History of Gambling in Massachusetts: It Started with a Law Against It

History of Gambling in Massachusetts: It Started with a Law Against It

As lawmakers contemplate whether to legalize Massachusetts sports betting, it’s important to note that the history of gambling in Massachusetts began with a law against it.

In 1638, the Puritans, true to their name, passed a law which outlawed cards, dice and every other game of chance at the time. Residents weren’t even legally allowed to play in their own homes. The reason for the law? People (aka men) gambled when they were idle, and no one was supposed to be idle. Something about idle hands being the devil’s tools.

Private lotteries were common in colonial Massachusetts but in 1719, the state (it wasn’t actually a state yet) banned all lotteries. The ban lasted until 1745, when a public lottery was begun to help fund King George’s War. Lotteries lasted for another 15 or so years — there were a lot of muskets to be bought – then got nixed again. Lotteries returned during the Revolutionary War.

Harvard Holds Lotteries

In 1794, what passed for the government of Massachusetts, gave permission to Harvard University to hold a lottery of its own. Harvard’s endowment is in the tens of billions now, but back in 1794, the university needed $8,000 to build a dormitory, Stoughton Hall. 

The lottery was not very successful — one story is that it failed to pay out winnings and caused a scandal — but even the university acknowledges that it took a decade to raise the funds.

In 1810, Harvard sought permission to run another lottery, this time for $30,000, and the result was Holworthy Hall, named after one of Harvard’s biggest donors, but whose building was paid for with the equivalent of scratch-offs.

Lotteries Banned Again

In 1833, the state banned lotteries again. This time it took 138 years, until 1971, for Massachusetts to legalize its own state lottery.

Meanwhile, in 1934, in the middle of The Depression, Massachusetts Senate Bill 0179 legalized pari-mutuel betting on both horses and dogs and formed a racing commission to keep it on the up-and-up. East Boston’s Suffolk Downs opened for thoroughbred racing in 1935, the same year as the Taunton Dog Track, and Wonderland Greyhound Park opened in Revere.

Raynham Greyhound Park added another dog track to the mix in 1941. The Massachusetts Greyhound Protection Act banned dog racing in 2009, but the Raynham track, now named Raynham-Taunton, still simulcasts dog races from venues in other states. 

Bay State Raceway, where Gillette Stadium now stands in Foxborough, opened for harness racing in 1947. That track closed in 1997 and the Plainridge Park harness track in Plainville opened in 1999. Live racing ended at Suffolk Downs in 2019.

Expanded Gaming Act

In November of 2011, Gov. Deval Patrick signed the Expanded Gaming Act into law, allowing for legal casinos in the state in designated areas. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission was then established, and a year later, the Gaming Commission began oversight of horse racing. 

Penn National Gaming got the state’s first slots parlor license (a category 2 license) in February 2014 for Plainridge Park and a casino was added to the harness track in June 2015. MGM Springfield became the state’s first category 1 casino when it opened in August 2018. In June 2019, Wynn Resorts opened the Encore Boston Harbor.

The Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Tribe is fighting to build a fourth casino in the state, First Light Casino & Resort, on its 321-acre reservation in Taunton. The Wampanoag tribe of Gay Head is looking to build the smaller Aquinnah Cliffs Casino on Martha’s Vineyard.

Should Massachusetts pass legalized sports betting, it remains to be seen how many licenses for sportsbooks will be allowed and whether sportsbooks will be allowed in professional sports arenas and stadiums as they are in other states.

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Contributors

Howard Gensler
Journalist / Reporter

Howard Gensler is a veteran journalist covering the Massachusetts sports betting market for BetMassachusetts.com. Before his focus on U.S. sports betting, Howard worked at the Philadelphia Daily News, TV Guide and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Howard is also a founding editor of bettorsinsider.com.

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