Living Monsters & Curiosities

Just like their European cousins, American colonists enjoyed cabinets of curiosities, public shows, and really anything that might entertain, educate, or, to be honest, offend my 21st century sensibilities.1 It wasn’t just about seeing the exhibits; it was about being the first and then having the pleasure of talking about them after. 

The elite of New York might assemble in their stately homes to discuss paintings and vases, but they also might join the lesser classes in taverns and private homes to view traveling exhibits the world had never seen before.

The Greatest (Colonial) Showman

There is no good way for me to introduce Mr. John Bonnin, 18th century advertiser and showman of curiosities, except by his own words:

“There’s no Body can set up the least Face for Politeness and Conversation, without having been to Mr. Bonnin.”

― Mr. Bonnin, New York Gazette

What were colonists coming to view in his home near the New Dutch Church, a couple of streets north of city hall? Why, porcupines of various colors and crab fishes.

To Be Seen: A curious live Porcupine armed with Darts which resemble Writing Pens, tho of different colors, and which he shoots at any Adversary with ease when angry or attacked tho otherwise of great good humor and Gentleness.
John Bonnin’s advertisement for a colorful porcupine.
Source: Singleton / Image: Hallie Alexander, 2021

Two years prior to the rainbow porcupine, he exhibited the “greatest curiosity in nature.” Mr. Bonnin’s own advertisement claimed it was beyond “our power to fully describe.” The crab fish must have looked fairly special, for I cannot find an image to go along with it. Apparently it was a petrified fish sandwiched between crab shells.

Competitive Curiosities

Electrical Fish: Those who choose to gratify their curiosity by viewing this very extraordinary production of nature, at the small expense of two shillings each, are desired to attend speedily.
John Rowdon’s advertisement for an electrical fish.
Source: Singleton / Image: Hallie Alexander, 2021

Mr. Bonnin, of course, had competition.

Mr. John Rawdon, hairdresser of Broad Street, which curved from the East River near the bottom of Manhattan up to City Hall, exhibited a “wonderful electrical fish.”

Roger Magrah showed off his four foot long “living” alligator to anyone willing to pay the admittance fee.

And, lastly, Captain Seymour of the ship, Fame, thought he could do better than the others by bringing home two lionesses and two ostriches from the African coast. However, the ostriches did not survive the passage. I dread to think what else was among his cargo.

Waxworks

Waxworks, as well as Punch and Judy puppet shows, were very popular not just for entertainment but for colonists to familiarize themselves with the Royal Family of various European countries. As traveling exhibits, they were shown for a limited time, typically in taverns, from seven in the morning until six at night.

18th century waxworks: Musée de la Révolution française.
Source: Wikimedia

There is one unfortunate event that occurred involving an extensive waxwork collection that came to an abrupt and embroiled end.

Mrs. Wright was an “ingenious” artist and mother who worked from home. Her sculptures were said to be very lifelike, which I can only imagine took a lot of time to produce. I don’t know what kind of mother she was, nor what kind of help she had in raising them, or even how old they were. And, without these details, I am making a wild assumption based on the available facts.

All that is to say, while she was “abroad” with her children left at home, one of them set fire to a curtain surrounding one of her sculptures. Neighbors and fire-engines saved the house and most of their valuables, however the entirety of her waxworks succumbed to the flames.

Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr2 in the title roles of Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949). Source: Paramount, Public Domain

Two months later, she exhibited two new sculpture sets, one being the murder of Cain by Abel, the other, the Treachery of Delilah to Sampson.

Go ahead, I won’t judge. I think Mrs. Wright was deep in her feels and had some things to work out.

Next Week

Peep Shows and Magic Lanterns! I promise this is safe for all eyes. We will examine optical entertainments of the time.

18th Century Peep Show: Victoria and Albert Museum Online

Footnotes:

  1. It is important to know the range of what entertained colonists, however offensive material will never appear in my fiction, therefore my blog won’t be the place to read about them either. This also isn’t the right space to examine the social, political, or just plain ignorant things 18th century folks found entertaining. I recommend the Singleton book in my sources to begin your research.
  2. The same Hedy Lamarr who invented wi-fi in 1941.

Sources:

  • Bushman, R. L. (2011). The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities. United Kingdom: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
  • Scribner, V. (2019). Inn Civility: Urban Taverns and Early American Civil Society. United States: NYU Press.
  • Singleton, E. (1902). Social New York Under the Georges, 1714-1776: Houses, Streets, and Country Homes, with Chapters on Fashions, Furniture, China, Plate, and Manners. United States: D. Appleton.
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Drinking & Gaming in 18th Century New York

“What’s the use of a great city having temptations if fellows don’t yield to them?” 

― P.G. Wodehouse, Carry On, Jeeves

The Province of New York was never considered part of the New England colonies. More than the Hudson River separated them. While New England colonies had strict puritanical laws because they were, uh, founded by Puritans, New York was on a mission of dissipation.

King Charles II

Where did this desire for vice come from? Why, King Charles II and his court during England’s Restoration period. He’d spent the Interregnum in France and absorbed their culture of bon temps, taking an interest in horseracing and gambling. When he brought those pastimes back to England with him, the aristocracy eagerly joined him.

“Unless one gambled freely, it was quite impossible to be counted a gentleman, or, for that matter, a lady of fashion, in the Court of Charles the Second.”1

Gentlemen toasting the King.
“God Save the King,” Charles Williams, 1805 – public domain

At about this time, White’s, Almack’s, Crockford’s, and Cavendish’s came into being. For those who either don’t know London history or haven’t read historical romances, these places were exclusive clubs where gambling and libertine amusements entertained the aristocracy. They were called “gold and silver hells” for this reason.2

The Province of New York

What does King Charles II’s dissipation have to do with Colonial New York, considering it was under Dutch rule at the time?

"New Amsterdam becomes New York." The English captured New Amsterdam from the Dutch in 1664 and re-named it New York in honor of the Duke of York.
“Fall of New Amsterdam,” Museum of the City of New York, 1914

In a fit of pique over Dutch interference with British shipping, King Charles II gave New Amsterdam—ideally positioned for its harbor—to his brother, the Duke of York. Governor Stuyvesant had little power to resist, having only a small navy against the British. The Dutch capitulated, and New Amsterdam became New York.

Gaming Laws in New York

Satire illustration of gentlemen playing billiards, dogs playing at their feet, some anxious over the outcome.
“Billiards,” Thomas Rowlandson, 1803 – public domain

Until 1741, the good times rolled unchecked in New York. After various fatalities from excessive drinking and gaming (gambling) to threaten the health of society, the New York General Assembly passed a law prohibiting gaming in public houses where strong liquor was served. It went further than that. It also prohibited anyone ‘under the age of twenty-one, or any apprentice, journeyman, servant, or common sailor’ to gamble with dice or cards.3 In this way, gaming became a restricted entertainment for wealthy merchants and the gentry.

By 1772, the ratio of taverns to inhabitants in New York City was one for every fifty-five. They weren’t all the same. Some taverns catered to the wealthy, while others to the middling class, or the poor. In taverns for the ‘lower sort’, it wasn’t uncommon to see a diverse population mixing. Black and white men and women danced and drank together. On the opposite end of the spectrum, taverns for the upper class prohibited gently bred ladies from drinking, let alone, entering.

Colonial Holidays

In the New York social club, St. George’s, they celebrated St. George’s Day. (St. George being the patron saint of England.)

“Friday last being the anniversary of St. George, his Excellency Sir Jeffrey Amherst gave a ball to the gentlemen and ladies of this city at Cranley’s New Assembly Room… TWENTY-THREE TOASTS were drunk and the company parted at dawn in high good humour.” (New York Gazette, 1762)
Social New York Under the Georges, 1714-1776
Image: Hallie Alexander, 2021

Many taverns thrived adjacent to churches. When services let out, congregants walked next door. This contributed to the rise in celebrants of “Saint Monday,” which was a day of rest after a day of rest.

Gaming

Gentlemen sitting around a table playing cards.
“A Pig in a Poke; Whist, Whist,” James Gillray, 1788 – The British Museum Collection Online

As for gaming, colonists enjoyed all matter of games. If a tavern kept billiard tables, allowed card games or dice, or any other wagering games, they could be fined twenty shillings for each offence, and up to three pounds if they allowed any of the prohibited class to gamble. Cheaters and professional gamblers also faced steep fines and/or sanctions for breaking this law.

In 1774, the Continental Congress requested that the American colonies reflect on the severity of their political situation by forgoing music, theater, cockfighting, and horseracing. It went over as well as you can expect for New York’s aristocratic upper class. They generally ignored it.

And lest we forget New York’s pleasure gardens, where drinking, entertaining, and, depending on the venue, horseracing, were enjoyed.

Footnotes:

  1. E. Perkins, Gambling in English Life 10 (1950) (quoting Games and Gamesters of the Restoration (1674-1714) introd. (C. Hartmann ed. 1930)).
  2. S. Tenenbaum, The Incredible Beau Brummell 169 (1967).
  3. E. Singleton, (2008). Social New York Under the Georges, 1714-1776: Houses, Streets and Country Homes (1902).

Other Sources:

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Law Enforcement in 18th Century New York

Law enforcement in colonial New York worked similarly to law enforcement in England. It was the responsibility of the local government to protect its citizens.

There were three main categories of criminal behavior dealt with by the courts in colonial New York: thefts, acts of personal violence, and disruptions of public order. Without an effective police force, which didn’t come about until the 19th century, these crimes put tremendous strain on the welfare of the community and individuals responsible for law enforcement. There was a severe shortage of able night-watchmen, constables, sheriffs, jail-keepers, and justices of the peace.

Night-watchman: A man carrying a lantern on a staff is followed by his dog through town
Night-watchman: Wikimedia Commons

Sheriffs, appointed by the governor, enforced the laws, collecting taxes, supervising elections, and taking care of the legal business of the county government. Constables, elected by the people, could make arrests, serve warrants, and testify in court. Night-watchmen were merely responsible for patrolling the city at night, looking for fires, crimes, or riots.

Peacekeeping

There were three forms of peacekeeping in colonial New York. The first of which included the obligation of the citizens to take their turn as watchmen. If they didn’t want to do it, they had the option to pay for a substitute. Other times, the government paid constables to do the job, but they lacked authority and resources to prevent crimes and maintain order. Their only real choice was to apprehend a criminal in the act. The third option occurred during times of war. The governor sent militia to take over the watch. However, this was an expensive and unpopular choice.

Master of the forge, mid-18th century
Blacksmith, mid-18th century. Source: Diderot’s Encyclopedia

Paid constables were often hired from among artisans and tradesmen. With little pay and a lot of responsibilities between their regular profession and work in law enforcement, it was hardly worth the dangers the job presented. Since there weren’t enough constables, they were rarely able to subdue suspects who resisted arrest, especially when the suspect resorted to violence.

Law Enforcement Stretched Too Thin

An angry mob chases after the stamp collector
Andrew Oliver, Stamp Collector Attacked by the mob. Source: James H. Stark

In 1765, a mob of over 200 men ousted four families from their homes in Dutchess County in protest of the Stamp Act. Nothing was done about the 200 men since it was too difficult to arrest all 200, let alone ten. Law enforcement lacked the resources to stop the unrest.

A Lack of Quality Law Officers

Because of the dangers implicit in the job, and the lack of resources, many New Yorkers preferred to pay a fine than serve as law officers. If they couldn’t afford the fine, they took the job but were often negligent in their duties by, for example, not showing up to testify in court. Another problem law enforcement faced was the inclusion of those with questionable integrity. They would take bribes to release prisoners or fix juries; extort money from prisoners in exchange for preferential treatment; assault innocent citizens without just cause; charged suspects excessive fees — food and lodgings were paid by suspects held in jail; committed a variety of crimes without consequences; and used the office to advance their personal interests.

A Lack of Quality Prisons

Jack Sheppard escaping from prison by climbing down with a sheet
Prison escape. Source: unknown

Prisons in the Province of New York were not fortified places. For those awaiting trial, many escaped. The sheriffs were faced with a dilemma. They were criminally liable if suspects escaped, but were not given enough jail-keepers or more secure jails to do their job. Further, if a suspect crossed county lines, they could not be apprehended because arrest warrants issued by county.

A Lack of Quality Judges

William Hogarth, The Bench, 1758. Source: Wikimedia Commons.]

If a suspect didn’t escape prison or evaded recapture, they would appear before a judge. Depending on who was sitting on that particular bench could make a big difference in the suspect’s case. There is much evidence to indicate that judges of colonial New York were, on the whole, an ignorant lot, ill-suited to hold office, and often anxious to abuse the power which such office afforded them. (Greenberg, Douglas)

In 1763, fifty-nine percent of justices of the peace in New York had no legal training. Some could neither read nor write! One can only imagine their ability to uphold the law. In fact, 36% of criminal cases in court records from 18th century New York were never resolved.

In Conclusion…

The Province of New York wasn’t lawless, but it had its challenges. Law Enforcement was neither setup to succeed, nor respected for its authority. As a historical romance writer, these facts give me a lot of fodder with which to torment my characters.

Sources:

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Love, Liberty, and Quarantine: The Story of Bedloe’s Island

In 1956, the United States Congress officially named the outcrop of land surrounded by New York Bay, and home of the Statue of Liberty, Liberty Island. For almost 300 years prior to this, it was called Bedloe’s Island for Isaac Bedloe, a Dutch colonist, merchant, and shipowner born in New Amsterdam. By the time he purchased it, the Dutch had already forced out the Lenape Indians who had used the island for seasonal hunting and fishing for hundreds of years. Because of its vast oyster beds, the Lenape called it Oyster Island.

That makes for a neat, linear history of a small holding of the Borough of Manhattan situated in the middle of New Jersey waters. There is so much more to tell.

Continue reading “Love, Liberty, and Quarantine: The Story of Bedloe’s Island”

The Sons of Neptune

Prior to 1765, a secret society composed of a diverse, radical group of sailors in the American colonies formed. They called themselves the Sons of Neptune.

The Press Gang, 1770

During peacetime, the Royal Navy sent press gangs through dockside neighborhoods searching for able-bodied men to join their crew. It was imperative to the British Empire to have as strong a naval force as possible to maintain their dominance around the world. That being said, merchant sailors earned higher pay than the navy, and few went willingly into impressment.

Impressment, to the Sons of Neptune, was a prime example of British tyranny. Their response to it launched America’s rebellion.

Continue reading “The Sons of Neptune”