Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Beware the Tango!

            After it first appeared in Paris, London, and Berlin from its starting place in Argentina, the tango soon came to New York where it became wildly popular in 1913. The tango’s rhythm has been described as “exciting and provocative” and the dance steps as “hot, passionate and precise.” Women often wore slit skirts when they danced the tango and there was full body contact with their partners, upwards from their upper thighs and pelvis. Routinely, the dancers’ hips were thrust forward and sometimes their legs were intertwined and hooked together.



            By 1914, the tango was well on its way to taking the Empire State by storm. A seven-column headline in the New York Times read, “All New York Now Madly Whirling in the Tango.” According to the columnist who wrote the story, there had been such an explosion of music and dancing in the city that “we have the luncheon dance, the tea dance, the dinner dance, the supper dance, and the dance that begins at 1 o’clock in the morning and keeps going as long as people want to stay up.”
            Tangomania alarmed public officials and the clergy. Mayor William Jay Gaynor said that because some of the tango dances had become “lascivious orgies,” all public dance halls needed to be licensed and their hours regulated.
            Roman Catholic Church officials went even further than the mayor and said tango dancing presented a moral danger to society and was “positively indecent.” The Roman Catholic Bishop of Albany stated that dancing the tango “would be unbecoming of Christians and conducive of immorality.” The pastor of the Catholic Church of the Assumption in Fairport, Monroe County, condemned the tango from the pulpit. In Rome, Italy, a cardinal representing the pope, issued a pastoral letter that denounced the tango for perverting the soul and being representative of the “new paganism.”



            Protestant and Jewish religious officials applauded the Catholic Church’s vilification of the dance. A Baptist pastor described tango dancing as “a form of nervous degeneracy.” An Episcopal pastor said that by becoming so absorbed in “corrupt forms of dancing,” young men and women were sinking “lower into sensuality…love gone insane.” A rabbi condemned the tango for its “vulgarity” and “indecency” and a speaker at one synagogue warned tango dancers that they had “no right morally to mar the lives of [their] unborn children.”
            Not everyone wanted to reign in or ban the tango. The New York Times reminded its readers that in former years, similar criticism had been leveled at the waltz and the polka. The Times said the tango was not immoral nor was every dancer “a satyr or a hilding.”
            The Tupper Lake Herald editorialized that if the tango were danced properly, it could be as pleasing as the waltz, but unfortunately, many dancers don’t know how. The Malone Farmer agreed and gave some dance tips to its readers who wanted to dance the tango the right way. “Don’t wiggle the shoulders; don’t shake the hips; don’t twist the body; don’t flounce the elbows; don’t pump the arms; don’t hop or glide; and avoid low fantastic acrobatic dips.” If its readers thought that the dance tips were as “insipid” as the Farmer suggested they might be, the paper proclaimed, “Bring on the old-fashioned Virginia reel and a six-measure hoe-down.”
            In June, 1914, news from the court of King George and Queen Mary of England helped convince more Americans that perhaps the tango was not so bad after all. The royal couple saw the tango performed for the first time by two professional American dancers, Maurice and Florence Walton, during a one-hour dance exhibition put on before a ball the king and queen were hosting for members of the English and Russian royalty. Queen Mary, who had censured the tango the previous year, smiled and applauded often during the dancing which she described as “charming.” She said, “I don’t see why people find anything wrong in these dances.”
            As the year 1914 came to an end, the Times reported that hotels which had barred the tango during 1914 New Year’s Eve celebrations were expected to welcome it for 1915 New Year’s Eve festivities. In fact, the paper stated that hotels and restaurants were expecting the 1915 celebrations to be the biggest the city had ever seen and that dancing was going to play a bigger part in them that it had the previous year.
            With this news, the verse that the Times had originally printed in defense of the tango at the start of the year, took on a sharper bite:
            Said the Rev. Jabez McCotten,
            “The waltz of the devil’s begotten!”
            But Jim made reply,
            “Never mind the old guy,

            To the pure almost everything’s rotten.”

Monday, August 3, 2015

Absinthe: the guillotine of the soul

            In 1869, alarming news about the dangers of drinking absinthe swept north from New York City, through Albany, all the way to Malone, near the Canadian border. A “brilliant writer” from the New York press and a “talented lady” had ruined themselves physically and mentally by drinking absinthe. Comparing the drink to opium and morphine, the article warned readers that absinthe “obtains an all-powerful control over its votaries, deadens the sensibilities, and is, indeed the guillotine of the soul.”




            Results of experiments on animals by Dr. Valentin Magnan, a respected French physician and an authority on alcoholic insanity, gave weight to warnings that absinthe caused vertigo, convulsions, hallucinations, insanity and criminality. According to Dr. Magnan, the effects were permanent and hereditary—children of an absinthe drinker stood a good chance of developing a serious mental illness.
            Dr. Magnan’s 1869 experiments on guinea pigs, rabbits and cats were well publicized in New York State. He compared the effects of pure alcohol and absinthe on the animals by putting one in a glass case with a saucer full of pure alcohol, and another in a case with a saucer of the essence of wormwood, Artemisia absinthium, one of the plants used to make absinthe and from which it takes its name.
            The animal exposed to absinthe soon “fell on its side, agitating its limbs convulsively, foaming at the mouth and presenting all the signs of epilepsy.” The animal, forced to get intoxicated by pure alcohol, “behaved like an ordinary drunkard. He became lively, then reeled about, and at last lay down and fell into a heavy sleep.”
            The warnings about the danger of using absinthe came primarily from opponents of alcohol abuse and public drunkenness. Interestingly, as the nineteenth century wore on, French wine makers encouraged their efforts. They had seen most of their vineyards destroyed during the Great French Wine Blight and the shortage of wine led to higher wine prices. To curb their growing expenses, absinthe manufacturers stopped using wine alcohol and began using cheaper industrial alcohol made from beets and grain. The result was an inexpensive absinthe, cheaper than wine, which greatly appealed to working class drinkers.
            A distilled spirit made from the essences of a number of plants including anise, fennel, hyssop, and wormwood, absinthe has high alcohol content, typically 110 to 144 proof (55 to 72 per cent alcohol). Because of its traditionally bright yellowish-green color, absinthe has been known by a number of nicknames including the green muse, the green torment, the green oblivion, and its most popular nickname, the green fairy.
            During the second half of the nineteenth century, absinthe enjoyed a surge of popularity in France where more absinthe was consumed than in the rest of the world. Artists, writers and poets such as Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Arthur Rimbaud, and Oscar Wilde were said to have been inspired by the green fairy.



            Absinthe also made its way into the U.S. The Absinthe Room opened in the French Quarter of New Orleans in 1874 and attracted prominent literary figures including Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. In New York City, the Absinthe House opened its doors for business and soon absinthe drinking became all the rage with bohemians and their wannabees.
            As absinth became more popular in New York State, alarm bells about its usage rang louder. In 1879, a doctor reviewed the use of absinthe, “an unusually deadly poison,” in an article for the British magazine, the Contemporary Review. Reprinted in the New York Times, the story concluded that heavy use of absinthe can cause “epileptiform convulsions” and unconsciousness which can last for six or seven hours. The doctor warned that in the worst cases, the absinthe user can become a “confirmed epileptic.”

            The anti-absinthe drumbeat continued into the last years of the nineteenth century. For example, an 1893 article in the New York literary magazine Current Literature entitled “Confessions of an Absintheur” and written by “A Slave to the Green Fairy,” began with the author saying, “I know what absinthe means! Madness and death!”
            The movement to ban absinthe was given a huge boost in 1905 when a Swiss laborer murdered his two children and pregnant wife after a day long drinking bout with wine, brandy—and two glasses of absinthe. The crime and its connection with absinthe were highly publicized and support for a ban on absinthe skyrocketed.
            In 1912, following the lead of the Congo Free State, Brazil, Belgium, Switzerland and Holland, the U.S. banned the importation of absinthe. A doctor speaking for the government said absinthe was being banned because it was “dangerous to health,” “one of the worst enemies of man,” and because users risked becoming “slaves to this demon.”
            The ban on absinthe in the U.S. lasted almost 100 years. In 2007, the federal government lifted its ban and the green fairy returned to New York State. At first, sales soared and in 2010, New York State absinthe was distilled in Walton, a town in the foothills of the Catskills in Delaware County, and in Gardiner, a town in neighboring Ulster County.
            In the past few years, sales of absinthe have leveled off. Some analysts have suggested that the drop may have occurred because consumers were disappointed by the “green fairy effect” or they did not like absinthe’s licorice-like taste.

            Another explanation for the drop may be found in commentary about absinthe widely attributed to Oscar Wilde. He said, “After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.”

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Dannemora prison break teaches geography

            War may be a good geography teacher but so is a riveting prison break! Just as war taught many a geographically challenged person where Vietnam, Bosnia and Kuwait are in the world, a June 6th prison break taught many others where Dannemora, Malone and Constable are in New York State.



            Following the escape and capture of two prisoners from the Clinton Correctional Facility, maps showing the location of these three North Country communities were ubiquitous—printed in newspapers, broadcast on television, and posted online. The geography lesson was well taught.

Mess Hall in Dannemora"s Clinton Prison in 1912

            For those who desire to enrich their geography lesson, this additional information may be motivating. The state prison where the escape took place is located in the village of Dannemora, which grew up around a prison the state built in 1845 for the purpose of employing convicts in the mining and manufacturing of iron. The prison grounds were located on 26 acres and contained a steam forge, a rolling mill, and a steam separator capable of working 600 tons of ore monthly. At first the iron ore came from a state-owned mine but subsequently the ore came from privately owned sources.[1]

Dannemora's Clinton Prison in 1910
            The prison grounds and the part of the village that surrounds the grounds are also located within the town of Dannemora, in Clinton County. The town was formed from Beekmantown on December 14, 1854 and named for a celebrated community in Sweden where a large iron mine was located.[2]
            The town of Malone where the first escaped inmate was shot and killed is in Franklin County and was formed from Chateaugay on March 2, 1805. The village of Malone, incorporated in 1853, is the county seat.[3] Malone was the birthplace and only home of William Almon Wheeler, who served as the 19th vice president of the U.S. with President Rutherford B. Hayes.[4]


            The town of Constable where the second escaped inmate was apprehended was formed from Malone on March 13, 1807. The town’s northern border is the international border between the U.S. and Canada. From Constable, Montreal is about 50 miles to the northeast.[5]




[1] John Homer French, Gazetteer of the State of New York (Syracuse, NY: B. Pearsall Smith, 1860), 238.
[2] Ibid., 237.
[3] Ibid., 312.
[4] Herbert C. Hallas, William Almon Wheeler (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2013).
[5] French, Gazetteer of the State of New York, 310.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Lilliputian politicians

            Sometimes politicians we love to hate take such reprehensible stands on subjects dear to our hearts, we are compelled to reach into our grab bag of 19th century retorts for a response—“Lilliputian politicians” often fits the bill.

Illustration by Milo Winter (1888-1956). 


            This phrase was very popular with editorial writers and cartoonists in the 1850’s. An 1853 editorial in The New York Times inveighed against “the tribes of Lilliputian politicians” that were robbing the U.S. Treasury.[1] The Brooklyn Eagle told its readers in an 1854 article that “Lilliputian politicians” were advocating a 10 hour working day and a requirement that employers pay their employees weekly, and in cash.[2]

Created on wove paper by John L. Magee. Library of Congress.


            The 1856 lithograph above, blamed Lilliputian Democrats for the violence against antislavery settlers in Kansas after passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In the cartoon, a bearded freesoiler has been tied to the Democratic platform. From left to right, U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas and President Franklin Pierce are forcing a black man into the freesoiler’s mouth, and presidential nominee James Buchanan and U.S. Senator Lewis Cass are restraining the freesoiler.

From an 1896 edition of Gulliver's Travels.


            Lilliput is an island nation that appears in Part One of Jonathan Swift’s 1726 novel, Gulliver’s Travels. The inhabitants of Lilliput are less than six inches tall. Lilliput’s emperor chooses his high government officials on the basis of acrobatic skill—how well they can dance on a slender white thread which is two feet long and stretched taut about twelve inches from the ground. Whenever there is a vacancy in the government, five or six candidates petition the emperor for the job and then dance on the thread. Whoever jumps the highest without falling is selected for the position.[3]

Illustration by Milo Winter (1888-1956). 
            There are two political parties on Lilliput. They hate each other so much they will not eat, drink or talk to each other. They distinguish themselves by the height of their heels. Gulliver learns that the high heels have the most respect for Lilliput’s constitution but the emperor only uses low heels in his government. The heir to the throne has a tendency to like the high heels—one of his heels is higher than the other, which makes him hobble when he walks.[4]
            Today, when it comes to controversial issues such as those involving same-sex marriage, abortion, immigration reform, fair trade agreements, global warming or health care, who are the Lilliputian politicians? Who is jumping the highest for public favor? Do they have low or high heels? Do some of them hobble?



[1] “Is the Whig Party Dead?,” New York Daily Times, July 19, 1853.
[2] “The Working Men and the Demagogues,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 16, 1854.
[3] Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (Chicago: Rand, McNally, 1912), 30–31.
[4] Ibid., 43.