Have a drink with: Edwin Forrest & William Charles Macready
The play’s the thing…
Ask them about: Dead sheep as theater criticism
The New York Public Theater’s recent production of Julius Casear, in which the emperor bears a striking and not unintentional resemblance to Donald Trump, was hounded by controversy throughout its run. On June 16th, the performance was interrupted by protestors after Caesar’s assassination scene, with a right-wing activist climbing onstage to call attention to the “political violence” of the production.
This is not the first time American theater – or American Shakespeare performance, for that matter – has been a forum for bitter fighting over contemporary politics. When actors rallied near Manhattan’s Astor Place in support of the Public Theater shortly after the contested performance, it was no doubt with some specific history in mind: namely, the Astor Place Riot of 1849, in which a nasty feud between Shakespearean actors led to an actual battle between New York’s elite and a burgeoning nativist movement.
Have a drink with: General & Mrs. Tom Thumb
Tiny wedding of the century!
Ask them about: Will there be ice cream?
I’m over at Atlas Obscura today writing about the Tom Thumb wedding, an American dramatic tradition in which kids put on elaborate, supremely awkward mock weddings for paying audiences. These plays began in the 19th century as a wink and a nod to the “Fairy Wedding” of celebrity little people Charles Stratton (aka “General Tom Thumb”) and Lavinia Warren, and have been undertaken through history as a fundraiser, a crash course in etiquette and promises, or presumably simply so adults could enjoy their children’s embarrassment over cocktails. Click over to Atlas Obscura for more.
Have a drink at: The Central Park Zoo
Ask about: Does the gift shop sell firearms?
Highly partisan news engineered to manipulate media and line the owners’ pockets has become particularly virulent in current politics – and, thanks to the wackadoo likes of Alex Jones, highly visible as well – but it is not the first time this has happened. Manufacturing news whole cloth – for personal gain, sensationalism, manipulation or pure amusement – is nothing new. The New York Herald, under the 19th century management of James Gordon Bennett, Jr., was a regular exercise in information manipulation and partisan journalism. And if you think the gay frogs were a bad trip, just consider the rhinoceros that wrecked Manhattan.
Have a drink with: James Marsh
Maybe pass on the coffee, though…
Ask him about: Arsenic and old cases
In case you missed, it, I recently wrote at Atlas Obscura about 19th century efforts to take the threat and mystery out of arsenic poisoning, until then one of the most frequent and stealthy means of getting rid of that one person in your life who really can’t take a friggin’ hint. The development of the Marsh Test in the early 1800s meant that suddenly there was a precise, scientific means of figuring out whether someone had been knocked off with history’s own real-life version of iocane powder. Read on:
Have a drink with: P.T. Barnum
The Greatest Showman on Earth
Ask him about: elephant agriculture
Barnum month continues! With the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus performing its last shows yesterday in New York, and first-look pictures of Hugh Jackman’s Barnum musical The Greatest Showman breaking this week, it’s a good day to tip the top hat to Phineas T.
Here are ten things you may not have known about Barnum:
1. He never said “There’s a sucker born every minute.” P.T. Barnum never spoke his most famous words. In the late 1860’s, workers near Syracuse, New York dug up a ten-foot stone colossus, claiming it was archaeological evidence of Biblical giants having lived in the northeast United States. Really the “Cardiff Giant” was a hoax planted by skeptic George Hull, and as it drew thousands of people to see it, the statue made its owners money hand over fist. When the statue’s owners refused to sell to Barnum, the showman simply created his own “Giant,” and claimed the other guys were showing a fake. One version of the tale has angry owner David Hannum spitting out the famous phrase in the resulting legal dispute.
Have a drink with: Henry Bergh
The Great Meddler, mustache aficionado, friend to animals
Ask him about: Aquatic rhinoceros*
Today I’m over at The Atlantic writing about Henry Bergh, America’s first animal rights activist and a relentless crusader for the early animal rights movement. Through an unlikely and yet genuine friendship with entertainment icon P.T. Barnum, the two men advanced their mutual goal to make the world a better place – Bergh through service to animals, Barnum through the joy of spectacle.
Have a drink with: The 19th Century Anti-Gun Lobby
“We’re all hot at the same time, and we should do somethin’ about it!”
Ask them about: Background checks
If you watch enough movies – Civil War dramas, Wild West adventures, Five Points gangland brawls, Mel Brooks – you’d be forgiven for thinking that the 19th century was one long festival of unmitigated gun violence.
Indeed, in the 1800s, industrialization was the catalyst for mass production and ownership of guns. Prior to that, gun ownership was relatively rare and despite a romantic ideal of the American militia, apparently most of them literally couldn’t hit a barn door.
But what might surprise you is that the American reputation for a history of unchecked gun culture is, on the whole, undeserved. In the 19th century concealed carry prohibitions were common – and serious.
Have a drink with: Lovestruck 19th C New Yorkers
Don’t do it, girls!
Ask them about: Victorian-era sexting
In 1893, the city of Baltimore got serious about keeping harmful and degenerate behavior out of its city parks. By which it meant it was tired of kids flirting on on public property, and forbade young couples from courting in the parks lest they offend public morals. The New York press seized on the opportunity to make fun of its southern neighbor, with the World quipping: “A man must not put his arm around a woman’s waist if he has scruples about being indicted…the affectionate and spooning throng have been informed of the terribleness of the fate that will overtake them if they are caught swapping gum or tootsy-wootsying within the park limits.” They also made sure to proudly note that, in New York, “joy is unconfined.” Nyah.
Joy does have its limits, though. You may have earned the right to tootsy-wootsy in Central Park by now, but if we’ve told you once, we’ve told you a thousand times: NO SEXTING.
Have a drink with: The American Voter
On Tuesdays we wear white.
Ask her about: Her “citizen’s right, guaranteed to me and all United States citizens.”*
In case you need some historical comfort for your Election Day habits:
Compulsively clicking “refresh” on FiveThirtyEight? We get it. P.T. Barnum got it, too, which is why he offered a daily “Presidential Test Vote” at his American Museum (open to women as well as men!) and fed results to the daily papers:
“Women as well as Men vote at BARNUM’S MUSEUM All this week. Now is the time, Ladies, to show your preference. The vote will be taken, and the curiosities and entertainments of the museum increased in proportion.”
(While at the Museum, you could conveniently escape your polling anxiety with “Two LIVING ANACONDAS, a LIVING SKELETON, the DWARF LADY, a MODEL of the MALAKOFF, &c.”)