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154 years ago: the Mose, America’s 1st superhero is born

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Edward T. O’Donnell

One hundred fifty-four years ago this week, on the evening of Feb. 15, 1848, the boisterous crowds at New York’s Bowery Theater suddenly grew silent. There before them on stage stood one of their own — a tall and brawny volunteer fireman. But soon they were cheering as he defeated the forces of evil and saved the day. “The Mose,” as he was known, bought the house down that night and secured for himself a place in the pantheon of American folk heroes.

Nineteenth Century America generated a surplus of larger-than-life heroes. Cowboy king Pecos Bill could lasso tornadoes. Lumberjack Paul Bunyan dug the Grand Canyon. Riverboat legend Mike Fink wrestled grizzly bears for fun. Railroad worker John Henry beat a steam drill in a track-laying contest. The problem was, at least as far as New Yorkers were concerned, these men were, shall we say, rather rural. In Gotham of the 1830s and ’40s, the people yearned for an urban hero whose strength, courage, and bravado matched that of their booming metropolis.

Enter the Mose, the most famous character of the antebellum stage. A burley volunteer fireman, he stood 8 feet tall and possessed the strength of 10 men. Atop his head, cocked to one side in the style popular on the Bowery, rested a huge stovepipe hat. When he wasn’t rescuing women and children from burning buildings, he brawled with rival firemen or ne’er do wells who preyed upon the weak, frequently using a lamppost as a club. In less stressful moments he swam across the Hudson in just two strokes, or leapt the East River in a single bound. To slake his mighty thirst, he carried a 50-gallon keg of beer on his belt.

The Mose character was drawn from the rough-and-tumble working-class culture of the Bowery. It was a male-dominated world that prized loyalty, physical strength, hard drinking, and defiance of established authority and mores. Young men were known as Bowery B’hoys. In a manner strikingly similar to modern day gangsta rappers, they wore distinctive garb and spoke their own lingo known as “flash.” Most belonged to gangs, or wanted to.

The hero of the Bowery was the volunteer fireman. In 1845, New York City had several thousand of these “fire laddies” organized into dozens of neighborhood companies with evocative names like the Black Joke, Dry Bones, and Big Six. For the many that were comprised of Irish Americans, they sported names like Hibernian Hook and Ladder and O’Connell Engine No. 7. All donned brightly colored uniforms, pulled gaudily decorated pumpers, and in an age before professional sports heroes, engaged in conspicuous acts of bravery in saving lives and extinguishing fires. So intense was the competition between rival companies that brawls frequently erupted when two arrived at a fire simultaneously. It was every Bowery B’hoy’s dream to one day earn a coveted spot on a volunteer squad.

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Not surprisingly, the fictional Mose was based on a real-life fire laddy named Moses Humphreys. A tough Irish printer employed at the New York Sun, “The Mose” ran with Engine Company No. 40, known as Lady Washington, in honor of the first president’s wife. Humphreys enjoyed a reputation as the toughest man in the nation’s toughest city. That is, until he met his match in Henry Chanfrau of Engine Company No. 15, Old Wreath of Roses. In a legendary brawl between the rival companies in 1838, Chanfrau beat the Mose senseless. Humiliated, Humphreys headed west. Rumor had it that he kept going until he hit Honolulu where opened a successful saloon.

The void left by the real Mose was quickly filled by the Mose of legend. For nearly a decade stories of the great fire laddy circulated among the faithful, growing more spectacular with each passing year.

Then, in early 1848, the journalist and prolific dime novel scribe Ned Buntline (his real name was Edward Z.C. Judson) decided to put the mighty Mose myth on paper. He cobbled together several of the most sensational Mose stories into a magazine-style publication and offered it at the princely sum of 25 cents. It became an instant bestseller and brought Buntline a Mose-sized pile of cash. Four more volumes followed in the next few years.

Other opportunists quickly got into the act. On Feb. 15, 1848, just six weeks after the Mose stories hit the city’s newsstands, the famous fire laddy made his stage debut. The occasion was a short play, “A Glance at New York in 1848,” written and produced by Benjamin Baker, owner of a Bowery theater. To the audience’s initial astonishment and eventual joy, the Mose not only looked like a Bowery denizen, he spoke like one too. They roared in delight when he snapped off lines like, “I ain’t a-goin’ to run wid dat mercheen no more” [translation: I’m quitting my fire company]. They shouted with greater gusto when he saved a nanve country bumpkin from certain ruin at the hands of several toughs and then raced to a nearby fire to carry the innocent to safety.

The Mose of legend and lately of printed page had suddenly come to life.

The Mose was so believable in part because the man playing him was the real thing. Not only was Frank Chanfrau a true blue Bowery fire laddy himself, he was the younger brother of Henry Chanfrau — the man who brought down the original Mose. Equally important, Chanfrau was a gifted actor capable of speaking, posing, strutting, and cussing in a manner his audience found utterly convincing. Wrote one critic: “His characterization was perfect in every detail. He understood the phraseology and mannerisms . . . the general jerky motions and speech of a bully-boy of old Bowery Lane.”

Thrilled by the reception given the Mose of the footlights, Baker (like Buntline) realized he’d hit on a sure thing. Overnight he rewrote and expanded the play to include more exploits by the Mose. He also introduced two new characters — Lize, Mose’s Bowery Gal, and Sikesy, his sidekick. The play opened a week later and ran for 70 sell-out performances — a record at the time.

Six more plays (most lifted straight from Buntline’s subsequent books) followed, including “Mose in California,” “Mose in a Muss,” Mose’s Visit to Philadelphia,” and even “Mose in China.” Although the setting and situations varied, the story was always the same. Mose came to the aid of the weak and defenseless, physically thrashing the forces of evil. Still, audiences couldn’t get enough of him. Before long, the Mose was known across the country, far beyond the crowded theaters along the Bowery. Chanfrau eventually took the show on the road, performing across the country and making himself a small fortune in the process.

Mose still occasionally stormed about the stages of New York in the years following the Civil War, but like the real Moses Humphrey, he eventually met his match. Audiences that flocked to the melodramas so popular in the 1840s and ’50s turned in the Gilded Age to the more sophisticated musical comedies of Ned Harrigan and Tony Hart. Still, the Mose left his mark. He’d singlehandedly established the role of urban superhero, a character reincarnated in the 20th century as Spiderman and Batman.

HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK

Feb. 14, 1929: Six members of the “Bugs” Moran gang (but not Bugs) are killed by Al Capone’s hitmen in the St. Valentine’s Day massacre in Chicago.

Feb. 19, 1992: IRA fugitive Joe Doherty, held for nine years in U.S. jails, is deported to a Northern Ireland prison by the Bush administration.

Feb. 20, 1942: Lt. Edward “Butch” O’Hare shoots down five Japanese bombers in a single fire fight and becomes the first U.S. Navy ace in World War II.

HIBERNIAN BIRTHDATES

Feb. 13, 1920: Opera soprano Eileen Farrell is born in Willimantic, Conn.

Feb. 15, 1809: Inventor and manufacturer Cyrus McCormick is born in Rockbridge County, Va.

Feb. 16, 1870: Reformer and labor activist Leonora O’Reilly is born in New York City.

(Read about Ed O’Donnell’s new book, “1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History,” or contact him at www.EdwardTODonnell.com.)

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