CLARK COUNTY — The deeper Paul Bender dug into Jeffersonville's illicit gambling past, the more he got hooked.
The retired pediatric dentist has long had a fascination with old poker chips and a love for history. Combine those two with his adopted home of 40 years, and the result is a more than 250-page book detailing some of Jeffersonville's most dangerous decades.
"The Joints of Jeffersonville and Southern Indiana" tells the stories of "wide open gambling, mayhem and murder" from roughly 1930 to 1950. Bender, who was born in Anderson, started writing down histories about 18 years ago, with no intention of publishing a book. But now he hopes to share what he's learned and preserve a piece of local history. To do so, Bender spent countless hours scrolling through microfilm, interviewing locals with memories and connections to the time and cataloguing paraphernalia.
"This is just part of our history that I was afraid was going to disappear," the first-time author said. "So I started digging and trying to preserve the history of the town."
Bender estimates there were at least 20 illegal gambling operations in Jeffersonville in the '30s and '40s. Other estimates say close to 30. A photo mural plastered on the side of a vacant building on Court Avenue shows just a few of those not-so-secret dens, including Antz Cafe and Duley's 121 Club. Antz is now a parking lot next to Chase Bank, and Duley's is the very vacant building on which the photo mural hangs.
"The Joints of Jeffersonville" dives into places like Antz and Duley's, using historic photos, newspaper clippings and gambling chips from Bender's collection to help illustrate their stories. Perhaps the most detailed account comes from Jim James, the author of "It Was Never A Gamble." James' father, gambler Jimmy James, owned The Municipal Bar at the base of Second Street Bridge. Using first-hand recordings from his father, James recounts the "machine gun killing" of an innocent bystander that ultimately led to the closing of the Municipal and a public cry to put an end to illegal gambling.
Bender makes it clear in his book that he makes no judgments about the city's history of illegal gambling. Whether it's shameful or alluring is up to the reader. At its height, it was widely accepted.
"Everybody accepted it," Bender said, "including the politicians and the policemen, everybody. Because everybody came for this. There were jobs here. Yeah, people lost money and had problems, too, but it provided a pretty good shot in the arm for the city."
Plenty profited, but the gambling years brought hardship to Jeffersonville, too. As part of his research, Bender turned to old newspaper articles. Headlines describe burglaries, bombings and murders — the result of greed and rivalry. Local police were reluctant to intervene, Bender said, because they were well-paid to stay out of it, and the gamblers were often friends or family members.
The demise of Southern Indiana's "little Reno" came in 1948 as then-Clark County Judge James L. Bottorff took the matter out of local police hands and went to the Indiana State Police. What followed were raids and dozens of arrests. Some operations tried to reopen, but failed. Gone were the days of police looking the other way.
More than 70 years later Bender is putting new eyes back on the city's gambling history. Clark County Historian Jeanne Burke said while "The Joints of Jeffersonville" isn't the first book to detail such stories, it's a meticulous recounting of a lesser-known time.
Burke was one of a long list of people Bender consulted during the writing of his book.
"I think it is a rich resource and comprehensive record of an under-covered (pun intended) time period in local history," Burke said in a text message.
"It's a fascinating look at who we were."