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Category:  Did You Know?
Published:  July, 2009

Did You Know?

Did you know that in 1942, a Fayette County man set a rather unlikely and unenviable record?

On the final day of that year, it was reported that Judge W. Russell Carr had sentenced the man to a two and a half year prison sentence after he’d admitted he’d stolen and stripped a car.

He’d already been in some form of jail for 19 of his 34 years. He’d only spent four years out of jail since he was 11 years-old.

Did you know that in 1932 a pair of young girls in Uniontown made national headlines after their run-in with the authorities – and their subsequent “sentences?”

The Albuquerque Journal ran an editorial in its April 1st, 1932 edition that took an extremely narrow view of a sentence handed down for theft by a 12 and a 14 year-old girl.

They were sentenced to Sunday school. “Those two years in Sunday school will be something worse than jail,” the editorial writer proclaimed.

Besides being sentenced to Sunday school, they were barred from having contact with each other.

Did you know that one of the most enduring American pastimes caused a nationwide flurry of legal action that even resulted in a Uniontown attorney taking his defense of it to the U.S. Supreme Court?

The onetime sources of raids, arrests, trials and subsequent jail sentences – are now considered quite harmless. They’re called pinball machines.

First, here’s a little history. The origin of the modern pinball machine can be traced to 1871, when a British inventor named Montague Redgrave, filed a U.S. patent for a table game that would replace a billiard cue with a coiled spring and a plunger.

That development ignited widespread interest among people who enjoyed playing pinball in restaurants and drinking establishments across the country.

But not long after a number of companies (mainly in Chicago) started mass producing pinball devices, so, too, did they enable them to become gambling machines.

By the 1930’s, there seems to have been two very different ways of controlling the widespread distribution of pinball machines. They could license, and therefore tax them – or they could outlaw them altogether.

From the Wisconsin State Journal on August 12th, 1934: “Unlicensed Games Open to Seizure.”

Simply, the City Clerk of Madison, Wis. had established a $50 license fee per pinball machine. If the people operating them didn’t comply, their pinball devices would be confiscated.

Later that year in Denver, a judge ruled that pinball machines were really clever forms of gambling, despite claims they were meant purely for amusement. 200 Denver pinball machines were set for confiscation.

Four months later, a group of parents and teachers in Memphis, Tenn. had a new concern about the increasingly popular pinball game. Despite the city licensing pinball machines, there was a fear - according to the Kingsport (Tenn.) Times – that “school children were gambling away their lunch money.”

By the late 1930’s, city-by-city and state-by-state eventually saw pinball machines as instruments of chance that allowed operators to function outside the existing anti-gambling laws.

Los Angeles, in fact, banned pinball machines in 1939. It wasn’t until 1974 that the State Supreme Court of California ruled that they were games of skill, not chance, and overturned the nearly 40 year ban on them.

But in mid-June of 1957, police authorities fanned out across Fayette County and confiscated 40 pinball machines in Uniontown, Brownsville and Connellsville.

While there were no arrests made, some of the most popular gathering places in the county were among the places hit by that raid.

Five days later, on June 25th, an editorial in the Uniontown Evening Standard claimed, “It is like a toy. Yet it is so seductive that the payoff pinball machine not only is a demoralizing lure for youth but affects grown men the same way.”

While there was some evidence that the type of pinball machines that were being played could be used as a lure for illegal gambling, those defending them claimed they were for pure “fun” and amusement.”

A 20 year-old witness during the pinball trial in late July of 1957 demonstrated his pinball wizardry in the courtroom before Judge Eustace H. Bane.

By the following June, Judge Bane ruled that the machines (known as multi-coin machines) were, in fact, gambling devices. That set the stage, pending further appeals, for the 40 machines to be destroyed.

There were appeals. Pinball machines were sent to Pittsburgh in October of 1958, to be studied in preparation for the pinball machine appeals case in the State Superior Court.

With a Deputy Attorney General calling them no less than “one armed bandits,” the State Superior Court, and then the State Supreme court upheld Judge Bane’s original decision.

Armed with those decisions, Uniontown attorney Anthony Cavalcante took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court in April of 1960. Cavalcante claimed that seizure and destruction of the pinball machines was a violation of due process under the U.S. Constitution.

On Tuesday, June 21st, 1960, the Uniontown Morning Herald contained the banner headline: “Pinball Machines Dealt New Blow by U.S. High Court.” In short, the U.S. Supreme refused to hear the case “for want of a properly presented Federal record.”

By then, however, pinball machine manufacturers had already started distributing single coin machines that could not be considered “gambling devices.”

So, on June 29th, 1960, local newspaper readers opened their editions of the Morning Herald, and they found the following headline: “Multi-Coin Pinball
Machines Destroyed, No Longer Permitted in Commonwealth.”

But an entirely new family of pinball machines (the ones still in use today) were already in heavy use.