The Flour Rioters of 1837
Bread, meat, rent and fuel
Ask them about: sourdough starter?
In the pandemic months of 2020, one of the most initially surprising facts of life was the desolation of the supermarket baking aisle, with flour in desperately short supply as we all stress-baked our way through isolation. It isn’t the first time flour availability has been top-line American news, either. New Yorkers were obsessed with rising prices and short supply of flour in 1837, too – and that time, it led to a very contentious, very powdery riot.
Have (many) drinks with: Thomas Fitzpatrick
Hold my beer.
Ask him about: air traffic control
Just last month, a small plane made an emergency landing on a busy street in Washington state (apparently even managing, no small feat, to stop for a red light). These sort of landings are not uncommon, as unusual as they may seem: in the past few months of 2019 alone, small craft have needed to land in decidedly non-airport locations in Florida, California and New Jersey.
For the most part, though, these pilots made the best of a bad situation, and certainly didn’t start their flights thinking they would have to come up with creative landing plans. Back in 1950s New York City, however, there was one pilot in particular who not only enjoyed the practice of, shall we say, non-traditional landings, he very purposely drunk-landed a Cessna on a New York City street. Twice.
Meet Tommy Fitz.
Have a drink with: Claire Heliot
“Sentimentalist and lion tamer.”
Ask her about: herding cats
In 1905, the New York Hippodrome opened its doors with a banner performance of A Yankee Circus on Mars, a freewheeling half-circus, half-opera in which the King of Mars, acting as an intergalactic talent scout of sorts, comes to Earth to save a failing New England circus. A splendid spectacle, the show featured an ensemble of hundreds of actors wearing grand robes and frolicking amidst fifty-foot dragon sculptures, live elephants and decadent garden sets. Its star was a lion tamer named Claire Heliot, making her major American debut.
A Yankee Circus on Mars had snapped up Heliot for good reason: she was a sensation in the turn-of-the-century press, journalists marveling over this fair-haired young woman who, alone in the ring in a white satin gown, commanded the attention of a dozen lions. In her showpiece act, Heliot set an elegant table and invited the lions to sit with her, feeding each in turn a hunk of horseflesh with her own fingers, and as a closing flourish offering them “her own pretty head as a delectable morsel for dessert.” (The dinner guests respectfully declined this course.) Heliot’s lions agreeably performed with a group of boar hounds, doing tricks and pulling the dogs about in a chariot; and then in an act that seemed to defy both nature and physics, the lions Sascha and Nero walked from opposite sides of a tightrope towards each other, pausing to balance nose-to-nose in the center.
Heliot would lie down across the bodies of four reclining lions, pose for portraits in her boudoir cuddling the mane of a massive male, and play with the lions as though they were happy kittens. She typically finished her act by slinging a 350-pound male over her shoulders like an overgrown scarf and triumphantly striding from the ring.
Press headlines described Heliot as “frail but fearless.” She was neither; but they did not know what else to say.
Have a drink with: Jumbo
The Children’s Giant Friend
Ask him about: bath time in the Thames
There’s one conspicuous problem with the 1941 Disney movie Dumbo and Tim Burton’s remake, released last week: the elephant’s name is not, in fact, Dumbo.
The little elephant with the big ears is, in fact, given a family name when he is born, and Mrs. Jumbo’s baby is christened Jumbo, Jr. (The mocking nickname comes about when his giant ears are discovered.) This establishes Dumbo in the lineage of a real circus animal – the mighty Jumbo, P.T. Barnum’s prize African elephant. In 1941, when the original Disney film came out in theaters, Jumbo was still within fifty years’ living memory – and indeed, a fair swath of adult audience members were likely to have remembered seeing Jumbo as children on circus day, as the Greatest Show on Earth wound its way across America.
When P.T. Barnum secured him from the London Zoo, where he was known as the “children’s friend” for the rides he would give to young zoo visitors, Jumbo became the undisputed star of the circus, elevating the Barnum shows to an even greater level of cultural prominence.
Here are a few things you may not know about Dumbo’s famous patriarch.
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: 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 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 in: New Jersey
Jug handles and justice.
Ask: what exit?
No one would blame you for reading the news lately and deciding that 2016 was the year that somehow squeaked past quality control at the Time & Space Assembly Plant, having been created from spare parts by drunken intern howler monkeys.
Even though reasoned voices assure us that things in fact aren’t that bad, that doesn’t mean any of us are exactly sleeping better in the short term. But once again our 19th century friends at the New York Ledger arrive to the rescue, with some brass-tacks advice on where exactly America can find an example of solemn, principled order:
Have a drink with: An Anonymous Neat Freak
Not a fan of the cake smash.
Ask him: so how do you feel about nursing in public?
In an evergreen forest of advisories, parenting blogs, media content and pop-sociology books on parenthood it’s easy to suspect that no era outside of our own has ever been so laser-focused on how we mold our children, and even easier to feel nostalgic for a time in which maybe, just maybe, people kept unsolicited parenting advice to themselves.
But lest you think the past was a freer, bygone era, take one (presumably male) 19th-century New York journalist, who if he even had kids was at least very lucky his wife, children and no doubt ample domestic staff did not one morning decide to lace his oatmeal with strychnine.
Because if you believe the July 2, 1859 issue of the New York Ledger, children should apparently not only be neither seen nor heard, but little walking Swiffer pads for Jesus. Mothers, take note: