Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

Fisherman's Luck

Edward Tylor Miller/tiles/non-collection/3/3-16-Edward-Miller-LOC.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Representative Edward T. Miller of Maryland served in the House for six terms, from 1947 to 1959.
After the 83rd Congress (1953–1955) adjourned sine die in late August 1954, a reporter from the Baltimore Sun caught up with Representative Edward Tylor Miller of Maryland and asked about his late summer plans. The first thing on his to-do list, Miller said, was to go fishing.

A decorated veteran of both World Wars, Miller first won a seat in the House in 1946 from a district covering Maryland’s Eastern Shore. A largely agricultural area, the Eastern Shore touted perhaps the most unique coastal environment in the country. Stretching from the northernmost reaches of the Chesapeake Bay southward to the town of Crisfield and across the Delmarva peninsula to Assawoman Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, the low-lying Eastern Shore was threaded by tidal rivers and pocketed by wetlands. Despite decades of overharvesting, the region teemed with aquatic life that sustained communities of watermen up and down the shore. In the shallow marshes of the middle and lower Bay, freshwater mixed with saltwater to create a nutrient-rich habitat home to oysters, terrapins, blue crabs, and hundreds of fish species, including the striped bass, or rockfish as it was (and is) known throughout the region. Other species included bluefish, spot, sea trout, menhaden, and flounder.

Chesapeake Bay Fishing Fair Guide/tiles/non-collection/3/3-16-Chesapeake-Bay-FFGuide_Pratt.xml Chesapeake Bay Fishing Fair Association, Inc., “Chesapeake Bay Fishing Fair Guide, No. 6,” 1939. Maryland Dept Ephemera Collection, EPFL. Courtesy Enoch Pratt Free Library / Maryland’s State Library Resource Center The guidebook for the 1939 Chesapeake Bay Fishing Fair in Annapolis.
During his free time, Miller spent hours boating up and down the Miles River near his home and he was a regular along the wharves and docks of his district. He also served on the board of the Chesapeake Bay Fishing Fair Association, which operated one of the largest fishing conventions on the East Coast. An important economic marker in the district, the fair drew thousands of visitors every year and featured crab races, boat shows, beauty pageants, and a fishing contest. At the end of each summer, when mature rockfish began their long journey back down the Bay to the Atlantic, anglers descended upon the fish-laden waters to cast their lines in a variety of competitions. Those who hooked the largest fish of each species won a trophy and fishing equipment worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Local newspapers advertised the event and published photos of beaming anglers alongside their catch.

In February 1950, however, the popular fishing contest, which by then was entering its fifteenth year, became entangled in a discussion among government officials that addressed the core of an unresolved philosophical question long debated among anglers: was catching the big one a matter of chance or skill?

If it was chance, federal regulators argued they had no choice but to shut down the competition as an illegal lottery. How Miller and Congress answered that question would determine whether the fishing contest, and similar events around the country, would be allowed to continue.

Innocent Pastime or Criminal Scheme?

By the time the government ruled against the Chesapeake Bay Fishing Fair, lotteries had largely fallen out of favor in America. Common during the Early Republic (1780–1830), lotteries became the target of moral reformers of the mid-nineteenth century who agitated against them for causing what they said was fraud, corruption, and poverty. As a result, many states banned lotteries, and by the 1880s Louisiana had the last legal lottery in the country. (Louisiana lawmakers chartered the Louisiana State Lottery Company in 1868 to raise money after the Civil War.) At one point, the Louisiana lottery generated more than 90 percent of its revenue from out-of-state customers, relying on the Postal Service (officially labeled the Post Office Department until 1971) to sell tickets nationwide.

Judge Magazine August 1890 Cover/tiles/non-collection/3/3-16-Judge-Cover-HathiTrust.xml Judge 18, no. 462 (23 August 1890): cover, HathiTrust. This illustration on the August 23, 1890, issue of Judge magazine portrays the Post Office Department as an involuntary accomplice of the Louisiana State Lottery Company.

But Congress, worried about the supposed corrupting influence of the lottery, passed a law in 1890 that banned all lottery material, including advertisements, from being sent in the mail. The act also empowered the Postmaster General to refuse to deliver any letters and packages suspected of violating the law. “The immense wealth accumulated by this Louisiana State Lottery has enabled it to control almost everything in Louisiana. Finance, politics, morals, seem to be controlled by this power, and to oppose it, particularly in New Orleans, seems to be fatal,” observed Representative Henry Clay Evans of Tennessee.

The 1890 act dealt a fatal blow to the Louisiana lottery, which shut down a few years later. Importantly, Congress later broadened the definition of a lottery to include any contest in which prizes were awarded “in whole or in part upon lot or chance.” This meant that even if a competition involved a combination of skill and luck, it could still be construed as a type of lottery. The legislation also gave the solicitor of the Postal Service, the agency’s chief legal officer, broad leeway to decide which contests would be allowed to use the mail.

Fishing for Something Fishy

By 1950, that leeway fell to the Postal Service’s chief solicitor, Frank J. Delany, a Harvard-educated lawyer from Chicago, who had served as a Marine during World War II and worked for a judge advocate general in Washington, DC.

Delany’s office faced a daunting workload—each year it analyzed more than 2,000 raffles, sweepstakes, and other contests to determine their legality. As solicitor, Delany had ruled against a merchant organization’s attempt to attract customers by distributing raffle tickets with purchases at participating stores. He also prevented a New York newspaper from running a prize contest that encouraged readers to match certain numbers published in each issue. Even if a contest was organized to raise money for a nonprofit, Delany purged it from the mail if it involved a prize and an element of chance. There is “no distinction . . . between a contest conducted for charitable purposes and one designed merely to sell merchandise,” he wrote.

Chesapeake Bay/tiles/non-collection/3/3-16-ChesapeakeBayFishing-loc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress A fishing boat floats in the Chesapeake Bay.
On February 3, 1950, Delany declared certain fishing contests to be illegal lotteries because regardless of an angler’s ability to catch fish, the size of a fish was a matter of chance—that if a participant in a fishing contest paid an entry fee and won money for catching the largest fish, then the contest was no different than a gambling scheme in which winners were selected at random. Delany’s office also declared that newspapers running stories and advertisements on fishing contests would be non-mailable under federal lottery regulations.

But Delany’s decision to target fishing contests produced a swift blowback. In the years immediately following World War II, interest in the American outdoors boomed. In 1945, the year the war ended, state authorities issued 8.2 million fishing licenses. By 1949, the number of fishing licenses had nearly doubled to 15.4 million. From the Chesapeake Bay to Cape Cod, anglers sent angry letters to the Postal Service that insisted catching fish was more science than chance and required significant expertise. One fisherman explained to the press that a successful fishing trip involved the consideration of many variables, including water temperature, tide levels, and choice of equipment. Max Chambers, executive secretary of the Chesapeake Bay Fishing Fair Association, extended an invitation to postal officials to join him on a fishing trip to better appreciate the knowledge and skill needed to hook a fish.

Despite the outcry, the Post Office Department doubled down on its ruling. In a letter to an inquiring Florida Senator, Postmaster General Jesse Donaldson wrote, “It is undoubtedly true skill is present in fishing—in the selection of one's equipment and of the place to fish, in the handling of the equipment, etc.—yet it is still a matter of chance how large a fish one will catch.”

In response, Representative Miller of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, introduced a two-page bill that carved out an exception for fishing contests. “Fishing . . . is as much a sport or skill as shooting or any . . . field sports,” Miller declared. “This matter strikes fairly close to home as one active in fishing,” he said.

Robert Ramsay/tiles/non-collection/3/3-16-Robert-Ramsay-loc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Robert Ramsay of West Virginia was one of the few House Members with three periods of nonconsecutive service.

Angry Anglers Arrive in Abundance

Miller’s advocacy for the anglers and businesses in his district was nothing new. As a member of both the Appropriations Committee and the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, he ensured that federal funding went to support river and harbor improvement projects back home on the Eastern Shore. Miller may have been a Republican, but his district was largely Democratic and his support for the fishing fair also fell squarely within his constituent services. The Baltimore Sun once observed that “his greatest single source of political strength is among the watermen.”

On June 12, a House Judiciary subcommittee, chaired by Robert L. Ramsay of West Virginia, held hearings on the measure and heard from numerous witnesses. In his testimony, Miller decried the Post Office Department’s interpretation of the lottery laws as “legislation by bureaus or departments and not by Congress.” Max Chambers, the fishing fair’s secretary, explained the burden he faced under the new policy. To avoid being designated a lottery, he said, the fishing fair could eliminate entry fees from the fishing contest, but it relied on those fees to help defray administrative costs. Avoiding the use of the mail was also unrealistic because the fair relied on newspaper and magazine announcements for publicity. The Postal Service’s ruling didn’t just affect the East Coast—it cast a net across fishing contests nationwide. Representative Russell Mack of Washington State, whose coastal district often hosted salmon derbies, explained that state and local officials organized fishing contests to promote recreation, to advertise the region’s natural resources, and to encourage tourism.

Martin John Kennedy/tiles/non-collection/3/3-16-Childrens-Fishing-JohnKennedyMartin-PA2020_12_0033a.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives New York Representative Martin John Kennedy attended a fishing contest for children in Spring Lake, New Jersey in 1938. Fishing was a common hobby among Members of Congress, and many sports clubs held fishing contests up and down the Atlantic coast.
The subcommittee also heard from Marylanders who took great offense at the insinuation that catching fish was a matter of luck. Randolph Harrison arrived on Capitol Hill from his home on Tilghman Island, where he operated a fleet of recreational fishing boats, a hotel, and a restaurant. The charter captain was no stranger to politics—he took Members of Congress and Supreme Court Justices out on fishing expeditions, and later won election to the Maryland house of delegates in 1954. Harrison insisted to the committee that catching fish is a matter of skill “999 out of 1000” times.

The subcommittee was a sympathetic audience. Lawmakers agreed that fishing took great skill, and that the level of luck involved was more like other sports than a lottery. Charles Bennett of Florida pointed out that “almost any kind of sport has a lot of chance in it. When a man hits a golf ball the wind may make a lot of difference in where it goes.” “There is an element of chance in everything we do,” Miller added. “Life is a lottery. It is not a gamble, or a scheme."

The Postal Service: Return Bill to Sender

But the Postal Service remained unconvinced. At a second subcommittee hearing on June 28, USPS Assistant Solicitor Peter Connolly defended the agency’s decision. Connolly acknowledged that fishing involved some skill, but stood by the letter of the law, which stated that a contest could be a lottery even if the winner only depended “in part” on chance. Connolly also worried that making an exception for fishing contests would weaken the lottery laws. “If an exception is to be made . . . in favor of one type [of] lottery where the proceeds are allegedly to be used for a specific purpose deemed to be worthy,” Connolly said, “then exceptions would be demanded by other organizations and groups both with respect to the type of lottery to be permitted as well as the purpose for which the lottery is carried on.” Connolly noted that churches and civic organizations frequently asked the Post Office Department to relax its rules when hosting contests for fundraising purposes.

Connolly’s testimony, however, failed to sway Ramsay, the subcommittee chair. “The evidence . . . is overwhelming that there is not a scheme, not a lottery, not a chance,” he declared. In advocating for his bill, Miller concluded that the current enforcement of the law did not match the spirit of the law. “I do not believe that when this law was passed originally it was the intend [sic] of the Congress that the Department would go into matters of this.”

Edward Tylor Miller/tiles/non-collection/3/3-16-ETM-pa2012_05_0008.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives After Miller failed to win re-election in 1958, he served as vice chairman of the United States delegation to the Second United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea in 1960.

A Pastime of “Respectability and Wholesomeness”

The Judiciary Committee reported Miller’s measure favorably on July 12. “The typical fishing contest . . . has a solid basis of respectability and wholesomeness far removed from the reprehensible type of gambling activity which it was paramount in the congressional mind to forbid” six decades earlier, the committee declared. Miller’s bill carving out an exception for fishing contests in the country’s lottery regulations passed the House and Senate without debate. President Harry S. Truman signed it into law on August 16, 1950, just two days before the fishing fair was set to begin. The big winner of the festival that year was a Baltimore woman who caught the largest overall fish—a 49-inch black drum fish that weighed in at a whopping 74 pounds.

In a letter to his constituents a few days after the fishing fair, Edward Miller celebrated their victory. “It was comforting to know that those of us who took part” in the contest, Miller wrote, “are not to be branded by the postal authorities as in a class with big time gamblers.” Now protected by Congress, the fishing contest continued as a yearly tradition. “Tangier Sound has been enjoying excellent fishing and the prospects are good that it will continue,” the Baltimore Sun reported on the eve of the 43rd annual Chesapeake Bay Fishing Fair in August 1978. “The recent peeler crab run promises good bait supply for anglers vying for the Governor’s Bowl (largest rockfish), and good prizes for bluefish, trout, hardheads, spot, black drum and channel bass.”

Sources: Congressional Record, House, 51st Cong., 1st sess. (16 August 1890): 8717; Congressional Record, House, 81st Cong., 2nd sess. (27 July 1950): 11230; Congressional Record, Senate, 81st Cong., 2nd sess. (9 August 1950): 12063; Congressional Record, House, 90th Cong., 2nd sess. (22 January 1968): 407, 408, 409; Hearing before Subcommittee No. 4 of the House Committee on the Judiciary, Amending U.S. Code, Relating to Lotteries, 81st Cong., 2nd sess. (1950); Hearing before Subcommittee No. 4 of the House Committee on the Judiciary, To Amend Chapter 61, Title 18, U.S. Code, Relating to Lotteries, 81st Cong., 2nd sess. (1950); House Committee on the Judiciary, Amending Chapter 61 (Relating to Lotteries), 81st Cong., 2nd sess., H. Rept. 2536 (1950); Congressional Directory, 81st Cong., 2nd sess. (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1950): 152, 834; Annual Report of the Postmaster General for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1949, 81st Cong., 2nd sess., H. Doc. 390 (1950): 102; Annual Report of the Postmaster General for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1950, 82nd Cong., 1st sess., H. Doc. 2 (1951): 85; H.R. 9074, 81st Cong. (1950); An act to amend certain sections of the Revised Statutes relating to lotteries, and for other purposes, 26 Stat. 465 (1890); An act to codify, revise, and amend the penal laws of the United States, Public Law 60-350, 35 Stat. 1088 (1909); Public Law 81-700, 64 Stat. 451 (1950); Official Opinions of the Solicitor for the Post Office Department, vol. 9 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1952): 164, 177–178, 179; Baltimore Sun, 10 January 1947, 2 May 1948, 1 April 1950, 9 April 1950, 17 August 1950, 21 August 1950, 15 July 1952, 25 October 1953, 22 August 1954, 29 April 1956, 4 October 1956, 27 August 1978; Boston Globe, 3 February 1950; The Cumberland News (Cumberland, MD), 28 March 1966; New York Times, 31 December 1893; The News (Frederick, MD), 3 February 1950, 4 October 1956; Star-Democrat (Easton, MD), 14 November 1947, 25 August 1950, 29 August 1952, 27 August 1954; Washington Post, 24 January 1950, 4 March 1994; William W. Warner, Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay (New York: Penguin Books, 1976): 3, 10, 276; Wayne E. Fuller, Morality and the Mail in Nineteenth-Century America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003): 193, 194, 196; G. Robert Blakey and Harold A. Kurland, “Development of the Federal Law of Gambling,” Cornell Law Review 63, no. 6 (August 1978): 927, 936, 936n51; Robert Michelson, “Striped Bass Complex, Misunderstood Fish,” 27 April 2020, Coastal Review, https://coastalreview.org/2020/04/striped-bass-complex-misunderstood-fish/.