The Legacy Of John “Mushmouth” Johnson, Chicago’s Black Gambling King

Written By Robyn McNeil on December 1, 2022 - Last Updated on June 5, 2023
mushmouth johnson chicago's black gambling king

In the fourth installment of our Illinois Gambling history feature, we meet John “Mushmouth” Johnson, Chicago’s Black gambling king.

Despite humble beginnings, Johnson built a vice-derived fortune that funded Black business and culture in Chicago long after his death.


John “Mushmouth” Johnson

According to various sources, John V. “Mushmouth” Johnson was born in 1856 or 57 in St. Louis, Missouri, to Ellen and John senior.

By some accounts, Ellen was a nurse who, at one time, cared for Mary Todd Lincoln. Other records refer to his mother as solely a homemaker. Regardless, Johnson remained close to her throughout his life.

Unfortunately, details of Johnson’s early years are scarce. However, we know he moved from his native St. Louis to Chicago reasonably early.

We also know Johnson had a younger brother, Albert, who died in 1890 at approximately 30 years old. His younger sister, Eudora, didn’t come along until 1871 but was crucial to the development of Johnson’s posthumous legacy. You’ll hear more about her shortly.

Some stories attribute Johnson’s “Mushmouth” moniker to a penchant for strong language. Others say the descriptive nickname evolved due to an impediment or “thick utterance” in his speech as a youth. In either case, the name hints at Johnson’s place in genteel society. (Spoiler alert: He didn’t have one.)

“I didn’t exactly do much book learning,” Johnson recalled later. “I went out to see where the money grew. Some of those who know me say that I found it.”

Indeed, when Johnson became a partner in the Frontenac Club, it demonstrated his success. However, at the time, ownership in an establishment for wealthy whites was more exception than the rule — a truth witnessed throughout his life.


From nickels and dimes to Chicago policy king

In 1882, at about 25, Johnson started working as a porter in a white-owned gambling house in Chicago.

While there, the quick learner carefully studied the business and soon transitioned to running a nickel-gambling outfit of his own.

By 1890, Johnson unloaded that first business and purchased a saloon on South State Street called The Emporium. That location marked the start of his real estate interests. And it would be the center of Johnson’s gambling business until he died in 1907.

By all accounts, The Emporium was a sight to behold. The three-story venue reflected the decade’s popular Gay Nineties style, adorned with ornate chandeliers and a bar crafted from Honduran mahogany. Decedent art, witty words like the poems of Oscar Wilde, the rise of public scandals and the birth of the suffragette movement all characterized the decade closing out the Gilded Age.

True to that style, Johnson’s Emporium offered three levels of entertainment. Billiards ruled the first floor, with craps and roulette sharing the stage on the second. On the third, poker provided the draw, while whiskey, gin, and beer were the favored offerings at the bar.

At the time, South State Street, also known as Whiskey Row, was infamous due to antics like Mickey Finn’s drug-fuelled robberies of customers at the Lone Star Saloon. Despite this, Johnson’s spot earned relatively high esteem.

Policy played vital economic role advancing Black society

However, The Emporium didn’t monopolize all of Johnson’s attention. He was also a major player in Chicago’s policy racket.

Policy, a loyyery style game introduced by italian americans was popular in the us before gambling legalization
Policy, a lottery-style game popular in the US pre-gambling legalization

Bets in the popular lottery-style game could be as low as a penny, with potential payouts as high as 100-1. Unsurprisingly, the game appealed to the poor. While some viewed the game as parasitic, others say it played a vital role in advancing black society.

“Policy was the economic engine that facilitated the progress of the black community,” said Nathan Thompson, author of Kings: The True Story of Chicago’s Policy Kings and Numbers Racketeers.

“Many jobs were required to keep the game afloat, and policy subsidized countless businesses and institutions in the community: “Black hospitals, black banks, black insurance companies, black mom-and-pop grocery stores, black political careers, and law careers.”

For someone like Johnson, with little formal education or access to generational wealth, the policy business offered a chance for success. As he reportedly asked the Chicago Tribune, “What else is there for a colored man to do?”


Mushmouth Johnson and the Lords of the Levee

The Emporium, and Whiskey Row, were in Chicago’s vice-heavy First Ward.

Illinois gambling history lords of the levee
Lords of the Levee by Lloyd Wendt & Herman Kogan

At the time, alderman John “Bathhouse” Coughlin and Mike “Hinky Dink” Kenna controlled the troubled ward. Also known as the “Levee Lords,” the duo belonged to a larger group of corrupt aldermen called the Gray Wolves. Together the pair operated gambling houses, purchased political votes, and gamed public service contracts for personal gain.

You had to play nice with the Lords to succeed in the First Ward, and Johnson wanted to win.

According to the Chicago Inter Ocean, during the First Ward elections in 1894, the “gamblers were out in force and were spending money for votes.”

Johnson, they reported, “was given to understand that he would have to poll 100 colored votes in his precinct or close up his crap joint.”

Johnson’s connection to Chicago’s political machine would only strengthen over time. Before long, he collected up to $150 weekly from Chinatown’s gambling parlors for police protection. That money, plus more for his own safety, was paid to the Lords and Wolves. Johnson even claimed it cost him $4 in bribes for every dollar brought home.

At the same time, reliable protection was getting harder to come by.

Reformers were pressuring mayor Carter Harrison Jr. to reform Chicago’s vice districts. And while Harrison frequently lauded his record, for many, his actions lacked effort.

Even when he busted a group of high-profile gamblers in 1903, the Inter Ocean noted the hypocrisy:

“Ten years ago these men were poor. The bulk of their money has been accumulated during Mayor Harrison’s ‘reform’ administration.”

While it’s true Harrison would have police raid saloons (like the Emporium), these raids were no more than glorified publicity.

Things only started to change when a citizen association pressed city hall earnestly. The result of that lobbying would have unfortunate consequences for the saloons and parlors of Whiskey Row.

1903 proved a tough year for Johnson

1903 started positively for Johnson, who bought the building across the street from the Emporium for $40,000 ($1,354,600 today).

Ultimately, Johnson would make the bulk of his fortune in real estate. “I bought a lot on a prairie where a town afterwards was located,” he once claimed.

But 1903 would be a notably unlucky year in Johnson’s “troubled and busy life.”

And it all started with a gambler named Thomas Hawkins.

It wasn’t Johnson’s first tangle with an unhappy patron. In fact, in 1896, he was shot by a man who felt cheated. But in Hawkins, Johnson battled a persistent foe.

The pair initially clashed over an $18.75 bet Hawkins claimed he won and Johnson refused to honor.

Which hustler was telling the truth is, unsurprisingly, unknown. But, in any case, the quarrel escalated when Hawkins struck Mushmouth in the face, shattering his glasses. The blow sent lens shards into Johnson’s eyes, risking his sight. Fortunately for Johnson, he recovered.

Afraid of retribution, Hawkins became an informant of the police, which led to a raid on the Emporium. Less than 24 hours after the bust, a man named Moses Love shot Hawkins, hitting his arm and torso.

Hawkins survived the attack and blamed Johnson for orchestrating it, but the accusation never stuck.

Hawkins turned State against The Emporium

At this point, the kerfuffle may have blown over, but the citizens’ group continued to push the mayor to investigate. After the shooting, Hawkins decided to work with the authorities and testify to illegal gambling at the Emporium.

Johnson must have felt the State closing in because he spoke candidly to the Chicago Tribune, denying the charges.

“We used to have a little gambling here, but the dust is an inch thick upstairs.”

Unfortunately, Johnson hadn’t closed the saloon during the interview, and customers filled Emporium that afternoon.

Still, Johnson insisted:

“You can’t judge by this. All the rest of the week, it will be like a graveyard.”

Two days after the interview, the city revoked Johnson’s saloon license.

Behind the scenes, however, Mayor Harrison was angry. So, despite the continued community pressure, the committee relaxed its efforts.

Unfortunately, the Emporium had already taken the heat for the First Ward. According to The Inter Ocean, Johnson was “sacrificed on the altar of political expediency” while the “big fellows” remained untouched.

Despite that setback, Johnson soon landed on his feet.

Not long after the bust, deeper issues would consume the city, namely the Iroquois Theatre fire that killed more than six hundred. (The fire remains the deadliest single-building fire in US history.)

Chicago’s fire inspectors had overlooked Iroquois building code violations, embroiling the mayor in an international scandal.

With the city distracted, Johnson’s fortunes changed, and the Emporium was back in business.

Retirement announcement triggered racial scandal

society girl cecilia johnson found to be of african descent
Herald & Review, 1907

In 1907, Johnson gave an interview announcing his retirement and farewell to Chicago.

In the write-up, Johnson claimed to hold just a fraction of his once great fortune. With what remained, he planned an around-the-world trip.

“You’ll hear from me down in Africa shootin’ craps,” he said. At the time, Johnson had no idea the trouble his interview would soon trigger.

On July 27, 1907, frontpages around the country echoed some version of: “UNIVERSITY SOCIETY GIRL PROVES NEGRESS.”

At the time, Johnson’s sister, Cecilia, was studying history at the University of Chicago. Intelligent, glamorous, intensely charismatic, and a Phi Delta Phi member. Cecilia always had the best editions of school texts and traveled in a carriage with a liveried coachman during the city’s streetcar strike.

Sorority sisters outraged

The problem? No one at the university knew she was Black. Although there was never any effort to hide her race, she moved effortlessly through white society.

However, “Feminine jealousy began to arise in the sorority,” the papers wrote, citing Cecilia’s wealth and being “the biggest ‘hit'” at social gatherings.

That jealousy caused her Phi Delta Phi sisters to investigate. One recognized Cecilia’s address when reading the interview conducted at Johnson’s home on Wabash Avenue. Worse than just being Black, Cecilia was the sister of a vice-peddler and funded by “tainted money.”

Her sorority sisters were outraged.

“We never for a brief moment suspected she had colored blood in her veins,” said one. “If it were not for her color, I would willingly have her in my sorority,” claimed another.

Johnson was publicly disgusted by the scandal. He said Cecilia’s “exposure” only revealed “Chicago’s habits.” He was “glad that Chicago feels humiliated.”

Privately, however, he regarded his sister as “the brightest and most lovely thing” in his life. And the racism that forced Cecilia to retreat from the academic world crushed Johnson.

Just months later, in September, Johnson contracted pneumonia on a trip from Atlantic City to Kentucky and died on the train.

A massive crowd attended his funeral at Chicago’s Institutional AME Church, including family, friends, business partners, and even police inspector John Wheeler.

Despite earlier claims of near poverty, Chicago’s Black Gambling King reportedly left behind a $250,000 fortune (about $7.9 million today).

Death offers Johnson respect denied in life

If Johnson wanted to do something to benefit his community, he had to do it anonymously. Whether funding a local church or helping establish a retirement home, the donation came from other relatives.

At the time, Chicago’s Black elite perceived itself as a “Third Race,” writes Margo Jefferson in Negroland.

Those Black elites saw themselves “poised between the masses of Negroes and all class of Caucasians,” said Jefferson.

Lower classes of Black folk were associated with “loud voices … brash and garish ways.” Separating from them reinforced membership in “the colored elite … the big families, the old families … the pioneers.”

So, for Johnson, his bold and vulgar ways, or “unsavory reputation and uncouth demeanor,” offended elite black society. Discrimination forced him to act from the shadows.

But, by 1933, his family status ascended to “pioneer Chicago family.”

What happened to Johnson’s $250,000 fortune plays a big part in the evolution of Johnson’s posthumous legacy.

Johnson’s estate contributed significantly to Black Chicago

Johnson’s younger sister, Dora, married Jesse Binga, Chicago’s leading black businessman, in February of 1912.

At the time, reports called it Chicago’s “most elaborate and the most fashionable wedding ever held in the history of the Afro-American race.”

With the marriage, it’s said Binga received $200,000 of Johnson’s estate. He used the money to fund his Binga State Bank, Chicago’s first black-owned and operated bank.

Johnson’s influence was also apparent at the Pekin Theater, which according to Dempsey Travis, was “the formal cradle of Negro drama in the United States.”

The Pekin’s owner, Robert T. Motts, previously worked for Johnson and built on that experience to open his own gambling house, which funded the Pekin.

Reportedly, another Johnson brother Elijah also used family money to establish the Dreamland Café across the street from Binga’s bank. The cafe hosted musicians like Louis Armstrong, Lil Hardin, King Oliver, and Alberta Hunter, making it a vital showcase of emerging black music well into the 1920s.

Johnson’s fortune even benefitted his nephew, Fenton Johnson, a poet at the forefront of the Harlem Renaissance.

In death, Johnson finally garnered respect for his many contributions to his community.

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Robyn McNeil

Robyn McNeil is a Nova Scotia-based writer and editor. She lives in Halifax in an empty nest with a mischievous cat and a penchant for good stories, strong tea, cheeseburgers, yoga, graveyards, hammocks, gardening, games, herb, and hoppy beer.

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