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A color photo of cross-street signs, with the race track in the background. The signs read "Race Track Rd" and "River Run Dr."
Bowie Race Track. Photograph by Ali Smith.

An Unexpected Connection: The Bowie Race Track, Gambling, and the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals

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The following is a guest post by Ali Smith, a public services intern working with Legal Reference Librarian Olivia Kane-Cruz and Senior Legal Reference Librarian Ann Hemmens in the Public Services Division of the Law Library of Congress. 

During my LOCI internship, I have been reviewing records and briefs from the U.S. Circuit Court of the District of Columbia to extract descriptive metadata. The U.S. Circuit Court of the District of Columbia provides appellate review of cases tried in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, which regularly hears cases involving federal administrative agencies. The court is often referred to as the second highest court in the U.S., on account of its power and how its decisions may affect the rest of the country.

The collection I am reviewing includes court opinions that were decided between the late 1800s and the mid-1980s, and they can serve as a historical timeline of legal information. However, this collection, which spans 1,400 microfilm reels, has no finding aid, making it difficult for the public and staff to efficiently locate specific content within the reels. I regularly encounter typical appellate court records, such as opening, response, and reply briefs, which contain legal arguments and provide a factual background for the case at issue. The metadata extracted from these records will be used to create a public index of the Law Library’s collection of microfilmed records from this court. Put another way, my role in this project has included retrieving and organizing information from the microfilm reels so that they can one day become easily accessible to researchers.

Four rectangular boxes on a desk, each with dozens of small white boxes with unclear text, containing spools of microfilm. A gray and black microfilm reel is seen in the foreground.
Microfilm reels of U.S. Circuit Court of the District of Columbia records and briefs. Photograph by Ali Smith.

So far, I have indexed over 100 reels and viewed the contents of countless cases. Case topics I have reviewed include trust disputes, divorce, illegal gambling, indigenous land, murder, Chinese exclusion, prohibition, and citizenship rights, among others. I often find myself in a rabbit hole investigating the history and facts of these cases. I have seen materials from cases involving well-known parties, including major companies (Standard Oil), former executive officers (Andrew Mellon), famous American families (the Vanderbilts), and notable educational institutions (Georgetown University). While these cases often cover topics that may not relate to an average college student in the 21st century, sometimes they tell stories that prove more relatable than originally expected.

I currently attend Bowie State University, the oldest historically Black college/university (HBCU) in Maryland. A little over a mile from my university, travelers will find the now vacant site of the Bowie Race Track, which operated from 1914-1984 and earned a reputation as a new and exciting location for horse racing.

Earlier this year, Bowie State University held a town hall where students and the public collaboratively discussed recommendations for the vacant land. University president Dr. Aminta Breaux shared, “The Bowie Race Track was once a local treasure where the community could gather to celebrate, enjoy, and be proud.” Now, the community is searching for a way to use the land in a manner that will continue to benefit the public.

While reviewing the microfilm collection, I was intrigued to discover a case where a man was criminally prosecuted for illegally maintaining a gambling site where people could place bets on horse racing. I had seen many gambling cases before this, but what stuck out to me was that the location of horses wagered on was none other than the Bowie Race Track, a mere three minutes from the Maryland Normal and Industrial School at Bowie, an institution that would eventually become Bowie State University.

Lewis L. Brown v. United States

In Lewis L. Brown v. U.S., 32 F. 2d 953 (1929), the appellate court analyzed whether Brown’s actions, such as facilitating wagers on horse races, amounted to illegal gambling. The court reviewed the facts of the case, including Brown’s gambling activities, and affirmed the district court’s judgment and sentence.

A microfilm reader and screen display in the Law Library Reading Room. The screen has images from Brown v. US, the case discussed in this blog post.
Microform reader and display in the Law Library Reading Room. Photograph by Ali Smith.

The story begins with Harry B. Mingo, an informant who received a marked dollar from the police and entered Brown’s gambling area. Mingo placed a $1 bet on a certain horse and received a bet confirmation slip from Brown. After Mingo placed his wager with Brown, he witnessed Brown take multiple bets from others. (Op. at 953.) Then, the police entered the area where Brown was gambling, which required moving through a heavily reinforced door, equipped with electric locks and a small peephole. When they finally got in, there were about 50 wager slips lying around, and the dollar marked by the officers was found in Brown’s possession. (Op. at 954.) The police confiscated the slips and arrested Brown. William Burke, an officer present for the arrest, testified that he entered the premises and had conversations with men who confirmed the slips noted bets placed on horses. (Op. at 954.)

Counsel for the appellant argued that the slips could not be used as evidence because the officers could not connect the slips to Brown at the time of his arrest. Secondly, counsel urged that the officer’s testimony should have been stricken because it included hearsay reports of the words of others, outside Brown’s earshot. Finally, they argued that the lower court erred in denying a new trial after new information revealed that Harry Mingo, a witness, was once convicted of bigamy. (Brief of Appellant at 4.)

Ultimately, the appellate court was unpersuaded by Brown’s arguments and affirmed the lower court’s decision. The appellate court’s opinion was authored by Charles Henry Robb, an associate judge. Judge Robb wrote that the seizure of the betting slips was permissible because there was sufficient evidence for the officers to identify Brown as the orchestrator of these gambling activities. The court also noted that evidence of a crime confiscated during a lawful arrest is not prohibited by the Fourth Amendment. Secondly, the court declared that it was reasonable to assume that Brown had heard the conversation about placing bets on horses, noting, “Inasmuch as the evidence shows that Brown was present, it will be assumed that he heard the statements.” (Op. at 954.) Lastly, the witness’s newly discovered criminal history, although potentially damaging to his testimony, did not sway the court’s decision. The court held, “We cannot say that there was any abuse of discretion. Had the fact of Mingo’s conviction been known, it would have affected only the weight of his testimony, which, as already disclosed, was corroborated.” (Op. at 954.)

What started as a metadata review of materials from Brown v. United States led to further research into my university’s history, as well as the history of the city of Bowie. It is impossible to leave the Library of Congress without learning interesting facts and finding unanticipated connections to your life and current events.

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Comments

  1. Amazing story of the Bowie Racetrack, Gambling, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and part of the history of Bowie State University. One never knows what an indexing and metadata project will yield gems of history and interesting facts. Thank you for sharing.

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