About six years ago, Hopkinton writer Kevin Flynn was working for Griffin York & Krause when he came across a gigantic scrapbook with newspaper clippings telling how New Hampshire paved the way into the lottery age — a story he’d never heard before, despite having worked as a New Hampshire journalist for years.
The book was maintained by the lottery, a GYK client at the time, and Flynn was researching for its 45th anniversary. The text was leather-bound and its news articles were yellowed and covered in plastic. They detailed the fight between the state and federal government to start the New Hampshire Sweepstakes, which was not a scratch ticket but a horse race. Most writers in the mid-1960s were either very for or against it.
Flynn was captivated. The story had conflict, characters, and best of all, it hadn’t been fully told before.
“I knew New Hampshire had the first lottery. If you go to any website … you’ll see New Hampshire established the first modern state lottery in 1964. But there are never any details about this huge fight to make it work,” Flynn said via phone. “It was such a radical idea, a state legalizing gambling, even in the form of a lottery, which was strange because, at the time, Las Vegas was a popular destination.”
And of course, lotteries were not new. They’d been happening for thousands of years, having helped pay for the Jamestown colony, the Continental Army and Washington, D.C. expansion. They were a popular way to raise money without taxation and remained so until the end of the 19th century, said Flynn, when the Louisiana Lottery (nicknamed the “Golden Octopus”) became so corrupt the government banned them altogether.
Not that gambling stopped; for the next 70 years, people played numbers with the mafia. Why shouldn’t the state make money from it?
Flynn’s initial thought was a magazine article, but when Yankee magazine passed, he submitted proposals to regional and national publishing houses and snagged a deal with the University Press of New England, which Flynn said is trying to print and distribute his recently released book, American Sweepstakes: How One Small State Bucked the Church, the Feds, and the Mob to Usher in the Lottery Age, nationally.
Flynn found the story through the scrapbook, dozens of books, old news articles, letters, telegrams, state archives and in-person interviews, with research spanning the years 1963 to 1972, when the last Sweepstakes race happened and New Hampshire transitioned into a more modern lottery, with daily numbers games, raffle drawings and scratch tickets. He learned about an interesting cast of characters, including Gov. John King
“By all accounts, he was one of the smartest people to ever hold the office. He was the first Democrat in 40 years to be elected to the governor’s office. And he was quite literally gambling his political career on the sweepstakes. It was a make or break for him,” Flynn said. “Not only was he re-elected, he was the first in modern times to serve three terms.”
Flynn was also fascinated by FBI Agent Ed Powers, the first executive director of the lottery, who had been brought on board to instill confidence the mob wouldn’t infiltrate. Powers had solved the famous 1950 Brinks Robbery, the largest in the country, and was the first to capture two people on the Most Wanted list at the same time. His involvement reassured people that this time the lottery would be different — it wouldn’t be crooked, corrupt or fixed. Real people would win.
“He’d given over 1,000 public speeches and was super charismatic. He was like Eliot Ness, a real superhero,” Flynn said.
The journalists at the time were so thorough, they allowed Flynn to add the details that give the book less a textbook, more a narrative quality, from the weather at Rockingham Park one September day in 1964 to the type of glasses King wore. One of the first lottery winners was the wife of an anti-sweeps politician in the opposition group.
“It was one of those details you couldn’t make up,” Flynn said.
Flynn’s not certain why the story was lost to history. He speculated it had to do with how much was going on in the 1960s — Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, the Kennedy assassination.
But it’s an important story.
“We all, at some point, have dreamed of winning the lottery and escaping our drudging working-class lives,” Flynn said. Without it, “What would be our American daydream? What would we be fantasizing about?”