When Billiards Meant Trouble, 1866

Ya got trouble, folks, right here in River City
With a capital “T” and that rhymes with “P”
And that stands for “pool”
-“Trouble,” The Music Man

In the 1962 film version of Meredith Willson’s musical, The Music Man, con man Harold Hill convinces the townspeople of River City that a new pool hall is a scourge on their community and could corrupt their children.  Instead, Hill suggests, the concerned citizens should invest in band instruments, promising that trombones and cornets would protect their children from the ills brought on by pool halls and their denizens.

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Excerpt from Claude Matthews's July 1866 letter to Pattie Beatty. Beatty-Quisenberry Family Papers.

The Beatty-Quisenberry Family Papers include a real-life version of Hill’s song, “Trouble,” without the subsequent scam.  In July 1866, approximately 50 years before The Music Man’s 1912 setting, at least one citizen of Maysville, Kentucky, was troubled by the vice perceived to accompany the introduction of billiard tables in the town.  Writing to Pattie Beatty, who lived in Danville, Claude Matthews, a Centre College student at home in Maysville for the summer, described the scene in his hometown:

Our streets now are lighted with gas, but with it have come evils that have undoubtedly spring from its introduction.  It seems to have illumined the way to the smaller vices – such as amusements easily turned into games of chance, hitherto unknown here.

Billiard tables are now crowded into every little room that can be obtained for the purpose.  Crowds of all ages, from the ragged boy to the Merchant; are constantly thronging there, the Merchant neglecting his business, the Clerk passing his time there and abusing the confidence of his employees, and the laboring man spending his hard-earned wages for an useless entertainment.

These Billiard saloons are all connected with drinking houses, before reaching the one you must pass thro the other and what a temptation is there!  We have not had them long here, the novelty has not yet worn off, for those who cannot afford to play are everynight crowding around the doors.  All seem to be overpowered by a feverish passion for the table & a desire to out-do his neighbor.  I am not exaggerating, it is worse than I could tell you of.  ‘Tis horrible to think how many may have already been ruined, their first game their downward step, unnoticed now, but ere long seen too well, too late.  It is thus I have found Maysville, and even now long for the happy, sweet quiet of D [Danville].  I would willingly return tomorrow, should College take up.

Filson Historical

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