Mose the Fireboy: Mose in Song

I met a bummer the other night: Haven’t we all?

I’ve discussed how Mose moved from being an actual person, Mose Humphreys, to a comic stage character, generally starring Frank Chanfrau, to being a punchy Bowery hero in Ned Buntlin’e dime novels. But Mose also became the hero of song — or, if not the hero, at least a stock character.

In the 1800s, before the dawn of recorded sound, Americans were ravenous for sheet music. Americans were as ravenous for musical novelty then as they are now, and pretty much any trend that became popular would then be flogged to death with odes, imitations, rip-offs, sequels, answer songs, and the like. Again, how like today.

So it’s no surprise that when Mose became a star of the stage, he also became the star of song. Mose of them seem to have originated from a printer called Andrews, who was located at 38 Chatham Street in New York, which isn’t much of a surprise, as that puts the publisher just a few blocks from the Chatham Street Theatre, where the Mose plays debuted. They seemed to be quite interested in the subject of events arounf the Bowery, as they published a broadsheet titled “Dead Rabbits’ fight with the Bowery Boys, New York July 4th 1857” — it’s the one you’ll find whenever you research the Dead Rabbits, that goes:

Like wild dogs they did fight, this Fourth of July night,
Of course they laid their plans accordin’;
Some were wounded and some killed, and lots of blood spill’d,
In the fight on the other side of Jordan.

The songs are not dated, but from the Dead Rabbits song, they seem to have been most active a little after the debut of “A Glance at New York,” although, as you will see, the character Mose, and all his compatriots, and the various catchphrases from the play, are still very much in use. There is, as an example, the song “Old Mose Song,” which is credited to William A. Wray, the “celebrated banjoist,” and performed to the tune of “Oh, Susanna.” William A. Wray was a minstrel performer, and a member of Campbell Minstrels, but this song is pure Bowery Boy fireman:


I’m down on running with der old machine,
As sure as my name is Mose,
I’m down on the Corporation,
Cause they won’t give us any hose:
Bill Sykesy’s got his “puttey’s” on,
And bound to sail with Sal,
But Sal’s no business with my Lize–
Ain’t she a gallus gal.

Oh, ain’t I gallus,
And gose it good and strong,
If any of you think you can take me down,
Why don’t you come along.

If any of the hounds insult my Lize,
You can take and bet a pile,
I’ll lay for the loafing old foo-foo,
And have a fight or spile:
You had ought to see her swing herself
When she goes out a-walking,
She wears her hat so gallus–
What! there ain’t no use a talking.

I met a bummer the other night,
Standing on our hose,
Says he, “I ain’t afraid of you,
Although your name is Mose:”
I hauled right off and gave him one,
That raised a mighty fuss —
I’m down on all outsiders,
And I’m bound to raise a muss.

I took my Lize to the Bowery last night,
And a mighty swell we cut,
Some loafer in the pit sung out,
“Say, Sykesy, take de butt!”
I turned right round to see who he was,
But I couldn’t tell who was who,
But Lize said twas Butcher Bill,
And I lammed that old foo-foo.

Butcher Bill is presumably William Poole, the original Bill the Butcher, who was also called Butcher Bill. William Poole had engaged in some very public acts of mayhem in the 1850s before being shot to death in 1855, which means that this song manages to have Mose the fireboy, who was one of the inspiration for William “Bill the Butcher” in the film “Gangs of New York,” battle William Poole, the other inspiration. Additionally, the song is sung from the point of view of Mose the fireboy, and in the last verse he seems entirely aware that he is a character in a play — he actually beats the tar out of Butcher Bill because the man cries out one of his lines of dialogue from the audience.

It’s enough to make your head swim. And to think that we believe we invented postmodernism.

There’s also a dance called “Lize and Jakey Polka,” credited to “One of the B’hoys” and “dedicated to Mose, Syksey & Dutchy” and including an image of Mose and Lize dancing together at the top of the page.

The publisher is E.R. Johnston & Co., Peoples Music Store, from 1848, jumping on a trend.

Next up, we have another Andrews song, this one called “One of the B’Hoys.” The author is uncredited, and the language of the song the specific details of Mose the fireboy are starting to fade, including changing his girlfriend’s name from  Lize to Liz. In this song, Mose has started the problem of becoming a more generalized Bowery B’hoy and volunteer fireman, and the song evidences no understanding that he is a character in a play. The melody is “Bold Rooster Boy,” a song written by John Winans, a comic singer who frequently performed at Bowery venues. Winans’ original song is about also about firemen, and was also published by Andrews Printers — you can see a copy here.

“One of the B’Hoys” names the fireman, and makes him Mose, as follows:


I’m a B’hoy, I’m a B’hoy,
And my name it is Mose,
I’m ne’er so well pleased
As when I’m playing my hose,
And which, with my engine,
I love better, I guess,
Than anything else
On this world I possess.

I’m a b’hoy, I’m a b’hoy,
And a butcher by trade,
As I guess you will find,
I’m a pretty cute blade.
And to get up a muss,
Or a jolly good fight,
Is next to a fire, that
In which I most delight.

I’m a b’hoy, I’m a b’hoy,
Of the true New York breed,
On boiled pork and beans
I delight much to feed.
I’ve a gal that I love,
A gallows lass she is,
She can dance and can sing,
And her name it is Liz.

I’m a b’hoy, I’m a b’hoy,
With my engine I go,
And where’er there is a fire
Up the water I throw.
When evening it comes,
For the Bowery I start,
And take with me there
Liz, the gal of my heart.

I’m a b’hoy, I’m a b’hoy,
And as free as the air,
And there ne’er was a b’hoy
Who with me could compare.
I can fight, I can wrestle,
Know a trick or two;
It must be a cute cove
Whoe’er does me do.

Andrews also did a couple of songs explicitly about firemen that merely mention Mose, so I won’t transcribe them in entirety. There was “Engine No. 15 — ‘Old Maid,'” again sung to the tune “Oh, Susannah,” which included the following lines:

When ever we run wid our machine, we leave a streak behind us,
And whenever we speak with savage “cheek,” e’en Mose and Sykesey mind us.

And then, in what amount to the briefest of cameos, Mose appeared in a song with a preposterously long title: “Nine Cheers and a Tiger for the Gallant Seventh New York Regt.,” sung to the tune of “Rose of Tennessee,” uncredited in authorship and publisher, and apparently exclusively distributed at George Yeager’s news stand on the northeast corner of 2nd and Market. The song is about the so-called “Silk Stocking” regiment of New York, made up of members of New York’s social elite, who made up a militia unit that was mustered into combat during the Civil War. That places this song at about 1861, and it is probably one of the later songs of those I have listed. The song is about the regiment’s movement to Annapolis, and the only reference to Mose is as follows:

Annapolis, we reached at last–‘Twas on a Monday night,
The boys, like Mose, of Bowery fame, were spiling for a fight.

Weirdly, Mose also showed up in a minstrel song called “Wake Up, Mose,” performed by White and Christie’s Minstrels and written entirely in black dialect: “Wake up, Mose! De Fire am burning; Round de corner de smoke am curling.”

Obviously, Mose was proving to be both more anonymous and more flexible than Chanfrau had envisioned him. He could be any fireman, as shown in our next song:

It seems a perfectly reasonable response to me, honestly.

Mose appears in the 1930’s song “The Wreck of the Nancy Lee” by Arthur Le Clerc, which is sometimes retitled a line from its chorus: “He Played his Ukelele as the Ship Went Down.” The song tells of a shipwreck, and includes the following:

The Captain said to Fireman Mose,
Get straight into your fireman’s clothes,
While you stand and play your hose,
I’ll play my ukulele as the ship goes down.

By this time, the origins of Mose the fireboy were lost, and Mose had just become a name for a fireman. We see some of that pop up throughout the 20th century, in the way that there are certain names associated with other jobs, in the way hoodlums were often called Mugsy and G.I’s were all Joe. In 1904, poet Eugene Barry published a poem called The Fireman in which a fireman named Mose, having just witnessed a calamitous inferno, finds his faith in God.

In 1966, Richard Lewine and John Van Antwerp wrote a melodrama called “The Fireman’s Flame” that featured a fireman named Mose; but for the name and a thick New York accent, there was nothing that would link him back to Chanfrau’s Mose.

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Max Sparber

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