Harrodsburg’s Bacon College tried its luck with the lottery

Published 6:45 am Thursday, November 15, 2018


Guest columnist

A lucky ticket holder in South Carolina recently matched the winning numbers for the $1.6 billion “Mega Millions” lottery.

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While no Kentuckian won this jackpot, the commonwealth has its own long history with lotteries.

Today, the Kentucky Lottery earmarks part of its revenue for education. In the early 1850s, a Kentucky college unsuccessfully tried to do the same.

In 1851, Harrodsburg’s Bacon College was in financial trouble. Three former Georgetown College professors, who were members of the Disciples of Christ, had founded the school 14 years earlier. When Mercer County pledged $50,000 to support the institution, Bacon College moved to Harrodsburg.

Although the school had some success — including the construction of a stately college building in 1843 — Mercer County only provided $18,000 in funds. Therefore, by 1850, the college had closed. Because other schools had previously used lotteries to raise money, supporters of Bacon College approached the legislature to do the same. They hoped that this form of gaming would save the institution.

Some Kentuckians, however, questioned the morality of having a religious school sponsor a lottery. One wrote that, “of all cut-throat gambling ever invented by man, lotteries are the most fraudulent.”

He also expressed concerns — still heard today — that those who play lotteries are usually those who can least afford it. “Those who invest their money with the hope of winning golden and brilliant prizes are mostly day laborers and shop-keeper’s clerks,” he wrote.

Despite these complaints, in February 1851, the legislature passed a bill allowing Bacon College to raise $50,000 from a lottery.

This news brought additional scorn. One writer complained that the “prayer-making, psalm-singing, God-fearing, devil-hating” trustees were “hypocritical” for raising funds in this manner. Another complained that this “theological seminary” would impose “avarice and vices” upon the state. Calling the bill an “outrageous and impolitic proceeding,” the writer was disgusted that the legislature promoted “inducements for entering into a course of idleness and profligacy.”

This correspondent echoed concerns that players would divert their money from more diligent pursuits. The lottery, he argued, gave workers “vain and visionary dreams of fortune” that derailed “the industrious but slow accumulation of wealth.” He also worried about the addictive nature of the game, arguing that the legislature should “guard the industry and morality of the citizen from being contaminated by a mania for the sudden acquisition of wealth by lotteries or by gaming.”

As complaints mounted, Gov. John LaRue Helm vetoed the bill in March 1851. One newspaper said that Helm was “convinced that the system is contrary to morality and the public good.” The legislature sustained Helm’s veto.

Although Bacon College’s hope for a lottery failed, the school’s trustees soon began a fundraising campaign that ultimately netted $180,000. Perhaps the notoriety of a religious school trying to sponsor a lottery had brought attention to their plight.

In 1858, Bacon College amended its charter and the school became known as Kentucky University.

In 1864, a fire destroyed its college building, so the school joined with Lexington’s Transylvania University. After a series of splits and mergers with other institutions, including the state Agricultural and Mechanical College, the school eventually became the University of Kentucky.

Bacon College never used a lottery to raise funds, but this type of gaming earns revenue for education today. Although some Kentuckians still think that the practice induces “idleness and profligacy,” the amount of money spent on tickets each year — from scratch-offs to number drawings — proves that the lottery is alive and well in the Bluegrass State.

Stuart W. Sanders is the Kentucky Historical Society’s history advocate.