Chapter 1 Rebirth
Richard Ten Broeck had always been exceptional, though not entirely in the best ways. His path was curved. Always had been. As if, by forging twists and turns into the straightaway, he could create a more complex and grander route than one that was quiet and mundane.
He was easy to spot if you knew to look for the steady stream of smoke rising from his cigar. Otherwise, his appearance was so unremarkable you might well miss him. Instead of neckties popping with color like those worn by most men of the era, Ten Broeck chose the black and understated d’Orsay cravat, always immaculately tied, worn around a stiff upright collar. Aside from his eyes, which were deep blue and impenetrably faraway, the rest of his face was unexceptional, hidden as it was behind a light brown beard that was trimmed to even-sided perfection. Slim, medium in stature, he might have been mistaken for an oversized jockey. He enjoyed the misimpression and in fact occasionally rode his own horses in races. Even then, the cigar never left his mouth.
But beneath the deadpan exterior was a master of wits who could bluff a royal flush while holding nothing but a high card, a risk-taker so self-assured that others thought he must
know something they didn’t. He usually did. Always five steps ahead, Ten Broeck had already played out every conceivable scenario in his head before he made his next move. And so, when Richard Ten Broeck said he was going to accomplish something, no matter how fantastical it seemed, few among his broad group of acquaintances ever questioned him.
However unassuming his appearance may have been, the Ten Broeck name stood out among the mightiest, having established itself in a patriarchal lineage of military and politics. In 1663, Dirck Wesselse Ten Broeck emigrated from Holland to New Amsterdam. He became rich exporting animal pelts, and helped found the city of Albany, New York, and its Reformed Dutch Church. Since then, just about every Ten Broeck male had either served in the U.S. Army or at the helm of New York’s government. Young Richard Ten Broeck’s was a golden path, paved for him by the dedication and hard-earned respectability of generations of forefathers. All he had to do was follow it.
Born in 1812, by age seventeen, Richard—“Dick” to most people—had soared through the prestigious Albany Academy while simultaneously accumulating an unending list of disciplinary infractions and enduring more cracks from his headmaster’s cane than a promising boy ought. To enhance Richard’s chances for life success, his father secured him a paid position running messages as a page in the New York House of Assembly. It was a spoiled life, unearned and therefore taken for granted—flippantly burning through opportunities as if there were always another and better one around the corner. In Richard’s case, there usually was. In 1829, rebellions aside, his academic accomplishments and family name awarded him a coveted cadetship to West Point. But in less than a year, he faced resignation or expulsion after challenging his superintendent, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, to settle their differences in a duel. Richard had only been doing what it had been ingrained in him to do—uphold honor at all costs. Instead of polishing his Derringer, walking ten paces, and firing at the cadet, Colonel Thayer urged the military brass in Washington to expel the upstart.
Back in Albany, Richard’s father scurried around the city, elbowing his way into important offices to have a discreet word about his son. His political pull worked, and in January 1830, young Ten Broeck wrote a letter to the secretary of war, John Eaton, tendering his resignation as a cadet “with the consent of my parents,” accompanied by a scribbled note of approval from his father “in accordance with the requests of my son.”
Although the family’s honor remained intact, the West Point debacle sent Ten Broeck out on his own, undoubtedly with a stern order from his father to figure life out for himself. No longer was Richard the golden son. No longer was he one of the “favored children of the nation—the future men of America,” as the cadets had been dubbed in 1825 by the then secretary of war, James Barbour.
Tossing aside his wool uniform and packing what was left of his two Academy-issued candles, eighteen-year-old Ten Broeck set out on a faraway path unbridled by regulations and discipline. A new world full of promises and adventure awaited him. He boarded a train headed southwest toward the Mississippi River.
The Mississippi and all it had to offer made sense to wanderers. Snaking through 1,200 miles of jutted bluffs and banks of mustard-colored soil, the river teemed with a society unto itself. Steamboats cut through dark rapids, transporting a menagerie of people over the river’s magical and mysterious wonderland. On board, vagabonds, wealthy Southern sugar planters, Northern bankers, bishops, and gamblers sat elbow to elbow as deckhands tossed tobacco over to Old Al, the river god of folklore, to appease his pipe and create a foggy ambiance, or spun stories about the river’s voodoo spells and ghosts moaning over some bygone wrong. Inside the common rooms, it was not unusual to find a deck of playing cards sitting pepper-and-salt beside a Bible, while out on the balcony, ladies corseted in fragile Parisian silks and wearing hats sprouting fountains of feathers gossiped with men swathed in buckskin leather with bowie knives strapped to their belts. All coexisted handsomely—if only for a short while—as they steamed north or south. For everyone, the river was a gateway to new worlds, and the artery through which Southern life pulsed.
The sound of Southern life had attracted the young rebel. Not the bustle and mechanical motion of the big Northern cities, but rather, a society whose many great pleasures involved languid afternoons on porches flanked by dogwoods and French hydrangeas. All the while bantering and drinking an unfathomable number of juleps to celebrate the setting sun, only to then gamble with a hazy brain until the sun rose. Card playing wasn’t confined to the South’s richly green landmass. The recreation extended beyond the muddied banks and to the river. So much so that nineteenth-century author Emerson Bennett declared that “any man living on the lower Mississippi, who was not in favor of playing all sorts of games for all manner of sums, would have been at once pronounced no gentleman or a minister of the Gospel.” Unlike in the North, where moral conservatives eschewed card playing—considering it a destroyer of all incentive to industry and therefore taxing gambling with a stinging effect—the river brimmed with steamboats whose captains happily obliged the incessant running of card tables. Northerners with a penchant for cards naturally went south.
In the roughly eight to ten days it took to travel the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans, there were scarcely fifteen minutes when cards weren’t played. One steamboat captain recalled that at any hour, there were “four to six gambling tables stretched out in the main cabin in full blast for money.” Sometimes the captain himself was the most skilled gambler on board. Everyone—from passengers of all classes to the cabin steward and the cook—played, and it was not unusual for $1,000 to change hands in a single game. With cards, fortunes could be made or lost. Marriages wrecked.
Professional gamblers, termed “cardsharps,” generally appeared to be gentlemen, polite to a fault. They wore fine clothes, carried gold watches, and looked the way a Southern cotton planter should. They bet their lives daily to make a profit and coolly affected living by the maxim “I don’t give a damn.” Cardsharps were shrewd, and having perfected the art themselves, could easily spot a man’s bluff. Cheating was scorned, and those who did cheat faced the end of a six-shooter and a permanent baptism in the Mississippi. One swindler unlocked the door to his cabin room only to find his opponent’s wife on the inside, aiming her pistol in his face and demanding her husband’s money. Another crooked gambler was seized, flogged, tarred and feathered, then placed in a canoe and pushed into the dark currents of the river with only one
bottle of whiskey.
Ten Broeck plunged into this funhouse world of twisted images and false angles. He had no money or accomplishments, but he was smart and began matching wits against a spectrum of men. Over the Mississippi’s churning waters he began to hone an awareness of man’s desires and fears and to understand that failure was largely dependent on how he chose to view it. He found a new life, fusing himself into the Mississippi’s rich amalgam of personalities.
The young man from Albany spent the next decade gambling at the river’s card tables, gallivanting from Southern city to Southern city, never putting down roots, or much less staying in one place too long. The river was his home, and on it he emerged a formidable opponent—and not just at the card table. “I back my opinions. Each event in life is a wager,” he later wrote, “whether I gain or lose.”