Richard F. Outcault’s “The Yellow Kid,” was not only an innovative comic strip (the first of its kind, in fact), but it was also great art, a slice of life look at a New York slum. Here is another one, from back in the 19th century. Enjoy; and there is more to come.
On March 29, 1855, a hundred sixty five years ago, a bunch of rowdies got arrested, and a German grocery store owner lost a finger. Among the rowdies was a man named George Whitney, and another man named Thomas Riley. The criminals were all confined to the Tombs, New York City’s infamous 19th century jail.
This is interesting because it’s a little bit action-packed and violent, and also because it really happened, at a verified date and place, to real people who have now been dead and completely forgotten for many, many years.
Back then, Germans were called “Dutchmen.”
The actual news report from the New York Times follows:
“When Dutch meet Dutch,
Then flows the Lager Bier!”
Yesterday afternoon, an exciting scene occurred at he Lower Police Court, before Justice Connolly, in relation to a bloody battle at the lager bier and grocery establishment of a German named John G. Teitgen, corner of Fifty-second-street and Tenth-avenue.
It appears from the evidence of the proprietor that a gang of up-town bullies entered his premises for the purpose of adjusting matters concerning a challenge for a prize fight between Peter Ferguson and Dominick Carroll.
The proceedings did not exactly suit Tietgen, and he exclaimed, in broken English, “You damn sporters, vot for you cum in my shop to raise de tevil for? I vant you to go out or I get von officer.”
To this command, the rowdies replied, “Shut up, you [expletive], or we’ll storm yer shanty; we won’t do nothin’ else.”
The Dutchman became greatly excited, and when about to take measures to remove his obnoxious customers, the “boys” were true to their word, and sure enough stormed the castle with great violence. Decanters and bottles were hurled in all directions, oil cans were upset, gin and whisky casks damaged, and entire window sashes were smashed.
During the affray, the poor Dutchman received several cuts and stabs in his face and was minus a finger that some of the outlaws severed with a beef knife.
Upon this state of facts becoming known, Justice Connolly acted with commendable promptness and committed eight of the desperadoes to the Tombs in default of $300 bail each.
They gave their names as Dominick Carroll, Thomas Riley, William Travis (an ex-policeman), Peter Ferguson, John Nichols, Thomas O’Donnell, John Stewart and George Whitney.
Illustration: New York’s prison, known as the Tombs, circa 1870.
AUDERE: It’s been five and a half years since the last Watt O’Hugh book. Why wait so long?
DRACHMAN: Right after the last book came out, I pursued a project involving a new proposal for peace in Israel/Palestine, which took a lot of time. I wrote a Kindle single, did a TedX talk, wrote for a webzine and so on.
How did that work out?
Everything is fine now. Everyone is getting along great. Turns out, one man can really make a huge difference. You’re welcome, world.
And Watt fell by the wayside?
I never stopped thinking about him! This volume opens with Watt down in the Hell of the Innocent Dead, fighting a huge and ferocious sand crab, just where Book 2 left off. Watt spends much of the book in this weird realm, building an army to storm the Gates of Hell and free the World Above from the clutches of Sidonism, which is the evil Utopian totalitarian movement that Watt’s been fighting since Book 1.
How has Watt changed?
He still aspires to utter cowardice, but it’s getting less and less easy for him. So I think he is beginning to accept his destiny as a hero, though he will never quite embrace it.
Also, in Book 3, he learns a lot more about the rules of the road in his own particular corner of the multi-verse. There is a lot of ridiculous pseudo-science, which I hope will be funny, but I guess because I’m getting older, my own confusion about the nature of existence has spilled onto the pages, here and there.
Watt has always had one foot in the world of the living and the world of the dead, and now he’s turned into sort of a ghost, but just a temporary ghost, because he’s entered Hell through a hole in space and time, not the usual way. Hester, his love from Book 2, is in the World Above, building her Z’vulunite Kingdom, and he haunts her periodically. When you’re in Hell, you can haunt the world of the living. Hester doesn’t mind.
Why did you set so much of the book in Sharon Springs?
It’s where my grandfather summered every year, when he was a little boy, at the end of the 19th century and the very first few years of the 20th century. He and his many siblings published a kids newspaper called the Sharon Springs Moon. I grew up pretty interested in the place. I was interested in it for the same reason I was interested in Leadville, Colorado, which also plays a big role in Book 3.
Sharon Springs was this amazingly glamorous resort town, and its magical waters could make you live forever, so when Watt needs to take the cure, there was really only one place I could think of. I also wish I could have visited it myself, back in the 1880s, when this book is set, so I got to visit it vicariously. But it also fits with the theme of the book, because within a matter of a few decades, the luxury hotels were gone, the springs were gone. You really feel the ghosts there. The local experts were really helpful to me in researching it, so that I could depict it accurately.
Explain the book’s dedication.
I dedicate the book to Marc Grinker, Hans Bielenstein and Raymond Kennedy. Back in the 1980s, I was a teacher at the Stanley Kaplan school. Grinker was another teacher there, who became a friend and sort of a mentor. He went off to become a law professor in Chicago, and died a few years later. He was a big inspiration to a lot of people, and there’s still a scholarship in his name. Raymond Kennedy was a great novelist, and he was a teacher of mine at Columbia who encouraged me a lot. He wrote a novel called Ride a Cockhorse, which became a classic after his death. And Hans Bielenstein was a really accomplished professor of ancient Chinese history, and a lot of the things he taught me are in these pages.
Will we ever see the rest of Watt’s adventures?
Maybe I will tell the story someday, but for now, I’ve finished a trilogy, it stands on its own, and I hope it will satisfy anyone who has been waiting patiently all these years.
My daughter is urging me to write some short stories that continue to tell the story. I’ve got a standalone story about the “Coney Island Skirmish,” a small-scale battle that takes place in 1911, after the second War Between the States, and the 1905 battle that is mentioned frequently throughout the trilogy. So that may see the light of day.
What else can you tell us about that?
After the second War Between the States, New York City is occupied by Sidonia, and I wrote a set piece in Gotham in the 1920s, which involved Watt O’Hugh the Fifth, Nancy Cunard and some quite over-the-top espionage. It’s pretty violent, and there’s a lot of jazz. I think you would like it.