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The Gambler: Judge Horace Templeton

A long streak of luck turned out to be something less than good fortune.
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In the rough and tumble years of the mid-1800s, Redwood City was not immune to vice and corruption. Because the lumber and leather industries flourished, and due to our city's proximity to the gold fields, men had money and time on their hands. And one of the outlets for that free time was gambling.

A renowned establishment for poker and other games was the Sears Hotel, which was located near where Sand Hill Road and Whiskey Hill Road intersect today. And one of the major players at that hotel was a county judge named Horace Templeton (1824-1873).

Templeton came to California in 1853 and soon made inroads into local Redwood City politics. He was elected to a judgeship in 1860. Inbetween legal duties he was a frequent attendee at the Sears Hotel and starting about 1865 he began a streak of luck that saw him raking in money hand over fist. People remarked on how extraordinarily lucky he was at poker, but as he was a judge, nobody had any suspicions of nefarious activities.

That all changed on January 12, 1866, when the Sears Hotel burned down. Among the rubble, the local residents found an intricate network of telegraph wires under the floors and in the walls. The wires terminated at Templeton’s favorite seat. The verification of his cheating was documented in a local newspaper interview with a fellow poker player identified only as “J. D.” This anonymous source told the reporter: “A year ago this winter, in Searsville, (Templeton) had what you might call a telegraph machine. He had a man above to look down on his opponent’s hand (and) he had a string to give him the sign…. He won (from me) between three and four and five hundred dollars.”

Templeton responded by calling J. D. a “thieving gambler,” but did not fully explain the presence of those wires found in the hotel’s gambling room.

I would have thought that the exposure of such a cheat would have resulted in Templeton swinging from a rope on a nearby tree, but amazingly pretty much nothing happened to him. He would continue to be elected as a county judge and his obituary in the San Mateo County Gazette did not mention the illegal poker playing at all, summing up Templeton and his life as “warm in his attachments, genial in his intercourse and most affectionate in his family relations.”


Douglas MacGowan

About the Author: Douglas MacGowan

Doug MacGowan has authored seven books and countless articles, mainly about history and true crime. He has been a resident of Redwood City since 2000.
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