Death Pools in History

“The game had no name and is probably as old as creation itself.” — Jean Shepherd, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash (1966)

You need three things for a death pool: 1) celebrities, 2) news media, and 3) people who differ in their opinions. Even if we insist that celebrities and media require civilization and cities, it is still easy to imagine that such pools – in which people attempt to predict, and perhaps even profit by, the deaths of well-known personalities – existed in Babylon, Athens, and Rome.

Thus far, the earliest documented reference to such wagering dates from 1419, and finds people betting on the death of the Pope. Historian Geoffrey Clark notes:

“In Genoa as elsewhere, policyholding on the lives of public figures in the context of commercial risk gave rise very quickly to purely speculative investments. The men who lent Pope Nicholas money presumably had a legitimate financial interest in his life. But other life insurance policies were taken out on the lives of popes by people who had no such financial stake and who were thus merely wagering on how long the reigning pope would live. The Venetian Senate reacted against these scandalous gambles as early as 1419 when it forbade wagers on the pope’s life… and nullified the many bets that had already been made on the life of [Pope] Martin V.

“A further proclamation of 1494 forbade any insurance policies or wagers, without prior approval of the Senate, on the lives of the pope or emperor, ‘kings, cardinals, dukes, princes, bishops, or other eminent persons either spiritual or temporal.’”

“Don’t bet on it!”

This, however, did not put an end to it. In 1591, such wagering had reached epidemic proportions in the Curia Romana, the administrative branch of the Church. On March 21, the newly minted Pope Gregory XIV forbade all wagering on the duration of the pontificate, i.e., when the Pope would die, and on the papal elections that followed. His concern was well-placed; he died in October, after just 10 months under the papal tiara.

An early American literary reference to betting on death comes from Mark Twain, in his 1865 short story “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” (also known as “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”). In the narrator’s preamble, he sets the stage by telling us that Jim Smiley would “bet on any thing.” And he tells this story:

“Parson Walker’s wife laid very sick once for a good while, and it seemed as if they warn’t going to save her; but one morning he come in and Smiley up and asked him how she was, and he said she was considerable better — thank the Lord for his inf’nite mercy — and coming on so smart that with the blessing of Prov’dence she’d get well yet; and Smiley, before he thought, says, ‘Well, I’ll resk two-and-half she don’t anyway.’ “

The earliest literary reference to something resembling an actual death pool dates from 1885, a passing mention in Bel-Ami, a novel by Guy de Maupassant. In chapter six, Georges Duroy is speaking to Madame Walter, and says:

“Incidentally, I’m like you and I very much enjoy reading about the death of an academician in the newspapers. I always ask myself immediately: ‘Who’s going to succeed him?’ And I draw up my list. It’s a game, a very amusing little game that they play in every drawing-room in Paris whenever an ‘Immortal’ passes on: the game of Death and the Forty Old Men.”

Duroy is referring to the French Academy, formally chartered in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, with its number fixed at 40 members representing France’s wisest and most learned. A new member could be added to the Academy only when an existing member died, hence any death in the ranks was doubly noted by the public — firstly as the passing of someone famous and secondly as an opportunity for a new worthy to ascend into the company.

It’s a small step for observers to speculate who among the 40 might be the next to die, and who might replace him, and to differ in their choices. “Death and the Forty Old Men” may well have been played for many years before de Maupassant wrote about it in 1885.

The earliest record for a contemporary pool is from columnist John Maguire who wrote about one organized at a New York City newspaper in the 1930s:

“An item here about the tavern that had a pool one Labor Day weekend on the number of highway deaths in the state brought to mind a similar sort of gambling pool that existed at one of the big New York City papers back in the Thirties. It seems to me that I’ve mentioned this one before, but everybody I’ve described it to in the past few weeks has acted as if they’d never heard it, so maybe I didn’t.

“The genius who devised this macabre lottery is unknown, at least to me, but he did have an original idea. He chose 100 persons of some prominence, people important enough to merit newspaper obituaries at death, and he wrote their names on individual slips of paper, folded them and put them in a hat. Then he went through the plant — the city room, sports department, composing room, business office, and so on — and for a dollar’s initial contribution, each participant picked a name out of the hat. You kept the name you’d obtained for an indefinite period, but each week you paid in another dollar. The pot thus grew bigger each week, and the players in the game kept studying the obituary columns, because the winner would be the person holding the slip on which was written the name of the first one of the 100 prominent persons to die.

“I forgot to say above that no superannuated crocks were among those listed; all were middle-aged or thereabouts. So there were no deaths for a long time and the story I heard years ago is that the pool added to nearly $7,000 when it was finally won. And two of the gamblers split the pot — because nobody knows even today whether Wiley Post or Will Rogers died first in that plane crash in Alaska.”

Post and Rogers crashed on August 15, 1935. If the amount of cash is correct, the pool probably originated in 1934. The crash near Point Barrow, Alaska, shook the nation. Post was a very famous aviator — the first man to fly solo around the world — and Rogers was a beloved humorist, famous on stage, radio, film and the pages of the daily newspaper.

More recently, the pools gained greater public awareness with The Dead Pool, a 1988 Warner Brothers film produced by Clint Eastwood. “Dirty Harry” Callahan (Eastwood) talks to a film director named Peter Swan (Liam Neeson) about a ‘death list’ with a dead rock star on it. Appropriately, they talk in a cemetery. Swan says, “It’s no big secret… The Dead Pool is just a harmless game.” To which Callahan replies, “Sounds pretty sick to me.”

Every few years, journalists discover a death pool and write it up as if it’s news. But they are many centuries late in noticing the pursuit.

* * *

“Pope Gregory XIV” in the Catholic Encyclopedia (1913); “Grisly pool recalled in NY,” Albany (N.Y.) Times-Union, June 9, 1977; Betting on Lives: The Culture of Life Insurance in England, 1695-1775 (1999) by Geoffrey Clark

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