Bolita is a form of gambling. A lottery. A numbers game.

The term bolita means “little ball.” One hundred used to play the game every day.

One hundred small balls have numbers running from 1-100 placed inside. People place bets on a certain number. If their ball is drawn, they win.

Small money involved. As little as a nickel. Sometimes, a dollar. The higher the amount bet, the higher the multiple for the winner.

The balls were placed in a bag, shaken and then someone picked one of the balls. The ball picked was cracked open. The number inside was the day’s winning number.

The game came over from Cuba in the late 19th century. Initially began in Tampa. Moved its way south till it arrived in Key West.

Bolita’s customers were working class Hispanics, Italians, and members of the black population.

When bolita made its appearance in Key West, the Cuban population was one third of the Key West population.

Cash flow was big. Nickels turned into dollars. Though gambling was illegal in Florida, bolita flourished. Numbers could be bought on the streets and in saloons. Local politicians and law enforcement bribed.

In the 1930’s, turf wars were commonplace. Especially from Tampa to Miami. Italian mobsters got involved. They saw the opportunity to make money and felt they could control the numbers game.

The turf wars are referred to as the “Era of Blood.”

The Trafficanti crime family was based in Tampa. It was 1950 and bolita was being widely played in Tampa, Miami, and Key West.

In 1951, one hundred bolita houses were operating in Key West. Each evening, 3 balls were drawn in a room behind a bar at 1925 Truman Avenue.

The Trafficanti family wanted their piece/control of Key West’s bolita activity.

The Key West bolita kingpins were locals. They did not welcome outside interference.

The “syndicate” sent 3 “enforcers” to Key West to take over the bolita trade. A bad move. All 3 ended up dead.

The first was found in a Key West public swimming pool. His hands tied behind behind his back and a line running around his neck, knees and feet. His body weighted down with old time window weights.

Another was found on Stock Island lying on the ground dead having been shot.

The third was found on South Beach. Shot and dead.

No guns were found near the bodies on Stock Island and South Beach.

The Justice of the Peace determined all 3 deaths were “suicides.”

Key West for Key Westers!

Bolita slowed down later in the 1950’s. Returned with a huge resurgence in the 1960’s.

Authorities investigated big time. A joke. Arrests were made by the State Attorney’s Office and Monroe County Sheriff’s Department. Kingpin Louis “Blackie” Fernades and several others were arrested.

In the front door and out the back of the jail in minutes. Fines generally small. Did not discourage the bolita trade.

A “cozy relationship” was enjoyed with the Justices of the Peace and others in the criminal justice system.

Bolita was a way of life in Key West!

The many years I have been in Key West I have neither seen the sale of nor heard of the bolita lottery. Somewhere along the way it was gone. How and when I was not able to ascertain.

Enjoy your day!




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