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When Everybody Played the Numbers!
Whatever Happened to Dream Books?
By Al Owens
NOTE: This column is for entertainment purposes only! It is not designed to
help you hit any particular number.
With that out of the way, I’ll admit I’ve played a few numbers over the years.
Not that homogenized, impersonal lottery – but the real numbers.
I came by it naturally. My uncle Charlie “Boche” Ford used to write the numbers.
Ah the numbers. A practice that may have been illegal to the authorities, but it
was one of those universal public secrets to everybody else.
It was so embedded into the Fayette County (and northeastern United States)
culture when I was growing up, most of us had our own favorite three digit
number that could come to us from the strangest of places.
I’m sure you may have walked through the Thorofare, seen the price of ground
beef was $1.15 a pound, and you automatically uttered, “I think I’ll play 115
I was born on October 17th, 1948. My birth certificate says the official time of
my birth was 9:45 AM on Sunday morning. I’d be willing to wager (but for
entertainment purposes!) that on Monday, both of my parents played 945. It was
just that way.
If you didn’t have a direct hunch about a possible winning number, there was
something called a Dream Book! It was a book that curiously revealed a three
digit number that would match any dream.
The most famous “author” I’ve found of Dream Books was somebody who called
themselves “Aunt Sally.” (I doubt that they were anybody’s Aunt. And I even
doubt their name was Sally) "Aunt Sally's Policy Players Dream Book," was first
published in the 1890’s. By the time I came along, there were dozens of Dream
Books, from a dozens of “authors.” You could pick up one of them at any
newsstand in any town. And they only served one purpose. To make people believe
their dreams could help them hit the numbers!
I hope I’m not telling on my family, but in our house our bible was pristine.
Our Dream Book was torn and tattered!
All I needed was to have a weird dream or nightmare, and my mother would leap
for her dream book to find out what it meant.
“Mom, last night I dreamed I was standing down there on Jefferson Street on the
bridge over the Redstone Creek, and a deer walked up and told me he’d been fired
from the Uniontown Police Force – because Jack Benny caught me smoking a cigar.”
My mother’s only response? “Let’s see, a bridge: that’s 564, a deer: that’s 228,
a creek: that’s 167. (Unfortunately, she’d left out police officer. That was
089. And that’s what hit that night!)
For those of us who needed a few more hunches, there was The Pittsburgh Courier.
Not just the newspaper, but the comic strip Sonny Boy Sam. The Pittsburgh
Courier, which specialized in local, regional and national news geared to
African-Americans – was famous all over the country.
And Sonny Boy Sam may have been one of the reasons. Every frame, every week was
full of three digit “hints” that were printed along with the comic strip.
As I remember it, on most weekdays the numbers were always passed up the line by
telephone and through handwritten slips. I can remember days when our telephone
would ring all morning, and sometime in the early afternoon (Between Search for
Tomorrow and The Guiding Light – somebody would come by and pick up all the
numbers from all of those morning telephone calls!)
There were two “houses” as I recall – the race and the stock. You could place
your bets on the race and the winning number would be determined by certain
winning horse races in New York State or in Florida.
The winning “stock” number was tied to the New York Stock Exchange. Everyday
around 4 PM, the last digit for the Dow Jones Transportation, Industrials and
Utilities – would let everybody know who “hit” that day.
I once worked at a television station in Steubenville with a News Director and
anchorman who made sure everybody knew the winning number. `He knew that many
people would tune in just to hear it. He would slowly read, “Today’s Dow was:
Transportation – 0-2 FIVE, Industrials 4-3 EIGHT, and Utilities 8-8 NINE. He
always put a very strong emphasis on the final number - the one that signified
the day’s results. And for good measure (and I might add hilariously – he’d
repeat the all of the numbers again!)
All of this had apparently originated long before I was born in 1948. There’s a
theory that it got its start in 16th century Italy. It spread to the “New World”
and flourished in black communities like Harlem in New York.
By then it had developed another name – policy – because like insurance, it only
provided a slight chance of cashing in.
It did have its advantages over today’s state numbers games. You could play for
as little as two cents. That meant in less affluent areas, people of limited
means could have some hope of winning without staking their family savings – if
there were any.
In fact, despite what the authorities wanted us to believe, the numbers and
numbers writers were held in high esteem in some circles.
The best numbers writers were said to have taken bets, without having to write
them down. They’d just remember them.
The comedian Richard Pryor once got into the character of a drunk, who’d admired
a young numbers writer – because he had that particular gift. Unfortunately, the
numbers writer developed a drug habit. The drunk then lectured the junkie about
how the junkie went wrong. “You used to book the numbers, didn’t need no pencil
nor pad. Now you don’t even know who you is.” Now there was a numbers writer
who’d obviously fallen from grace.
As with any unregulated activity governments took a dim view of the numbers.
“The lowest, meanest, worst form ... [that] gambling takes in the city of New
York, is what is known as policy playing,” said an 1875 report from a select
committee of the New York Assembly.
It may have been all of those things, but it was still very popular out of the
eye of the authorities. So popular, that the New York gangster Dutch Schultz
took it over by the 1920’s.
But by the late 20th century, the New York Assembly took a shine to the numbers.
In 1966, it amended the state constitution to allow the state operated its own
games of chance.
I guess they’d figured out that they weren’t so mean and low after all. That New
York State, too, could have some fun. (Did I just write the word “fun?” I meant
Not long after that, Pennsylvania got into the act. The first lottery tickets
were sold in March of 1972. The first daily numbers were drawn on March 1st,
The reason for the interest in state governments was clear. Make money for the
state, while curtailing the activities of organized crime. A governmental based
game of chance could never go wrong.
April 24th, 1980. The game went wrong! Very wrong. (666) Nicholas Pericles
Katsafanas (better known as Nick Perry) helped rig the daily numbers game that
day, and a couple of Philadelphia mobsters were in on it.
My uncle “Boche” died in the late 1950’s. He would still be laughing today at
the irony of it all.
Since then, any 666 drawing is called a “Nick Perry.” (There have been a total
of 18 “Nick Perrys.” The most recent came on August 22nd)
Hum! August 22nd. That’s 922. I think I’ll play that!