With the legalisation of the once underground gambling racket in the Bahamas, called ‘Numbers,’ it is easy to forget just how dangerous, and deadly a game it once was for Bahamians. Discrimination against negro gambling on religious grounds, while The Bahamas itself benefited economically from tourist gambling, was a purposeful historical bias, whose roots were almost certainly racial.
In fact, for negroes in America, in 1960-1961, the historical bias mirrored that of the Bahamas.
Negro lottery operators in the Bahamas were branded as criminals, subjected to raids and harassment, while the very same operations for tourist gambling were supported, often underwritten with government assistance, in the form of promotional advertising.
Problems arose as Bahamian Numbers operations grew larger, while their operators became wealthier. When they began to diversify, to invest their monies in various other businesses like hotels, the more focused the 1960-1961 Bahamas government became in shutting them down.
More raids were made.
More arrests were conducted.
“In early January 1960, Harlem congressmen Adam Clayton Powell Jr. opened the new year by tying the conduct of everyday illegal gambling in New York to larger forces of racial discrimination. Speaking to a crowd of several thousand at the Abyssinian Baptist Church on West 138th Street, Powell asserted that corrupt officers in the New York City Police Department were working in conjunction with the East Harlem mafia to drive black numbers bankers out of business. Small-time black operators were constantly being harassed, while big-time white numbers bankers went unmolested. In response to Powell’s claims, Police Commissioner Stephen P. Kennedy declared, “The law is color-blind.”
“We Intend to Run It”: Racial Politics, Illegal Gambling, and the Rise of Government Lotteries in the United States, 1960–1985 Matthew Vaz Journal of American History, Volume 101, Issue 1, 1 June 2014, Pages 71–96,
In 1961, as the Bahamian Police were executing a search warrant at the house of one of the biggest Numbers men in Nassau, a shootout ensued. Tear gas had to be used after a gun battle erupted between the police, “Stokes” Thompson, a major player in the Numbers racket, and his chauffeur/handyman, Alton Bess.
Someone from inside the house began firing at the police as they moved toward the house. The police in response, took defensive action.
As the grey mist from the tear gas cleared, lying motionless on the ground, after somehow being caught in the crossfire, was Stokes’ chauffeur, Alton Bess.
There was now one major problem to contend with. The coroner had to quickly determine who shot and killed Alton Bess.
HARD GAME FOR THE NEGRO
T. T. “Stokes” Thompson (Thomas William Talbot “Stokes” Thompson, was a household name among negroes who wagered money on local illegal lottery gambling called Numbers.
From 25 pence or a few shillings to big Pound notes, Bahamians could lay odds that their favourite dream number would be “falling” (being drawn in the lottery) before the day’s end.
Illegal gambling flourished, in many forms, within the negro communities for decades.
Bahamians were not allowed to gamble legally, in the islands. Gambling was only allowed for tourists and non-citizens in the hotel casinos. This meant that those found in possession of paraphernalia related to Numbers (papers with bets written on them or possession of unexplained large amounts of cash) and those found to be running the racket, faced heavy legal penalties. They could and did, go to jail. It was the illegality and the stiff criminal penalties involved which attracted a considerable level of violence within local negro communities.
ALTON BESS DEAD: “STOKES” THOMPSON HELD
Alton Bess, aged 24, a chauffeur and handyman for T. T. (Stokes) Thompson was shot dead last night in Mackey Street, near Thompson’s home, following a gun battle with police.
At about 10 p.m. Thursday Inspector Strachan of the Criminal Investigation Department, accompanied by other members of the C.I.D., went to the House of Thompson to execute a warrant. A barrages of gunshots resulted and it became necessary for the police to use tear gas to gain entry into the house.
It was about that time that time when Bess was felled with a bullet.
(The Nassau Herald, Saturday, September 16, 1961)
After gaining entry into the house, Thompson was arrested and Bess was taken to the outpatients department of the Princess Margaret Hospital where he was pronounced dead.
It was reported that the police, acting on a tip, went to Thompson’s house to investigate reports that he had been conducting a lottery.
According to people who were in the area at the time of the incident, the police were armed but they could not say if any shots were fired by them.
A post mortem was performed on Friday on the body of Bess. The result, for obvious reasons, have not been revealed by the Police.
Thompson is being held in custody in the Fox Hill Prison and will appear before Stipendiary and Circuit Magistrate Maxwell Thompson Saturday morning on several charges.
During the shooting Bess is reported to have been in Thompson’s house.
Mrs Thompson and the children were also in the house.
The Hon. G. C. (Gerald) Cash LLB, and Mr. Orville Turnquest, LLB have been retained to represent Thompson.
Thomson recently completed a 80,000 fishing camp at South Beach. He is also the owner of the Mermaid Hotel and has many other business interests in the Colony.
“Stokes” Thompson Charged With The Murder of his Chauffeur/Handyman
On Thursday September 14, 1961, at around 10:00 pm, in the dark of night, on Mackey Street, New Providence, police attempted to execute a search warrant. The warrant was to search for evidence relating to the operation of an illegal lottery, gambling. This was better known locally, as Numbers.
It is unclear if Stokes and Bess were both shooting, or if Stokes was the only one exchanging gunfire with police. It is also unclear if the police fired anything but tear gas given that “Stokes” Thompson’s wife and children were in the house at that time.
What is clear, was that bullets which hit Alton Bess, came from the gun shot by “Stokes” Thompson.
Thompson was charged with the murder of his chauffeur/handyman, Alton Bess.