Three Years as a Negro Minstrel
“I had begun to doubt whether a great negro minstrel was a more enviable man than a great senator or author ... The novelty and excitement of this odd life, indeed, were wearing away.”
Negro minstrels were, I think, more highly esteemed at the time of which I am about to write than they are now; at least, I thought more of them then, both as individuals and as ministers to public amusement than I ever have since. The first troupe of the kind I saw was the old “Kunkels,” and I can convey no idea of the pleasurable thrill I felt at the banjo solo and the plantation jig. I resolved on the spot to be a negro minstrel. Mr. Ford, in whose theatre President Lincoln was assassinated, was, I believe, the agent of this company. I made known my ambition to that gentleman and to Mr. Kunkel himself, and they promised, no doubt, as the best means of getting rid of me, to take me with them the next year. Meantime I bought a banjo, and had pennies screwed on the heels of my boots, and practiced “Jordan” on the former, and the “Juba” dance with the latter, till my boarding-house keeper gave me warning. I think there is scarcely a serious friend of mine acquainted with me at that period, who does not remember me with sorrow and vexation. The racket that I made at all hours and in all places can be accounted for only by the youthful zeal with which I “practised,” and which I despair of describing in anything so cold as words.
I was then in my twelfth year, and my own master. At the mature age of eleven, I had run away from Buffalo, N. Y., where I had been placed at school, and travelled during six months all over the Western lakes, with one suit of clothes, a solitary shirt, and a cash capital of five copper cents. I was impelled by the same romantic instincts, I suppose, which at twenty, prompted me to undertake the “barefooted” tour of Europe, on the sum of one hundred and eighty-one dollars in United States currency. In which of these two adventurous enterprises I came nearer starving to death it would be difficult now to say. I had no parents to grieve after me, and knew little and cared less about the broad prairie in Ohio which was my patrimony and place of nativity. It was my relatives from whom I fled and to whom I never returned.
Towards the close of my eleventh year, I found myself possessor of a considerable sum of money in bank, which I had made out of my five coppers, after carrying them through all the hunger and squalor of my six months’ wandering. (I had these coppers, I remember, in one pocket—it was also the only pocket—of my ragged pantaloons, in the dusk of that summer evening when I escaped from the benevolent gentleman, at Detroit, who purposed taking me to the House of Vagrancy.) I had made my money by selling papers and books on the lake steamer Northern Indiana, commanded by the late Captain Pheatt. I mention this kindly old gentleman, because he suffered a great deal from my early penchant to perform the clog-dance on the thin deck above his state-room. It is unnecessary to repeat here the eager and emphatic remonstrances which the good captain would make, when I had inadvertently seized the occasion of his “watch below” to shuffle him out of a profound sleep. Just before the steamer was laid up for the winter, I had taken my leave of her at Toledo, Ohio, where I was boarding and going to school on my earnings when I met Messrs. Ford and Kunkel. About the same time my landlady gave me warning to take my self and banjo and obstreperous feet out of her house.
In the course of a month or two, I left school that I might have more time to devote to minstrelsy, I found another boarding-house, however, where the plastering of the apartment below mine was proof against the coppers on my heels and the complicated shuffles of “Juba,” and organized a band of boys into a minstrel troupe, and appointed myself musical director, though I knew no more of music than of chemistry. I spent my money for instruments for the company, and for furniture to deck the room in which we met for rehearsal. The musical instruments, however, were the least of the expense, since these consisted, if I well recollect, of the banjo before mentioned, three sets of bones, a tambourine, a triangle, and an accordion. With these, nevertheless, we succeeded in making it very unpleasant for some quiet-loving Teutons, who were accustomed to dream over their beer at a Wirthschaft in the same wooden building, and indeed just under the apartment in which we rehearsed every evening. On certain occasions, when I executed my “Juba” dance, or in company with others performed the Virginia Walkaround, these honest Germans would leave their beer, and sometimes their hats and pipes, behind them in terror, and rush precipitately into the middle of the street. There they would stand and gaze in silent amazement up at the windows, or utter their surprise and wrath at the proceedings in the expressive, speech or fatherland. The host, a portly gentleman with a red nose, remonstrated with us about four times a week, to little purpose. The owner of the building also remonstrated, but we had rented the apartment and would not leave till our time was out. We were constrained, however, to forego our jig and Walk-around. Still our music and singing, to which we were now confined, came near breaking up the poor retail Gambrinus of the saloon beneath. His “stem-guests” fell off one by one and sought a quieter neighborhood for their evening potations. It was only the bravest of them that could be prevailed upon to return for anything more than their hats and pipes, after having been driven into the street on any of our siege-nights.
The best praise I can give to the young gentleman who played the accordion is, that he was worthy to be under such a musical director as myself. He could play only one tune from beginning to end, and that was the “Gum-Tree Canoe.” Now it happened none of us could sing the song, which, as is well known, is of the slow, melancholy, sentimental order; so this single tune would have been of very little benefit to us, had we not, luckily, pressed it into the incongruous double service of opening overture and closing quickstep. The songs that we sang, or attempted to sing, were executed to the accompaniment of the three sets of bones, the tambourine, triangle, and banjo, with an uncertain ghostly second on the accordion, which, being the same for all tunes and following no lead whatever, was of a sufficiently lugubrious and dismal nature, when it was not wholly drowned by the clangor of the other instruments. My company, it must be confessed, had zeal, but little talent. I spent what was left of my summer’s earnings before I could get them up to a point that would, in my judgment, warrant a hope of success, should we give the public exhibition for which my minstrels were clamorously ambitious. After many long months of fruitless trial, the rent for our room becoming due, our furniture and instruments were seized; the landlord turned us out of doors; the German beer-seller crossed himself thankfully; and I was as completely ruined as many a manager before me.
It may as well be owned that I had no natural aptness for the banjo, and was always an indifferent player; but for dancing I had, I am confident, such a remarkable gift as few have ever had. Up to this day, I do not think I ever have seen a step done by man or woman that I could not do as soon as I saw it, — not saying, of course, how gracefully. I am not, however, so vain or proud of this gift as I used to be, and should hardly have written the foregoing sentence at all, had it not seemed necessary to a proper understanding of subsequent passages in this narrative.
I was still so small of stature, and yet capable of producing so much noise with the coppers, on my heels, that, by the wholesale clerks and young bloods about town, I was considered in the light of a prodigy, and made to shuffle my feet at almost all hours and in almost all localities. It was by this means, at some place of convivial resort, that I attracted the notice and admiration of a conductor on the Michigan Southern and Northern Indiana Railroad. He determined to have so much talent with him all the time, and prevailed upon me to be his train-boy. Here, as on the lake, I had the exclusive privilege of selling books and papers to the passengers. The great railways were not then farmed by a single person or firm as now. I was my own agent and the regulator of my own prices and profits. Both of these latter I found it convenient to make large, and was again the possessor of more money than I cared to spend. It was my business to carry water through the cars at stated intervals. On a day train, I could afford to perform my duty with promptness, when I had sufficiently worried the passengers with my merchandise. But on a night train—which came to my lot just as often as a day train—I took a more lucrative and, I fear, less reputable means of quenching the thirst of travellers. There were no sleeping-cars in those times, and, I believe, no water-tanks in the passenger-cars. My memory may fail me in this matter of the water-tanks in the passenger cars. My memory may fail me in this matter of the water-tanks, but I am certain that I never filled them, if there were any on our road. I don’t know whether more people travelled then than now, but I remember the trains were exceeding long ones in those hot summer nights, and the people became terribly thirsty. And this is the way I comforted them. Taking a barrel of water, a pailful of brown sugar, and a proper amount of a well-known acid, I concocted lemonade which I sold through the train for five cents a glass. When thirsty lips asked piteously for water, I would tell the sufferer, with perfect truth, that there was not a drop of pure water left on the train. I blush to write that I sometimes sold fifteen dollars’ worth of this vile compound in a night. I was taught how to prepare it by a man who travelled with a circus, and who assured me that all his ice-cold lemonade was concocted in the same way; and that, far from having killed anybody, it gave perfect satisfaction to the gentlemen and ladies from the country, who were his principal customers. The only excuse I have to offer for myself now, is that I was not conscious then how great a villain I really was.
Towards the middle of the summer, the cholera became so prevalent in the Western cities that I thought it prudent to retire from the active life of a train-boy, and live quietly on my earnings. I settled myself, therefore, at a fashionable boarding-house in Toledo. Here the landlady, fearful of the dust and anxious for the integrity of her carpet, made a remarkable compromise with me to the glory of æsthetics. Whenever there was a pressing request from the boarders for me to exercise my feet, she would bustle in with a large roll of oilcloth, and spread it uncomplainingly on the parlor floor, near the piano to the music of which I danced. This was, I think, the first introduction of clogs as a drawing-room entertainment. I soon came to be invited out as a sort of cublion; and thus it happened that the rumor and dust of my accomplishments spread gradually throughout the city.
One evening I strolled into what is now the St. Nicholas, and stepping to the bar which came just up to my juvenile shoulders, I demanded authoritatively of the bar-tender if he had any good pale brandy. He said that he had. I told him in the same imperative tone to give me a ten-cent drink, “and none of his instant-death kind either.” This made somewhat of a sensation among the frequenters of that fashionable resort. They evidently mistook this brandy-bibbing as a swaggering habit of mine; whereas, I was honestly prescribing for myself what had been recommended to me as the best preventive of cholera. Having swallowed and paid for the brandy, I was prepared to withdraw, when I heard this dialogue going on behind me: —
“Who for pity’s sake is that?”
“That? why, that’s just the boy you want. But can’t he dance though?”
Turning, I saw a couple of well-dressed men seated together at the end of the room. I had barely time to observe that one was a stranger to me, when the other called me to him and introduced me to Johnny Booker. Now I had heard the songs, then popular, “Meet Johnny Booker help dis nigger”; and when I was aware that I was standing before the person to whose glory these lyrics had been written, I was very much abashed. I looked upon a great negro minstrel as unquestionably the greatest man on earth, and it was some time before I could answer his questions intelligibly. In the course of a few minutes, however, I was conducted into a private room, where I was made to dance “Juba” to the time which the comedian himself gave me by means of his two hands and one foot, and which is technically called “patting.” My performance, it seems, was satisfactory, for I was engaged on the spot. Mr. Booker was then waiting for the rest of his company to join him; and when they arrived, I was instituted jig-dancer to the troupe, with a weekly salary of five dollars and all my travelling expenses.
It is impossible to convey an idea of the gratified ambition with which I prepared for my first appearance on the stage. The great Napoleon, in the coronation robes which can be seen any day in the Tuileries, was not prouder or happier than I when I made my initial bow before the foot-lights, in my small Canton flannel knee-pants, cheap lace, gold tinsel, corked face, and woolly wing. I do not remember any embarrassment, for I was only doing in public what I had already done for the majority of the audience in private. If I had acquitted myself much worse than I really did, my debut would still, I am convinced, have been considered a success. So great, indeed, was the local pride of the good Toledans in their infant phenomenon, that after the company had exhibited a week, my name—or rather the nom de guerre which I had assumed—was put up for a benefit. On that day, I had the satisfaction of seeing hung across the street, on a large canvas, a water-color representation of myself, with one arm and one leg elevated, in the act of performing “Juba” over the heads and carts and carriages of the passers-by. At night the house was crowded, and I was called out three times; but what afterwards struck me as unaccountably odd was, that I received not one cent from the proceeds of this benefit. When my salary was paid me, at the end of the next week, I was assured that “this benefit business” was a mere trick of the trade, and I was forced to content myself with the fact that I had learned something in my new profession.
We now started on our travels, staying from one night to a week in a city, according to its size, stopping always at the best hotels, and leading the merriest of lives generally. I had the additional glory of being stared at as the youthful prodigy by day, and of having more than my share of applause, accompanied sometimes with quarter-dollars, bestowed on me at night. There was in our troupe a remarkable character by the name of Frank Lynch, who played the tambourine and banjo. He and the celebrated Diamond had been in their youth among the first and greatest of dancers. Too portly now to endure sustained effort with his feet, he was yet an excellent instructor; and I was constantly under his training.
Lynch and I were together in another troupe afterwards, I never knew him, in all the time of our association, to talk ten minutes without telling some story, and that always about something which had happened to him personally in the show business. In the long nights, when we had to wait for cars or steamboats, he would sit down, and, taking up one theme, would string all his stories on that, and that alone, for hours. His manner would make the merest commonplace amusing. We had been together a year or more, I think, when Barnum’s Autobiography came out. I shall never forget my comrade’s indignation when he read that passage of the book which runs something in this way: “Here I picked up one Francis Lynch, an orphan vagabond,” &c., &c. It was really dangerous after that for a man to own, in his presence, to having read the life of the great showman. Henceforth, Lynch omitted all his stories about the time when he and P. T. Barnum used to black their faces together.
Lynch professed to live in Boston, though he had not been there in fifteen years. During all this time, he had been earnestly trying to get back to his home. He would often spend money enough in a night to take him to Boston from almost any place in the broad Union, and back again, and then lament his folly for the next week. Once he left our company at Cleveland, Ohio, for the express purpose of going back to Boston. Unfortunately a night intervened, and, in the middle of it, the whole Weddell House was aroused from its slumbers by poor Lynch in the last stage of intoxication, vociferating at the top of his lungs that he had been robbed of the money with which he was going back to Boston. By some means, he had got hold of a lighted candle without a candlestick, and with this he purposed to search the house. The clerks and porters were called out of bed, and, led by Lynch with his flickering taper, came in melancholy procession up the long stairs to the rooms occupied by our troupe. Lynch insisted that we should all be searched, — a whim in which, under the circumstances, we thought it best to humor him. This having been done, without finding his lost treasure, he bolted the doors, and proceeded to examine the surprised clerks and porters. Meeting with the same ill success, he finally threw himself in despair upon his bed, and wailed himself to sleep. The next morning he found all the money which he had not spent in the side pocket of his overcoat, where he had carelessly thrust it himself. And his joy was so great at this, and his sorrow so lively when told that he had searched us all, that he insisted on spending what money was left to celebrate his good luck and the triumph of our honesty.
Lynch never got back to Boston. He died several years ago, somewhere out in the far West. Since then it has transpired that Barnum was wrong in calling him an orphan, at least; for his father sought him a long time, before hearing of his death, to bestow upon the poor fellow a considerable fortune that had been left him by some relative.
Johnny Booker was the stage manager of the company with which I left Toledo. Our first business manager and proprietor was a noble-hearted fellow, who has since distinguished himself as a colonel in the late war; but the managership changed hands after a while, and we finally arrived at Pittsburg. Here we played a week to poor houses, and, one morning, awoke to find that our manager had decamped without paying our hotel bills. When this became known, though the papers or in some other way, the landlord got out an attachment on our baggage. The troupe was disbanded, of course. When, therefore, I desired to take my trunk and go home, the hotel-keeper told me that I could do so as soon as I paid the bills of the whole company. This was appalling. After a great deal of wrangling the landlord was convinced at last that he could hold us responsible only for our individual indebtedness. Accordingly Mr. Booker, Mr. Kneeland, a violinist, and myself were allowed to pay our bills and depart with our baggage. I never learned exactly how the greater part of the company escaped, but it certainly could not have been by discharging their accounts; for they were generally of that reckless disposition which scorns to have any cash on hand, or to remember where ti has been deposited. The sentimental ballad-singer, — the one who was the most careful of his scarfs, the set of his attire, and the combing and curling of his hair; and who used to volunteer to stand at the door in the early part of the evening, and pass programmes to the ladies as they came into the hall, — this languishing fellow, I am sorry to say, was obliged to leave his trunks and the greater part of his wardrobe behind him in the hands of the inexorable landlord. Frank Lynch had led this nomadic life so long that he never carried away any trunk with him. He had already sacrificed too much, he averred, to the rapaciousness of hotel-keepers and the villainy of fly-by-night managers. He contented himself, therefore, with two champagne-baskets, one of which, containing his stage-wardrobe, always went directly to the hall where we were to play, while the other, containing his linen, went to the hotel, where, in company with the baggage of the whole troupe, it excited no suspicion. Whether or not Lynch left one of his champagne-baskets with the Pittsburg landlord, I cannot say. When I next heard of him, he was at Cincinnati in search of an engagement. The two gentlemen with whom I left Pittsburg accompanied me to Toledo, where Mr. Booker set to work to get up another company. Lynch was accordingly sent for. Mr. Edwin Deaves, also a member of the former troupe, — and now, by the way, a veteran scenic artist at San Francisco, — was brought from some other place; and the “Booker Troupe” set out on its travels.
This company prided itself on its sobriety and gentlemanly conduct. It was the business of the four other members to keep poor Lynch straight, and if, in the endeavor, some of them occasionally fell themselves, it was put down to the reckless good-fellowship of the merry veteran, and hushed up as expeditiously as possible. There were so few of us, that we could afford to go to smaller towns than the other troupe had ever visited. It was deemed a good advertisement, as well as in some metaphysical way conducive to the morale of the company, to dress as nearly alike as we could, when off the stage. This had the effect, as will be readily understood, of pointing me out more prominently than ever as the juvenile prodigy, whose portrait and assumed name were plastered about over the walls of the towns and cities through which we took our triumphal march. The first part of our performances we gave with white faces, and I had so improved my opportunities that I was now able to appear as the Scotch girl in plaid petticoats, who executes the inevitable Highland fling in such exhibitions. By practising in my room through many tedious days, I learned to knock an spin and toss about the tambourine on the end of my forefinger; and, having rehearsed a budget of stale jokes, I was promoted to be one of the “end-men” in the first part of the negro performances. Lynch, who could do anything, from a solo on the penny trumpet to an obligato on the double-bass, was at the same time advanced to play the second violin, as this made more music and helped fill up the stage. In addition to my jig, I now appeared in all sorts of pas de deux, took the principal lady part in negro ballets, and danced “Lucy Long.” I am told that I looked the wench admirably.
The “Booker Troupe” wandered all over the Western country, travelling at all hours of night and day and in all manner of conveyances, from the best to the worst. The life was so exciting, and I was so young, that I was probably as happy as an itinerant mortal can be in this world of belated railway trains, steamboat explosions and collisions, and runaway stage-horses. We were on our way cast from Chicago, exhibiting at the towns along the line of the Michigan Central Railroad, when Ephraim came to us. Ephraim was one of the most comical specimens of the negro species. We were playing at Marshall, Michigan, when he introduced himself to our notice by bringing water into the dressing-room, blacking our boots, and in other ways making himself useful. He had the blackest face, largest mouth, and whitest teeth imaginable. He said there was nothing in the world which he would like so well as to travel with a show. What could he do? Why, he could fetch water, black our boots, and take care of our baggage. We assured him that we could not afford to have a servant travel with us. Ephraim rejoined that he did not want any pay; he just wanted to go with the show. We told him it was simply impossible; and Ephraim went away, as we thought discouraged.
The next morning, as we were getting into the railway car, whom should we discover there before us but Ephraim, with his baggage under his arm, — a glazed travelling-bag of so attenuated an appearance that it could not possibly have had anything in it but its lining. To the question as to whither he was bound, he replied, “Why bless you, I’s goin’ wid de show.” Again he was told that it could not be, and made to get out of the car. This occurrence gave Mr. Lynch the theme for a long series of stories about people he had met, who were what he called “show-struck”; and with these narratives our time was beguiled til we reached the town at which we were to perform that night. As we walked out towards the baggage-car, what was our surprise to see Ephraim there, picking out and piling up our trunks, and bestowing sundry loud and expressive epithets upon the baggage-master, who had let a property-box fall upon the platform. I think we laughed louder now than we had at any of Mr. Lynch’s stories. Ephraim deigned not to notice us or our mirth, but, having picked out the baggage that went to the hall where we were to exhibit, he called a draw and rode away with it. He made himself of great use during our stay in that place, in return for which his slight hotel expenses were paid; but he was told positively that he could go no farther. We knew that he had no money, yet did not dare to give him any, lest he should be enabled to follow us to the next town. So, when we came to go away, we expressed our regrets to the ingenuous darky, and once more bade him good-by. He disappeared in the crowd, and the train moved off. When we arrived at the next town, however, there again was Ephraim, at the baggage-car, giving his stentorian commands about our trunks and properties, and taking not the least notice of the surprise depicted on our faces.
The discharge and mysterious reappearance of Ephraim occurred in about the same manner at every town along the road, until we reached Detroit. We never could find out how he got from place to place on the cars; but where our baggage was, there was Ephraim also. We had to succumb. His persistency and faithfulness and perfect good-nature carried the point; and he became a regular attaché of the “Booker Troupe.” The story of the fights and beatings that poor Ephraim sustained in his jealous care of our luggage would alone make a long chapter. He was always at fisticuffs with the Irish porters of the hotels. On one occasion, when remonstrated with for his excessive pugnacity, Ephraim explained himself in this way: “For one slam of a trunk I gen’lly speaks to a man; for two slams I calls him a thief; and when it comes to three slams, den deres gwine to be somebody knocked down. “Now you heered me!”
On our arrival at the hotel in Detroit, we observed that the porter was an Irishman, and were really surprised that he and Ephraim did not quarrel in handling the baggage, — an anomaly which was satisfactorily explained to us afterwards, by the fact that the porter had lately come to this country, and was, moreover, only about half-witted. Now Ephraim was in the habit of taking his meals in the kitchens, and of sleeping in whatever attic was assigned him. On our first night in Detroit he had been sent into the servants’ chamber, somewhere in the topmost part of the hotel. Ephraim ascended, disrobed himself, and, with his usual recklessness, got into the first of the many beds he saw in the large room. At twelve o’clock, when his watch was over, the Irish porter also proceeded to the same apartment, with the purpose of retiring. Opening the door, he discovered by the dim gaslight something dark on the pillow of his own bed. This brought all his Old World superstition into play in a moment. Going as much nearer as he dared, he saw that it was a black head, and believing firmly that the Devil was black, he was sure that the Devil was in his bed. The affrighted porter gave an unearthly yelp, at which Ephraim started up in terror. Whereupon the Irishman seized one of the negro’s boots from the floor by the foot of the bed, and fell to beating the supposed Devil over the head with all his might. The attack was so sudden that Ephraim never thought of defence, but springing to his feet, fled precipitately own the six flights of stairs, out into the middle of the street, crying, “Watch, watch!” at the top of his voice. Here a policeman came along, and took poor Ephraim off to the station-house just as he was, and in spite of all his protestations of innocence. The next morning Mr. Booker carried his clothes to the unfortunate negro, and brought him back to the hotel.
In the course of time the “Booker Troupe” was disbanded, and Ephraim, as well as ourselves, was, in greenroom parlance, out of an engagement. I never saw him or Lynch afterwards. I found myself, after some minor adventures, at Cincinnati, where the once notorious Mike Mitchell left the Campbell’s Minstrels, and took me with him into a company which he organized in that city under the title of “The Mitchells.” We played for some time at the largest hall in Cincinnati, and travelled afterwards through a few of the neighboring States. This troupe, too, having gone to pieces, I was one of the volunteers at the grand complimentary benefit given to Mitchell at Cincinnati, with the proceeds of which he was sent out to California to join his friends Birch and Backus.
Mitchell, poor fellow, like Lynch and Sliter and so many of my old associates in the cork-opera, has passed away, let us hope, to a quieter stage, beyond the double-dealing of managers and the contumely of publicans. An old showman is, in truth, a being sui generis. You rarely meet one who will not tell you he has been twenty-two years in the show business. He always talks in hyperbole, uses adjectives for adverbs, and arranges all the minor incidents of his life, as well as his conversation, in the most dramatic forms. He is often a better friend to others than to himself; he is not naturally worse than the majority of men, but has more temptation. A good negro minstrel would, in any other profession, be an Admirable Crichton in respect to morals. While acknowledging with pride that I met in this calling some who deserved even such praise, it is due to the truth to state also that I have known many and many a poor fellow who was, in the language of Addison,
From court to court, and wander up and down,
A vagabond in Afric.
The day after the farewell benefit of Mitchell, I was engaged by Dr. Spaulding, the veteran manager, whose old quarrel with Dan Rice has made him famous to the lovers of the circus. He was then fitting out “The Floating Palace” for its voyage on the Western and Southern rivers. “The Floating Palace” was a great boat built expressly for show purposes. It was towed from place to place by a steamer called the James Raymond. The Palace contained a museum with all the usual concomitants of “Invisible Ladies,” stuffed giraffes, puppet-dancing, &c., &c. The Raymond contained, besides the dining-hall and state-rooms of the employees, a concert-saloon fitted up with great elegance and convenience, and called “The Ridotto.” In this latter I was engaged, in conjunction with “a full band of minstrels,” to do my jig and wench dances. The two boats left Cincinnati with nearly a hundred souls on board, that being the necessary complement of the vast establishment. We were bound for Pittsburg, where we were to give our first exhibition; purposing to stop afterwards, on our way down, at all the towns and landings along the Ohio. Everything went well on our way up the river till we came within about twenty miles of Wheeling, Va., when the Raymond stuck fast on a sand-bar. It was thought best for the people to be transferred to the Palace so as to lighten the steamer, and let her work off. When, accordingly, we had all huddled into the museum, our lines were cast off and our anchor let go; but we were carried half a mile down stream before the anchor caught. Here, all day, from the decks of the Palace, we could watch the futile efforts of the Raymond to get off the bar. The only provision for the inner man, on board of our craft, was a drinking saloon, which was of very little comfort to the numerous ladies of the party, to say the least. Towards night we became exceedingly hungry, but no relief was sent us from the steamer. One Riesse, an obese bass singer, who was a terrible gourmand, and who had been for the last five hours raving about the decks in a pitiable manner, rushed suddenly out upon the guard, about eight o’clock, declaring that he saw a boat-load of provisions coming from the Raymond. A shout of joy now went up from the famished people, that shook the stuffed giraffes and wax-works in their glass cases. It was a boat, indeed; but it contained simply the captain, mate, and pilot, who had come all that way after their evening bitters at the drinking-saloon. They expressed themselves very sorry for us, and were confident that they could now get the steamer off the bar. This liquid stimulus was all that had been needed from the first. With this mild assurance for a foundation to our hopes of relief, they took their departure, and we waited on and on through the long night. Riesse, the bass singer, never slept a wink, or allowed many others to sleep, his hungry voice, like a loon’s on some solitary lake, breaking in upon the stillness where and when it was least expected. Wrapped in the veritable cloak of the great Pacha Mohammed Ali, I drowsed through the latter part of the night, crouched down between the glass apartments of the waxen Tam O’Shanter and the Twelve Apostles. In the morning there were several more steamers on ground in the neighborhood, but no better prospect of the Raymond’s getting off. We were finally taken off to her in some boats, and allowed to break our long fast. Instead of rising, the river fell, and we were left almost a week on dry land. Our provisions giving out, it was thought best for the performers to be taken up to Wheeling by a little stern-wheeler that happened to come along. At that city we gave several exhibitions at Washington Hall. Proceeding thence down the river, on the stern-wheeler, to play at the towns along till we should be overtaken by the Palace and the Raymond, we passed those unfortunate boats, still laboring to free themselves, and were greeted with hearty cheers by the people on board. One night the river rose suddenly, and, in a day or so, we were overtaken by the whole establishment, at Marietta, Ohio. The purposed trip to Pittsburg was abandoned. We commenced our voyage down the river, exhibiting in the afternoon and evening, and sometimes in the morning, at two, and often three, towns or landings in a day.
It needed not this excess of its labors to tire me with the showman’s life. Several months before I had begun to doubt whether a great negro minstrel was a more enviable man than a great senator or author. As these doubts grew on me, I purchased some school-books, and betook myself to study every day, devouring, in the intervals of arithmetic and grammar, the contents of every work of biography and poetry that I could lay hands on. The novelty and excitement of this odd life, indeed, were wearing away. All audiences at last looked alike to me, as all lecture-goers do to Dr. Holmes. They laughed at the same places at the performance, applauded at the same place, and looked inane or interested at the same place, day after day, week after week, and month after month. I became gradually indifferent to their applause, or only noticed when it failed at the usual step or pantomime. Then succeeded a sort of contempt for audiences, and, at last, a positive hatred of them and myself. I noticed, or thought I noticed, that their faces wore the same vacant expression whether their eyes were staring at me or the stuffed giraffes or the dancing puppets of the museum.
I obtained my first view of the great Mississippi and of the practical working of Lynch law at the same time. The night of our advent at Cairo was lit up by the fires of an execution. A negro, it seems, was the owner or lessee of an old wharf-boat, which had been moored to the levee of that town, and which he had turned to the uses of a gambling-saloon. People who had been enticed into it had never been seen or heard of afterwards. The vigilance committee, then governing Cairo, had frequently endeavored to lay hold of the negro and bring him to trial; but he had secret passages from one part of the wharf-boat to the other, by which he always eluded his pursuers. Having no doubt that he was guilty of several murders, the vigilantes, on the night of our arrival, had come down to the levee, two or three hundred strong, armed, equipped, and determined to make the wretch surrender. In answer to their summons, they received nothing but insults from the negro, still out of sight and secure in one of his hiding-places. At a given signal, the wharf-boat was set afire and cut adrift, and, as it floated out into the current, the vigilantes surrounded it in small boats, with their rifles ready and pointed to prevent the escape of their victim. When the wharf-boat was well into the stream, the negro appeared boldly at the place which, in the middle of all river-craft of that kind, is left open for the reception and discharge of freight. And now a scene occurred, so sensationally dramatic, so easily adaptable to the stage of these latter days, that I would not dare to relate it for truth, if I had not witnessed it with my own eyes. The negro was not discovered till he had rolled a large keg of powder into the middle of the open space just mentioned. As he stood in the light of his burning craft, it could be seen by the people in the small boats in the river, that he had a cocked musket with the muzzle plunged into the keg of powder. Then the negro dared them to come on and take him, pouring upon them at the same time such horrible oaths and curses as have rarely come from the lips of man. The small boats kept a proper distance now, their occupants caring only to prevent his escape into the water. As the flames grew thicker around him, there the negro stood, floating down into the darkness that enveloped the majestic river, with his coked musket still in the keg of powder, and cursing and defying his executioners. He was game ot the last. We heard the explosion down the stream, and saw the wharf-boat sink. The next day, I spoke with the leader of the band in the small boats, — a short, wiry little man, with a piercing eye. He said that he had not the heart to shoot the “nigger,” because he showed such pluck. He even confessed that, for the same reason, he felt almost sorry for the victim, after the explosion had blown him into eternity.
We saw, indeed, a great deal of wild life in the country we visited, for we steamed thousands of miles on the Western and Southern rivers. We went, for instance, the entire navigable lengths of the Cumberland and Tennessee. Our advertising agent had a little boat of his own, in which he preceded us. The Palace and Raymond would sometimes run their noses upon the banks of some of these rivers where there was not a habitation in view, and by the hour of the exhibition the boats and shore would be thronged with people. In some places on the Mississippi, especially in Arkansas, men would come in with pistols sticking out of their coat-pockets, or with long bowie-knives protruding from the legs of their boots. The manager had provided for these savage people; for every member of the company was armed, and, at a given signal, stood on the defensive. We had a giant for a door-keeper, who was known in one evening to kick down stairs as many as five of these bushwhackers, with drawn knives in their hands. There were two other persons, employed ostensibly as ushers, but really to fight the wild men of the rivers. These two gentlemen were members of the New York prize ring, one of whom, I believe, went to England with Heenan at the time of the international “mill,” and whose name I saw in a New York paper, the other day, as the trainer of a pugilistic celebrity of the present time. The honest fellows scorned to use anything but their fists in preserving order; and it is strange, considering the number of deadly weapons drawn on them, that they never received anything worse than a few scratches. Nor did they, indeed, ever leave their antagonists with anything worse than a broken head; except in a solitary case, which befell at a backwoods landing on the Upper Mississippi, where a person who had made an unprovoked attack on the boats was left for dead on the bank, as we pushed out into the stream. We never heard whether he lived or died.
Besides these pugilists, we had in our company other celebrities; for instance, the amiable and gentlemanly David Reed, whose character-song of “Sally come up” made such a furore, not long ago, in New York and, I believe, throughout the country. His picture is to be seen at all the music stores. One other of our company has since had his name and exploits telegraphed to the remotest ends of the earth; I remember to have read of him myself, in a little German newspaper, on the banks of the Danube. This was Professor Lowe, the balloonist, late of the Army of the Potomac. I doubt very much whether the Professor had dipped very deeply into aeronautics at that time. He was an ingenious, odd sort of Yankee, with his long hair braided and hanging in two tails down his back. His wife, formerly a Paris danseuse, was my instructor in the Terpsichorean art. By the aid of a little whip, which she insisted was essential to success, she taught me to go through all the posturings and pirouettes of the operatic ballet girls. I was forced often to remonstrate against the ardor with which she applied her whip to a toe or finger of mine which would get perversely out of the line of beauty. Professor Lowe and Madame, his wife, conducted the performances of the “Invisible Lady,” a contrivance that may not be familiar to all my readers. A hollow brass ball with four trumpets protruding from it is suspended inside of a hollow railing. Questions put by the by-standers are answered through a tube by a person in the apartment beneath. The imaginations of the spectators make the sounds seem to issue from the brass ball. It used to be amusing to stand by and listen to the answers of the “Invisible Lady,” alias Madame Lowe, whose English was drolly mixed up with her own vernacular. But if the responses were sometimes unintelligible, this only added to the mystery and success of the brazen oracle. The Professor was passionately fond of game. He was struck with the abundance of turkeys in one of the Southern States where we chanced to be, and, throwing his gun across his shoulder, sallied forth to bring some of them down. He returned shortly, with two large black birds, which he exhibited about the decks, amid the grins and suppressed laughter of the crew. It was not till the Professor took his game into the kitchen to have it dressed for dinner, that he was informed not only that his birds were not turkeys at all, but that he had been breaking one of the statutes of the State, which prohibits, under a pecuniary penalty, the killing of turkey-buzzards.
In his social relations a performer, like many another great man or woman, is liable to mistakes of head and heart. The ladies of the profession are sometimes given to gossip and backbiting in as great a degree at least as are the gentlemen. Jealousy may be as rife on a Mississippi show-boat as in the antechamber of any court in Europe. I have known a danseuse to furnish boys with clandestine bouquets to throw on the stage when she appeared; not that she cared at all for the praise or blame of the audience, but that she did care to crush a cleverer rival. I have known men, whose names have made some noise in the world, to measure with straws the comparative sizes of the letters in which they were announced on a poster. In our company on board the Palace and the Raymond, we had strange contrasts in human nature. It would happen, for instance, that the man who could not sleep within hearing of the most distant snore. The man who could not eat pork was seated at table just opposite the man who doted on it. We had one gentleman—the fleshy-bass singer already mentioned—who spent all his leisure in catching mocking-birds; and another, who passed his spare hours in contriving new and undiscoverable ways of letting these birds escape from the cages. There were on board ladies who had seen more prosperous days, when they were the chief attractions at the theatres of London, Paris, and New York, — according to their own stories; other ladies who had never associated with such vulgar people before; other ladies who hoped they would die, if they did not leave the company at the very next landing, but never left; and yet other ladies, I am rejoiced to add, who were lovely in nature and deed, — kind mothers and faithful wives, whose strength of character and ready cheerfulness tended as far as possible to restore the social equilibrium.
In the course of the long association grotesque friendships sprang up. The man who played the bass-drum was the bosom companion of the man who had charge of the machine for making the gas which supplied the two boats. The pretty man of the establishment, he who played the chimes on the top of the museum and the piano in the concert-room, — at present a popular composer at St. Louis, — this young gentleman, who broke all the hearts of the country girls that came into the show was the inseparable friend of the pilot, — a great, gruff, warm-hearted fellow, who steered the Raymond from the corners of his eyes and swore terribly at snags. The man who dusted down Tam O’Shanter and the Twelve Apostles in wax, and had especial care of the stuffed birds, giraffes, and alligators, was on most intimate terms with the cook. The youngest of the ladies who hoped to die if they didn’t go ashore at the next landing and never went, — or died either, for that matter, — well, she was, or pretended to be, desperately in love with the treasurer of the company, a thin, irascible old fellow, with a bald head. On the arrival of another danseuse in the company, the two dancers, who were before deadly enemies, became sworn friends and confidants, united in their jealousy and hatred of the new-comer. The lady who was loudest in proclaiming that she had never before associated with such low people as the performers on board of these boats seemed to enjoy herself most, and indeed spent most of her time, in the society of Bridget, the Irish laundry-woman of the establishment, who on one occasion, after excessive stimulus, came very near hanging herself overboard to dry, instead of a calico dress.
As a general thing, however, the ladies, performers, and crew of our boats were not so quarrelsome as I have seen a set of cabin passengers on a sea voyage between America and Europe, or especially on the three weeks’ passage to or from California. When I consider that there were so many of us together in this narrow compass for nearly a year, it seems to me strange indeed that there was not more bad blood excited.
Madame Olinza was, I believe, the name of the Polish lady who walked on a tight-rope from the floor of one end of the museum up to the roof of the farthest gallery. This kind of perilous ascension and suspension was something new in the country then. It was before the time of Blondin, and Madame used to produce a great sensation. Now it may be interesting to the general reader to learn that this tight-rope walker was one of the most exemplary, domestic little bodies imaginable. She and her husband had a large state-room on the upper deck of the Raymond, and she was always there with her child when released from her public duties. One afternoon the nurse happened to bring the child into the museum when Madame Olinza was on the rope; and out of the vast audience that little face was recognized by the fond mother, and her attention so distracted that she lost her balance, dropped her pole, and fell. Catching the rope with her hands, however, in time to break her fall, she escaped fortunately without the least injury; but, ever after that, her child was kept out of the audience while she was on the rope.
Going up the Mississippi from Cairo, we passed, one Sunday, the old French town of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and its Roman Catholic college on the river bank. The boys were out on the lawn under the trees, and I became as envious of their lot as I ever had been before of a man who worked on a steamboat or who danced “in the minstrels.” I suddenly resolved that I would go to that college. We did not stop at Cape Girardeau till our return down the river, some weeks afterwards. Then I went boldly up, and sought an interview with the president of the institution. I found him to be a kindly mannered priest, who encouraged me in my ambition. He told me it would be well to save up more money than I then had, and that he would do all he could for me. I returned to the Palace, and immediately gave warning that I purposed to leave as soon as some one could be got to fill my place. It struck me as somewhat odd that it was six months from that date before I could get away. It has been explained to me since. The fact is, I received what, as a boy, I thought a good salary, but nothing like what I earned. It took two men afterwards to fill my place. I have been told since, and prior to this last engagement, the late E. P. Christy had written for me from New York, but that the letter had been intercepted by those whose interest it then was that I should not know my own value in the “profession.” I used to see that my name was larger than almost any other on the bills, but was led to believe that it was because I was a boy, and not likely to excite the jealousy of the other members of the company. It may not be very soothing to my vanity, but dwelling upon these things dispassionately, I have my honest doubts now whether I was not always a greater success as an advertisement than as a performer.
I was promised at New Orleans, that if I would go over to Galveston, Texas, with the minstrel troupe, I should certainly be allowed to retire from public life. So we left the Palace and the Raymond at the levee of the former city, and took passage in the regular steamship, crossing the Gulf to Galveston. We performed there two or three weeks with great success. Few minstrels then had wandered that way, and thus it happened that my farewell appearance as a dancer was greeted with a crowded house. Except as a poor lecturer, I have never been on the stage since I left Galveston.
Still resolved to go to college at Cape Girardeau, I returned to New Orleans, and took passage to Cairo on the steamer L. M. Kennett. Barney Williams and his wife were on board during the tedious voyage; but I suppose they have long since forgotten all about the urchin who surprised and bored them with his minute knowledge of the early history of the country through which we passed. The river above Cairo, very much to my sorrow, was frozen over, for it was midwinter. There was no alternative for me but to proceed to Cape Girardeau by land, — a long, difficult, and expensive journey in those times. After a great deal of trouble and some danger, I arrived at the gates of the college, and proceeded directly to the room of the president. The kindly face that I remembered so well again beamed upon me, as I stood before him and said that I had come to stay a year, at least, at his school. At his good-natured question as to how much money I had, I emptied my pocket of just thirty-five dollars in gold. That was the sum to which the unforeseen expenses of my long journey had reduced me. The president, being aware that the river was frozen, — so that I could not get away even if I had had money enough to go with, — and having much greater discretionary power than the presidents of our Protestant colleges, told me that I might stay. At the end of my year the river was again frozen, and the good president was again prevailed upon to keep me till the close of that college term, which would be in the middle of the ensuing summer. So I was for sixteen months in all a student in Saint Vincent’s College. Most of the students were the sons of French planters of Louisiana, and the institution was more French than English. Things were ordered very much as they are in the religious houses of Europe. We slept in large dormitories, and ate in a refectory, some one reading aloud the while from an English or French book. The college had its own tailors and shoemakers; and by the favor of the president, who seemed to take a great liking to me, my credit was made good for anything I wanted, and I was provided for as well as the richest of them. The instructors were all priests, adn generally good men. I as never required to change my religion, or to conform more than externally to their worship. The president, Father S. V. Ryan, has since met the recognition which his piety and abilities so justly deserved. Within the past year, if I have read the papers aright, he has been made Roman Catholic Bishop of Buffalo. I applied myself so zealously to study, that, at the expiration of my sixteen months, I was nearly prepared to enter Kenyon College, in which I spent the next four years.
When I came to leave Saint Vincent’s, I drew out a deposit which I had in a bank in Toledo, an gave it into the hands of the college treasurer, reserving for myself only what I thought would be enough to take me back to Ohio. As good luck would have it, the little steamer Banjo, a show-boat belonging to Dr. Spaulding, the manager of the Floating Palace, was advertised to be at Cape Girardeau the week in which I purposed to leave there. Seeing the names of some of my old comrades on the bills, I waited to meet them. They generously made me bring my trunk on board, and have a free ride to St. Louis, or, if I chose, to Alton, where I was to take the cars for Chicago. The remembrance of this trip up the river with these jovial, reckless souls has made it my duty always to defend my old associates, when I hear the censure heaped on them by inconsiderate ignorance or blind prejudice. And I can take my final leave of the show business and of show people in no better way, I think, than in relating an incident which occurred on this little steamer. On the afternoon before our arrival at Alton, as I was sitting on the deck by the side of one of the performers, Mr. Edwin Davis, who had been a member of our company on the Floating Palace, he asked me to let him see my money, adding that I might have had imposed upon me some of the “wild-cat” bills then afloat. Taking out all I had, I placed it in his hands. He counted it and scrutinized it thoroughly, and, folding it up carefully, returned it to me with the remark that my bills were all good. I had no occasion to use my money till I came to pay my railway fare at Alton, when I discovered that my wealth had increased by nearly half. He had, indeed, been a better judge than myself of my necessities; for, with his generous addition, I had barely enough to take me to my destination.
I met Mr. Davis in New York, years afterwards, and offered him the sum he had added to mine, but could not prevail upon him to take it. And this is the way he stated his reason: “No; it does not belong to me. Keep it you, till you see some poor fellow as much in need of it as you were then on the Mississippi, and give it to him.”