Jacksonian Miscellanies, #12: April 1, 1997

Topic: Hoaxes, Cons, and Shaggy Dog Tales

Copyright by the editor, Hal Morris, Secaucus, NJ 1997. Permission is granted to copy, but not for sale, nor in multiple copies, except by permission.

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Sorry for the long delay. I wanted to give you the moon, or rather the Moon Hoax (if you haven't heard of it, feel free to ask), and put it out on April 1, but my day job and bad weather got in the way. Better luck next year.

Hoaxes, Cons, and Shaggy Dog Tales

Unless otherwise noted, the passages are taken from Reminiscences of an Octogenarian (New York 1815-60) by Charles Haswell, which I now have online in its entirity, except for the index and illustrations.

From Ch IV, 1817-18

In November the soi­disant Baron von Hoffman, last from St. Thomas, landed in New York, having crossed the North River from Paulus Hook (Jersey City) in a row­boat, and in explanation of his want of a Wardrobe, letters of introduction, etc., he alleged that his trunks were lost in transit on the river.

In July the soi­disant Baron von Hoffman, before referred to, essayed, or affected, to stab himself. The operations of this man filled for more than a year so general and so conspicuous a place in the eyes of the public, and in the interest and communications of society, that they are worthy of a reference. Landing upon a pier in the city, without baggage (alleged to have been lost in transit of the river, as before mentioned), he announced himself as Baron von Hoffman, and being accredited and received as such, he soon displayed himself as a gentleman of connections and fortunes. His turnout, a tilbury, with a horse laden with gilded harness, was daily seen in Broadway. As it became indispensably necessary for him to meet the expenses of his establishment, repay borrowed moneys, and retain his position, he paid his addresses to a lady of this city and was well received and welcomed; but, unfortunately for him, a friend of the lady's accidentally discovered in a jeweller's shop on Broadway the rejected corner of a piece of parchment, which, appearing to him to have its inner lines alike to that of a seal he had just seen on a patent of nobility of the baron's, he took possession and compared it, and thus closed the career in this country of one of the most pretentious swindlers that ever appeared here. Much more in connection with this affair might be written, but insomuch as there are relations and descendants of the persons that figured in it, it is proper to omit further mention. The man had been a valet and a courier.

Ch VI (1822)In August of this year Frances ("Fanny") Wright first opened her views on social conditions; and about the same time John C. Symmes first published his theory of the existence of a passage at the North Pole leading to the centre of the earth. The views of Symmes were very severely and also jocosely referred to by all the public prints, and the alleged opening was termed Symmes's Hole.

Ch VII (1823) Tomatoes were about this time first essayed as edibles, for they had been grown in gardens only for the beauty of their fruit, termed "Love apples," or tomatoe figs, universally held to be poisonous It was not until 1826 that I overcame the fear of being poisoned should I have the temerity to eat of them; and for a long period after they were only served stewed, and not canned until very many years after.

Ch VII (1824) January 8, the anniversary of the battle of New Orleans, there was a great military ball given at the Park Theatre, which was long known and referred to as the "Greek Ball," it being given in aid of the Greek fund. The design was that it should be as exclusive an affair as was practicable. It occurred, however, that a Mr. Oliver, a well­known barber, who plied his avocation at 27 Nassau Street (before referred to), became the happy possessor of a ticket-how it was not known, as the member of the Committee from whom it was procured did not acknowledge the delivery: and when the fact was made public, Oliver was offered various sums in excess of the cost of the ticket, but he resolutely refused to part with it. The papers of the city referred to the matter, public curiosity became interested, and on the evening of the ball, every man who was set down from a carriage in front of the Theatre, and was not recognized by some one or more present, was hailed as "That's him!", "There he goes!", etc. Mr. Oliver in the meanwhile quietly and unobservedly walked in from the rear of the Theatre.

Ch VII (1824)It was from a party of young men who were in the habit of meeting at Castle Garden that the "Toe Club" was formed, one of the first social clubs that was organized in New York, the members of which were designated "Toes," and their place of meeting was termed their "Shoe." Subsequently they met at Stoneall's, corner Fulton and Nassau streets.

Ch VII (1824)[an eminent citizen of New York] was walking on Sixth Avenue when he remarked, within an oyster­shop, an imposing sign bearing the legend, Nunquam Paratus. Entering the place, he said to the proprietor that he wanted some oysters, but saw that he could get none there. "What d'ye mean?" said the man gruffly. "Why, you have a sign hung out to say you are not prepared with them." "No sich thing. Where is any sich sign?" "Why, here; this Nunquam Paratus." " Humph!" said the oyster man, " I guess you don't know-that's Latin, that sign is. It means 'always prepared.'" "My friend," was the visitor's reply, "I guess somebody has been humbugging you; if you want to have 'always prepared,' in Latin, you must say, Nunquam Non Paratus; the sign you now have up means 'never prepared.'" My informant added that he did not know if other scholars had been consulted or not, but on passing the shop a few days afterward, he observed that the Nunquam Paratus had disappeared.

Ch VII (1824)James Fenimore Cooper conceived and originated the formation of a club which was designated the Bread and Cheese Club, which met semi­monthly at the Washington Hall in Broadway, now the northern part of the site of the Stewart Building. Amongst its members were eminent scholars and professional men of the period. In balloting for membership, "bread" was an affirmative vote, and "cheese" a negative.

Ch VII (1825) (October 15)Mordecai M. Noah, editor of the New York Enquirer, essayed the realization of a long­meditated scheme, and at the head of an association of Hebrews purchased Grand Island in Niagara River, termed it the city of Ararat, laid its corner­stone, and by a proclamation of his, as first Judge of Israel, announced the reorganization of the Government of the Jewish nation. The enterprise failed.

Ch IX (1825) When in the shipping business [Jacob Barker] was at one time much exercised regarding the safety of a particular vessel on a distant trading voyage, which he had not insured. He one day applied to an insurance office for a very full amount upon her; the application not having been made "binding," he did not ask for the policy, but a few days afterward he hurriedly appeared at the office and told the president of the company that he need not sign the policy, as he himself "had heard of the vessel." Whereupon the president replied that the application had been accepted and the transaction completed, retired to his private office, and returned with the policy duly signed, which Barker pocketed. Soon after it was posted that the vessel had been wholly lost. Barker had "heard of the vessel," that is, he had heard of her loss. It was reported that this was a case of "diamond cut diamond"; the policy, in fact, having not been signed until after Barker reported hearing from the vessel; the president intending thus to secure the premium without taking any risk.

Ch IX (1828) James K. Paulding, a popular author, published "The New Pilgrim's Progress," a burlesque on the guide­books and writings of English travellers, and a satire on fashionable life in this city. In 1826 appeared his "Merry Tales of Three Wise Men of Gotham who went to sea in a bowl," a satire upon the writings of Robert Dale Owen, an Englishman, who was notorious for the publication of his peculiar proposals for a change in our social relations, and in this year for his publication of "The Free Enquirer." In 1807 Paulding was associated with Washington Irving in the publication of their inimitable "Salmagundi," or the "Whim­whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq., and others."

Speaking of "Whimwams" and Robert Dale Owen, in the same paragraph reminds me of filler piece that appeared in Owen's own New Harmony Gazette (for 2/6/28), propaganda organ for the Owenite experiment at saving the world. It shared the page with one of Frances Wright's most serious and radical attacks on the current state of society, and shows the Gazette to be in some ways a typical early 19th century American newspaper (it seems to be lifted from another periodical, the American Traveler.

To fulfil the promise of a shaggy dog tale, here is another odd piece from the New Harmony Gazette of 1/30/28, cited as from the Atlantic Souvenir. This is not a pure shaggy dog tale, as it is also a moral tale of sorts, but a shaggy dog tale none the less in my opinion.

Little Red Riding Hood

She was, indeed, a pretty little creature,
So meek, so modest; what a pity, madam,
That one so young and innocent, should fall
A prey to the revenous wolf.

              ------ ------ The wolf, indeed!
You've left the nursery to but little purpose,
If you believe a wolf could ever speak,
Though, in the time of Aesop, or before.

------ Was't not a wolf then? I have read the story
A hundred times and heard it told: nay, told it
Myself, to my younger sisters, when we've shrank
Together in the sheets, from very terror,
And, with protecting arms, each round the other,
Even sobbed ourselves to sleep. But I remember,
I saw the story acted on the stage,
Last winter in the city--I and my school-mates
With our most kind preceptress, Mrs. Barely;
And so it was a robber, not a wolf
That met poor little Riding Hood i' the wood!

---- Nor wold nor robber, child; this nursery tale
Contains a hidden moral.

                                   ------Hidden; nay,
I'm not so young, but I can spell it out,
And thus it is: children, when sent on errands,
Must never stop by the way to talk with wolves.

------Tut! wolves again: wilt listen to me child?

------Say on, dear grandma.

                     -----This then, dear, my daughter:
In this young person, culling idle flowers,
You see the peril that attends the maiden
Who, in her walk through life, yields to temptation,
And quits the onward path to stray aside,
Allured by gaudy weeds.

                    Nay, none but children,
Could gather butter-cups and May-weed, mother.
But violets, dear violets, --methinks
I could live ever on a bank of violets,
Or die most happy there.

                  -----You die, indeed!
At your years, die!

                 Then sleep, ma'am, if you please,
As you did yesterday, in that sweet spot
Down by the fountain; where you seated you
To read the last new novel--what d'ye call it--
The prairie, was it not!

                   ----- It was, my love;
And there, as I remember, your kind arm
Pillowed my aged head: 'twas irksome, sure,
To your young limbs and spirit.

                  ----- No, believe me,
To keep the insects from disturbing you
Was sweet employment, or to fan your cheek
When the breeze lulled.

                 ----- You're a dear child!

                                       ----- And then,
To gaze on such a scend! the grassy bank,
So gently sloping to the rivulet,
And purple with my own dear violet,
And sprinkled o'er with spring flowers of each ting.
There was that pale and humble little blossom,
Looking so like its namesake, Innocence;
The fairy-formed, flesh-hued anemone,
With its fair sisters, called by country people
Fair maids o' the spring. The lowly cinquefoil too,
And statelier marigold. The violet sorrel
Blusing so rosy red in bashfulness,
And her companions of the season, dressed
in varied pink.  The partridge evergreen,
Hanging its fragrant wax-work on each stem,
And studding the green sod with scarlet berries.

----- Did you see all those flowers! I marked them not.

----- O, many more, whose names I have not learned.
And then to see the light blue butterfly
Roaming about, like an enchanted thing,
From flower to flower, and the bright honey-bee --
And there too was the fountain, overhung
with bush and tree, draped by the graceful vine,
Where the white blossoms of the dogwood met
The crimson red-bud, and the sweet birds sang
Their madrigale; while the fresh springing waters,
Just stirring the green fern that bathed within them,
Leaped joyful o'er the fairy mound of rock,
And fell in music -- then passed prattling on,
Between the flowery backs that bent to kiss them

----- I dreamed not of these sights nor sounds.

                                   ---- Then just
Beyond the brook there lay a narrow strip,
Like a rich riband, of enamelled meadow,
Girt by a pretty precipice, whose top
Was crowned with rose-bay. Halfway down
                           there stood,
Sylph like, the light fantastic columbine
As ready to leap down upon her lover
Harlequin Bartesa, in his painted vest
Of green and crimson.

                           ----- Tut! enough enough,
Your madcap fancy runs to riot, girl,
We must shut up your books of botany,
And give you graver studies.

                          ----- Will you shut
The book of nature, too, for it is that
I love and study. Do not take me back
To the cold, heartless city, with its forms
And dull routine; its artificial manners
And arbitrary rules; its cheerless pleasures
And mirthless masquing. Yet a little longer
O let me hold communion here with nature.---

----- Well, well, we'll see. But we neglect our lecture
Upon this picture ----

                          ----- Poor Red Riding Hood!
We had forgotten her; yet mark, dear madam,
How patiently the poor thing waits our leisure.
And now the hidden moral.

                          ---- Thus it is:
Mere children read such stories literally,
But the more elderly and wise, deduce
A moral from the fiction. In a word,
The wolf that you must guard against is -- LOVE.

----- I thought love was an infant; "toujours enfant."

----- The world and love were young together, child,
And innocent -- alas! time changes all things.

----- True, I remember, love is now a man,
And as the song says, "a very saucy one"--
But how a wolf?

                           ----- In ravenous appetite,
Unpitying and unsparing, passion is oft
A beast of prey. As the wolf to the lamb,
Is he to innocence.

                          ---- I shall remember,
For now I see the moral. Trust me, madam,
Should I e'er meet this wolf-love in my way,
Be he a boy or man, I'll make good heed,
And hold no converse with him.

                         ----- You'll do wisely.

----- Nor e'er in field or forest, plain or pathway,
Shall he from me know whither I am going,
Or whisper that he'll meet me.

                        ---- That's my child.

----- Nor in my grandam's cottage, nor elsewhere,
Will I e'er lift the latch for him myself,
Or bid him pull the bobbin.

                       ----- Well, my dear,
You've learned your lesson.

                       ----- Yet one thing, my mother,
Somewhat perplexes me.

                       ----- Say what, my love,
I will explain.

                       ----- This wolf, the story goes,
Deceived poor grandam first, and ate her up:
What is the moral here. Have all our grandmas
Been devoured by love?

                      Let us go in;
The air grows cool -- you are a forward chit.

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