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Capri vs Caprice. What's in a name?

By Kat Bergeron

COURTESY THE PAUL JERMYN COLLECTIONThe Isle of Caprice opened in 1925 just outside of Mississippi waters on what had been named Dog Island. It offered sunbathing, swimming and gambling. Alcoholic drinks were not sold on the island but accommodating boat owners supplied visitors.
COURTESY THE PAUL JERMYN COLLECTIONThe Isle of Caprice opened in 1925 just outside of Mississippi waters on what had been named Dog Island. It offered sunbathing, swimming and gambling. Alcoholic drinks were not sold on the island but accommodating boat owners supplied visitors.

So, is the name supposed to be Isle of Capri or Isle of Caprice?

Either answer is correct, which makes the question about the Mississippi Coast's most historic casino as confusing as the names.

The Isle of Caprice was the first "legal" casino.

But so was the Isle of Capri.

Huh? These two too-similar names for two different casinos from two different eras are footnotes in Mississippi's checkered gambling history, which mixes legal with wink-wink illegal.

Origins

The Isle of Caprice Casino opened in July 1925. The Isle of Capri opened in August 1992. Their opening days were 67 years apart, and although both gambling resorts no longer exist, their catchy names continue to cause confusion in the 21st century.

Not surprisingly, a debate over the names occurred when the Ship Island ferry folks sent a press release to newsrooms about May's 90th anniversary of the ferry service to the barrier islands. The ferry's maiden trip was to the Isle of Caprice, as noted in the press release. The inevitable debates went something like this:

"The Isle of Caprice? Isn't that a mistake? Isn't it the Isle of Capri?"

Again, it depends on which gambling era we are talking about.

'20s bring first casino

The island ferry began May 1926 when a resort reopened for its second season on a tiny island that borders the Mississippi Sound. People had to get from the mainland to the island, so 90 years ago the Skrmetta family of Biloxi converted a fishing boat into a ferry to take sun worshipers and gamblers to the new resort called Isle of Caprice.

Although the site was long known as Dog Island, the three Biloxi entrepreneurs who started the Roaring '20s casino did not think it a proper name for a resort. Interestingly, this was a "legal" casino, because it was located outside of Mississippi waters and state bans on gambling could be ignored.

The reason for the new Isle of Caprice name is undocumented. Speculation points to capricious or impulsive gambling, or being fickle like a person -- or island -- that appears and disappears.

The 3-mile sandy spit was not there when the French arrived in 1699 but had resurfaced by 1847. Then it was gone, then back again by 1906. By the end of the 1930s all signs had disappeared except for an artesian well pipe that supplied the resort water.

Today it is underwater, somewhere near Dog Keys Pass. The family of one of the founding businessmen continues to pay taxes on the island, believing it will resurface.

A changing casino history

Written histories have long claimed Caprice opened in 1926, but this month an intrepid, long-time Sun Herald colleague, Mary Perez, discovered documentation that it was 1925. News articles apparently neglected to use "re-opening" when the 1926 season started.

The Caprice casino survived only a few years, which pleased the anti-gambling movement in this era of Prohibition. Stories blame its demise on hurricanes, erosion and a questionable fire.

Fast-forward to 1992. The Coast approves dockside gambling and in August 1992 the first casino opens at a former seafood factory on Biloxi's front beach. The Isle closed after 20 years and the site today is the Golden Nugget Casino.

The modern era

This first modern legal casino in 1992 was named the Isle of Capri, and promoters enjoyed making a link between that name and the original 1920s Coast casino. Both names were lyrically synced and both claimed firsts in Coast history, making "great copy," as they say in the promotion business.

But the name similarities create a confusion that won't likely correct itself. Capri vs. Caprice? The winner will depend on which era is under the history microscope.

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or Kat Bergeron, Southern Possum Tales, P.O Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.

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