Mose the Fireboy: The Playwright, Benjamin Baker

Playwright Benjamin Baker, showing an impressive Donegal Beard.

“A Glance at New York,” the play that introduced the character Mose the Fireboy, is unusual for a play of its era, in that we have a fairly detailed account of its creation. The account comes from Benjamin Baker, the playwright, and is included in a book called “An Interviewer’s Album: Comprising a Series of Chats with Eminent Players and Playwrights,” authored by the admirably named George Oberkirsh Seilhamer in about 1881.

Baker gives a brief account of his biography: He was born on Grand Street, and was forced to move when his father died when the boy was 10. He was apprenticed to a harness-maker, but he didn’t like it and ran away. He worked for a while as a clerk in New Orleans, and then, at 17, decided to become an actor. He joined a troupe in Natchez, Mississippi. He made his way back to New York, appearing at the Franklin Theater with Junius Brutus Booth, and then moved on the the Chatham Theatre. He was engaged to write a burlesque at the Olympic Theatre, which was a success, and many scripts soon followed.

And then comes Mose, as related:

[Baker states that] “The subjects of my dramatic efforts were mostly the follies of the day, and, of course, were not calculated to live.”

“But Mose has lived,” the interviewer interposed. ” That piece made me a great gun,” Mr. Baker answered, laughing, “and it made Chanfrau famous in a single night almost. I struck Mose in 1848. It was first played for my benefit in a little piece of mine afterwards called “A Glance at New York,” but named for that night only “New York in 1848.” Mr. Mitchell used to give us a week’s notice of our benefits. Mary Taylor was ill, and I depended on Chanfrau for mine that season I had promised to write the part of a fire boy for him, and we thought that my benefit night would be a good time to try it. I made Mose a rough melon, but sweet at the core. In writing the piece I was afraid the Centre Market boys would take offense at it, and to satisfy them I put the pathos about the baby into it.”

“Cornelius Mathews is under the impression that Mose was taken from his novel,” the interviewer said, anxious to draw Mr. Baker out on this point, especially as Mr. John E. Owens had strenuously objected to Mr. Mathews’ claim.

“I know that Mr. Mathews is under that impression,” Mr. Baker replied; ” indeed he has said the same thing to me, but it is a mistake. I had not read ‘Puffer Hopkins’ at the time I wrote ‘A Glance at New York ‘ The only suggestions which were drawn from any extraneous source were the cellar scene and the part of Major Gates, the hint for which I took from ‘102 Broadway,’ by William Henry Herbert. I never took the trouble to correct Mr. Mathews’ mistake, and there are other claims in regard to the piece which are equally without foundation. For instance, I saw not long ago that one of the papers spoke of the death of the original of Mose — Mose Humphreys, who died recently in the Sandwich Islands. He always claimed to be the original, but I never thought of him either in writing or naming the part. Indeed, most of the parts were not named until after it was determined that the play should be called a ‘Glance at New York,’ and the piece, when it had been rewritten after its first production for my benefit, was not rechristened until it had been in rehearsal some time. Afterwards I wrote for the Chatham Theatre another piece with the character of Mose in it, which I called ‘New York as It Is.’ It was entirely different from a ‘Glance at New York,’ but it was in the same style.”

“How about its production in Philadelphia?” the interviewer asked.

“Burton wanted to do the piece at the Arch Street Theatre, and he brought John E. Owens, who was his comedian, to the Olympic to see it. The house was so full that night that I had to give Owens a seat in the orchestra. After the performance Burton gave me $25, the usual price for pieces in those days — twenty- five dollars was a pile of money then — and I furnished him with a copy.” 

There are a few things to discuss here. Firstly, we’ve had the mention of the Centre Market in New York a few times. This is a reference to a one-block street in lower Manhattan consisting of a variety of storefront businesses, including a gun shop, and Centre Market boys seem to be another term for Bowery B’hoys — “Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments” mentions the Lady Washington fire crew, of which Mose Humpheys was one, and says that they “were a lively crowd, being composed mostly of Centre Market boys.” “The Golden Argosy,” from 1885, did an article on Frank Chanfrau where they wrote that Mose was a “Centre Market ‘B’hoy'” and add that “the Centre Market boys were the roughest and the toughest of the town, and in the theater pit they were a power. It was to them all the playing was done; their approval was worked for, and their disapproval was dodged … that is, the eggs and vegetables.”

Centre Market place, a hangout for Bowery toughs.

There is a scene, mentioned by Baker above, which I will discuss when I summarize the play, in which Mose finds an abandoned child. “Argosy” mentions it as well:

The author felt some trepidation and anxiety as to how the Centre Market boys would receive a “take-off” of themselves, audaciously acted to their faces.

Chanfrau was stricken down with brain fever during rehearsals, two days before the event. A brother actor watched the patient and studied the part of  “Mose,” for fear the one for whom it was intended and who was stricken down, should not recover in time to appear. Chanfrau pulled through, though, and appeared on the appointed night as “Mose.” The Centre Market boys were out in force. They received Mose with a coldness that boded no good to the piece, the actor and the author. But Mr. Baker had introduced an incident into the play that showed “Mose” as a rough with a warm spot hidden in his heart, and when this incident was arrived at it just melted the pit, and they shook the house with applause. 

George Oberkirsh Seilhamer also mentions an author named Cornelius Mathews, whose book “The Career of Puffer Hopkins” was supposed to have inspired Mose. Mathews was a popular author who created a movement called “Young America,” which was intended to prove that American literature was just as good as its European counterpart. Edgar Allen Poe might have agreed with the sentiment, but thought little of the author, writing of “Puffer Hopkins” that the books was “one of the most trashy novels that ever emanated from an American press.” Depending on your tastes, this is either a condemnation or an irresistible  endorsement.

An illustration from “Puffer Hopkins” showing the height of Broadway fashion.

“Puffer Hopkins” is a satiric novel of New York politics, including bare-knuckled fire boys, but Baker dismisses any influence. Baker also refuses to credit Mose Humphreys, pointing out that the name of the character hadn’t been chosen until shortly before the play opened — this is repeated by Allston Brown’s letter to the New York Times, who wrote that “The name of the principal character — Mose — was not given to it until the last rehearsal.”

I think it is likely that Baker wrote his fore boy character without thinking of anyone in particular, and that actor Frank Chanfrau played the character with Humphreys as his model, as he always claimed.

There is only one influence that Baker will cop to, and that is “102 Broadway,” by William Henry Herbert; presumably he means Henry William Herbert, another author Poe had no use for, calling his writing “woefully turgid.” It’s hard to know what Baker is referencing here, as I can’t locate anything written by Herbert called “102 Broadway,” but it is possible that Baker simply means that a character he authored, Major Gates, was actually inspired by Herbert, who lived on Broadway. The character of Major Gates is English, like Herbert, and is likewise woefully turgid.

Benjamin Baker would continue to write, but spent most of his career as a theater manager and as the assistant secretary of the Actor’s Fund, until he died of a stroke in 1890.

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Max Sparber

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