Have a drink with: Harry Hill
“Take a little wine for thy stomach’s sake.”
Ask him about: How’s your head?
Harry Hill was a British-born horse-racing enthusiast and barman who ran a multi-purpose bar, concert hall, fight venue and gambling house at Houston and Crosby Streets in 19th century lower Manhattan, a scant mile and change uptown from Barnum’s American Museum. Hill was a colorful character whose combination of brawn, acuity and street-smarts gained him broad respect and local notoriety: he entertained a rough crowd but strictly enforced house rules about behavior and relative quietude (no swearing or unsanctioned brawling allowed, and while you’re at it, order a glass of wine for your digestion).
His New York Times obituary, printed August 28, 1896, described Hill as “a queer combination of the lawless, reckless, rough, and the honest man.” This was an understatement: Hill was the type of guy who once had been stabbed with a penknife by a disgruntled female patron, and seemed not to consider this out of the ordinary.
Have a drink with: The Store Detective
Enemy of deviant feminist candy thieves!
Ask her about: hiding a football field’s worth of fabric in your skirt
The modern department store came into its own in the 19th century, as retailers jumped feet-first into the growing Barnumesque sense of spectacle suddenly required to get a consumer’s attention (and their disposable income) in a mass-media society. In an effort to court customers, and to change what it even meant to “need” something, 19th century department stores went all-out in terms of decor and attraction: one Chicago store contained a “reproduction of a gold mine in active operation,” and a New York store had live lizards on hand to add some extra flair to a display, meaning that eventually “the police had to interfere to disperse the crowds.” Other stores offered enticements – free ice cream, a complimentary tea salon, cooking classes.
Much as people joke today about the porn industry being the inevitable first-to-market as far as any technology is concerned, department stores were that innovator in the 19th century. If you wanted to see huge plate glass windows, elevators and escalators, or grand displays of electric lighting, department stores were the place to go – and they were remarkable in that they were specific retail spaces in ways none had been before. Window shopping, for the first time, became a thing.
Stealing also became a thing.
Have a drink with: Sarah Winchester
40BR, 30BA; move-in ready!
Ask her about: Extreme Home Makeover, Spectral Edition
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the star of the recent suspense film Winchester is Helen Mirren. She is, after all, a certified badass; a superb actress; and well kitted out for the job in a dour stare and a dramatic swath of black Victorian lace.
In fact, though, the star of the film is a house, purportedly as haunted in reality as it is on film. The Winchester Mystery House, as it’s popularly known, is a 160-room Queen Anne-style mansion in modern-day Silicon Valley, created by the real-life version of Mirren’s character Sarah Winchester. And as a 1940s tourism brochure points out, “The World’s Largest, Oddest Dwelling” is not your typical real estate listing.
So why spend more than three decades building an ooky, nonsensical Queen Anne monstrosity, albeit one with very nice amenities? If you believe the legend, it’s because Sarah Winchester was trying to manage a tenant roster of very unhappy ghosts.
Have a drink with: The Winter Olympics
Faster, higher, stronger, colder.
Ask about: Being young and full of sin
Although technically the Olympic Games have been going on since centuries B.C.E., the modern Games as we now know them began in 1896, with the competition of 241 athletes in traditional track-and-field events, wrestling, gymnastics, shooting and the like in Athens, Greece.
The Winter Games, however, are a comparatively recent addition, and did not first occur until very recently, historically speaking, in 1924 (there’s even film!). And there was at least one person who was not happy about it AT ALL, which you can read all about in an edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle published ninety-four years ago today:
Have a drink with: The Yale Medical School Class of 1824
Did you bring a shovel?
Ask them about: Buying your own school supplies
On a cold January morning almost 200 years ago in New Haven, Connecticut, someone came knocking on Jonathan Knight’s door. This itself was not necessarily unusual, as Knight had his thumb in many of the town’s proverbial pies: in addition to serving as a local doctor, he was also a professor at the young Medical Institution of Yale College. What was unusual, for the pre-breakfast slot on a Monday morning, was that the caller was a lawyer named General Kimberly, and that he was deeply concerned that some of the school’s medical students had apparently and emphatically not spent their Sunday at church.
Have a drink with: James O’Connell & Captain Costentenus
Over 7 million blood-producing punctures!
Ask them about: The many uses of coconut oil
The Greatest Showman, the recent Hugh Jackman movie musical about impresario (and frequent blog subject) P.T. Barnum, centers in large part on the “Oddities,” a troupe of human curiosities Barnum brings from social obscurity to delight crowds at his American Museum. Among these is a tattooed man – and, in this case, fact and fiction align: in the early 19th century, “tattooed person” officially became a career option for white Westerners. Many of them were sailors who, as Robert Bogdan points out in the book Freak Show, “rather than getting a small tattoo on their arm, had their bodies extensively decorated by native tattooers. When they discovered that people would pay to view such skin art, a new type of freak was created.”*
Barnum employed tattooed people in his shows throughout the 1800s, and the movie’s burly, bearded tattoo aficionado looks to be modeled on a real man named Djordgi Konstantinus – Captain Costentenus if you’re nasty.
Have a drink with: Jenny Lind
The one and only Swedish Nightingale
Ask her about: The hot concert tour of 1850
The Greatest Showman, a movie musical about the life and legend of P.T. Barnum, is a colorful, kinetic romp through the most recognizable part of Barnum’s entertainment oeuvre, with Hugh Jackman at the fore in ringmaster’s tails and gold-capped boots. And while the musical admirably captures Barnum’s unparalleled capacity for expansive joy and puckish innovation, it does so by taking some Jumbo-sized liberties with the real version of events (though, frankly, what’s more Barnum than taking a good story and embellishing the hell out of it?)
Insofar as the movie pivots on the suggestion that Barnum and his star, the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, had the hots for each other, that one is right out: I’m over at Vanity Fair explaining why.
Have a drink with: The West Point Cadets of 1826
Cold cuts, eggnog, muskets.
Ask them about: really aggressive wassailing
“1408. No cadet shall drink, nor shall bring, or cause to be brought, into either barracks or camp, nor shall have in his rooms or otherwise in his possession, wine, porter, or any other spiritous or intoxicating liquor; nor shall go to any inn, public house, or place where any of those liquors are sold, without permission from the Superintendent, on pain of being dismissed the service of the United States.”
Article 78, General Regulations for the Army, 1825
No one was really looking forward to Christmas at West Point in 1826. While in past years there had been a blind eye towards a nip on Christmas or July Fourth, in 1826 everyone was painfully aware that superintendent Lt. Colonel Sylvanus Thayer intended to put a solid end to any holiday drinking, and had forbidden not only alcohol in the cadet corps but tobacco and cards as well. Staff were on sharp lookout for any smuggled wine or whiskey.
Just a couple days before Christmas, the cadets decided to celebrate the holiday in a warmer, more festive manner than Thayer had in mind: with an eggnog party in the wee hours of Christmas Day. Three cadets collected contributions from their dormitory mates and, with civilian overcoats over their uniforms, they quietly headed to Martin’s Tavern, across the river near present-day Peekskill. Bribing the cadet at the dock for use of a skiff, they returned with two gallons of alcohol and the firm resolution that “there’ll be a good Christmas at West Point this year.” Nor were they the only cadets to visit local taverns for supplies.
Have a drink with: Tom Petty
Into the great wide open…
Ask him about: Not backing down.
Tom Petty recently achieved the feat, as far as the press was concerned, of dying twice in a single day.
On Monday, October 2, news outlets began reporting in the afternoon that Petty had died following a cardiac incident at his California home, following a CBS News breaking news item declaring the singer dead. Only a few hours later, amidst a social media explosion of remorse and YouTube videos, did the news squeak out that announcements of Petty’s death may, in fact, have been premature. The Los Angeles Police Department, which had been CBS’ source in breaking the news, shortly clarified that it could not in fact confirm Mr. Petty’s death, noting on Twitter: “The LAPD has no investigative role in this matter. We apologize for any inconvenience in this reporting.”
It isn’t the first time death has seemed less than final in the realm of celebrity.
Modern media culture is full of conspiracy-laden, media friendly death theories: Babe Ruth and Frank Sinatra died on the same day in 1945! Why do you think Paul McCartney’s barefoot on the Abbey Road cover? Elvis faked his death and is living under witness protection! Abe Vigoda didn’t just miss a wrap party during the 1980s, he opted out ENTIRELY. (Sorry, that’s during the 90s.) (Oughts?) (Check the website.)
Are celebrity death hoaxes an unpleasant, if inevitable, modern consequence of the Internet’s viral credibility problem?
Nope. The gleeful anticipation of celebrity deaths as mass mourning events is a particularly tawdry offshoot of modern mass media culture. But the phenomenon isn’t new. Since the 1800s, death hoaxes and premature obituaries have punctuated American history (and yes, American – we seem to specialize in both death obsession and gullibility).