Mose the Fireboy: Frank Chanfrau, the Actor

Frank Chanfrau, the original stage fireboy.

We’ve met Mose Humphreys, the tall, red-headed Bowey Boy who inspired Mose the Fireboy. And we have heard tell that there was a fight once, between Humphreys and another firefighter named Hen Chanfrau. We heard that during this fight, Hen’s younger brother Frank stood by and cheered.

This is Frank’s story, and the story of how he created a stage character that became a fad in his lifetime and a legend afterward.

Let’s begin with a brief summary of his life, as recalled by the New York Times in an obituary of the actor, dated October 3, 1884:

He was born on the 22ns of February, 1824, on the corner of the Bowery and Pell street, in the fifth ward of this city. The tenement in which he first saw light was the historic “The Old Tree House.” He was taught the rudiments in city schools. His father, who kept a famous eating house, failed, and, being compelled to support himself, Frank went westward and learned the ship carpenter’s trade on the shores of the great lakes. While still a lad he was a member of the “Dramatic Institute,” an amateur theatrical organization which used to attempt Shakespearean performances in the old Franklin Theatre. This connection procured for him the acquaintance of some theatrical folk, if it had no better result, and when  he returned from the West, without employment, he obtained a place as a “helper” on the stage of the Bowery Theatre. In those days, he was a member of the Volunteer Fire Department, and ran with Engine No. 15 — the “Old Maid.” He developed remarkable mimetic powers while working at the theatre, and was wont to imitate Tom Hamblin, the manager of the Bowery; the elder Booth, Forrest, who was a rising star, and the other celebrated actors. Hamblin heard of his ability and gave him a position as utility man in the company. Here he remained, taking the first steps of his profession, for some years, and afterward he joined the company of the Park Theatre, where he was considered a promising young actor. It was not until he appeared at Mitchell’s Olympic as Jerry Clip, the versatile barber, in “A Widow’s Victim,” that Chanfrau’s name became familiarly known. That performance was highly amusing and ingenious. Soon after Chanfrau joined Mitchell’s companyMr. Ben Baker, the stage manager of that house, hastily wrote a sketch entitled “A Glance at New-York in 1848,” which was produced for Mr. Baker’s benefit on Feb. 15 of that year. In it Mr. Chafrau appeared as Mose. The following April he became a partner, with Mssrs. Halsey and Ewen, in the management of the Chatham-Street Theatre. For a number of years thereafter he played Mose at Mitchell’s, and on the same nights appeared also at the Chatham-Street in the same character. The Chatham-Street piece was called “New York As It Is,” and was also written by Mr. Baker. Chanfrau’s Mose outlived both of these trifling plays, and figured also in “The Mysteries and Miseries of New-York,” “Three Years and after,” “Mose Married,” and “Mose in California.” 

Mose made Chanfrau. The play was a mere sketch, and the Bowery b’hoy was its most conspicuous though not its only striking character, for Lize and Sikesey were both acknowledged types of the low life in New-York. Chanfrau caught the mannerisms and speech of the good-natured New-York rowdy, a type which has long since given way to the transplanted product of the criminal hatcheries of the Old World, and presented a picture at once accurate and amusing.

 For those who didn’t catch it, Chafrau came to the attention of theater producers for his skill at impersonating established actors, including “the elder Booth.” They are speaking here of Junius Brutus Booth, the father of John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Lincoln.

Chanfrau experienced a long career downturn after his remarkable success as Mose, and his career didn’t enjoy a resurgence until 1868, when he created the role of Kit in “The Arkansas Traveler,” a revenge tragedy set in the American frontier. He played the role 300 times, traveling with it throughout America. According to the Times obituary, he grew bitter in his old, and gained considerable weight, in part because of rheumatism, which contributed to his death by stroke.

The New York Times also noted that Frank Chanfrau had been a “remarkably handsome” man in his youth.

My previous piece on Mose Humphries told two stories of Chandrau’s youthful encounters with the basis for his Mose character, but I have found one more that claims that the actor actively sough out Humphries and studied him while preparing for the role. It’s from a rather odd book called “My Angling Friends: Being a Second Series of Sketches of Men I Have Fished with,” author by Fred Mather in 1801, and is exactly what it claims to be: A collection of memories of people that Mather has caught fish with.

One of these men was author Ned Buntline, who used Mose as a character in his novels, which we will come to. But in his discussion of Buntline, Mather writes the following:

F. S. Chanfrau made a great hit in his character of Mose, a soap-locked, red-shirted volunteer fireman, who always wore a plug hat on one side of his head and held a cigar tilted up at an acute angle. The play furnished popular quotations of firemen’s talk, and we schoolboys would quote: “Sykesy, take de butt” and “Get off dem hose or I’ll hit yer wid a spanner” etc. Mose was our hero about 1850, and now as I go through Centre street on my way to the Forest and Stream office, I stop each week and look in the window of No. 20 at a picture of Chanfrau as Mose, disgustedly saying: “I’m bound not to run wid der machine any more.” Five old-timers were in the City Hall by invitation of Martin J. Keese, an old fire laddy, to meet me and talk of Ned Buntline, and when I mentioned this picture they went to see it. “It’s like a glimpse of the old days,” said Keese, “to see that picture, but it’s sad to think of the descent from Mose to Chimmie Fadden. Ned Buntline took the character of Mose from Mose Humphrey — you remember him, Jake? He ran with old 40 engine and got licked in every fight he went into. Chanfrau spent weeks studying Mose and made up just like him.” And then these old “boys” became reminiscent of fires, fights, Harry Howard and other chiefs, and I enjoyed their enthusiasm as they lived their lives over again.

If you pay attention, this is actually the fourth book he has written about fishing with friends.

As you’ll see, once we start discussing the play itself, there is considerable reason to believe that New York’s volunteer firemen didn’t think much of the character of Mose. At the same time, there are quite a few who say, as with the Times obituary, that Chanfrau’s performance was notably authentic.

I expect both are true. There’s no reason to think that Chanfrau, who was born in the same neighborhood as Mose, was himself a volunteer firefighter, was acclaimed for his skills with mimicry, and had met Mose on several occasions and had perhaps studied him for weeks, would not be able to produce an authentic portrait of a brawling fireboy onstage. But as the character of Mose became an inspiration to a new generation of Bowery Boys, there is every reason to think that volunteer firemen might not appreciate that this trouble making streetfighter had come to represent them.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.