Over the course of the last month as I wrapped up my own contribution to our Cambridge Companion
— a chapter on nineteenth-century theater, with a special focus on plays set in the contemporary city — I had the occasion to revisit the essay that remains the definitive scholarly account of Mose the Bowery B’hoy: Richard M. Dorson’s “Mose the Far-Famed and World-Renowned,” published in the journal American Literature
in 1943. (Click here
to access the article via JSTOR; institutional subscription required.) A revised version of the piece appeared in Dorson’s 1973 book America in Legend: Folklore from the Colonial Period to the Present
From first page to last, one rich footnote after another, Dorson’s article on Mose delights. One of the first professionally trained folklorists in the United States, and a major force behind Indiana University’s renowned program in folklore for several decades, Dorson was a meticulous collector of stories about American characters. Mose was just one of those, although Dorson was forceful in his belief that folklore emerged in cities as easily as it did anywhere else, and Mose — butcher, fireman, benevolent protector of the Bowery — is probably the most uniquely urban folk hero America has produced. (Students in Writing New York may be interested to know that Dorson’s first article, published in 1940, was on the character type pioneered by Royall Tyler’s Jonathan, the “stage Yankee,” almost always portrayed as a bumpkin bewildered by the city, the very opposite of Mose.)
Dorson had obviously spent hours and hours in the theater history collection at Harvard’s Houghton Library, which makes his notes on Mose as rich as the essay itself. For example, his opening note on the definition and use of the term “b’hoy” includes the following authoritative description:
The term applied to a type of loafer-dandy familiar on Chatham Street [now Park Row] and Centre Market Square in the forties, distinguished by his rolling gait, surly manner, slangy talk, and extravagant costume; the last is frequently catalogued as a shiny stovepipe hat tipped over the forehead, soap-locks plastered flat against the temple, a “long nine” cigar uptilted at an angle of forty-five degrees, bright red shirt, heavy pearl-buttoned pea-jacket, and rolled-up trousers tucked into the boots.
Just in case you need some ideas for next Halloween. And Dorson leaves tantalizing little hints of things he can’t fully describe in polite company, such as Mose’s cameo in a “lurid work” titled Asmodeus! or, The Iniquities of New York. (Actually, I looked it up on Google Books and it seems pretty tame.)
Dorson is clearly attracted to Mose’s popularity — what made the character such a hit, from his first appearance in Benjamin Baker’s 1848 farce A Glance at New York to his many incarnations and spin-offs, national theater tours (played by Frank Chanfrau, who defined the role, and many others), and adventures in sequels that took him to China, California, and even the moon. At the same time, he’s sensitive to the cultural tension Mose caused, citing, among other accounts, William Knight Northall’s Before and Behind the Curtain (1851):
For four months did this unmitigated conglomeration of vulgarity and illiteracy keep the stage–a compliment entirely due to Mr. Chanfrau. Except the acting of this gentleman, there was not a redeeming feature in the whole affair. It was low in design, vulgar in language, and improbable in plot. … The theatre was crowded from pit to dome nightly, and the hi-hi’s of the pit testified how happy they were to see a congenial vulgarity thrust under the nostrils of a better class of people. It would be scarcely fair to judge of a person’s taste, simply because they spent an evening in witnessing the rowdyism of Mose. The piece was the town talk, and few could reisit the inclination to go and see for themselves what had produced such an extraordinary excitement all around them. The house was filled with a constant succession of strangers, for we venture to assert that no man with any pretension to good taste, with any love for the stage, or any desire to see it fulfil its proper uses, would ever go there twice, and sit through the abomination the second time. When the public curiosity had been somewhat satisfied … the boxes no longer shone with the elite of the city; the character of the audiences was entirely changed, and Mose, instead of appearing on stage, was in the pit, the boxes, and the gallery. It was all Mose, and the respectability of the house mosed too.
When the play closed at the Olympic, it moved to the Chatham, which Northall felt was a more appropriate venue.
Dorson writes of Mose’s afterlife in folklore, once the plays about him had fallen out of popularity in the 1860s:
Underworld stories sprang up around a fabled Bowery giant, twelve feet tall, with hands as big as hams reaching down almost to the ground; he wore a red shirt and a red helmet as big as a tent. When Big Mose charged into battle against the New York gangs, he carried an uprooted lamppost in one hand and a butcher’s cleaver in the other; wrathfully he hurled paving blocks ripped from the streets at the Plug Uglies and the Dead Rabbits. For sport he drank drayloads of beer at a sitting, or jumped from Manhattan to Brooklyn, or blew ships back down the East River with the fumes of a two-foot cigar, or unhitched a horse car and ran with it pell-mell the length of the Bowery. When his girl turned him down, Big Mose fled the Bowery for the South Seas, where he married an island princess, became the king of the Sandwich Islands, and raised forty half-breed children. But even today when a bum picks up a cigarette stub he says, “Big Mose must of dropped it.”
In some ways it seems a crime — but then again it may be your and my good fortune — that Dorson’s America in Legend can be found used on Amazon for under a dollar.