Thursday, June 13, 2019

Rotgut Moonshine, Boston and Politics, a Potent Mix - an Electrifying History and Etymology of the "Third Rail" of American Politics

Caricature, Wit and Humor of a Nation in Picture, Song and Story, Thirteenth Edition, New York, Leslie-Judge Company, 1911.

The “third rail” is a “controversial issue usually avoided by politicians,”[i] for fear of committing political suicide.  The expression has been applied, at various times, to gun control, support for Israel, Medicare, Medicaid, health care, assimilation of immigrants, immigration reform, and abortion, gender and reproductive issues. 

The original “third rail of American politics” was Social Security, first introduced in 1982 by an aide to Speaker of the House of Representatives, Tip O’Neill of Boston, Massachusetts; inspired, he said, by childhood fear of the electrified third rail that powered Boston’s transit system. 

The now-familiar expression was not the first use of “third rail” in a political context, much less the first such use in Boston.  A spate of political “third rail” imagery in the Boston press in the late-1970s appears may have been sparked by the expansion of the Orange Line third-rail system. 

And even these early political examples were not the first idiomatic uses of “third rail.”

For several decades from 1900 through at least the 1930s, “third rail” was used to designate dangerous, moonshine liquor – “It ‘ud kill any one who’d touch it.”  

To “kiss the third rail” appears to have been a euphemism for death during the 1920s, and slang for, “go kill yourself” or “get lost.”  Although examples of the expression in print are few and far between, its appearance in one of the early political “third rail” idioms in the 1970s suggests that it may nevertheless have survived, placing the newer, now-familiar idiom in a linguistic continuum with the more distant past.

The “Third Rail of American Politics”

A congressional aide from Boston first introduced the idiom into widespread political discourse in May of 1982, with reference to Republican efforts to reform Social Security with a newly-elected Republican President, Ronald Reagan, in office.  The aide, later revealed to be Kirk O’Donnell, general counsel to the Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts,[ii] said the “third rail” metaphor came to mind from his childhood fear of subways powered by an electrical “third rail.”

One Democratic aide who used to have nightmares about the subways he rode as a child likens Social Security to the third rail of American politics.  “Anyone who tries to touch it gets electrocuted,” he says. But there is consensus in Washington that the Republicans, because of their frequent attempts to change the system since Ronald Reagan took office, have shown a remarkable willingness to commit political hara-kiri on the subject.

Boston Globe, May 25, 1982, page 2.[iii]

It is easy to imagine a young child growing up in Boston might have nightmares about the dangers of the third rail.  Warning signs had been terrifying children in Boston since the third rails were first introduced in 1901.

Boston Globe, January 30, 1901, page 4.

The third rail was new in the city of Boston in 1901, but had been in use in suburban Boston for several years.  Not all of the news of the third rail was depressing.  Spot, the dog, for example, made headlines for riding a third rail-powered train between Braintree and Dorchester on a regular schedule, getting on an off the same stations at predictable times and places.

Boston Globe, September 15, 1898, page 8.

Kirk O’Donnell may have coined the expression in its now-familiar form, but he was not the first person, much less the first Bostonian, to use the “third rail” as a metaphor for danger in politics.  And even if he was motivated primarily by his childhood fear of the dangers of the electric railroad, the earlier use of “third rail” imagery in Boston politics may have been inspired by more recent events.

Boston Globe, February 1, 1975, page 17.

The Orange Line

In 1974, the Metropolitan Boston Transportation Authority (MBTA) installed a new third-rail system on portions of the Orange Line of Boston’s “T,” as locals call the local subway/light-rail system.  Some sections of the new third rail were to be on the surface, where local residents feared children might easily come into contact with the electrified third rail, as prominently discussed in a nearly half-page spread on page three of the Boston Globe.

“If you’re five and you drop a ball, you don’t care how dangerous it is, you just want your ball.  There are so many kids around here . . . it’s always a temptation to hop freights.”

Boston Globe, July 12, 1974, page 3.

Two days later, longtime Boston politician Billy Bulger (the younger brother of mob-boss Whitey Bulger) commented on the fund-raising propensity of other politicians using a less macabre “third rail” metaphor; a pun on the sense of “touch,” meaning to ask for money. 

Bulger takes pride in his sense of reality.  His wit is grounded in reality.  His sharpest bargbs are reserved for fellow politicians.  At a crowded fund-raiser for one colleague, he said: “My, they put the touch on everything but the third rail.”

Boston Globe, July 14, 1974, page 48.[iv]

A few months later, the Boston Globe imagined Governor Michael Dukakis throwing MBTA bureaucrats across the third rail if delayed on his daily commute.  The Governor, who fancied himself a “man of the people,” had suggested that he would ride the T to work.  In response, the management of the MBTA reportedly leaked purported cost-estimates of his daily commute, making his plans seem cost-prohibitive. 

A columnist for the Globe suggested that cost estimates were intentionally inflated and misleading, planted to deter the Governor from riding the T and learning first-hand how poorly the train system was being run.

His Excellency, if delayed, might just get mad enough to throw a few offending executives across the third rail.

As a private citizen, Dukakis could only complain like any other rider.  Now he can get answers, or else.

Boston Globe, November 21, 1974, page 18.

Boston Globe columnist, Mike Barnicle, used touching the “third rail” as a metaphor for suicide several times during the late-1970s.  The earliest example was non-political; the latter two, political. 

When the favored horse in a horse race broke its leg during a race, Barnicle imagined hundreds of disappointed bettors “looking for the third rail with old pari-mutuel tickets in their hands – all the tickets marked with the number 8.”[v]

In 1977, in the wake of Governor Dukakis’ no-fault insurance reforms, one angry constituent received an insurance bill larger than the book-value of his six-year-old car.  This time, Governor Dukakis was to be the recipient of the punishment, instead of meting it out.

Charlie Fogarty, upon receipt of his 1977 automobile insurance bill, became obsessed with one strong desire . . . to place the tongue of one Michael Dukakis on the third rail of the Green Line.

Boston Globe, April 12, 1977, page 21.

A week later, Mike Barnicle commented on how reactions to promises of property tax reform might differ according to the economic status of the neighborhood.  He used language that echoed a much earlier “third rail” idiom (more on that later).

If you tell voters in Sudbury that a vote for your candidate is a vote for lowering property taxes, they want so desperately to believe it that the vote is almost always a sure thing.  Go to parts of any city and start talking about the property tax and people will tell you to go kiss the third rail.

Boston Globe, September 6, 1978, page 2.

A later Boston-area example, from a failed mayoral candidate in 1979, is more ambiguous; it is unclear whether it refers to having “touched” a lot of donors for money, or having addressed all but the most dangerous issues during the campaign.

“I worked very hard . . . I don’t know what else could have done.  I touched everything except the third rail.  If it didn’t work, it didn’t work.

Boston Globe, September 26, 1979, page 24.

Three years later, Kirk O’Donnell put it all together on a national stage and in a more memorable form.  He may have coined the expression in based on his own experiences, or he may have been influenced, at least in part, on the regular (if infrequent) use of third-rail metaphors in the Boston-area press over the previous seven years.

He may also have been influenced by the Boston-area punk-rock scene.  When the new, high-energy, “dangerous” musical genre first gained notoriety in the mid-1970s, “The Third Rail” was one of the best-known early punk bands in Boston.[vi] 

“The Third Rail” first performed in Boston in about 1975.[vii]  In keeping with the dangerous title, their lead singer Richard Nolan supported himself between gigs as a licensed undertaker.

Boston Globe, August 29, 1976, page A9.

Richard Nolan was also a pretty good judge of talent, if over-optimistic of the prospects for Boston bands.  In an interview in 1976, Dolan listed eleven Boston-area bands and eleven New York-based bands he thought might someday achieve widespread commercial success.  The eleven New York bands, described in the article as “hardly household names,” included the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, the Talkin’ Heads (spelled with the apostrophe), Blondie and the Ramones.[viii]  The rest of the New York bands, and all of the Boston bands, didn’t fare so well.

Richard Nolan’s “Third Rail” was not the first musical act with that name in Boston.  

Boston Globe, March 26, 1904, page 12.
When the Vaidis Sisters, Donahue and Nichols, Ascott and Eddie, Fred Stuber and other “varietyists,” performed the “new burletta,” “The Third Rail,” in 1904, Boston’s third-rail train system was barely three years old, and an earlier “third rail” idiom had recently made its first appearance in print. 

Brooklyn Standard Union, October 5, 1921, page 6.

Rotgut Moonshine

In 1903, a “little old woman with a blue shawl over her head” dropped by the New York City District Attorney’s office with a complaint about a saloon.[ix]

“And why do you want the saloon raided?” inquired [the DA’s bodyguard] Palmer.

“Bekase,” answered the woman, “that saloon keeper is a swindler.  He charges 25 cints for a flask of whiskey that should not cost more than 10 cints. . . .  It was regular third-rail whiskey.”

“I never heard of that brand,” replied the cop.

“Then if yer didn’t ye know it now,” she said.  It ‘ud kill any one who’d touch it.”

Harrisburg Daily Independent (Pennsylvania), December 19, 1903, page 9.

“Third rail” would be used to refer to rotgut moonshine, or the like, for several decades.

Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York), November 4, 1913, page 19.
Rutland Daily Herald (Rutland, Vermont), July 28, 1915, page 3.
The Lansing News (Lansing, Kansas), November 24, 1916, page 1.

New York Herald, July 1, 1919, page 2.

Modesto Evening News (Modesto, California), November 6, 1922, page 3.

In the 1930s, the name was also applied to various cocktails.  An advertisement from 1934 suggested a “Third Rail” contained Vermouth.

Today, recipes (easily found online) variously describe the “Third Rail” cocktail as including rum with either, Curacao, or brandy, apple brandy and anisette.  Much like a Kamikaze (vodka, triple sec and lime juice) or a Suicide Shot (tequila, rum, cognac, vodka and Tabasco sauce), the name appears calculated to suggest the potency of the drink.

If one specific vice (alcohol) might be dangerous, all vice might similarly be compared to the “third rail.”  For example, in 1914, Frances E. Miller, an associate of fiery moralist Billy Sunday (who famously couldn’t shut Chicago down), addressed 3,000 young business women and high school girls on the dangers of sin.  Sin was like an electrical third rail, it may look innocent enough, but it can also injure.

Sin is like the third rail on an electric railroad. . . . You have the overhead trolley here [in Pittsburgh], but Chicago has the third rail and for months I walked beside it and did not know any danger.  One day a friend and her husband and little child were with me and I said” ‘Let’s walk over there.  It is smoother and easier!’ 

“Woman,” the man cried, “don’t you know that is the third rail.”

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 26, 1914, page 7.

Kissing the Third Rail

To “kiss the third rail” appears to have been 1920s slang for death, or less literally to tell someone to get lost.  There are not very many examples in print, but its use in one of the late-1970s, Boston-area political “third rail” references suggests that it may nevertheless have survived. 

A humorous newspaper item used the same expression with a completely different meaning  in 1962.  I don’t vouch for the truth of the assertion, but the use of the identical expression suggests that may still have been in use in some capacity.

Old time wonder remedies: To cure chapped lips, according to early American backwoods lore, you kissed the third rail of a five-rail fence.

Pensacola News, August 13, 1962, page 4.

A 1919 news item reporting the invention of a new invention for testing the potency of alcoholic drinks suggests the idiom was already in use.

Enter the ehillioscope!

Bartenders who are inclined to take a chance and let regular customers have a shot of real “hooch” now and then had better keep their eyes peeled from now on or the ehillioscope will get them. . . .

It is said to be to the demon rum what the depth charge was to the U-boat.  Just dip one end into a glass of 2.75, for instance, and it will show a blue light.  For one-half of 1 percent stuff, it shows a pale yellow light, and for a shot of the third rail stuff that the B. T. passes over to his friends, it blows out a fuse and rings a bell.

The Washington Times (Washington DC), November 2, 1919, page 1.

The use of “kisses the third rail” in the headline literally applies to the machine touching the drink, but the expression is identical to one used several years later which generally referred to death.

A few years earlier, a similar expression appeared in a joke, but may be more literal than figurative, but the use of that particular construction suggests that it may already have become idiomatic.

A MAN was arrested in New Jersey while trying to kiss the deadly rail of an electric road.  Possibly he was imitating the shocking displays of affection on Atlantic City beaches.

Mexico Weekly Ledger (Mexico, Missouri), November 18, 1915, page 2.

In 1925, the expression “go kiss the third rail,” appeared in a list of current expressions.  It was not defined, but several of the other examples are playful put-downs or insults, suggesting that it might be intended to mean something like, “get lost,” or “go kill yourself.”


“Untangle your pedals – your gears are slipping.” . . .
“Rack yourself, dumbbell.” . . .
“Hurry up, Trailer, you’re always behind.” . . .
“Go kiss the third rail.” . . .
“You look like three years ago.”

The Salt Lake Tribune, February 15, 1925, Boys and Girls Section.

The expression appeared in a story about a victim of the Times Square subway derailment of 1928, New York’s second-deadliest subway crash ever.  The context suggests that “kiss the third rail” was then a known euphemism for death. 

Jinny waited with the rush-hour crowd at the Times Square subway platform for a downtown express train.  She was on her way to her fiance’s deathbed.  He was dying of pneumonia.  She had warned him not to overexert himself with his cold, but he insisted on working overtime to earn extra money and get a raise to get their upcoming marriage off to a good start.  He assured her, “why nothing’s going to happen, Honey.”

"Why, nothing's going to happen, Honey."
 At her request, he had gone to see a doctor – it was too late.  He was now “lying in a hospital, critically ill with pneumonia.  Collapsed at his work they said.  And she was rushing to see him.”

Anxious, she leaned out over the tracks to look for an oncoming train.  A helpful stranger standing next to her pulled her back from the brink, joking that she shouldn’t lean out so far unless she “wants to kiss the third rail.”  He finds his use of the expression amusing, he “laughs at his own raillery.”  But – spoiler alert, doesn’t realize that “in a few minutes, not more than four hundred feet away, he would be ‘kissing’ that rail himself.”

The train arrives.  “Hundreds of human sardines wiggled out, hundreds more wiggled in.”

Jinny drifted with the immediate mob into the eighth car.  The doors closed. A gong clanged and echoed down the tunnel.  The small red signal lights went out.  The train moved forward; became just a twinkle of moving red and white lights from the black cavern of the tunnel.

Those who had been left behind stared after it wistfully, enviously.  But only for a little while.

A crash. . . . Sounds of grinding breaking steel. . . . Cries of terror . . . . Acrid smoke. . . . Moans. . . . More cries, all kinds of cries. . . . Clanging gongs. . . . Shrilling whistled. . . . Bedlam. . . . Those on the 5: 16 train at Times sq. on Aug. 24 were not to be envied.

Little Jinny was one of the first to be carried out of that modern version of Dante’s Inferno.  They took her to the hospital, but she died.  Perhaps, because she wanted to – to be with Dick – together. . . .


New York Daily News, November 10, 1928, page 19.

Polishing the third rail was also dangerous. 

Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), December 17, 1918, page 23.

But not nearly so memorable. 

The electric trolley and its overhead trolley wire, however, were memorable - and also dangerous.  The dangers of the electric trolley in 1890s Brooklyn inspired the nickname of the professional baseball team now known as the Los Angeles Dodgers; Dodgers being a shortened form of the original, "Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers."  See my earlier post, The Grim Reality of the Trolley Dodgers.

[ii] Boston Globe, August 14, 1985, page 3.
[iii] In 2007, New York Times columnist, William Safire, traced the expression to a report to an issue of Newsweek dated one day earlier, May 24, 1982.
[iv] Bulger used the same expression again in 1978. Boston Globe, August 27, 1978, page A5.
[v] Boston Globe, December 13, 1976, page 3.
[vi] At least two other musical acts, not from Boston, shared the same name.  Artie Resnik, who co-wrote the Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk” and the Rascals’ “Good Lovin’,” scored a minor hit in 1967 with Run, Run, Run, as part of a short-lived, psychedelic bubble-gum act called “The Third Rail.”  In the early 1980s, an R&B act called “The Third Rail” performed in Chicago (a city that adopted a third rail-powered public transportation system in 1895).
[vii] “The Third Rail” played a series of 30th anniversary shows in 2005. Boston Globe, June 30, 2005, page D3.
[viii] Boston Globe, August 29, 1976, page A11. 
[ix] Boston was not the only city with a third-rail subway or rail system, so figurative use of “third rail” was not limited to and did necessarily arise in Boston.  The first electrical “third rail,” manufactured by Siemens, went into service in Berlin in 1879.  A third-rail system was installed in Baltimore in the 1880s, and they were installed in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and other smaller cities during the 1890s.  Boston’s first third-rail system went into service in 1901.  Non-electrical “third rails” are older and include third rails for cog-wheel driven trains, the slot for cable-car systems, and extra rails where trains of two-different gauges run on the same line.  But none of the non-electrical third rails presented the same kinds of danger that would later inspire the idiomatic use of “third rail.”