Considered gambling, pinball was once outlawed in Lowell
Vintage ‘Outer Space’ pinball machine at Garnick’s, 54 Middelsex St. in downtown Lowell. Photo by Tory Germann.
By Jennifer Myers
There were warnings that “war was imminent” and rumblings over the mob getting involved.
One man was overheard saying “a body would be found in the river.”
What plague on society was causing such trouble in the Mill City in the 1940s and 50s?
Drugs? Prostitution? Counterfeiting? Loan sharking?
Actually, it was pinball.
Today, in the “Angry Birds” era, where anyone can play hundreds of games on their phone or tablet, pinball machines have become a bit of nostalgia in people’s basements, arcades and in a few select restaurants and bars.
But decades ago, they were seen as a gateway to the Devil — their flashing lights and promises of a free game for earning a high score — were sure to bring about the downfall of society, according to some city officials.
In April 1948, Lowell License Commission Chairman Thomas Delaney warned a pinball war was “imminent” if establishment owners did not start patronizing local pinball distributors rather than those from out-of-town, warning bar owners at a meeting at the VFW if they did not heed his warning “all machines will be put out of liquor places.”
“Out-of-towners are coming in here with all kinds of pinball machines,” Delaney said. “If the out-of-towners come in I’ll put all machines out. We want no pinball war in Lowell.”
The following week, City Councilor James J. Bruin kicked off a crusade to ban pinball machines in the city, which had already been done in Boston and New York. In fact, in New York City, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia ordered police to conduct pinball raids, much like the liquor raids of Prohibition, confiscating pinball machines, destroying them with sledgehammers and dumping their splintered remains into the Hudson River.
Bruin charged a “mob” was behind city pinball interests.
Councilor William Geary contended Bruin’s crusade was purely a personal vendetta. Geary had rented a room in his home to the family of a soldier during World War II.
When the soldier returned home, he entered the pinball business.
Geary said he had been “ordered” by other pinball operators to remove the family from his house, adding a “Bruin stooge” had been asking the owners of establishments whether Geary was involved with the pinball business.
Councilor Bartholomew Callery said he wanted pinball banned, because in his opinion it contributed to juvenile delinquency.
Councilor Vincent Hockmeyer essentially warned if pinball were outlawed only outlaws would have pinball, stating the machines would “go underground.”
In January 1949, Lowell District Court Judge Arthur L. Eno found Francis J. Hebert, 45, of 89 Aiken Ave. guilty of keeping a gaming apparatus for having a pinball machine in his pool hall at 7-ll Aiken Ave. He was fined $50 and Eno ruled any pinball machine that rewarded a player with a free game to be illegal., as a free game was seen as something of value.
“If these machines are illegal, then merry-go-rounds are illegal because for a nickel you have the opportunity of grabbing for a gold ring and if you get the gold ring you get a free ride,” argued Hebert’s attorney Paul Foisy, who added pinball is not a game of chance, but one in which the skill of the player impacts the outcome of the game.
“The ball is shot out onto the board. It goes all all over the lot and there are signals and lights. If that isn’t chance, I don’t know what is,” Eno responded.
The best-selling pinball machine of all time is still “The Addams Family,” which came out in 1991.
At that time it was reported there were hundreds of pinball machines in Lowell, even one in the bus terminal. Following Eno’s decision, operators modified their pinball machines to eliminate the free game provision.
Hebert was acquitted by a jury on appeal.
That summer, a state law provided for the licensing of “mechanical amusement devices” and made games of skill that reward players with a free game legal.
The passage of the law fueled the fires on a nasty pinball turf war among three city pinball operators trying to undermine each other to secure the most profitable locations.
Previously there had existed a “gentlemen’s agreement” between the rival operators that there would be a 50/50 profit split between the owner of the machine and the owner of the establishment in which it was located. However, in September 1949, two of the three operators began giving establishment owners 60 percent of the profits, undercutting the third.
It was reported “friends” of the aggrieved operator showed up at a nightclub looking for another of the operators, “with violence on their minds”; the potential victim escaped out the back door.
At that time police estimated there were 1,000 pinball machines in the city. Later that month, the pinball operators met and agreed on a truce.
But the pinball controversy was back in the spotlight in April 1951 when Thomas T. Lindsay was arrested for paying off pinball winnings in cash at his shoe repair shop at 295 Middlesex Street (now part of the Hamilton Canal District).
The machine he had in his shop, known as “Turf King” was found in half of all city establishments that had pinball machines. It allowed players to increase their chance of winning by feeding more nickels into the machine.
Lindsay was found guilty on April 6, 1951, was fined $50 and had his license revoked. The case prompted Police Superintendent John Sayers to advocate for the removal of all pinball machines in the city. The Vice Squad shut power off to every “Turf King” machine until the operators could prove the machines had been modified to eliminate a player’s ability to increase their odds of winning by paying more.
When pinball licenses came up for renewal at the end of 1951, the License Commission refused to renew the existing licenses or issue new licenses for 1952. One hundred and thirty applications were received; no action was taken, banning pinball in Lowell.
“Pinball machines were a nuisance to police last year,” said License Commissioner Robert Lewis. “And I for one am not ready to grant licenses to these contraptions.”
The commission later eased their restrictions. Then at the end of 1954, commissioners once again announced they would not issue pinball licenses for 1955, in an effort to curb juvenile delinquency. It was asserted young people were skipping school and/or spending their lunch money playing pinball.
It is unclear when Lowell began once again licensing pinball machines, though a ban in Tewksbury lasted into the mid 1970’s, as did the New York City ban which was lifted in 1976. A ban in Los Angeles was lifted in 1974 by a state Supreme Court Ruling.
So, the next time you spot a pinball machine in a bar or restaurant, take a moment, crack your knuckles to loosen up those flipper fingers, kick in a couple of quarters and reflect on how fortunate we are to live in a time where pinball is a legal pleasure.
Jennifer Myers has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. A former reporter at The Sun for more than a decade, she now works as an aide to Mayor Patrick Murphy. A history buff, Jennifer can often be found combing through old newspaper clippings and documents at the Pollard Library or rummaging through the attic of City Hall to uncover pieces of Lowell’s past. And if you’re lucky, you just might spot her at The Gaelic Club playing pinball with The Who blasting on her iPod. You can read more of Jennifer’s Mill City musings on her popular blog Room 50.