls. Today, Kingston is a ghost town. Courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives, New Mexico History Museum, Santa Fe.

House of Cards

Whether E.R. and Jack moved to El Paso in 1882, 1884, or 1888, Joseph Longo, the El Paso County Historical Society’s curator and archive committee chairman, said, “It is unlikely the Bradleys moved before 1888, as an El Paso Times (May 31, 1905) reported Bradley acquired the site, a former cigar factory, at 107 San Antonio Street in 1888 and opened the Bacchus Club, first spelled Baccus. Reportedly, E. R. controlled the bankroll; Jack supervised the tables.


El Paso Directory, 1888-1889.

E. R. Bradley and the Bacchus Club do not appear in the El Paso Directory until 1888; John R. Bradley is from recorded in El Paso in 1889. The directory lists E.R. as living in a rooming house at 601 N. Oregon Street about six blocks from San Antonio Street. Along with E.R. and Jack, Del Butterworth and Michael “Frank” McLean are listed as co-owners of the Bacchus Club. Butterworth and McLean operated the ground floor saloon and gaming tables; Bradley ran the upstairs gaming rooms. As in most saloons and clubs, the Bacchus offered roulette, faro, hazard, poker, and three-card monte tables. Both Bradleys were regarded as “crack shots with pistol or rifle” as well as “intolerant of shabbily dressed men.”

The Bradleys’ partner Frank McLean was a lawman and well-known gambler, the subject of Almost Famous a 2017 True West magazine feature by Jack DeMattos that detailed McLean’s illustrious life. McLean is pictured below, seated to the left of Wyatt Earp, in one of the period’s most famous photographs. Both Masterson and Earp were faro dealers.


Dodge City Peace Commission, June 10, 1883. From left to right, standing: William H. Harris, Luke Short, Bat Masterson, William F. Petillon; seated: Charlie Bassett, Wyatt Earp, Michael Francis “Frank” McLean and Cornelius “Neil” Brown. Charles A. Conkling, photographer.

One of the highlights of El Paso’s Fourth of July celebration was a horse race. In July 1888, a trotter named Nellie B owned by E. R. and Jack entered and ran first, making for one of the first of many Bradley winners. Nellie B won $60. By then, both brothers were beginning to acquire a stable of horses, some bought in Mexico, as race tracks were becoming part of the widening gambling profession.


In 1909, after Jack Bradley received international renown for financing Frederick Cook’s controversial expedition to the North Pole, the El Paso Times published an account of Bradley’s success as a gambler. “John Bradley was a gambler from the crown of his head to the soles of his feet. He acquired his nerve for poker on Mississippi River steamers playing with rich planters and sharpies … John was restless and roving, took frequent vacations, and was the Beau Brummel of El Paso.” The article described both brothers as “cold-blooded gamblers.” El Paso Times, September 19, 1909.

Adios El Paso

In 1890, E. R. left Jack in charge of the Bacchus and went to Ogden, Utah, to “open a place,” according to the El Paso Times. The following year, the Bacchus Club was sold to Si “Three Fingers” Ryan, who previously operated the Cardiff Joint, a smaller gambling hall in Overland. When the Bradleys departed El Paso, Bacchus bartender Theo Eggers partnered with Frank McLean to run the Wigwam, also located on San Antonio Street. Ryan renamed the Bacchus Club, calling it the Astor House Saloon & Gambling Emporium. The Astor House closed in 1905.

Jack Bradley shipped their growing stable of horses to Ogden. Al Whitney and George Turner went with the Bradleys to Ogden. Turner was E. R.’s lifelong friend from Johnstown. The two teenage adventurers had pooled their resources almost 15 years earlier, and were now, reportedly with a six-figure bankroll moving on to another chapter of their lives. When E. R. Bradley died in 1946 and his will was published, his first named heir was George Turner.

By the time the Bradleys left El Paso the town had grown into a metropolis of more than 2,000 residents. Saloons, brothels and open gambling halls existed all over the city, particularly on San Antonio Street. In recalling the border town’s past, Trish Long wrote in the El Paso Times, “For 14 years, from 1889 until 1903, a great political and moral division centered around gambling and prostitution.” El Paso was home to 96 saloons and more than 600 professional gamblers.

Just as I thought the Bradleys’ next stops were Memphis and Chicago, the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram in 1909 places them in Ft. Worth during 1893 and 1894.


“Back in 1893 and 1894 … Johnnie Bradley, as he was known to a wide circle of friends here, was famed for his diamonds and for the elegance of his dress. His disposition made him known and liked … Bradley was a gambler in those days and a successful one too. El Paso was home for him, but he spent half his time in Ft. Worth where his profession thrived in the big resorts. He drifted in for three or four weeks … invariably bedecked in really big diamonds. His brother Ed was described as “out to make money and save it, reported to be very wealthy.” Fort Worth’s city detectives described John Bradley as “high-class with sportsman like qualities of the highest order.” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 1909.

Between the last published report of the Bradleys in Utah until they resettled in Chicago at the during the early 1890s, in time for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, they must have accumulated incalculable frequent traveler miles. They were reported to have been bookmakers in Hot Springs, Louisville, Memphis, French Lick, and New Orleans.


Before moving to the Hotel Del Prado in 1900, E. R. Bradley stayed at the Ontario Hotel on Chicago’s North State Street. Chicago Tribune, 1895.

Articles placed Jack Bradley in Little Rock with Dan A. Stuart, said to be the richest gambler in Texas and owner of the Southern Club in Hot Springs as well as other bookmaking ventures. Then, Bradley and Stuart went on to Saratoga to meet with Richard Canfield who had taken over the Saratoga Club House’s gambling operation in 1884 from John Morrissey,renaming it Canfield’s Casino. As racetracks reaped considerable revenue from leasing space to on-premises bookmakers, conflicts arose with off-premises bookies. Dan Stuart was one of them, owning a poolroom on Saratoga’ East Avenue.

During the next several stages of their lives, E. R. and Jack were associated with a fraternity of Runyonesque characters. “Boss” Condon, Dan Stuart and Joe “Circular” Vendig were major players in the nation’s gambling syndicates, and like the Bradleys, began refocusing their gaming interests away from pool halls, saloon backrooms, and gambling houses. Instead, they focused on prizefighting, breeding thoroughbred horses and owning racetracks.  E.R. remained based in Chicago; Jack would encamp to New York.


“Boss” James Condon. With racetracks a growing enterprise, Boss Condon’s interests were “larger than any other one man in the country,” according to the Chicago Tribune. Image Chicago Tribune.

And then, in March 1893, Chicago’s Inter-Ocean newspaper reported “… the Condon clique broke in to the South …” The Bacchus Club opened in St. Augustine, across the street from Henry Flagler’s Ponce de Leon Hotel.

E.R. and Jack Bradley were heading to Florida.

Next:

Palm Beach Icon: E. R. Bradley – Part II
Chicago-St. Augustine-Palm Beach-Lexington

“John Sanford was probably Mr. Bradley’s best friend. He was very fond of old John and E. R. knew everyone in Palm Beach. The wealthy and social people … but he never associated with them because he felt there might come a time when they would break one of his house rules, and if they did, he would have to stop them, and he did not hesitate to stop them. Thomas S. Bohne, March 1962.

Recent Posts

Subscribe

FOLLOW US