Touting is an ancient profession, one whose nature has changed little over the centuries. But during the past two years, some sharpies in Atlanta have added some ingenious wrinkles to an old game.
The sharpies all happened to be ministers.
All touts operate according to the same principle: they claim to possess private knowledge about a gambling event, and they offer to share their information for a price.Racetrack touts invariably suggest that they have knowledge of a stable's larcenous activities. Football touts often claim to have inside information about injuries or team morale. But one popular gambling activity which would seem resistant to touting is the numbers game.
Players attempt to pick a three-digit number from 000 to 999, and if they guess it, their neighborhood bookie will pay them odds of 600 to 1 or thereabouts. The determination of the day's winning number is completely random. In Atlanta, for example, it is based on the last three digits of the stock-exchange volume. So nobody could claim to have previous knowledge of the number.
Except, perhaps, for somebody who also claims to have divine assistance.
WIGO, a black-oriented radio station in Atlanta, used to devote many hours of its Sunday schedule to religious programming, much of which consisted of paid broadcasts by local ministers. By 1977, the thrust of these broadcasts had become more wordly than spiritual.
"I have the answer. I have the answer for those that stand in need of a financial blessing right now," one of the ministers told his listeners. "I have the answer for those of you that need a one-day prayer and a one-day deliverance... I gonna show you just what God can do for you tomorrow. By praying, God has given me a solution and given me an answer."
Another minister proclaimed, "I say to you...it's all over the city that the Reverend Doctor Moses' letter blesses each and every week, two and three times a week. And I say on Mondays and Thursdays, the Reverend Doctor Moses is hot. That's exactly what I said. On Monday and Thursday, you just can't miss if you take the risk.
The Reverend Doctor Moses was suggesting circumspectly that listeners send a contribution in return for a letter offering advice on the coming week's numbers. A Reverend Lockhart implied that he could predict winning numbers and would share the information with people who attended his services. (Police went to Lockhart's church and saw him offer to provide a winning number in exchange for a $20 donation.)
Other ministers would give their tips on the air with the suggestion that listeners send donations out of gratitude. This practice sometimes led to sermons that would have befuddled any innocent listener. What would a theologian from the Harvard Divinity School make of the following excerpt from the Reverend Willis' broadcast?
"Don't you overlook me, children. This is the same man who gave you the 130 Psalms on the radio, this is the same man gave you the 150 Psalms right before Mother's Day from the radio, this is the man that gave you 36th out of the 5th verse right here before Mother's Day, this is the same man that give you the 35th out of the 8th verse right here last week.
"Monday evening I was in New York, I grabbed my Bible and looked at the 38th Psalm and the 9th verse, I said bless the Lord, and thank you Lord...That's the 38th Psalm and the 9th verse. Check it out yourself, children."
Some of the allusions to numbers were even more oblique and esoteric. Many numbers players use so-called "dream books," which relate various words to the numbers they supposedly portend. The most popular dream book in Atlanta was called "Kansas City Kitty." If, for example, the word "name" popped into your head, you could look it up in "Kitty" and see that it is associated with the number 735.
The existence of these dream books enable the ministers to do what touts always do: take undeserved credit for picking a winner.
One day Reverend Lockhart told his flock, "I'm talking to you right now if you was one of those that listened in at the broadcast last Sunday morning. I want to refresh your remembrance. I told everybody to get a piece of paper. And I said get a piece of paper and I said write your name on that paper. I said write your name. I know "name" was a blessing to you on Monday if you followed my instructions. I know "name" was a blessing to you. Oh, good God almighty! Thank you, Jesus! hallelujah! If you don't believe it go to your "Kansas City" and take a look...and you know I'm not telling you no lie, Atlanta.I told you to get a piece of paper and write your name on it. And I know "name" blessed 735 people on Monday. Yes it did."
Reverend Lockhart's listeners one Sunday morning included the mayor of Atlanta, who knew what he was hearing. He ordered an aide to make an investigation, and that investigation attracted the attention of the Federal Communications Commission. Last month a judge recommended that the radio station's license be revoked for "inducing listeners to engage in a patently illegal activity."
From now on, Atlanta's gamblers will have to pick their own numbers.