"Seven-Toed Pete"

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Mon Jan 3 08:06:27 UTC 2005

On Sun, 2 Jan 2005 17:11:00 -0500, Douglas G. Wilson <douglas at NB.NET> wrote:

>>"Seven-Toed Pete" is an American and Canadian  synonym for seven-card stud
>>poker.  Can anyone dig up any early cites or lore concerning this name?
>At N'archive I find this from 1922, also "seven-card Pete" from 1926. I
>don't know whether these are early or interesting.
>There are also poker games called "three-toed Pete" and "lamebrain Pete".
>Why "Pete"? I don't know. (Why "stud" for that matter?) Which came first?
>Was there a basic game called "[five-card] Pete"? There is a (once popular)
>card game named "Pedro": any relation?
>Why "seven"? Seven cards, I guess. Why "toed"? The seven cards make a hand,
>not a foot, so shouldn't it be "seven-fingered"?
>One possibility is the "seven-toed" designation originally referred to a
>cat: polydactyly is much more common in cats than in humans, and a cat with
>a seven-toed paw is not too rare: maybe somebody thought Pete the 7-toed
>cat provided good luck at the card table, or something like that.

No need to invoke polydactylic felines, I don't think.  There's at least
one citation suggesting that a character named "Seven-Toed Pete" was known
from Western dime novels:

   Los Angeles Times, Apr 21, 1895, p. 14
   [Referring to a man found not guilty of holding up an Oregon bank
   by reason of insanity:] "He is a man of 49 years of age, with the
   impulses and judgment of a boy of 13 to 15 years, who, with his
   head stuffed full of the garish fiction of dime novels, emulates
   the conduct of heroic Seven-toed Pete, and sallies forth armed
   with a sharpened caseknife to lift the scalps of imaginary
   redskins in the persons of inoffensive small children."

I don't see any other references to a "Seven-Toed Pete", but there are
several late-19th-century cites referring to men nicknamed "Six-Toed
Pete", usually in Western frontier towns.  (Some websites mention a
"Six-Toed Pete" in stories about Wild Bill Hickock.)  The most interesting
character is a man whose real name was Pedro Badillo (or Badillos).  He is
described in a Reno Evening Gazette article of May 30, 1876 as someone who
had stood for office in Los Angeles but then had to flee the country after
being discovered as a horse thief.  He turns up in a Los Angeles Times
article of Feb. 25, 1894 as a "smuggler and land pirate" in Mexico who had
used the customhouse at Tiajuana as a fort and "defied the gendarmes of
the learned but vacillating Governor, Don Manuel Clemente Rojo."  Another
LA Times article, on Aug. 16, 1896, says he had "engaged in an
unsuccessful revolt against the Mexican government, after proclaiming
himself Governor of Sonora."  By that time Six-Toed Pete had settled in
the border town of Nogales (Arizona/Sonora): "Although Pete's hair is now
as white as snow, he yet turns the cards with nimble fingers, and will bet
500 'dobles' (Mexican dollars) on a rooster fight, as he did in early

--Ben Zimmer

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