One of my side-side projects is to look at a window in the career of E.Z.C. Judson, aka Ned Buntline. Judson is perhaps one of the most important people in nineteenth century theatre history who had almost nothing to do with the theatre. Here is a succinct overview of his bizarre career, but some highlights: Ned fought in several wars, sailed in the Navy, was convicted of instigating the Astor Place Riots (which he probably didn’t do), and “discovered” Buffalo Bill Cody. During it all, he constantly wrote, eventually producing a string of newspapers and a dozen or so novels.
Judson’s first big success was the five-part The Mysteries and Miseries of New York (1847), which, like several city “mystery” books before it, purported to reveal the underworld of New York. Unlike his predecessors, however, Ned was deeply familiar with the city’s darker side. In his newspaper Ned Buntline’s Own, he took a reformist’s mindset to attack the city’s criminals, prostitutes, and corrupt officials, but in his private life, he spent more than a fair share of his time in their company. The book spawned several stage adaptations (now lost, as far as I can tell) and made Judson a sort of celebrity, something which seems to have gone to his head in all the wrong ways.
When I have WAY too much to do, I tend to do one of three things: 1) clean the apartment, 2) play Minecraft (more on that in another post), 3) rummage about in the 1830s. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of the latter. I have an enduring fascination with the Bowery Theatre, having written about it previously. One of the city’s longest-living theatres, it opened in the 1820s and lasted for about a century. In its heyday of the 1830s, the theatre, located just below Canal St. on the Bowery, was a focal point of New York culture. Historians like to talk about the theatre (nicknamed “the Slaughterhouse” due probably to its high degree of “Blood and Thunder” melodrama) as a place dominated by local roughs with coarse tastes. And while some elite contemporaries agreed, it was still a fabulously decorated, fine-looking establishment.
Which brings me to my current research on brothel life in the 1830s and the famous murder of Helen Jewett, a prostitute at a nearby brothel who was known to be an avid reader, theatregoer, and patron of the Bowery. Her case is well-written about in Patricia Cline Cohen’s The Murder of Helen Jewett. At the time, Jewett’s murder on April 10th 1836 was front-page news, and many of her letters to a young lover were printed in the days after her trial, more for their emotional outpouring than lurid details as one might expect from a woman of her status in society. According to the New York Herald, 20 April 1836, actors at the Bowery recited her letters to each other during rehearsal as if it were grand drama. Which begs the question: what show were the Bowery actors rehearsing at that time?
While working on research for a conference paper on the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, I came across this cartoon of Chicago’s turn of the century vice area, the Levee District, from the Chicago History Museum’s blog. “When Harrison Was Mayor” is from the 1920s by John McCutcheon but depicts either Chicago at the end of the 19th or beginning of the 20th century according to the post.
The image (CHi-i62276) depicts such salacious behavior as:
- policemen getting bribes
- same-sex couples
- street fights
- a policeman and prostitute (note the woman’s name is “Lil,” the same of Mae West’s popular character, Diamond Lil)
- a dance hall
- saloon with singing and dancing
- child pickpockets
- and of course, what vice would be complete without a theatre (this one advertising fights)
And what is particularly fun is the depiction of how exuberance of all the figures in the image. While it clearly depicts all sorts of crime (especially by the period’s laws), everyone seems to have such a good time!
With that, I’ll be off to that national conference…