Mose the Fireboy: Ned Buntline and the Dime Novels

Mose and Lize become dime novel heroes thanks to Ned Buntline.

When Mose the fireboy appeared in plays, as limned by Frank Chanfrau, he was typically comic. He was tough, ready for a fight, and sometimes unexpectedly sentimental, but he was undeniably humorous. Author Benjamin A. Baker, who scripted most of the Mose plays, was a writer of burlesques, and created comic tableaux for Chanfrau’s butcher-firefighter to playact in.

But now we start documenting the process by which Mose became a mythic, larger-than-life character, and it starts with an author named Ned Buntline. His real name was Edward Zane Carroll Judson, Sr., and he had been a Navy man during the Seminole wars. He was a failed journalist for a while,  and then he wrote a serial publication called “The Mysteries and Miseries of New York” in 1847, which was adapted into a Mose play in 1848.

Mose appears in the novel, as does his girlfriend Lize, and it’s hard to say precisely how this occurred. Perhaps they had different names in the early versions and then were renamed after the stage version. The Mose and Lize of the novel are considerably different that the happy-go-lucky fireman and his singing girlfriend of the stage. The books is a tour of the criminal element of lower Manhattan, especially the Five Points area, and Lize is introduced early on as “Big Lize,” a rescuer to an sewing girl who is about to be assaulted. Lize beats down her attackers, crying out in what seems to be a respresentation of Cockney slang: “I am Big Lize, you lushy Swell! … and I can maul every sneaking mother’s son of ye! What d’ye mean by stoppin’ this ere gal against her will?”

Here is how Buntline describes Lize in the novel:

Very tall, nearly or quite six feet in height; a form well- proportioned; a carriage rather graceful; features that once must have been remarkably handsome, and even yet are fine and regular, though the hollow cheek, and high cheek-bones, and narrowing chin, denote the havoc of time and dissipation; a large, piercing eye of hazel; lips which now are thin and close, set over white and regular teeth — lips which have firmness written in their expression; a high brow, upon which crescent shaped and delicately pencilled eyebrows are seen; dark hair, even yet soft and glossy, though thinned and shortened. See this — and fancy a touch of paint on either cheek, and a coat of powder on a rather slim neck and broad uncovered shoulders, and “Big Lize, of Thomas Street,” is before you.

This isn’t Baker’s Lize at all.

The book actually duplicates “Glance at New York,” after a fashion — there are conniving con men, and there is a pair of well-heeled gentlemen who tour the town. But Buntline’s novel is exploitative and torrid; our wandering gentlemen, as an example, begin by visiting a brothel.

B’hoys appear as well, but they aren’t the volunteer firemen and lower-middle class dandies with a taste for recreational violence we find in the newspapers of the era. No, they’re slangy underworld fellows, infrequently appearing, sometimes with an air of real menace. We first meet them in a brothel, and Buntline describes they behavior as follows: “they kissed her girls, and cuffed them round to hear them squeal, yet no one thought of resisting their ‘innocent familiarities.'”

Mose is among them, and he’s nothing like the stage Mose. When the brothel owner demands payment for the wine she has served Mose’s b’hoys, he refuses:  “Don’t yer wish you may get it!” he said making the ma- sonic sign with his thumb resting upon the end of his nose, and his four fingers performing sundry singular antics near the end of his nasal member.” He then threatens one of his friends and claims he’s ready to fight the police before he and his b’hoys wander off.

He makes an appearance later in the novel, in the middle of a street fight, drunk. “I’ll show yer a trick of the Bowery, I will!” Mose cries when the other man draws a knife, and then brains him with a sling.

Later, a group of men harass Lize as she goes home. She lifts one of the men bodily into the air, flinging him into the gutter; he gets up an strikes her with a brick, and which moment Mose appears. “What’s the muss!” he cries out, and then throws himself into the crowd, scattering them and beating several insensible.

Toward the end of the novel, Mose makes a final appearance, and Buntline has suddenly become sentimental about him. He discovers that a woman has been kidnapped and decides to help her, crying out “I’ll see her out— sure’s my name’s Mose!”

“Red-headed Mose,” Buntline calls him, “the Bowery butcher-boy, one who with some faults possessed some of the most sterling virtues that ever warmed the human heart.” Mose sets out to locate other b’hoys to help him — including Sykesy.

Suddenly Mose has become the character from the play. He goes to get the kidnapped girl’s brother, and when he meets the man, he declares dialogue that could have come directly from “Glance at New York,” when he names his compatriots: “Me and Sikesey — he’s jist round the corner, with four or five more that runs with our machine. We’ve got a gallus machine now, Charley— it’s been to the shop, and looks jist like new.”

Mose and his gang then go to the brothel where the kidnapped girl was being held and trash it, destroying every piece of furniture. Unable to find the girl, Mose threatens to go to every brothel he can locate and destroy that as well.

“Mysteries and Miseries” is a potboiler, filled with chases and fights, and ends oddly, with the story barely resolved but with the promise of another book to follow: “The B’Hoys of New York.”

The Astor Place Riot,courtesy of Ned Buntline, among others.

And so it did. Buntline wrote several additional plays about Bowery B’hoys, including “Three Years After” and “The G’hals of New York.” Buntline himself had become a bit of a menace during the time when he wrote these novels — in 1849, he was an active participant in the notorious Astor Place riots. Buntline had reactionary, anti-immigrant viewpoints, and was havily involved in the anti-Irish Know-Nothing movement, and the Astor Place riot was a sort of strange explosion of anti-Irish working class violence in the form of a theater riot. At last 25 people were killed in the riots, and seven of them were Irish.

Bunline actually served a year in prison as a result of the riot, and his relationship with real Bowery B’hoys, many of whom also participated in the riot, is probably why the movement is now associated with Nativism and anti-Irish sentiment.

These books also moved Mose and his fellow B’hoys out of the realm of comic stage characters and into the supposed real-life world of the New York underworld. Mose’s pugilism had become magnified — he’s now wielding weapons and trashing entire brothels, and it would become further magnified.

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Max Sparber

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