Mose the Fireboy: Mose Humphreys, The Inspiration

Bill the Butcher: Fireboy, butcher, Bowery B’hoy, and brawler. He’s credited as being inspired by pugilist William Poole, but he draws largely from the legendary Bowery brawler Mose the Fireboy.

I am going to do a short series of posts specifically about the mythic figure of Mose the Fireboy, who I mentioned in my Bowery B’hoy slang post. Up front, I should mention that I have no evidence that Mose was Irish-American, either in history or in fiction. I have yet to find any source that identifies any ethnicity at all. There are hints of possible Irishness here and there, and I will point them out when they appear, but nothing definitive. Nonetheless, we Irish-Americans have claimed him, and part of the purpose of this blog is to collect together fragments of Irish-American identity, explore them, share them, and offer them up as potential building blocks for new expressions of culture.

Just to offer a quick overview, Mose the Fireboy has had several incarnations, and I intend to look at all of them. He was a historic figure named Mose Humphreys, a printer and volunteer fireman. The original Mose became the model for a character named Mose in a play called “A Glance at New York,” a slang-slinging, pugilistic butcher-firefighter who then starred in a series of popular plays. The character of Mose was picked up by dime novels, mostly by Ned Buntline, where he was the leader of the street-fighting Bowery B’hoys. He was elevated to a mythic, folkloric figure of tall tales in Herbert Asbury’s “Gangs of New York,” and, over the course of the 20th century, turned into a sort of tall tale character, like Paul Bunyan. Finally, he was undoubtedly a primary inspiration for Bill the Butcher in the “Gangs of New York,” along with William Poole, a butcher and bareknuckle boxer.

I will begin with Mose Humphreys, who is directly credited as the inspiration for Mose the Fireboy. Wikipedia offers an entry on the man, but it’s one of those entries where, when you try to track down the sources, they are all contemporary and they all quote each other. So let’s go to some sources that are closer to primary and see what we know about him.

Theater critic Alston Brown wrote a letter to the New York Times in 1902, years after the character of Mose the Fireboy had debuted on the stage, giving a belated but detailed account of the origin of the character. I will quote the letter more when I discuss the play, but I want to mention the facts it offers as to the inspiration behind Mose. “Mose Humphrey was a popular Centre market lad,” Brown wrote, “and was a member of Martha Washington Engine Company.”

Later, Brown adds the story about the actor who played Mose, Frank Chanfrau, first discovering the character:

He lived near Essex Market with his parents, and daily dropped in at a Broadway house, corner of Grand street, to get a sixpenny plate of corned beef. One day a fellow with a red shirt and open collar came in and sat down near him. The swagger, the ‘soap locks,’ the projected chin, &c., formed a strong typical figure. Calling to one of the waiters, he said: ‘Look heah! Give me a sixpenny plate ev pork and beans and don’t stop to count them beans, d’ye heah?’ This was Mose Humphreys, one of the fireboys, and a printer employed on Beach’s Sun.”

Now, this was written decades after the event it describes, but it gives us enough to start to dig. Firstly, we must ask if there is any documentary evidence of Mose Humphreys, fireboy and printer. There were city directories from the era, and I found at least one person had located a Moses Humphreys who had been a textile worker, but the listing predated the time of our fireboy. So I dug a little, and behold:

Humphreys, Moses C., printer, and probably our fireboy.

This is from the 1839 edition of Longworth’s American almanac, New-York register and city directory, and it seems likely that this is our Mose. It is, after all, hardly a common name, and the likelihood that there were two Mose Humphreys working as printers in the same era in New York is passingly rare.

I should note that we will see his name written as both Humphrey and Humphreys (as happened in the NY Times article). This is both maddening and entirely common for the era, where people seemed to take their names as mere suggestions, and might offer up a different spelling or version every single time they were asked.

Let me note here that, while Humphreys isn’t a uniquely Irish last name (and seems to be French in origin), it is common enough in Ireland, having been the surname for politician Francis Humphreys, rugby player Ian Humphreys, and activist Sheila Humphreys. Mose’s address in this listing is interesting — 111 Mulberry, with Mulberry being one of the boundary streets for the largely Irish Five Points neighborhood. It was also just a few blocks off Bowery, making the story of seeing Mose in a bowery eatery entirely credible, as well as his identification as a Bowery B’hoy.

Brown’s letter to the Times also insisted that Mose had been a volunteer firefighter with the “Martha Washington Engine Company,” which is … close. There was a volunteer fire department called the “Lady Washington Engine Company,” number 40, located then at 173 Elm Street, which now is 185 Lafayette Street — a few blocks from Mose’s address, and a block off Bowery. If only there was somebody who might remember Mose from those days.

Well, son of a gun.

What have we here? It’s an 1887 collection of memories of the early years of the New York fire departments, titled “Our Firemen” and authored by Augustine Costello. And, as it happens, the firemen remember Mose. He appears a few times in the book, starting with this passage:

One of the queer characters of the old days was “Rooster Kelly,” who used to run with Engine No. 30. He was remarkable for the tall stories he used to tell, and for the interesting way he had of making them appear truthful. Years after the disbandment of the Volunteer Department, he related the following story about ”Old Mose:” “Mose ran with old Forty. He keeps a billiard saloon in Honolulu now. I kin remember the night him and Orange County — he was our foreman — had it nip and tuck. They were both bully boys, but Orange County kinder got the bulge on him after a four hours’ tussle. One might, Orange County, Mose and me, Tom Hyer, Captain Tom Reeves, and Alick Hamilton, were down in Hob Wanamaker’s saloon, corner of Reade Street and Broadway, when the fire bell rang. The fire was down in Wall Street. Just after he got there, somebody threw a stone out of the third story window of the house next door to the fire. Well, that stone struck Orange County on the shoulder, bounced off, and struck the rooster that was standing next to him handling a bucket, and killed him deader’n a door nail.”

Moses Humphrey, or “Old Mose,” as he was called, was the typical “Bowery boy,” whom Frank Chanfrau, the actor and fireman, caricatured in his famous play. ” Mose” belonged to Engine 40 (Lady Washington). Chantrau’s impersonation was not pleasing to the majority of firemen, who regarded it as a libel upon themselves. America’s Own, or the Fireman’s Journal, of which Anthony B. Child was the editor, took the actor severely to task. By the way, it was in this paper that Maggie Mitchell received her first notice at her debut at the Bowery Theater. The Journal praised Chanfrau as an actor, but added : “It is ridiculous to attempt to make a part out of such a character as Mose is represented to be. His benevolence, and the clap-trap manoeuvres of the stage, are all sham. The effect of this character upon the juveniles who visit the theater is plainly visible, as they take every opportunity to imitate the character. Its effects upon the Fire Department are serious, in the estimation of those who are not acquainted with its members, as they set every fireman down as a ‘Mose,’ degrading to youth.” 

Let’s note for a moment that  Costello claims that Mose moved to Honolulu. It comes up again, a few pages later:

No. 40 (“Lady Washington”) housed in Mulberry Street, near Grand. Her foreman and assistant foreman were Joseph Primrose and John Carlin, brother of William Carlin, who subsequently owned and kept the hotel on Fourteenth Street, opposite Mary’s. Among the most conspicuous of her lighting men were: Mose Humphreys, a type setter (afterwards the prototype already referred to of Chanfrau’s Mose in a “Glance at New York”), who died in the Sandwich Islands, where he had married a native woman, and reared a large family of young natives; and Jim Jeroloman, a shipbuilder, six feet four inches tall, who wore earrings, and who challenged “Yankee” Sullivan to a prize fight, but was easily beaten.

We’ll return to that in a bit, but first, a story from the book about Mose’s fighting. The various volunteer fire departments had a tendency toward competition and violence, and this resulted in a battle between two departments, as described:

The most conspicuous opponents at the other end of the line were Hen Chanfrau and Mose Humphreys. Both were pure-blooded Americans and men of noted bravery. At the crisis of their little difficulty, when victory appeared somewhat uncertain on whose gladiatorial arm to perch, a handsome bright-eyed lad of twelve years ran quickly out of Alvord’s hat store, in which he had acted as clerk, and nimbly mounting an awning-post, shouted down to one of the combatants, who had just then pressed his antagonist backward over the tongue of 40 engine, and was pounding him very industriously, “Give it to him, Hen; Julia is looking at you from the window ! Don’t choke him ; give him a chance to holler enough!” This nimble and encouraging youngster was Frank Chanfrau; and Mose Humphreys, who presently chorussed Frank’s advice with a hearty acknowledgment of defeat, was to suggest to the then comedian in embryo a type of character which won him a double fortune and an enduring fame.

The fight lasted about thirty minutes. It resulted in the total defeat of No. 40, who abandoned their apparatus and fled precipitately. The victorious 15, determined to humiliate their antagonists in the most bitter manner known to the Volunteer firemen of that day, seized the captured engine — which was beautifully painted in white and gold — dragged it to a pump, and deluged it with water. They held possession of it for hours, but finally released it to John Carlin. They, however, refused to permit any of  “40’s fellows” to enter their bailiwick, and the latter were made to suffer the additional mortification of seeing their beloved “Lady Washington” drawn home from the scene of heir defeat at the tail of a cart. This notable battle terminated hostilities between 15 and 40.

So, according to this tale, Mose the Fireboy, the brawling king of the bowery, was actually badly beaten in a fight against another fireboy, who was none other than the older brother of actor Frank Chanfrau, who during the fight urged his brother on and later won fame playing the loser of that battle.

Moses Humphrey, or “Old Mose.” as he was called, was the typical “Bowery boy.” — Illustration from “Our Firemen”

The book offers one last look at Mose, offering this tale of his fate:

Whether it was David Garthwaite or John Carland, who had 40’s trumpet that night the writer is uncertain but Mose Humphrey had the head of the rope. Old firemen recollect Mose–not the Mose represented on the stage by Frank Chanfrau, who pulled on 15’s rope, but Mose Humphrey of Lady Washington Engine Company No. 40. He was tall and slender, had red hair, and could hold his own well, express himself forcibly when excited, and down many a heavier weight; but it was his pride to be at the head of 40’s rope. The last heard of Mose he was at Honolulu, Sandwich Islands. The King took a fancy to Mose and doubtless listened attentively to his narration’s of fire life among the boys in New York, and the exploits of Old Hays, A. M. C. Smith, Prince John Davis, Bowyer, Stanton, Matsell, and others prominent in police history before the era of stars or blue coats and brass buttons, not excepting the M. P.’s of Mayor Harper’s reign. Mose was made chief of police, and was never timid about going in himself when occasions required. No Sandwich Islander or imported tough had any terrors for Mose; he could lay them out without turning a hair, and give Captain Williams points how to deal with a crowd without being euchred. He had been educated among the New York boys who struck straight out from the shoulder, at a period when a knife or a pistol was never dreamed of being used. Their motto was “go in if you get squeezed.” And they went in every time. Mose became owner of a hotel, and was looked upon as one of the solid citizens, but he never went back on the “White Ghost.”

The book insists Mose wound up in Honolulu. Is that possible?

Maybe it is!

Here we have a record of one Moses Humphreys, US citizen, being naturalized in Hawaii on September 20 of 1850. And what’s more, the Hawaiian Gazette offered up a story about Mose the Fireboy in September 6, 1871, with this biographical passage about Mose Humphreys:

Mose Humprheys seemed to feel a sort of paternal interest in the play. He went regularly to the Olympic, and having cut his name on the wooden bench in the pit to designate his seat, was in the habit of outsing all other claimants without ceremony. He died in Honolulu several years ago, and it is said he retained the “Mose” characteristics to the last.

[Mose Humphreys came to Honolulu in 1850, in a New Bedford whaler, and for several years kept a sailor’s boarding house. In the early days of the fire department, Mose was a member of engine company No. 1, but reassigned after a few year’s service as the duties of a fireman here were not exciting enough to suit him. He was a perfect encyclopedia on sporting events, and during his residency here kept himself thoroughly posted on matters connected with the “fancy,” the New York Clipper being his favorite oracle. Mose had satisfaction on several occasions if witnessing the character, of which he himself was the original, represented on the stage of the Royal Hawaiian Theatre, the play having been produced there for the first time in 1856, by L.F. Beatty, J.S. Townsend, and others, with the former as “Mose.” The proclivities of Mose, as a member of the “fancy,” made him prominent but once here; and that was during the visit of “Yankee Sullivan.” With this exception, he was one of the most quiet characters in town, his eccentricities only making him noted. He worked in the Advertiser occasionally, and also in the Old Mission bindery, being both a book binder and printer. A short time previous to his death he went to Maui, where he became a farmer on a small scale. He returned to this city and finally died in the Queen’s Hospital in 1864.]

Here’s a photo of Honolulu engine company No. 1 from the period when Mose Humphreys would have been a member.

Could one of these bold-looking fellows be Mose?



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Max Sparber

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