John V. "Mushmouth" Johnson was one of Chicago's greatest gambling tycoons during the 1890s and 1900s. The newspapers (using the racially-insensitive vernacular of the day) called him variously "King of the Levee", "The Richest Negro in Chicago", and "King Coon of State Street". Regardless of what you called him, for a span of twenty years, if you gambled in Chicago, you likely paid Mushmouth, at least indirectly.
Johnson was born in St. Louis to a woman who had been a nurse for Mary Todd Lincoln, but came to Chicago in the 1870s, while in his 30s, and found work as a waiter in the restaurant inside the Palmer House hotel. In 1882, he got his first taste of vice as a employee in one of Andy Scott's gambling houses on Gamblers' Row. Mushmouth displayed a hard-headed willingness to enforce the rules physically when gamblers who lost money demanded it back or tried to take it back by force (Johnson himself never gambled). He could also cuss a blue streak, which earned him his nickname.
Scott saw a business partner and a means to reach the city's large African-American population, so he made Johnson a business partner in his three-story saloon and gambling den in Whisky Row at 464 S. State (according to Chicago's 19th century street numbering system), pictured above, in 1890. Previously known as the Bon Ton, they rechristened it the Emporium Saloon.
Johnson's intransigence, while valuable as a business skill, also got him into trouble on several occasions. In 1896, he was shot and very nearly killed, by a young Havana-born gambler at the Emporium, Charles Hinds. The gunman described what happened later:
I admit I shot Johnson. I should not have been in the saloon at the time, for on a previous visit there he had knocked out one of my teeth. But I wanted money with which to go back to Cuba. I had $450 and wanted to increase it to $700 before I started. So I went there to win at cards. I went to the crap table at Johnson's invitation, and the bets increased from a bottle of wine to $25. When I had lost everything I had except 10 cents I detected the gamekeeper changing the dice, and I saw I had been robbed. I started to leave and asked Johnson to give me my pistol, which I had deposited with him when I went in. As he gave it back to me I told him I meant to recover my money by law. At that, he uttered an oath, said he would kill me, and reached for his hip pocket. I knew I would be killed the next moment, so I fired first....The Emporium grew to be one of Chicago's premier spots, open to all races, and offering craps, poker, billiards, and "policy" -- a numbers game akin to a lottery. The gamblers made bets with each other, not the house, but the house took a fraction of all bets. A roper on the street called out, "Come on gents, any game you like upstairs" until the early hours of the morning.
As Mushmouth grew rich in gaming, he also grew politically powerful. The Tribune habitually referred to him as the "head henchman" or "lieutenant" of first ward alderman, Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna. Johnson could consistently garner the vote of the ward's black population for Kenna, and in return, the corrupt alderman put Mushmouth in charge of collecting protection money from the gambling dens in the city's growing Chinatown district on Clark Street (this was before the opening of the current Chinatown on Archer). Moreover, Johnson was always tipped off ahead of time before one of his own houses was to be raided by the police, a very common occurrence.
1903, however, turned out to be a difficult year for Mushmouth Johnson. The city had declared an all-out war on the old Custom House Place vice district, and all of the major brothels and gambling houses were shut down. Johnson, with his substantial political influence, was one of the last to go. It didn't help that in that year, Ernest Naoroji, a Ceylonese bank teller, embezzled $3,000 from his employer and gambled it all away at the Emporium before committing suicide. Publicity got even worse when Johnson was sued by the mother of a boy who had reportedly gambled away $60 of the family's subsistence, and when an angry gambler, who had physically attacked Johnson in front of the Emporium, turned up dead a few days later, shot by the bartender at the club.
A citizens' graft investigation indicated Mushmouth in late 1903 on gambling charges, and the following year, he was sued by another gambler for $15,000 supposedly lost on rigged games. Finally, in 1906, tired of the continuing assaults from the press, police and unhappy gamblers, Johnson followed other Custom House Place characters down to the new Levee centered around 22nd and Dearborn, where he opened the Frontenac Club on 22nd.
The stress may have been too much for old Mushmouth, and he died in September, 1907. Like Bob Motts, his main political and business rival, he was something of a philanthropist, supporting religious and cultural activities in black neighborhoods with the money he took in gambling. Before his death, however, he told a friend that his personal fortune had dwindled to only about $15,000, having paid exorbitant fees in fines to the city and protection. "I have had to pay out four dollars for every one I took in at the game," he said -- probably an exaggeration, but nevertheless indicative of the high costs of operating a business in the shadow of the law.