The Hidden History of Bingo

Believe it or not bingo was once banned in Western New York. From 1951 to 1958 it was illegal to play bingo in Batavia, Genesee County and most of western New York. Most people see bingo as a soft and socially acceptable form of gambling because of the game’s long association with churches, veteran’s groups and fraternal organizations. During most of the 1950’s most bingo games were for charities. Bingo has been a fundraising staple at organizations like Elks Club, Polish Falcons, American Legion and several other organizations.

The bingo ban was part of a statewide crackdown on gambling in the 1950’s. While most people see bingo as harmless law enforcement officials feared that the games could easily be taken over by organized crime and could lead to other forms of gambling. Some religious organizations like the State Council of Churches denounced bingo and other forms of gambling as immoral and said the games exploited people. In 1951 police in Rochester and Buffalo staged a series of raids and shut down bingo halls and confiscated pinball machines.

Law enforcement agencies in Batavia and Genesee County were afraid that bingo players from Buffalo and Rochester would migrate to their towns to play bingo. In early April 1951 Genesee County District Attorney Wallace Stakel announced that all bingo games were illegal until ”there has been some authoritative decision in the courts allowing it.” Stakel told reporters ‘The law enforcement authorities stated that, in view of the drive on bingo in the neighboring metropolitan areas of Buffalo and Rochester, Genesee County was not willing to have an influx of bingo players from adjoining counties. The action in particular was precipitated by the rumors that bingo operators were planning to come into Genesee County with buses of bingo players from adjoining counties.”

Today most people would consider statements like Stakel’s to border on hysteria. Today the state of New York has legal casinos and tribal gaming and there have been no problems with organized crime. The bingo industry has been quick to adopt modern technologies and there are well over 250 online bingo sites. Many bingo halls now offer players electronic devices to replace the old fashioned paper cards. The touch screen devices keep track of all the numbers called during a game and can tell players how many numbers they need to win. Bingo in western New York has come a long way since the days of the bingo blackout of the 1950’s.

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