Mose the Fireboy: Herbert Asbury

Gangs of New York: Mose gets weird

Mose has not yet become a tall tale. He’s been a lot of things, but generally remained variations of the same essential characterization: A good-tempered butcher/volunteer firefighter, a Bowery B’hoy in appearance and speech, and a brawler with a good heart.

So when did he start doing the sorts of things that we associate with Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan? I think we can find the roots of it in firemen parades. Chanfrau’s version of Mose was already appearing in parades the year “Glance at New York” debuted. From that point on, New York firemen regularly appeared in parades in character, such as at a Massachusetts parade in 1857, reported on by the Springfield Republican, in which visiting New York Firemen “illustrated ‘Mose’ most completely.

In 1958, in Boston, firemen appeared as “‘Mose and Lize’ on a bender,” and Moses continue to show up at parades from then on, in a variety of forms. In 1877 in Hoboken, a stuffed figure called “Old Mose” was put on display at a clothing store during a fireman’s parade, posed heroically with a child in his arms. In 1888, a fireman’s day at a Cincinnati expo included a song called “Mose, Get Off that Hose.” In 1897, in Boston, a parade of volunteer firemen included “‘Big Mose’ in grotesque costume.”

And so Mose had become an increasingly exaggerated parade character used as a mascot for firemen in parades, and I think it is in this context that a writer named Herbert Asbury was exposed to them. As we have seen earlier, New York fire departments often had images of Frank Chanfrau as Mose hung in their buildings, and Asbury, a muckraking journalist with a taste for sensationalism, first heard the stories of Mose along the bowery. He was extensively researching a book on firemen, eventually published in 1930 as “Ye Olde Fire Boys,” where he claims to have first heard of Mose from firemen.

But Mose first appeared in Asbury’s 1928 book “Gangs of New York.” I will quote him first, and then discuss Asbury’s version of Mose. He wrote:

But the greatest of the Bowery Boys, and the most imposing figure in all the history of the New York gangs, was a leader who flourished in the forties, and captained the gangsters in the most important of their punitive and marauding expeditions into the Five Points. His identity remains unknown, and there is excellent reason to believe that he may be a myth, but vasty tales of his prowess and of his valor in the fights against the Dead Rabbits and the Plug Uglies have come down through the years, gaining incident and momentum as they came. Under the simple sobriquet of Mose he had become a legendary figure of truly heroic proportions, at once the Samson, the Achilles, and the Paul Bunyan of the Bowery. And beside him, in the lore of the street, marches the diminutive figure of his faithful friend and counselor, by name Syksey, who is said to have coined the phrase “hold de butt,” an impressive plea for the remains of a dead cigar.

The present generation of Bowery riffraff knows little or nothing of the mighty Mose, and only the older men who plod that now dreary and dismal relict of a great street have heard the name. But in the days before the Civil War, when the bowery was in its heyday and the Bowery Boy was the strutting peacock of gangland, songs were sung in honor of his great deeds, and the gangsters surged into battle shouting his name and imploring his spirit to join them and lend power to their arms. He was scarcely cold in his grave before Chanfrau had immortalized him by writing Mose, The Bowery B’hoy, which was first performed before a clamorous audience at the Olympic Theater in 1849, the year of the Astor Place riot.

Mose was at least eight feet tall and broad in proportion, and his colossal bulk was crowned by shock of ginger-colored hair, on which he wore a beaver hat measuring more than two feet from crown to brim. His hands were as large as the hams from a Virginia hog, and on those rare moments when he was in repose they dangled below his knees; it was Syksey’s habit to boast pridefully that his chieftain could stand erect and scratch his kneecap. The feet of the great captain were so large that the ordinary boot of commerce would not fit his big toe; he wore specially constructed footgear, the soles of which were copper plates studded with nails an inch long. Woe and desolation came upon the gangs of the Five Points when the great Mose leaped into their midst and began to kick and stamp; they fled in despair and hid themselves in the innermost depths of the rookeries of Paradise Square.

The strength of the gigantic Mose was as the strength of ten men. Other Bowery Boys went into battle carrying brickbats and the ordinary stave of the time, but Mose, when accoutered for the fray, bore in one hand a great paving stone and in the other a hickory or oak wagon tongue. This was his bludgeon, and when it was lost in the heat of battle he simply uprooted an iron lamp-post and laid about him with great zeal. Instead of the knife affected by his followers, he pinned his faith on a butcher’s cleaver. Once when the dead rabbits overwhelmed his gang and rushed ferociously up the Bowery to wreck the Boys’ headquarters, the great Mose wrenched a tree out of the earth, and holding it by the upper branches, employed it as a flail, smiting the Dead Rabbits even as Samson smote the Philistines. The Five Points thugs broke and fled before him, but he pursued them into their lairs around Paradise Square and wrecked two tenements before his rage cooled. Again, he stood his ground before a hundred of the best brawlers of the Points, ripping huge paving blocks from the street and sidewalk and hurling them into the midst of his enemies, inflicting frightful losses.

In his lighter moments it was the custom of this great god of the gangs to lift a horse car off the tracks and carry it a few blocks on his shoulders, laughing uproariously at the bumping the passengers received when he set it down. And so gusty was his laugh that the car trembled on its wheels, the tree swayed as though in a storm and the Bowery was filled with a rushing roar like the thunder of Niagara. Sometimes Mose unhitched the horses and himself pulled the street car the length of the Bowery at a bewildering speed; once, if the legend is to be credited, he lifted a car above his head at Chatham Square and carried it, with the horses dangling from the traces, on the palm of his hand as far as Astor Place. Again, when a sailing ship was becalmed in the East river and drifting dangerously near the treacherous rocks of Hell Gate, Mose pulled out in a rowboat, lighted his cigar, which was more than two feet long, and sent such mighty billows of smoke against the sails that the ship was saved, and plunged down the river as though driven by a hurricane. So terrific was the force of Mose’s puff, indeed, that the vessel was into the Harbor and beyond Staten Island before it would respond to the helm.

Occasionally Mose amused himself by taking up a position in the center of the river and permitting no ship to pass; as fast as they appeared he blew them back. But Mose was always very much at home in the water; he often dived off at the Battery and came up on the Staten Island beach, a distance which is now traversed by ferry boats in twenty-five minutes. He could swim the Hudson River with two mighty strokes, and required but six for a complete circuit of Manhattan Island. But when he wanted to cross the East River to Brooklyn he scorned to swim the half mile or so; he simply jumped.

When Mose quenched his thirst a drayload of beer was ordered from the brewery, and during the hot summer months he went about with a great fifty gallon keg of ale dangling from his belt in lieu of a canteen. When he dined in state the butchers of the Center and Fly markets were busy for days in advance of the great event, slicing hogs and cattle and preparing the enormous roasts which the giant needs must consume to regain his strength; and his consumption of bread was so great that a report that Mose was hungry caused a flurry in the flour market. Four quarts of oysters were but an appetizer, and soup and coffee were served to him by the barrel. For dessert and light snacks he was very fond of fruit. Historians affirm that the cherry trees of Cherry Hill and the mulberry trees of Mulberry Bend vanished because of the building up of the city, but the legend of the Bowery has it that Mose tore them up by the roots and ate the fruit; he was hungry and in no mood to wait until the cherries and mulberries could be picked.

I’ll be the first to say it: This is crazy. Nothing about Mose previously suggests this. None of it is true of the actual Mose Humphreys. Asbury doesn’t understand what “hold de butt” means, he gets every single detail of the stage production wrong, and the only thing in this collection of stories that sounds like anything we have heard before is the claim that Mose wrecked several tenements. This vaguely recalls the scene in “Mysteries and Miseries of New York” in which Mose and his rowdy B’hoys wreck a brothel and then threaten to wreck several more. But it is a vague resemblance, a but like seeing somebody on the street you think is your friend, only to discover it is a man in a gorilla costume and a hat.

And it seems like Asbury knew better. What I have been able to find of his fireman book, published two years later, gives a still-exaggerated but more factual account of Mose, including the fact that he retired to Hawaii, which suggests that Asbury talked to people who knew Humphreys.

So what happened? Well, it helps to know that Asbury was also an author of fantastic fiction — he edited a collection of short stories from Weird Tales, titled “Not at Night” in 1928, the same year he published “Gangs of New York.” He was also the author of a rather mad novel of his own, “The Devil of Pei Ling,” telling of a possession in New York. Asbury strains to add credibility to his novel by filling it with a collection of supposedly true stories of the occult, which read like a Satanist’s version of “Gangs of New York.”

So he was an inventive writer with a taste for the fantastical, and in a later book, “The French Quarter,” he would write approvingly of barge workers who started fights with near ritual claims of folkloric power, calling out “I’m half alligator and half horse!”

I can’t say for certain the source of Asbury’s version of Mose. He may have been inspired by the fact that the character already had a folkloric quality to him, in that he had become an exaggerated mascot at parades. Perhaps people were already telling tall tales about Mos, and in particular he had become a sort of campfire story for firemen.

But if I had to bet, I would bet that Herbert Asbury just made it all up.

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Max Sparber

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