USF historians seek to unravel mystery behind roulette wheel

The roulette wheel was fashioned from an aluminum lamp during Tampa’s golden age of illegal gambling.
Published February 12
Updated February 12

TAMPA — For decades, the device sat locked inside a storeroom of artifacts at the University of South Florida library, a mystery to the Special Collections Department.

But now, for the first time, USF is casting a wide net for any information the public might have to help solve the riddle of the crude, portable roulette wheel fashioned from an early-20th century aluminum lamp.

Was it used for gambling, legal or illegal?

“There must be a hidden story behind the wheel,” said Davide Tanasi, an assistant professor in USF’s History Department. To find it, Tanasi is turning to “crowd curating” through his work with the Institute for Digital Exploration that he founded at USF a year ago with fellow history professor Michael Decker.

A 3-D scan of the wheel was created to circulate via the internet and to create replicas for sharing at public forums in hopes of turning up information.

See the 3D scan of the roulette lamp here.

The roulette wheel showcases the kind of work the new institute, called IDEX for short, hopes to do — using digital technology to find answers to the many historical mysteries USF has in its collections.

Like the roulette wheel, many artifacts have not been accessible to the public before because they’re too potentially valuable to pass around.

“Once we give it back to the community, we can get bits of information we need,” Tanasi said.

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Leading the roulette wheel effort is Jonathan Rodriguez, a 27-year-old USF senior who is interning with IDEX while pursuing a bachelor's degree in history.

He was asked to choose the first artifact and head up the crowd curation.

The roulette wheel was an easy choice, Rodriguez said, because "it's so unique. People will be interested."

Here are the specifications:

The creator started with a 19-inch-high lamp topped by a circular shade, both made of aluminum. Inside the shade, a small bicycle wheel was attached. The numbers 1 through 16 were painted in black all around the shade, though not in numerical order. Each number is encircled in yellow, white, green or red. There are also two black circles, one containing a white star and the other a white skull and crossbones.

Each of the circles are separated by screws drilled into the shade. They slow and finally stop a clicker device as the wheel spins.

The clicker is missing.

“It is like a roulette wheel, or you can call it a Wheel of Fortune,” Tanasi said. “Gamblers can bet on a number or a color. Hit the star and you win more, and death, you lose everything.”

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A similar device emerges from a search of old newspaper articles: The Tampa Tribune reported in 1932 that a downtown soft-drink stand operator was arrested for owning one.

“The roulette wheel might have been mistaken for an ordinary metal lamp shade except for the numerals around the edge and the flexible indicator,” the article says.

Still, the wheel wasn’t in use during the police raid, so there was no proof it was being used for gambling.

Tanasi is convinced gambling lamps would have used in criminal enterprises.

“This lamp dates to the time when it was the golden age of illegal gambling in Tampa from the 1920s through 1940s,” he said. “Because it is portable it can quickly be taken away if police were coming and easily moved somewhere else.”

Still, roulette wheel lamps might have been designed as a novelty game for a carnival or a church or school function. They may have been repurposed for gambling.

These are questions Tanasi hopes his public outreach will help answer.

Circulating the image through social media and email, students and faculty turned up one more roulette wheel lamp.

“I found it in my father’s closet after he passed,” said Sam Parrino, who saw the image and told Tanasi he his wife Donna had donated it to the Tampa Bay History Center. It sits, just as mysteriously, in the downtown museum’s archives room.

Parrino said he never heard about any family ties to illegal gambling.

“I'm curious what else they can find out about it. I bet there is more than the two.”

The USF roulette wheel was donated by the late historian Tony Pizzo.

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Pizzo also donated a set of bolita balls, used in an illegal numbers game.

Spanish for “little ball,” bolita is a game where 100 numbered balls were placed in a sack and players bet on which number or combination of numbers would be drawn.

In the USF collection, bolita ball number 7 is heavier than the others to help the game runner find it in the bag.

“There was always cheating,” student Rodriguez said with a laugh. “So, the wheel probably had a way, too.”

Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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