William Wiley Barron was born in Elbert County, GA, in 1807. His family was well-to-do, likely the descendants of William Barron of Warren County who was beheaded by Tories in the Revolution. Wiley Barron ready law in the office of Judge Wilson Bird in Sparta and was admitted to the bar in the early 1820s. After a few years he abandoned his law practice and moved to Augusta where he kept the books for a large cotton-buying firm. Office work began to bore him after a few years and he embarked on the career of a professional gambler.
Travelers in the antebellum South often noted a mania for gambling among Southern men. The fever crossed every boundary of race, class, and age; wagers were made on wrestling matches, elections, cockfights, dogfights, footraces, horse races, backgammon, dice games, faro, brag, sledge, euchre and vingt-et-un. Lotteries both public and private, and of many degrees of legitimacy, abounded. Today’s arbitrary chasm between brokers and bookies was then hardly a crack in the moral pavement; a respectable gentleman in a fair-sized Southern city could go to the cotton exchange and wager that Liverpool buyers would be paying eight cents a pound by October, then cross the floor and invest a few hundred dollars in a certain bay gelding’s prospects for tomorrow’s third race.
Augusta in the decades before the Civil War was a thriving commercial and banking center, sometimes compared to New Orleans by European travelers. It was the focal point of the rich upper piedmont cotton region of eastern Georgia and western South Carolina. Pole boats came down the Savannah from Elbert County and Abbeville district, steamboats ran to Savannah and up the coast to the Northeast, and by the 1840s trains ran regularly to Atlanta and Athens in the west and to Charleston in the east. Augusta was a magnet for wealthy cotton planters for 50 miles around. Isolated among their families and slaves on their scattered plantations, these aspiring aristocrats sought those pleasures they could not find among their rustic neighbors on the courthouse square during court week. Augusta beckoned with fancy merchandise, cosmopolitan society, elegant entertainment, and as heady an assortment of expensive vice as could be found in ten days’ travel. Late fall, when the year’s cotton was usually sold, was one season for the lordly descent upon Augusta. February, when the horse races were run, was another.
Wiley Barron built a mansion in the heart of Augusta with a fortune he had won at cards, dice and the track. This palace was not only his home, but a casino which soon gained the name of “the Monte Carlo of the South.” We have no record of its location (possibly on lower Ellis street in the Old Town district), or exactly what games were played thereâ€•certainly faro, the preferred short road to fiscal ruin in the mid-19th century, and vingt-et-un, as blackjack was known in those days. Barron was particular about his clientele; no man was admitted who could not afford the high stakes. Minors and bank employees were barred, the former out of care for their father’s finances, the latter from concern for those of their employers. It is safe to assume that no woman with pretensions to respectability sought entry to Barron’s establishment, the one exception being his wife, Julia.
Those who met Barron’s standards were ushered in and provided expensive liquor and cigars free of charge. Elaborate meals and imported wines were served throughout the evening, again without charge to the gamblers. Baron’s largesse not only satisfied Southern requirements of hospitality, but also lengthened the house odds; a relaxed gentleman with a belly full of smoked venison, eel pie and Old Overholt is rarely a match for a coffee-sipping card handler. Barron also provided bedrooms for his visitors; their rest was unlikely to be disturbed since he always closed the tables at midnight.
Wiley Barron’s appearance and manner were suited to his profession. He was a tall, thin man with black hair and a dark complexion, considered to be one of the most handsome men in the city. He was well-educated and conversant in business and the law and had a reputation for generosity and tenderheartedness. Many stories were told of him returning money to men who had lost everything in his parlor. Despite his openhandedness, Barron managed to grow wealthy. At one time before the War his fortune was estimated at half a million dollars. He wore a diamond ring for which he was said to have paid $20,000. Barron was a great admirer of Alexander Stephens, and called the Confederate statesmen every time he was in Augusta. Given Stephens’ devotion to whist and euchre, it is likely that he also called on Barron from time to time.
Barron seems to have survived during the Civil War and its aftermath in good style. Not until the 1880s did his luck begin to falter and his fortune dissipate. He was forced to sell his house. It was bought by the prominent Augustan, Ferdinand Phinizy, whose father had run a race track in Oglethorpe County’s Wolfskin district. Phinizy also employed Barron’s son as a bookkeeper. Eventually the old casino was sold to the city and served for a time as city hall and police headquarters.
Wiley Barron knew that in life, as in blackjack, the house has the odds; while still wealthy he bought a large lot in Magnolia Cemetery, put an iron fence around it, and erected a massive granite vault. On a marble slab guarded by an iron dog he had inscribed:
Farewell vain world, I know enough of thee, and now am careless what thou sayeth of me, thy smiles I court not, nor thy frowns I fear, my cares are past, my head lies quiet here. What faults you knew in me take care to shun, and look at home, enough there’s to be done.
Barron’s son died and was buried beside the tomb. Barron and his wife moved far up Broad Street near the factories and the canal. His health failed and his wife supported them by running a small grocery and saloon next to their house. He joined the Episcopal church. Every Sunday, weather permitting, he would walk across town to the cemetery and look at his magnificent tomb. On Dec. 19, 1894, Wiley Barron died at the age of 87. He had outlived his fortune, his only child, all the men named in his will as his pallbearers and the vivid, pleasure-seeking world which made him. The best bet he ever made was on life’s one sure thing: Magnolia Cemetery is on the Watkins street between Second and Third. You will find Wiley Barron’s monument at the corner of Seventh and De L’Aigle.
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