Mose the Fireboy: The modern era

The modern Mose: Half historic figure, half folkloric superhero.

Now we come to the end of our long tale of Mose. After “Gangs of New York,” he fell into the hands of folklorists. In the mid-20th century, the academic discipline of folklore studies expanded — it had long studied and collected the stories of rural peasants, but scholars also developed an interest in urban folklore.

The author’s of children’s books had long borrowed from folklore, and they followed suit, and so suddenly Mose started regularly appearing. 1941’s “Upstate, Downstate: Folk Stories of the Middle Atlantic States” offered a chapter titled “Mighty Mose: The Bowery B’hoy.” Author and history teacher Katherine Binney Shippen wrote a children’s book in 1953 titled “Big Mose.” Author Harold W. Felton, who authored a number of books on characters out of tall tales, gave us a 1955 book with the astonishing title “Fire-fightin’ Mose: Being: an Accont of the Life and Times of the World’s Greatest Fire Fighter, Member of the New York City Volunteer Fire Department, and of the Company of Lady Washington, Engine No. 40, a Machine of Greatest Excellence, Known as the White Ghost.” 1961’s “Life Treasury of American Folklore” had a chapter on him, titled “Big Mose,” and on it went.

Most of these articles and books managed to combine both the historical Mose and the folkloric Mose, but with special emphasis on the Herbert Asbury-style superhero, much less focus on the historic Mose Humphreys, and very little mention made of Frank Chafrau’s cheerfully pugilistic stage Mose. In a time of Paul Bunyans and Pecos Bills, authors seemed to prefer their characters enormous, heroic, and ahistoric.

He still makes occasional appearances. In 2004, author Eric Metaxas and illustrator Everett Peck produced a children’s book called “Mose the Fireman,” which also offered an audio version with an impressive collection of talent involved: Actor Michael Keaton narrated the story, which may be the first time that the supposedly Irish-American Mose was played by an Irish-American, with music by Steely Dan’s Walter Becker.

William Poole, known as Bill the Butcher in his day, and quite the sharp dresser.

And, as I mentioned at the start of this, the character of Bill the Butcher from Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” borrowed from Mose. The character is almost exclusively credited to the historic figure William Poole, a Bowery B’hoy, butcher, and volunteer fire fighter with a well-known contempt for Irish immigrants. But contemporary photos of William Poole don’t resemble Bill the Butcher at all, and Asbury’s book has Poole mostly duking it out with a Tammany Hall enforcer and fellow boxer, leading to Poole’s death.

But Asbury does have Mose battling against the Dead Rabbits, the gang at the center of “Gangs of New York.” Asbury paints him as the leader of the Bowery Boys, coupled with a toadying sidekick, a role filled by actor Eddie Marsan and called Killoran in the film.

Moreover, the flamboyant theatricality of Daniel Day Lewis’s Bill the Butcher owes far more to Chanfrau than it does William Poole. In his stovepipe top hat, soap locks, and sideburns, Bill the Butcher looks like Chafrau’s stage version of Mose, and in his titanic battles with the Dead Rabbits, he seems like Asbury’s version of Mose. Scorsese doesn’t ever have his Bill the Butcher box, which the actual William Poole did — no, instead he is a man with a taste for showy theatrics, including a long set piece in a Chinese venue where Bill the Butcher does a carnival act.

Scorsese gave us the Civil War world of New York’s Five Points underworld as theater, which is precisely what Chafrau did. And Scorsese might have stretched Mose the fireboy to include William Poole’s anti-Irish nativism, but we’ve already seen how flexible Mose the fireboy could be. He can be a humorous sidekick when needed, and a comic leading man when needed. He can be a street thug at the start of a book and a cheerful rescuer by the end of it. He can be a parade mascot, a gang member, a folkloric giant, a muse for a poet, and even an African-American fireman, all when the circumstances call for it.

He still shows up in parades, now and then. In 1979, in Alabama, there was a parade float that, as the Mobile Register wrote, “[payed] homage to the legendary fireman who swam the Hudson River in three strokes without losing his top hat.” I know that seems like a long time ago, but considering the fact that Mose first appeared in a parade in 1848, that’s a long time to be a parade mascot, and is a tradition that seems worth reviving.

“A Glance at new York,” produced in 2007 by the Axis Company.

And speaking of revivals, New York’s Axis Company did a production of “Glance at New York” in 2007 in New York’s West Village, perhaps eight blocks from where it debuted. The company claimed it was the first staging of the show since the Civil War, which isn’t strictly true, as the Civil War ended in 1865 and the Olympic did a run of “Glance” in 1871 featuring Frank Chanfrau in the role he had originated. But that’s still a gap of 136 years since the Axis production and the one the preceded it, which is nothing to sneeze at.

All in all, it’s been a pretty impressive run for a character whose first words were that he wasn’t going to run with the machine no more.

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Max Sparber

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