P is for Policy (AtoZ Challenge – Roaring Twenties)

ROARING TWENTIES - Policy - Especially popular in the African American communities in big cities, policy - the ancestor of lottery - was a means to gain some more money... and almost a kind of cult for people who practiced it

PThere’s something to say about policy, it wasn’t what it may look like at first.
How about this: policy was an illegal number game very popular throughout the first half of the XX century.

Boring, uhu? Let’s try again. Policy was very popular inside African American communities, where numbers wrought themselves into everybody’s life in a very intimate way, in a way, in fact, that Drake and Cayton defined nothing short than a cult in their seminal work Black Metropolis.
To play the policy you needed numbers and numbers could be gauged anywhere, because life itself would offer them. The numbers on the plate of a car involved in a accident, an eye-catching sequence of numbers in a ad, a phone number with repeating digits. Anything was good for gauging numbers, but nothing was as good and powerful as numbers coming from dreams. So, there were all kind of ‘dream books’ that would explain the meaning, in terms of numbers, of any dream, but if you needed some extra help, there were people who were expert in dreams. This could be anyone, even an expert bettor, but very often, these people were advisers. They helped sorting out problems, they were spiritual and emotional supporters, and because the hails of life always meant something, advisers were able to turn life experiences into lucky numbers. You just had to be watchful and pay attention and life itself would bring your luck to you.
As stated, it was a cult.


John “Mushmouth” Johnson Policy King in Chicago

The actuality of the game was this. Players tried to guess numbers raging from 1 to 78. They could place their bets with writers who canvassed the neighbourhood, or in policy stations located anywhere throughout the community, from cigar shops, to garages, to barber shops and even private apartments. They could also place bets in specifically devoted places called books, which were where the wheel was. (and be careful, every wheel had its name, so that was material for gauging too). The wheel was a tumbling drum and several times a day (up to four times) numbers were drawn from the wheel. Drawing were always very busy events, attended by hundreds of people (writers, habitual bettors, regular guys), especially when a heat number hadn’t come out for a long time. It was a kind of social event.
Several policy games ran at any given time, with winning number drawn up from any single wheel up to four times a day. The winning numbers were printed on thousand of individual slip papers as well as on community’s newspapers.
The reason why policy was so popular is that bets could be placed even for very small amounts of money, so that really anyone could bet. And it’s true, you bet against terrible odds, but you could win big. Depending on how much money a bettor paid, payoffs for a dime could range from fifty cents (for a single number guessed correctly) to $ 200 (for five numbers guessed correctly), which allowed a family to live for many months. The most common bet was for three numbers, which was called a gig.

The policy racket was originally controlled by African American gangsters called Policy Kings, who especially in the Twenties gained so much power to be able to influence local politics. But by the 1930s, white gangsters – especially Italian – had taken over the business everywhere but in Chicago.
The difference was crucial for the black community, which was always the stronger participant in the game. White gangsters would take the money and invest it somewhere else, when the Policy Kings would take the money and reinvest it mostly in the community itself. At the height of their power, for example in Chicago, the Policy Kings provided 5000 jobs for the Chicago African American community, but they also invested in legitimate businesses that provided yet more jobs. They made substantial and ongoing donation to the neighbourhood charities, churches and hospitals, they helped professionals starting their practices and supported promising students going though school.
These are the reasons why, in spite of their shady activities, the Policy Kings were well loved and respected inside their communities.



Chicago Tribune – The the Policy King RuledThe Policy Kings
Christine Fletcher Books – The Chicago Policy Kings

Robert M. Lombardo, The Black Mafia: African-American organized crime in Chicago 1890–1960 (pdf)

Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City, St. Clair Drake and Horace A. Cayton, University of Chicago Press, 1945.


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About the Author

I was born, raised and I still live near Verona (Italy), though I worked for a time in Dublin. I started writing fantasy stories as a kid. Today I’m a bookseller who reads fantasy, history, mythology, anthropology and lots of speculative fiction. Somehow, all of this has found its way into my own dieselpunk stories.

25 Comments on "P is for Policy (AtoZ Challenge – Roaring Twenties)"

  1. I love reading all of your articles. You bring the 20’s to life. I didn’t know about ‘policy’. I knew there were numbers games, but didn’t know that this is what it was called.

    –Mee (The Chinese Quest)
    Mee Magnum recently posted…“O” is for Orient #AtoZChallenge @AprilA2ZMy Profile

  2. Sounds like the government run lotteries we have today, to me. Ann Richards dragged Texas into that racket. Sad, sad day for my state.
    Visit me at: Life & Faith in Caneyhead
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    Barbara In Caneyhead recently posted…Musical Memories – ReO SpeedwagonMy Profile

  3. Seems a shame the Italians muscled in on the Policy Kings even if they were running a racket.
    Tasha’s Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)
    Tasha recently posted…AtoZChallenge2015 – P is for PaladineMy Profile

  4. This is really interesting. I’d never heard of policy in this way before. Do you think this numbers game influenced the lotteries that later popped up in the 1960s?
    Lanise Brown recently posted…P is for Paris’ Sainte Geneviève LibraryMy Profile

  5. This is one of my favorites of your series!! There is something about the way you craft the post into a story format – even that ‘false start’ beginning is a hook, it digs the hook in a bit deeper when the tone shifts. And when you said “….where numbers wrought themselves into everybody’s lives…” I was dangling from your fishing line. What a beautifully wrought phrase.

    Now I wonder – for my work I use the term gig. Does that mean I am confined to 3 digits for the rest of my career? 🙂
    Jeri Burns recently posted…Daily Ghost Post – O is for Old Green EyesMy Profile

  6. Hi there – I can see how ‘Policy’ led to the lottery. That’s interesting.

  7. I read it, and I am not sure I fully comprehend what’s going on, but it sounds fascinating… I had a whole different understanding of what policy meant… 😀

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
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  8. Wow, how fascinating. The preoccupation with numbers sounds both complex and exhausting (and yes, very cult-like), which then, I imagine, fuels the Policy game itself.
    And the Policy Kings sound like a decent lot, all things considered. Really enjoyable post. I’m glad you found my blog, which then let me find you. 🙂
    Sara C. Snider recently posted…PignutMy Profile

  9. Sad to hear the policy kings were taken over by the Italian mobs. That is too bad… even though, honestly, when you were mentioning a cult, my mind went to Taoism and lucky directions/numbers for each person based on birth day… different beasts entirely! XD
    Alex Hurst recently posted…P is for 道My Profile

  10. This is the weekend before the last full week of A to Z. You’re amazing for staying with us this long. Thanks for your commitment. You’re almost there. This event only happens once a year, so rest up and get ready for the home stretch!

    Stephen Tremp
    A to Z Cohost
    P is for Paranormal Vs. Supernatural

  11. I had no idea! This is eye-opening. I must applaud the depth of your research and the intriguing way you present your information.
    Lillian Csernica recently posted…P for Prince ValiantMy Profile

  12. I had heard about the numbers game, but didn’t know it was called “policy” and that there were “policy kings.” I wish our modern day mafia would learn a thing or two about supporting where you live, but they don’t seem to get it. I’m not just talking about street mafia, I’m talking about bank/white collar mafia, too.

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    Clarabelle Rant recently posted…PUPPYMy Profile

  13. That’s an interesting bit of history from the roaring twenties!
    Sherry Ellis recently posted…The Twenty-Six Dollar BurgerMy Profile

  14. Another aspect of the Twenties that I never knew – feeling very educated, thanks Sarah.
    Roland Clarke recently posted…R is for RottenburgMy Profile

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