Irish Travellers in America: The Irish Tinker

Possibly the first appearance of an Irish tinker in American culture.

I have found what looks to be an ever older reference to Irish Travellers than in my first entry — all the way back in 1852, according to Baltimore’s American and Commercial Daily Advertiser, there was a performance called “The Irish Tinker.” It was performed in September of that year at the Baltimore Museum and Gallery of the Fine Arts on the corner of Baltimore and Calvert Streets, and starred Mr. and Mrs. B. Williams as Barney O’Toole and Edith. It was part of an evening of performance, the last of three, with the first two named “The Robber’s Hut” and “It’s the Custom of the Country.”

Believe it or not, it is possible to read the script for this, or a related one, online. The title of the online script is “Barney the Baron,” but it credits B. Williams as originating the role of Barney O’Toole, “an itinerant tinker from the Emerald Isle, seeking his fortune.” The author was Samuel Lover, the grandfather of Tin Pan Alley great Victor Herbert, and was, in his time, and accomplished novelist, songwriter, and playwright. The story tells of a tinker who becomes a baron when he wins a haunted German castle in a lottery, and there is a character called Edith in it, so I suspect B. Williams and his wife simple pared down the play to a two-person show in order to take it on the road.

There’s no overt indication in the text that O’Toole is meant to be understood to be a Traveller, but, then, the distinctions between the two groups may not have been settled — I find a story of Robin Hood published in the Penny Magazine from 1838 that uses the terms “Gypsy” and “tinker” interchangeably. The story describes the tinker as a “skulking adventurer,” and adds the following:

Such was the character of the tinker or gypsy then, and it is much the same still. These vagrants roam about–not, indeed, as they did a century ago, in bands of fifties and hundreds … — but in fives and sizes from hill to dale, and clout pans, mend kettles, repair china, rob hen roosts, and tell fortunes.

Which gives a sense of the sort of work a tinker did, and the sort of character he was seen as: Itinerant, criminal, offering to do odd jobs, particularly mending household utensils. O’Toole is itinerant — the word he uses for his traveling is “peregrinations” — and given to wild adventures, such as the one described in the play.

It’s important to note here that we now view Travellers as a distinct ethnic group, but the idea of ethnicity, as we now use it, is only about a hundred years old. Before then, an Irish tinker was an Irish tinker, and if he seemed to be of a different ethnic group, it was supposed maybe he was part Gypsy, and that was about the extent of that particular taxonomy. And so it gets a bit hard to discuss the subject in the 1800s, because they were imprecise in their own definitions.

Nonetheless, this gives us a chance to discuss the fact of tinkering. The profession, such as it was, was well-established by 1812, when the Edinburgh Annual Register ran a story about an Irish tinker in Scotland who was hired to build a still. In fact, we can go back much further than that: Robert Wodrow in 1830 wrote of an Irish tinker named Philip Garret who in 1677 had participated in an insurrection and gunfight in the Scottish West country.

We find the first clear definition of an Irish Tinker in John O’Brien’s 1832 book “An Irish-English Dictionary.” He writes, with some evident disapproval:

This Irish word ceard, signifying a tinker, a man in any base or low employ, is like a Latin ceardo, which means a cobbler, a currier, a tanner, a tinker, a smith, or like artisan, that uses a base trade for gain. 

A decade later, in 1844, Johann Georg Kohl wrote a little of the life of the tinker in the spectacularly titled “Ireland: Dublin, the Shannon, Limerick, Cork, and the Kilkenny Races : the Round Towers, the Lakes of Killarney, the County of Wicklow, O’Connell and the Repeal Association, Belfast, and the Giant’s Causeway”:

The tinkers in Ireland, as elsewhere, are a nomadic race, but here they are always ragged and wretched-looking. “They are rowers, the tinkers,” say the Irish; and if you ask an explanation of the phrase, they answer “Rowers — that means they are always rambling about.”  I suppose, therefore, that in Ireland the word “rower,” besides its common signification, is used to designate vagabonds or wanderers. The tinkers generally ramble about only during the summer, and are often accompanied by their families, like our gipsies. In the winter they inhabit little mud-cabins, upon some great bog, where fuel is to be had for little or nothing. Sometimes these mud-cabins stand empty on a bog for a number of summers; sometimes they are only built for the one winter, and fall to pieces when abandoned.

Mrs. S. C. Hall wrote of a particular tinker in Popular tales and sketches from 1856, Paddy the Tinker, who she encountered in a village in Surrey. It’s tempting to reproduce the entire story, but suffice it to say that he is at once treated as a picturesque character and as a disreputable one  (“mend one big hole, make two little ones,” a local says with disgust.). But Hall offers this description of Paddy that is worth reproducing:

The first time I encountered my countryman was in the pretty village of Petersham. “Ould pots, pans, and kittles to mend! Ould pans wid the holes in ’em made betther than new! Ould irrons to sell!” The Munster brogue was so inveterate,the “oulds” so melodious, the “kittles” so Munsterish, that I rose from my work and saw “Paddy the Tinker” “streeling” onwards. The word I have used is awkward, but it is the only one I know that can express the leisurely way in which he drew his feet one after the other, not giving them the trouble to move up and down, but simply slide along, , as if he mistook the dusty hot Petersham road in June for the Serpentine in January. Paddy’s hat was of straw, and had once been white, but it was scorched brown; it turned up a little behind  and at one side, and dropped considerably over one eye, so as to almost conceal an obliquity of vision that rendered the entire expression of his face very comical; his nose was a Muster nose to all intents and purposes–short, thick, and snubbish, the mouth altogether indescribable, and his figure and easy carriage conveyed at once the idea of a person who, though poor, was on excellent terms with fortune, and obliged the people he met to be on good terms with him; there was no mistaking his humour, as being good in more than one sense of the word; for his dress — it was unstudied; he had no two-wheeled furnace wherein to melt his solder, but his tools were ostentatiously displayed, hanging over and on his left arm, and strapped over his shoulder; along with a black or brown leather pouch, was a basket of the small-hamper species, covered over” the landlady said it looked like a small hamper of apples; but if it contained any eatables, I thought them most likely to be potatoes.

And so this is the sort of character Barney O’Toole, the main character in “Barney the Baron” or “The Irish Tinker” was. The play seems to have enjoyed occasional revivals in the United States: The Academy in Cleveland Ohio offered a production of “The Irish Tinker” in 1867 starring Dan Bryant, while Paddy McCarthy played “The Irish Tinker” in “The Irish Baron” in 1867 in New York. The play reclaims its original title, “Barney the Baron,” for a production in San Francisco later that same year, but then loses it in 1870, instead going under the name “The Irish Tinker, the Haunted Castle” in New York.

The last production of the show in America seems to have occurred in 1908, 56 years after the forst performance, when an excerpt from it was included as part of an “Irish minstrel show” at the Catholic Club in Jersey City. I can’t tell precisely what this is — it’s either a blackface show where everybody nonetheless performs Irish songs and sketches, or a show that uses the form of a minstrel show, including an interlocutor and two comedic end men, to offer an Irish variety show. Whatever it was, there were Irish-styled songs (“Is Your Mother In, Molly Malone?” and “Calligan, Calligan” are mentioned by the Jersey Journal), dancing, short comic scenes, and, of course, a sketch about an Irish tinker who inherits a German castle.

“I determined to make a start of it, and seek my fortune up the countrhy here,” Barney O’Toole says at one point in the play. I can’t image he, or anybody, expected the country would be America, and the fortune would last 56 years.

Mose the Fireboy: Glance at New York’s opening night, two views

New York’s Olympic Theatre, where “Glance at New York” debuted.

On July 23, 1902, a man named William Cauldwell wrote to the New York Times, thinking back on his experience with the original production of “Glance at New York.” He wrote:

The production to which I refer was Benjamin Baker’s “A Glance at New York,” in which Frank Chanfrau made so great a hit as “Mose.” The piece has been well noticed by the press, but its production was attended with much fear and trembling; for the reason that two or three days previously a “scare” letter had been sent to the manager of the theatre advising him that a somewhat rough crowd of “rowdies” connected with Engine Company No. 29, then located on Laight Street, near Canal, claiming for an excuse to be indignant at the much-talked-about caricature of New York firemen about to be presented on the stage in the New Piece, had determined to “gut the theatre” on the evening of its production, and advising the management to prepare for the arranged fracas.

Mitchell, the manager, got very nervous over the intelligence received, and held a council of war with Ben Baker, who was also much “shaken up,” and with Chanfrau, who was to take the part of Mose, who had studied the part with great earnestness, and who was a little afraid that his personation of “Mose” Humphrey (perhaps the best-known volunteer fireman in the city and an eccentric chap of the then “b’hoy” stripe) might not be permissible as a permissible interpretation of a peculiar character, but rather as an attempt on his part to degrade the individuality and social standing of the volunteer firemen, whom the community at large greatly admired and appreciated. It was a peculiarly trying occasion to all parties interested, particularly when, on the opening night on the opening night of the piece, the theatre was jammed, and among the crowd was a number of rather rough-looking chaps, ready for a “muss.”

When Chafrau went on the stage the first time in his red shirt (he afterward confessed) he trembled like an aspen leaf, and the crowded audience looked at him with a cold stare. They looked daggers, and looked in wonder and amazement, and without the slightest kindly emotion. All the first part of the piece fell flat as a flounder, and the only thing that saved the production was a little bit of business in which Mose found a saved a baby from the flames, and did the pathetic.

That touched the crowd; that convinced them that Chanfrau was not burlesquing the fire laddies, or gibing them. So they gave him a round of applause for the first time, and then the piece went along well enough. Baker had been all this time standing by the wings, looking on with one eye, yet with the other eye on the stage door, ready to get out at any movement if the “boys” in the pit had made up their minds to “go” for the house. His name was on the bills as “author,” and if the indignant fire laddies had gone for anybody, they would have gone for him first.

But as soon as the baby took, Ben smiled one of his most Bakerish smiles. The agony was over. It was the baby that saved the play. The joke of the thing was that the baby business was not in the original piece, as Baker first wrote it at all. It was an idea that came with the solicitation of the manager, and he added it to the piece the day before it was played. All this goes to show how ticklish and uncertain a thing is the success of a piece at any theatre. As Baker told me, after the piece had captured the house, “it was for half an hour the toss up of a copper whether ‘Mose’ would have ‘a run’ on the stage. Whether ‘Mose’ wouldn’t have to run for his life off the stage. 

This description is substantially similar to how playwright Brown himself described the opening night of the play, and Cauldwell is likely a credible witness. He had been publisher of the New York Sunday Mercury and had been a member of the New York Senate from 1868 to 1871.

Nonetheless, theater critic T. Allston Brown’s wasn’t entirely satisfied with Cauldwell’s depiction, and wrote a response letter to the New York Times, dated August 3, 1902. I have mentioned this letter before, and I shall reproduce much of it here:

CHANFRAU AND MITCHELL’S OLYMPIC.

To the editors of the New York Times:

In last Sunday’s TIMES was a very readable article on Mitchell’s Olympic and the first performance of “A Glance at New York.” There are some statements made therein that I may take objection to. In the first place, the sending of a “scare” letter to Mitchell is something that I never heard of before, and in a talk only this week one of the cast on that occasion says that he never heard of it before. Th fact that, “When Chanfrau came on the stage, the audience looked at him with a cold stare,” was not because he was “supposed” to be burlesquing one of the firemen, but because the disguise was so great that they did not know him. The first part of the sketch did not “fall flat as a flounder.” In those days managers gave their actors only one week’s notice of the date, for their benefit. The name of the principal character–Mose–was not given to it until the last rehearsal. Mose Humphrey was a popular Centre Market lad, as was a member of Martha Washington engine Company. Only a few weeks previous to the production of this sketch Mitchell rebuked Humphrey from the stage for his demonstrativeness.

The price of admission to the pit was one shilling, but the admission to the dress circle was fifty cents, upper boxes twenty-five cents, private boxes $5, orchestra boxes $3.

There are very few old theatregoers of New York who do not remember the old Olympic, for it was undoubtedly the most popular place of amusement ever known in New York. Weber & Fields’s theatre comes nearer to it than any place since that time, but even Weber & Fields’s place has not the reputation the old Olympic enjoyed. Some of the highest-priced actors–and clever ones, too–were to be seen there. It was situated on the east side of Broadway, 442, between Howard and Grand Streets, and was originally built for Henry Willard and William Rufus Blake. It was opened on Sept. 3rd, 1837, with “Perfection,” “Lady and the Devil,” and “Married Life.” One of the newspapers of the day said, “it was a parlor of elegance and beauty.”

The pit was devoted wholly to males; the first and second tiers of boxes, shut off from the lobby by a series of doors, were for ladies and their escorts; the third tier was for the use of courtesans. There was a bar-room on the second tier, where gin fizz and other liquors were dispensed, also oranges, cakes, and confectionery. The lobby was one of the most peculiar features of the house. Here could be seen the millionaire, sportsman, judges, &c.

… “A Glance at New York in 1948” was written by Benjamin A. Baker, late assistant secretary for the Actor’s Fund. He was the assistant stage manager of the Olympic at the time. He took the sketch to Mitchell, who condemned it at once. It was laid away until Baker wanted something for his benefit, and having no other novelty he put up this. It was rehearsed for two weeks, with Chanfrau as Mose. Within two days of its production Chanfrau was taken quite sick, and Peter Cunningham rehearsed the part of Mose for two days, and intended playing the part. The eventful evening came and both Chanfrau and Cunningham were at the theatre ready to go on. Notwithstanding he was suffering from brain fever, Chafrau enacted the character of Mose. The night was a stormy one, and the house light, but for the next night and for thirteen weeks in drew crowds.

The following is a copy of the cast:

MITCHELL’S OLYMPIC.
The doors will open at half-past six o’clock and the curtain will rise at 7.

BENEFIT OF MR. BAKER
On which occasion will be presented a new local sketch, written expressly for this theatre, entitled a

GLANCE AT NEW YORK IN 1948.
Tuesday evening, February 15, 1948.

Mose, a true specimen of one of the B’hoys … F.S. Chanfrau
Harry Gordon, a Gothamite … George Arnold
George Parsells, a greenhorn … George Clark
Jake, a sharper … William Conover
Mike, a sharper … Sylvester Bleeker
Major Gates, a literary loafer … Le Vivre
Mrs. Morton, President Ladies’ Bowling Saloon … Mrs. Henry
Mary, her daughter … Miss Phillips
Jane, a young girl from the country … Miss Roberts

It was performed for four weeks in five scenes. Mary Taylor was ill at the time, and no character was written for her. Mitchell paid Baker $25 for the sketch and offered him the same amount to rewrite the sketch and introduce a character of “Our Mary,” which was accepted.

After the four weeks’ run, two more scenes were written, and the following characters were introduced:

Lize Stubbins, one of the gals … Mary Taylor
Mr. Morton … Henry
Sam, a young thief … Master Frank Drew
Ben, vendor of news … Willie Seymour
Jenny Bogel … Miss Barber

Mary Taylor as Lize opposite Frank Chanfrau as Mose.

Mitchell used to tell how he went on the stage the first night just before the curtain was rung up, and seeing Chanfrau at the back dressed for his part, was on the point of ordering him off, supposing he was one of the “Centre Market” loafers. When the play opened and Chanfrau made his appearance, there was a dead silence in the house, as Chanfrau was not recognized. He stood there in his red shirt, with his fire coat thrown over his arm, his trousers tucked into his boots, the stove-pipe hat–better-known then as a “plug”–drawn down over one eye, a stump of a cigar pointing up from his lips to his eyes, the “soap locks” plastered flat on his temple, and his jaw protruding with a half beastly, half human expression of contemptuous ferocity. For a moment the audience eyed him in silence; not a hand or foot gave him welcome. Taking the cigar stump from his mouth and turning half way round to spit, he said:

“I ain’t a goin’ to run with dat mercheen  no more!”

Instantly there arose a yell of recognition as had never been heard in the little house. Pit and galleries joined in the outcry. Mose was compelled to stand, shifting his coat from one arm to the other, and bowing and waiting.

Syksey, although not in the original, was in the reconstructed version and was played by James Cunningham. Porgy Joe of Catherine Market was later created by Jack Winans at the Chatham Theatre in “New York As It Is,” on March 17, 1848. Chanfrau appeared nightly at both houses–the Olympic and Chatham–as Mose. During a portion of the double run Chanfrau even added Newark, N.J., to his list, and for one week did he each night play this role in two New York theatres and in Newark. Chanfrau used to drive the nine miles with a horse and buggy, and reach Newark in time to close the performance.

“Mysteries and Miseries of New York,” by Harry Grattan, was done at the Chatham on Sept 4., 1848. Chanfrau, who was lessee of the house, appeared as Mose. There were two Lizes–Emily Mestayer and Mrs. McLean. Baker was the author of “Mose in China,” another of the Mose series. Frank Chanfrau had been a Bowery boy. 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. Chanfrau died in Jersey City, N.J., on Oct. 1, 1884.

It’s hard to read this without imagining Brown crying out, “No, senator, you’re wrong, and I have the playbills to prove it,” but thank goodness he did, as what a wealth of information, some of which I shall be returning to. As an example, there was the author of “Mysteries and Miseries of New York,” a play that included the Mose character. Here he is credited as Harry Grattan, an English actor, but it is either based on or inspired a book of the same title by Ned Buntline, and we will be looking at both the play and the book soon.

One of the most significant things about Brown’s letter is that he describes Mose as he appeared onstage, and I’d like to take just a moment to address this. Brown’s description is entirely in keeping with contemporary images of the performer in character, such as this one:

Apparently Mose is just on a little break here.

There’s the black stovepipe hat, the rolled up pants, the boots, and the fireman’s jacket. He’s also got the soap locks, and what the heck are those? There’s a description of soap locks that shows up frequently, such as Wikipedia: that the hair is plastered to the scalp with soap. But this seems either inaccurate or incomplete. Mose doesn’t seem to have plastered-down hair in the above photo; instead, he appears to have huge, bushy sideburns. And here’s a print by a man named Nicolino Calyo of some Bowery Boys, titled “The Soap Locks”:

There are those side-burn things again.

Here’s a description of soap locks from 1868, from a book titled “Chambers Journal of Popular Literature”, with italics added by me to provide emphasis:

“Both of the young men–they were neither of them over twenty—-had somewhat repulsive countenances, and their hair was plastered own over their ears, in what was termed, in those days, ‘soap-locks,’ from the fact of the class to which they belonged lying under the imputation of using soap, rather than any of the usual appliances of the toilet, for the purpose of imparting smoothness to the hair.”

It sounds like “soap locks” was actually a term of derision; Helen Campbell, in her 1896 book “Darkness and Daylight,” describes Bowery Boys costumes just like Mose, and mentions soap-locks, but adds “it would have been injurious to apply this term to him in his hearing.” Maria Ward Brown wrote a 1901 epic poem about the Irish-American circum impresiario and clown Dan Rice, which I shall discuss in a later post and was called “The Life of Dan Rice,” where she describes “Soap locks limbered like wet rags.”

A description for the creation of soap-locks is found the the Supplement to the Courant, published in 1840, so it probably gives us the best sense of what is meant by the term. The piece offers the recipe for creating soap locks:

A new composition has recently been invented in this place for soap locks. The following is the recipe: take half a pound of rosin soap, a half pint of molasses, and two ounces of beeswax–boil it together for half an hour. It can be scented to suit the taste or smell, with otto roses, bergamot, or lavender. Apply it while it is warm. It will make the hair stick on, and shine like a varnish brand.

So soap locks aren’t so much about gluing hair down with soap (the first description suggest they were typically created with commercial toiletries) as they are about creating shiny, sticky hair; in the case of the Bowery boys, it’s clear that part of their look was to emphasize their sideburns, which, after all, hadn’t gotten that name yet, having been named after Civil War general Ambrose Burnside. In the image of Mose, he seems to actually have treated the hair of his head into a wavy swirl that extends down to his jawline, a sort of a dandified version of the sidelocks preferred by Hasidic Jews, and I very much think this is what is being refereed to when the word “soap locks” is mentioned.

Mose the Fireboy: A Glance at New York, The Script

The script for “A Glance at New York,” for sale at Etsy.

The script for “A Glance at New York,” the play that introduced the character of Mose the Fireboy, has survived. Apparently none of the other Mose playscripts are available, although there may be some in private collections, but “Glance” is available through a script omnibus called “On Stage America!” edited by Walter J. Messerve, and various online dealers also offer their own printing. The play is long in the public domain, so anyone who wants to print up a copy and sell it may do so. I might even transcribe the play at some point and make it available as a PDF.

There are two things you should know about “A Glance at New York” at the outset: Firstly, it isn’t a play so much as it is a series of comic episodes set around the Bowery neighborhood of mid-19th century New York. Secondly, Mose is not the main character. In an early version of the play, he is reported to have barely appeared at all, but proved popular enough that the play was revised to include more of him. Additionally, characters that would become prominent in later Mose plays, such as his girlfriend Lize and his sidekick (and sometimes foil) Syksey, are mentioned in the play but barely appear.

The main character in “Glance” is George Parsells, a rube from Albany whose visit to New York includes repeatedly being fleeced by two local confidence artists. He has a frequently absent tour guide in the form of his friend Harry Gordon, a local with a yen for George’s cousin, who is also in town. And Harry went to school with Mose, and so, a third of the way into the play, invites him on a series of hikinks. They dress in women’s clothes and surreptitiously attend a woman’s bowling alley, they go to a bar called Loafer’s Paradise and start a fight, they attend a mock auction, and they go out to eat. George manages to get had everywhere he goes, with Mose often bailing him out by throwing punches. Oh, and at one point, Mose is handed an abandoned baby in a basket, whereupon he starts crying and declares that he will never abandon a baby in need.

There are a few elements of interest in this play. Firstly, it is genuinely funny — when George and Harry first meet, Harry insists on getting them a carriage, despite the fact that they only plan to travel a block. But to walk would be out of fashion, and so Harry sets off to find a carriage. When he returns, much later in the scene, Harry complains that he had to walk two blocks to find a carriage. The play is filled with these sorts of small, absurd moments , the sort Oscar Wilde would later excel at, where following fashion or convention leads characters to ridiculous action.

Secondly, the play works as a sort of inventory of popular confidence games of the era, all committed by a team named Mike and Jake. There is a pocketwatch scam, a billfold scam, a tour guide scam, and even a scam involving convincing George that the flashing light atop Barnam’s American Museum is comet. The auction George attends is one enormous confidence game, where he finds himself purchasing an enormous quantity of costume jewelry without meaning to. My research into history has led me to believe that a large, if scarcely mentioned, part of the economy of tourist and commuter cities was fleecing hayseeds, and “A Glance at New York” is like a master class in how to separate a county naif from his money.

But, finally, there is Mose, and it is easy to see why he became such an iconic figure of the American stage during this era. The play was written by a burlesque writer, and so is filled with the mannered conventions of the burlesque, including asides, interstitial songs, and broad comedy. But Mose was inspired by a genuine youth movement, members of who, as we have discovered, would have been in the theater’s pit, watching how they were represented onstage and ready to make trouble if they didn’t like what they saw. As a result, Mose has a swaggering verisimilitude that feels, at times, documentary. His onstage language is a warehouse of slang and idioms of the era, and he talks in a way that sometimes sounds transcribed from interviews with Bowery Boys. As an example, here is the famous monologue that introduced Mose, who is a butcher and volunteer firefighter, although he is thinking about giving up the latter:

I’ve made up my mind not to run wid der machine any more. There’s that Corneel Anderson don’t give de boys a chance. Jest ’cause he’s Chief Ingineer he thinks he ken do as he likes. Now, last night when de fire was down in Front Street, we was a-takin’ 40’s water; I had hold ov de butt, and seed she was gittin’ too much fer us; and I said to Bill Sykes: “Syksey, take de butt.” Says he, “What fur?” Says I, “Never you mind, take de butt.” And he took de butt; so I goes down de street a little, and stood on 40’s hose. Corneel Anderson cum along and seed me. Seys he, “Get off de hose!” Seys I, “I won’t get off de hose!” Seys he, “If you don’t get off de hose, I’ll hit you over de gourd wid my trumpet!” Seys I, “What! I won’t get off de hose!” And he did hit me over de gourd!

I realize this requires translation, and I am not sure I know enough about volunteer firefighting in the mid 1800s to completely explain it. But “Syksey, take de butt!” became a catch phrase from the play, and is widely misunderstood now, even though it is still quoted, so I will do my best to explain.

When Mose says he is thinking about giving up running “wid der machine,” he’s literally talking about a machine — a water pump on wheels, which groups of firemen would gather round, some in front, pulling, some at the back end, or “butt” end, pushing. There’s a common misapprehension that “take de butt” means “hold my cigar,” but, as best as I can tell, Mose is telling his friend Syksey to take over his position at the back of the pump.

The problem is that they have attached their pump to water from a rival station, and too much water is flowing through the pump for it to be effective. So Mose goes and stands on the hose to slow the flow of water, getting him in trouble with a Colonel Anderson, who is either in charge of his company or a rival company. Anderson carries a trumpet because, in the early days, this was how firemen signaled they were coming — old fire pumps sometimes had fanfare-style trumpets tied to the front, so firemen could blast out warning toots as they ran down the street. Colonel Anderson demands that Mose get off the house, and, when Mose refuses, the Colonel hits him with the trumpet.

At least, this is how I understand it. Whatever is going on, the play has provided a snapshot of the experience of a volunteer fireman, and, as the actor who played the role of Mose, Franck Chanfrau, was a former volunteer fireman, I think we can assume that it represents the sort of experience that actual firemen had at the time.

There are frequent flashes of this sort of of verisimilitude throughout the script, which, after all, presents itself as an observer’s representation of New York in 1848 (it’s original title was “New York in 1948”). When Mose first appeared onstage, he was played by a man who shared Mose’s experiences, and knew an actual Mose that he used as a template, and written by a man who knew that men just like Mose would be in the audience, and would rebel if they felt they were misrepresented. The play is exaggerated and comical, but rooted in fact, which is especially interesting.

The further we get from the first play, the further we get from reality. Mose started out as a real man, and as a realistic stage character; he would soon become increasingly fictionalized and exaggerated, finally becoming a tall tale, as we shall see.

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.

Mose the Fireboy: Frank Chanfrau, the Actor

Frank Chanfrau, the original stage fireboy.

We’ve met Mose Humphreys, the tall, red-headed Bowey Boy who inspired Mose the Fireboy. And we have heard tell that there was a fight once, between Humphreys and another firefighter named Hen Chanfrau. We heard that during this fight, Hen’s younger brother Frank stood by and cheered.

This is Frank’s story, and the story of how he created a stage character that became a fad in his lifetime and a legend afterward.

Let’s begin with a brief summary of his life, as recalled by the New York Times in an obituary of the actor, dated October 3, 1884:

He was born on the 22ns of February, 1824, on the corner of the Bowery and Pell street, in the fifth ward of this city. The tenement in which he first saw light was the historic “The Old Tree House.” He was taught the rudiments in city schools. His father, who kept a famous eating house, failed, and, being compelled to support himself, Frank went westward and learned the ship carpenter’s trade on the shores of the great lakes. While still a lad he was a member of the “Dramatic Institute,” an amateur theatrical organization which used to attempt Shakespearean performances in the old Franklin Theatre. This connection procured for him the acquaintance of some theatrical folk, if it had no better result, and when  he returned from the West, without employment, he obtained a place as a “helper” on the stage of the Bowery Theatre. In those days, he was a member of the Volunteer Fire Department, and ran with Engine No. 15 — the “Old Maid.” He developed remarkable mimetic powers while working at the theatre, and was wont to imitate Tom Hamblin, the manager of the Bowery; the elder Booth, Forrest, who was a rising star, and the other celebrated actors. Hamblin heard of his ability and gave him a position as utility man in the company. Here he remained, taking the first steps of his profession, for some years, and afterward he joined the company of the Park Theatre, where he was considered a promising young actor. It was not until he appeared at Mitchell’s Olympic as Jerry Clip, the versatile barber, in “A Widow’s Victim,” that Chanfrau’s name became familiarly known. That performance was highly amusing and ingenious. Soon after Chanfrau joined Mitchell’s companyMr. Ben Baker, the stage manager of that house, hastily wrote a sketch entitled “A Glance at New-York in 1848,” which was produced for Mr. Baker’s benefit on Feb. 15 of that year. In it Mr. Chafrau appeared as Mose. The following April he became a partner, with Mssrs. Halsey and Ewen, in the management of the Chatham-Street Theatre. For a number of years thereafter he played Mose at Mitchell’s, and on the same nights appeared also at the Chatham-Street in the same character. The Chatham-Street piece was called “New York As It Is,” and was also written by Mr. Baker. Chanfrau’s Mose outlived both of these trifling plays, and figured also in “The Mysteries and Miseries of New-York,” “Three Years and after,” “Mose Married,” and “Mose in California.” 

Mose made Chanfrau. The play was a mere sketch, and the Bowery b’hoy was its most conspicuous though not its only striking character, for Lize and Sikesey were both acknowledged types of the low life in New-York. Chanfrau caught the mannerisms and speech of the good-natured New-York rowdy, a type which has long since given way to the transplanted product of the criminal hatcheries of the Old World, and presented a picture at once accurate and amusing.

 For those who didn’t catch it, Chafrau came to the attention of theater producers for his skill at impersonating established actors, including “the elder Booth.” They are speaking here of Junius Brutus Booth, the father of John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Lincoln.

Chanfrau experienced a long career downturn after his remarkable success as Mose, and his career didn’t enjoy a resurgence until 1868, when he created the role of Kit in “The Arkansas Traveler,” a revenge tragedy set in the American frontier. He played the role 300 times, traveling with it throughout America. According to the Times obituary, he grew bitter in his old, and gained considerable weight, in part because of rheumatism, which contributed to his death by stroke.

The New York Times also noted that Frank Chanfrau had been a “remarkably handsome” man in his youth.

My previous piece on Mose Humphries told two stories of Chandrau’s youthful encounters with the basis for his Mose character, but I have found one more that claims that the actor actively sough out Humphries and studied him while preparing for the role. It’s from a rather odd book called “My Angling Friends: Being a Second Series of Sketches of Men I Have Fished with,” author by Fred Mather in 1801, and is exactly what it claims to be: A collection of memories of people that Mather has caught fish with.

One of these men was author Ned Buntline, who used Mose as a character in his novels, which we will come to. But in his discussion of Buntline, Mather writes the following:

F. S. Chanfrau made a great hit in his character of Mose, a soap-locked, red-shirted volunteer fireman, who always wore a plug hat on one side of his head and held a cigar tilted up at an acute angle. The play furnished popular quotations of firemen’s talk, and we schoolboys would quote: “Sykesy, take de butt” and “Get off dem hose or I’ll hit yer wid a spanner” etc. Mose was our hero about 1850, and now as I go through Centre street on my way to the Forest and Stream office, I stop each week and look in the window of No. 20 at a picture of Chanfrau as Mose, disgustedly saying: “I’m bound not to run wid der machine any more.” Five old-timers were in the City Hall by invitation of Martin J. Keese, an old fire laddy, to meet me and talk of Ned Buntline, and when I mentioned this picture they went to see it. “It’s like a glimpse of the old days,” said Keese, “to see that picture, but it’s sad to think of the descent from Mose to Chimmie Fadden. Ned Buntline took the character of Mose from Mose Humphrey — you remember him, Jake? He ran with old 40 engine and got licked in every fight he went into. Chanfrau spent weeks studying Mose and made up just like him.” And then these old “boys” became reminiscent of fires, fights, Harry Howard and other chiefs, and I enjoyed their enthusiasm as they lived their lives over again.

If you pay attention, this is actually the fourth book he has written about fishing with friends.

As you’ll see, once we start discussing the play itself, there is considerable reason to believe that New York’s volunteer firemen didn’t think much of the character of Mose. At the same time, there are quite a few who say, as with the Times obituary, that Chanfrau’s performance was notably authentic.

I expect both are true. There’s no reason to think that Chanfrau, who was born in the same neighborhood as Mose, was himself a volunteer firefighter, was acclaimed for his skills with mimicry, and had met Mose on several occasions and had perhaps studied him for weeks, would not be able to produce an authentic portrait of a brawling fireboy onstage. But as the character of Mose became an inspiration to a new generation of Bowery Boys, there is every reason to think that volunteer firemen might not appreciate that this trouble making streetfighter had come to represent them.

Theatrical Hooliganism

There can never be too much stage realism.

This blog takes its name from an early 20th century comic strip about a cheerful Irish-American hobo, but that doesn’t mean we are disinterested in the subject of hooliganism. Quite the contrary, few things interest us more than an inveterate troublemaker.
Hooligan is a word, like many, with a mysterious origin. It’s a not-uncommon Irish last name, and there may have been an Irish bruiser in London named Hooligan; at least, this is the claim of Clarence Rook in his 1899 book “Hooligan Nights.” There is, however, some suspicion that Rook’s book is more fiction than fact. Maybe the word comes from a music hall comedy team called O’Connor and Brady, who sang about a violent family in a song that included the lyrics “Oh, the Hooligans! Oh, the Hooligans! Always on the riot, cannot keep them quiet!” That’s a far back as author Eric Moonman chases the word in his book “The Violent Society.” The World Wide Words blog mentions a half-dozen possible additional sources, and so it is with these thing. Unless somebody from the era can actually pinpoint the moment of creation, words just seem to appear all at once, as though everybody had acquired a new vocabulary word overnight.
Instead, I want to talk about an early example of hooliganism in America. In fact, here we have a story about some hooligans named O’Hooligan, sort of, which is a very pleasing coincidence. The O’Hooligans were actually stage comics Gallagher and West, along with comic W.B. Watson,” and they had a touring show called “O’Hooligan’s Masquerade.” (It seems likely the show was inspired, if not directly lifted, from a Music Hall song published the previous year called “Hooligan’s Fancy Dress Ball” and authored by John H. Wagner.)  The O’Hooligan show is described in a December 1895 article in the Jackson City Patriot:
“The first and third acts were given over to the most laughable representations of the haps and mishaps of the witty characters, while the second act was devoted to vaudeville. From the rise of the curtain until the close of the performance the audience was kept in a continual roar of laughter. The original and witty saying of Gallagher and West took the house by storm, while their make-up was ridiculous in the extreme. W.B. Watson, as a Dutchman, also created much merriment by his brilliant dialect comedy. The lady members of the company are all well known and talented artists.”
The laughs were to be short-lived, however. A March 10, 1896, news report in the Elkhart Daily Review reported the following:
“John West and William Lang, of the O’Hooligan’s Masquerade company, engaged in a duel with revolvers at a Marion, Ind., opera house, Saturday night. Four bullets struck Lang. His injuries are not serious. Ill feeling had existed between the men all the season. Alma Horn, the soubrette of the company, figured in the case. West is one of the owners of the show, which appeared here recently.”
The Daily Review’s description makes the event sound almost discreet, like a gentlemanly battle over the affections of a woman. In fact, the duel was actually quite the donnybrook, if the Evansville Courier and Press is to be believed:
“O’Hooligan’s Masquerade company was brought to a sudden termination last night after the performance. The members of the company engaged in a free-for-all fight at White’s Opera House. Manager W.B. Watson and Will Lang had a controversy ending in Lang knocking Watson over the stage. John West, German comedian, interfered and was knocked down by Lang, who jumped on West’s face with both feet, breaking the jawbone and knocking out eleven teeth.
“West hurried to his dressing room followed by Lang, and there West shot Lang through the left breast. Lang then ran out to his dressing room and procured a revolver. Returning he met West on the stage and both began shooting at each other. They emptied all their revolvers, ten shots being fired in all. Lang got the worst of it, being hit in four places, and is not expected to live. West was ‘blistered’ with one shot.
“When the shooting began other members of the company notified the police, who came on the scene and arrested the entire company. They will be held until examination tomorrow. Manager Watson says that this will wind up the show. West was one of the combination of Gallagher and West, a well-known German sketch team.”
They weren’t. Gallagher and West were a song and dance team known for comically acrobatic dance routines; they also dabbled in blackface comedy.
Lang seems not to have died – there is no further mention of his injuries, or of any prosecution, and a song-and-dance man named William Lang appeared onstage in Chicago two months later. And if West had his jaw broken and his teeth knocked out, he recovered with alacrity, as Gallagher and West was onstage in Philadelphia in September. Even O’Hooligan’s Masquerade seemed to have survived the event: A company called the Thurston Comedy company performed a show of that title in December of 1898 in Rockford, Ill.
Apparently, the year of the duel was a bad year for Hooligans and parties anyway. The Washington DC Evening Star offered the story of one George O’Connor, an honorary member of the Morton Cadets, who in April of 1896 donned the uniform of the cadets and stood onstage at Metzerott Hall to sing “Hooligan’s Fancy Dress Ball.”
“The audience was not satisfied,” the Evening Star reported.