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Sunday, 14 May 2017

The Lunatic Casino

History is filled with quirky characters, larger-than-life people, and the Old West has more than its fair share of them.

In the UK the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum was established in 1863. Nowadays, Broadmoor Hospital is a high-security psychiatric hospital with about 200 patients. What has this to do with the Old West? Only the name: the Broadmoor Casino was built by Count James Pourtales in 1891 near Pikes Peak in central Colorado. Many people thought he was mad to undertake the project!

The count, a German nobleman, was seeking good investments and bought into a huge dairy farm near Colorado Springs. Then the mad idea took hold. He decided to found a resort town on part of the property.

He built a pleasure palace to lure buyers of lots. This ‘palace’, the Broadmoor Casino was on the shores of a 15-acre artificial lake that was stocked with trout. There were 32 Corinthian columns gracing its exterior, and its rooftop terrace offered a splendid view of the mountains. Inside there was a grand foyer, a double staircase leading to a grand ballroom and a concert hall, three dining rooms and a salon for the ladies.

Pourtales sited gaming rooms on the first floor. He intended to make profits from the sale of the liquor he supplied to the gamblers; he didn’t risk house funds on the games themselves. Method in his madness: Colorado Springs was a dry town.

A resident orchestra comprising European musicians played regularly; food was provided by a French chef.

Incredibly, he hired a lady parachutist to promote the resort: she landed in the lake but survived.

The grand opening of the casino was on 1 July, 1891.

However, Pourtales’ mad dream of a new township, Broadmoor City, wasn’t realised, since few wealthy punters bought lots. The Panic of ’93 depressed Colorado’s silver mining industry, which didn’t help, and within a short time Pourtales, burdened by the immense expenses that the Casino incurred, was declared bankrupt. Four years later, the Broadmoor Casino was destroyed by fire.

Inspired by this fascinating snippet of history, I decided to incorporate certain elements in my noir novel Coffin for Cash.

My nobleman is Baron Hans von Kempelen, aged 55. He is the owner of the Lenore Casino, near Green River.

Here is an excerpt:

Long before they reached the entrance to the casino complex, Cash and Corman rode past dozens of white-painted wooden posts, all lined up neatly: “Setting out the lots for the baron’s town plan,” Corman explained.
            Finally, an entrance arch of Doric columns declared “The Lenore Casino”. From here curved a wide drive bordered with sagebrush flowering yellow, red, pink and orange; mixed with these were sego lily and larkspur. The drive led to a long two-storey building, its veranda graced with a series of Corinthian columns. A rooftop terrace commanded a view of the surrounding countryside, and above the entrance doors, rising from the centre, was a latticework tower with a huge clock-face showing Roman numerals; a big metal pendulum swung below, partly visible through a long narrow window above the entrance.
            They tethered the horses at a hitching rail at the front steps.
            A good distance away on their right was a marble edifice, with a life-size winged angel on top.
            “That’s the baron’s little mausoleum,” Corman explained, his voice thick and laced with gravel. “It’s where his wife’s buried – minus her heart.”
            Then without saying more he led Cash up the steps and through the double doors. To one side was a Chinese sentry dressed in black and gold livery, brass buttons to his throat. He carried a sword at his belt but made no move to challenge Cash, recognising Corman.
            They entered an atrium clad in dark oak panels, the floor tiled with patterned marble. A double staircase swept to a landing with a series of double doors. “Up there,” Corman pointed, “is a ballroom, a concert hall and a couple of dining-rooms, a salon for the ladies and the baron’s private rooms.” The landing was almost on a level with the clock’s metronomic pendulum.
            Smartly dressed men and women strolled through the atrium, arm in arm, none of them taking any notice of Cash and Corman’s trail-dusted attire. Several Chinese in black and gold costumes moved to and fro, carrying newspapers, documents, and silver trays of drinks and cakes.
            Cash peered up and could distinctly hear the pendulum as it scythed through air.
            He lowered his gaze and spotted a man striding purposefully towards them.
            “Meet the baron,” Corman said, removing his hat.
            Baron von Kempelen was virtually the same height as Cash. He wore a monocle in his left eye, possessed a scar down his left cheek, and sported a Van Dyke moustache, which was as blond as his short-cropped hair. He wore a grey suit of cavalry twill, with waistcoat, and shining black shoes. Cash noted a slight bulge in the vest pocket; doubtless a derringer snug in there.
            “Corman, who is this with you?” the baron asked curtly.
            “Baron, sir, this here is US Marshal Laramie.”
            Appraising his clothes, the baron said, “You are not here for leisure, Marshal.”
            Cash took off his hat. “No, Baron. I’m here in an official capacity.” He glanced around. “Can we talk in private?”
            Von Kempelen’s unencumbered grey-green eye danced erratically then settled again on Cash. “You have me intrigued.” With one hand he made a shooing gesture to Corman. “Thank you, you can go now.”
            Wiping a hand over his bristly chin, Corman nodded. “Sure, Baron. I need to clean up.” He put on his hat, swung on his heel and went out the entrance doorway.
            “I noticed your interest in my clock,” the baron said, gazing at the swinging pendulum.
            “Yeah, it’s unusual. I reckon I can feel the breeze it makes as it swings.”
            “I had it specially made for me by a family acquaintance, Sigmund Riefler. The firm of Clemens Riefler is situated in Munich, my home city and it is known for its precision pendulum clocks.”
            “I’m impressed, Baron.”
            “German engineering is the best in the world, Marshal. Now, my office is not far. We will talk there.”
            “Fine by me, Baron. Lead on.”
            He was led to the right, through a double door that was guarded by a huge Chinese man in a smart black and gold suit and a sword with belt. They trod on thick carpets that went through three gaming rooms where patrons played on a variety of roulette wheels or card tables. Chinese male and female staff darted between people, serving trays of liquor. A smoke mist hovered above their heads; the ceiling, where visible, appeared stained.
            “Quite an enterprise you have here, Baron.”
            Von Kempelen chuckled. “It is my honey to attract the flies.” He didn’t elaborate and pushed open a door into a large office. (pp70-73)

Coffin for Cash

Available as a paperback or an e-book at these Amazon sites here

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