Monday, April 26, 2021

Knickerbocker Dudes - a Window into the History and Origin of "Dude"

A Fact: Young Lady (gazing for the first time upon the windows of the Knickerbocker Club): What a large family of boys there is in that house! Life, Volume 3, Number 69, April 24, 1884, page 227.

The word “Dude” made its debut in the English Language in January 1883, in a poem entitled “The True Origin and History of ‘the Dude,’”[i]  written by an Irish-born Englishman living in New York City named Robert Sale Hill (or Sale-Hill).  The poem skewered the frivolous, idle sons of Gilded Age millionaires who had more money than sense, labeling them “Dudes,” the “first cousin to the ‘Dodo.’”  The original “Dudes” were Anglophiles who wore monocles, affected an English accent, and dressed in the latest, ridiculous fashions – tight pants, high collar, and pointy shoes.  

 “Dudes” were also members of exclusive social clubs.  Among men’s clubs in New York at the time, the Knickerbocker Club enjoyed the reputation of being perhaps the most exclusive, and of having the most frivolous and most idle young men among its members.

The word “Knickerbocker” generally refers to the early settlers of Dutch Manhattan, and membership in the Knickerbocker Club was supposedly limited to “descendants of the original Dutch settlers of Manhattan Island.”[ii]  Just as the Knickerbockers of old “New Amsterdam” (the original name of New York City) were known for their own distinctive fashions, their descendants in the Knickerbocker Club of “modern” New York in 1883 were known for affecting their own distinctive look.  Their peculiar sense of fashion may have even inspired the word “Dude,” and a specific member, August Belmont, Jr., may have been the trend-setter who introduced those fashions to the club.


“Swells of the Past,” Lawrence Tribune (Lawrence, Kansas), March 4, 1887, page 1.


A New Style

Several months before the publication of Robert Sale Hill’s poem, the “New York Letter to the Washington Post” described the scene at the Knickerbocker Club when August Belmont Jr.[iii] created a sensation walking by their clubhouse windows on Fifth Avenue, in his “latest imported clothes.”

Cover art from Robert Sale-Hill’s The True Origin and History of “The Dude,”  (1883).

He has just returned from England with an entirely new and absolutely correct wardrobe, and has already begun to exhibit it.  He is short[iv], but fairly well formed, and he constantly wears the single glass, while his accent astonishes Americans – and Englishmen, too, I fear.  When I saw him he was coming around the corner of Twenty-eighth street into Fifth avenue, and the windows of the swell little Knickerbocker Club were alive with weak-looking faces, convulsively holding the single eye-glass, and gazing eagerly at the latest imported clothes.

 The young man (he is about 30) did not walk easily.  He had on a pair of dead black shoes, with untanned leather tops.  They were decorated by fancy stripes along the side of the foot and over the tow, and were so absurdly narrow that they looked like deformed feet, and rendered the movements of the young man far from graceful, though he struggled hard to preserve appearances.  His legs were covered by a pair of trousers that were simply amazing, so tight were they cut.  It would be almost impossible to sit down without splitting them across the knee, as far as can be judged from appearances.  They were as tight as eel skin all the way down, fitting around the ankles as snugly as a stocking.  This remarkable expose of a man’s developments is not advisable when his legs are not up to the standard.  The trousers in question were a very light green with dark stripes.  Above them was a vest that stretched from the chin to a line just even with the hip bones, and was cut straight across.  The vest was of light material, and looked odd, it was so extremely short.  The cutaway coat was bottle green, and fitted like a jersey.  It was indeed a trial of the tailor’s art in one sense, but it is far too tight to be becoming. . . . He wore a collar that lapped over in front, and was certainly higher than any other collar I ever saw in America. . . . Above it all was one of the huge English Derby hats with a great curling brim and heavy crown. He wore yellow gloves, and carried a stick with a twisted handle by its lower end, so that the handle dropped nearly to his feet.

Chicago Tribune, September 27, 1882, page 5.

Sunday Ledger (Topeka, Kansas), July 1, 1888, page 2.


If the anecdote is true, August Belmont Jr. may have been the original “Dude,” although he was quickly joined by his admirers at the Knicerbocker Club who emulated his style.  A few months after they reportedly gazed at Belmont’s imported clothes through their club window, a New York gossip columnist identified the Knickerbocker Club and its members as the inspiration for word “Dude.”


A New Word

In February 1883, about six weeks after Robert Sale-Hill’s The True Origin and History of “The Dude,”  appeared in print, W. A. Croffut[v] sent one of the earliest detailed descriptions of the “Dude” to his readers in Chicago.   “An Englishman of athletic habits . . . named Hill”[vi] introduced the word, “a corruption of dodo,” “after visiting the Knickerbocker Club.”


New York, Feb. 22. – [Special Correspondence.] – Do you have Dudes in Chicago?  Do you know what a Dude is?  We have a good many here.  They make no end of fun.  A Dude is not necessarily a “masher,” not generally a snob, not exactly a fop – but a sort of compound of all three, with a delicious dash of simplicity and feeble-mindedness added which makes him a very amusing creature indeed.  He is never a profligate; in fact, he is occasionally a bashful Sunday-school habituĂ©.  The chief characteristic of his personal architecture is a very empty garret.

The word “Dude,” which seems to be passing into the vernacular of the street, is an importation.  An Englishman of athletic habits and stalwart frame, named Hill, after visiting the Knickerbocker Club lately, was so struck with the listless appearance of most of the members that he wrote to the World and classified them as “Dudes.”  It may have been a breach of his privileges as a guest; I am not discussing that.  But it is a fact that since that time Dudes have been discovered thick upon the street, and the genus is coming into vogue.  The Dude generally scorns personal exertion and activity.  He has a rich father.  He wears a long Newmarket overcoat reaching to the tops of his shoes, and turning up around his head, and on the summit of this woolen cylinder sits a shiny hat with a tremendous bell crown.  They do no business to tire their flaccid intellects withal, and they carefully avoid conversation.  “Dude” is a corruption of dodo.

“New York Gossip.  The Genus “Dude” in All His Manifestations of Gorgeous Idiocy,” Chicago Tribune, February 25, 1883, page 9. (reprinted in The Shreveport Times, March 2, 1883).

Croffut’s detailed description of the “dude” appears to be the source of a comment in a later, widely reprinted account of the word’s coinage that first appeared in the Springfield Republican.  In early March 1883, the Des Moines Register reprinted an article from the Springfield Republican entitled, “The ‘Dude’ in Corsets,” which speculated that young, fashionable men in New York wore corsets to achieve their characteristic slender physique.[vii]  That article included the full paragraph from Croffut’s letter about the origin of the word.  Beginning about one month later, numerous newspapers across the country reprinted another article from the Springfield Republican, suggesting that the word “dude” (two syllables) had been in use for two decades in Salem, New Hampshire, and that its “revival at New York is credited to a disgusted Englishman, who remarked, after visiting a rich club, that the young men were all ‘dudes.’”

The characterization of a “Dude” as listless and idle may have been misplaced as applied to August Belmont Jr., who played polo, participated in fox hunts and is said to have introduced spiked shoes while on the track team at Harvard.  But the image, if not the reality, struck a chord with the public, who would continue to associate those characteristics with “Dudes” generally, and members of the Knickerbocker Club, specifically.


The “Dude Club”

The Knickerbocker Club members quickly acquired a reputation for being “Dudes” and the Knickerbocker Club became known as the “’Dude’ Club.”  The reputation and name stuck with the club for years.  The continued association of the club with the word, “Dude,” does not prove that the members (or a particular member) of the club were the original “Dudes,” but it is at least consistent with the early suggestions that they were.

An early reference to the club as the “Dude Club” published far from New York City also included a brief definition of the word, which was not yet universally familiar.

The Knickerbocker Club, of New York, is now called the “Dude” Club, ‘Dude’ means snob.

The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), March 8, 1883, page 2.

An early example in a magazine written and published in New York City did not limit “Dudes” to the Knickerbocker Club, but did designate the neighborhood of the club as the “principle” habitat of the recently named “creature,” the “Dude.”

[(Read as though spoken in a mock wanna-be-English dialect)] “Ya-as,” I bwoke in, aftah I had listened attentively: “I entirely compwehend.  I know the species of cweachah you allude to.  He is pwincipally to be found in the Fifth Avenue, in the neighborwhood of the Knickerbocker Club.  It is almost impossible to be in erway wegarding him; faw if his dwess is not too pwononce, there is an air of consciousness about him and an aw affectation of speech that at once pwoclaim him a “dude.”  Poor fellows, I think of them maw in sorwow than in angah aw.

Puck, Volume 13, Number 315, March 21, 1883, page 38. Fitznoodle in America:  Dudes. 

Across the river in Brooklyn (then still its own city), members of the Knickerbocker Club embodied the “sort of swell” now called a “dude.”

It seems to me there is something bland and uncommonly superior about the complaint of some of the swell young members of the Knickerbocker Club that they really cannot endure Delmonico’s and the CafĂ© Brunswick any more because the resorts are becoming too common. . . .  The only thing we can do for them is to put them on an island by themselves, where they can commune with each other and know nothing of the common herd.  It won’t be long before there is a revolt against this sort of swell or “dude,” as he is now called from all sides. . . .  The result will be an uprising on all hands before long, and the “dude” will be unceremoniously kicked out of the best clubs and hooted at when he shows his head in the theaters and concert halls.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 25, 1883, page 2. 

And even when the word “Dude” was not used, a description of the clothes worn by a Knickerbocker Club man matched the clothes then commonly associated with a “Dude.”

You can tell a Knickerbocker Club man as far as you can see him.  He affects the English to an appalling degree, wears collars that reach to his ears, skin tight trousers, a single glass, a bell crowned hat and toothpick shoes.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 15, 1883, page 1.

Months and years later, the reputation and name were still frequently associated with the Knickerbocker Club.

To the Knickerbocker dudes without sense enough to take care of the fortunes left them by the tanners, shoemakers, butchers and soap-boilers who kindly consented to act as their grandfathers, having been “in trade” is just too horrible to contemplate.

Daily Arkansas Gazette, November 4, 1883, page 4.

When Chauncey De Pew was making a little speech at the Nineteenth Century club the other night, he told a story of having asked a young member of the Knickerbocker club, the dude club of New York, which he would rather be General Sherman or General Grant or a member of the Cotillion [(a club that hosted formal dance parties)], whereupon the prompt reply was that he would rather take the latter horn of the dilemma.

The Kansas City Times, December 28, 1884, page 1.

High standing in society is a condition precedent to membership.  For this reason much fun has been poked at it.  The members are said to sit of an afternoon in the bow window on the Fifth avenue side of the club-house sipping tea, and it has also been called the Dude Club. . . .

The Times (Philadelphia), June 14, 1885. 

The Knickerbocker is hardly as representative a club as the Union, because in the latter there is a larger number of distinguished men drawn from various ranks.  It is, however, the swell club of New York, in the sense that it is the most exclusive.  One has to have high standing in New York society to become a member of it.  Much fun has been passed at it.  The “dude club” is one of its names, and it has also been said that its members sin in the bow windows on the Fifth avenue side of the club house and drink tea, and they have been pleasantly referred to as “stuffed dudes.”  But, after all, the fact remains that it is exclusive from a society point of view. . . . The limit of its membership is 300 – that of the Union, 1000.

Memphis Daily Appeal, May 22, 1887, page 10.


Stuffed Dudes

The reference to “stuffed dudes” sitting in the window was in keeping with their listless image, but also started a rumor that the club actually kept “stuffed dudes” in the window.  The rumor took on a life of its own and became a running joke for years.  One of the earliest accounts of the rumor, from The New York Times, suggested that the club’s reputation for listlessness was misplaced.

The children of the neighborhood who play on the sidewalks believe a story that has been told them by some jocular servant to the effect that there are “stuffed dudes” displayed in the windows of the Knickerbocker Club, from the fact that the members of the club who sit in the windows and gaze on the passing pageant of youth and beauty appear to be inanimate.  No reasoning can dissuade the children from this idea, and one member has promised to take his little girl into the club some morning so that she can see for herself that there is no truth in the story.  It may be added that the dude abounds in the Knickerbocker, which is notwithstanding one of the cheeriest and pleasantest clubs in the city, with an excellent cuisine.  Inside as well as outside the club house is one of the handsomest in the city.

The New York Times, January 23, 1887, page 4.

The spate of negative publicity may have caused the club members may have taken a break from window-sitting.

Since the “stuffed dudes” vacated the windows there is no visible signs of occupancy about the Knickerbocker Club.

The New York Times, March 6, 1887, page 14. 

But the notion of “stuffed dudes” persisted for years, spawning jokes and imitators.

I examined with especial attention the collection of stuffed animals on exhibition in the National Museum.  It is better than a menagerie, without the smell, as a visitor remarked.  The keeper states that the collection will be very nearly complete when they shall have succeeded in putting a stuffed dude in the collection.

The Tennessean (Nashville, Tennessee), February 16, 1888, page 3.


How They Look on Dress Parade – A Brief Interchange of Words – The Oglers.

Fifth avenue is all alive in the brisk movement of a gay winter afternoon.  Up and down the driveway rolls an endless procession of vehicles, whose trappings fill the air with frosty music.  Up and down the footways pass an endless chain of pedestrians, stepping smartly and with heads well up.  The display of winter toilets [(fashion)], pet dogs and pretty faces is a sight to be remembered among the experiences of the town.  One can hardly blame the members of the Knickerbocker club, therefore, for gathering at the windows of the club house, but one can surely wonder how it was that in the face of this vital and moving scene they can preserve the stolid, cane sucking immobility on which the club seems to have a patent.  If there is anything more imperturbable in the world than a Knickerbocker club man on dress parade I should like to know of it as a matter of curiosity.  The children of the neighborhood are said to call them stuffed dudes, and there is reason in the childish conceit.  As they pose at their places of vantage and squint at the smart girls and modish matrons going by through their single eye glasses, there is, apparently, nothing alive about them.  They might be tailors’ dummies or the wax figures at the Eden Musee.  Even when they speak to one another it is a monosyllable, without opening their mouths more than enough to let the words escape.

“Fine gel, old fel.”

“Dem fine.”

“Ged! Heah’s Syypes’ gel.”

“Dem fine gel, Syypes’ gel.”

“Dem fine.”

And so on to the end f the club vocabulary, which is all similarly adjusted.

Sterling Daily Gazette (Sterling, Illinois), March 26, 1888, page 2.


Students Put a Scarecrow in a Secret Society Lodge Room.

Several Northwestern University students entered the sacred domain of one of the secret societies of young women of the university last week and placed therein a man of straw.  Dressed in faultless attire and placed in such an attitude as to denote a state of beastly intoxication, his discovery was followed by feminine screams and a wild scramble.                                   

Chicago Tribune, February 5, 1895, page 7.

It was a standing joke for some years that there was an agreement among certain of the younger members that they should take turns at sitting at the front windows so as to prove to the world at large that there was at least one solitary soul within its precincts.

Kansas City Star, February 24, 1897, page 5.


“Rough Rider” Dudes

Despite the long-running reputation of Knickerbocker Club  members as listless “Dudes,” the stereotype may have been misplaced, at least for some of its members.  During the Spanish-American War, for example, future President Theodore Roosevelt recruited a regiment of volunteer cavalry, primarily “rough riders” and cowboys of the American Southwest (Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas) but supplemented by about fifty “Fifth Avenue Dudes,” some of them members of the Knickerbocker Club.

The “Dudes” caused disappointment among the cowboys as soon as they swung off the train.  The cowboys expected to see Saratoga trunk, but instead every man carried his entire paraphernalia in one hand.  As soon as the men arrived at the regimental camp, one of them selected a bucking claybank horse for a ride into town.  The cowboys expected to see him go flying into the air, but after a few jumps and plunges the bucker had all he could manage, for his rider was Craig S. Wadsworth, one of the best polo players in America.

Among the “Dudes,” as the cowboys insist upon calling the new recruits, are Basil Ricketts, son of the late General Ricketts, who served a two years apprenticeship on the Colorado cattle ranch; Hamilton Fish, Jr., another noted polo player; Horace Deveraux of Colorado Springs, one of Princeton’s foot ball team; William Tiffany of New York, a social favorite and a leader of cotillions in exclusive circles; Kenneth Robinson, of the Knickerbocker club; Reginald Ronalds, half back of Yale’s foot ball team; and Hollister, the Harvard sprinter.  There are about fifty of these college bred clubmen, but their wealth and influence will secure them no special consideration in the regiment.  They are all chummy with the far westerners this morning.

El Paso Herald, May 11, 1898, page 1.


Knickerbocker Club member, “Kenneth Robinson Making Soup for his Fellow Fifth Ave Dudes and the Cowboys.” The Boston Globe, May 30, 1898, page 3.

Given the high profile of their leader, Colonel Roosevelt, the high social standing of many of the New York recruits, and the spectacle of the presumably soft society swells mixing it up with Wild West he-man types, the press gave the regiment a lot of attention even before they saw combat.  Some of the coverage was critical of the suitability of the city “Dudes” for Army life or combat.

A correspondent of the New York Herald ridiculed the “valets,” “golf sticks” and “polo sticks” brought into camp by Roosevelt’s “Fifth Avenue dudes,” comparing them unfavorably to the “genuine Simon Pure cowboys and plainsmen” of a regiment of volunteer cavalry from Montana.


One of the most spectacular incidents of the war with Spain has been provided by “Teddy” Roosevelt and his band of “rough riders.”  Dispatches from the South teem with the doings of the strange conglomeration of Fifth avenue dudes and so-called cowboys until one grows heartily sick of it all.  When Colonel Roosevelt resigned his responsible post as assistant secretary of the navy to raise his band of terrible warriors, the more conservative of his friends did not hesitate to indulge in hostile criticism.  They argued, and not without good grounds, that it was, to use a bit of expressive slang, a “grand stand play.”

And we in New York have grown quite hysterical over the doings of the redoubtable “Teddy” and his kid-gloved cohorts, unless, perchance, we have been gifted with a sense of humor, in which event we have been quietly amused. . . .

There are no valets in the camp of Colonel Grigsby’s Third regiment at Chickamauga.  There are no golf sticks and polo clubs to be kept in order. . . .  There are no pampered sons of the  rich in this outfit.  These men do not look upon their enlistment as a holiday jaunt.

The Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana), June 20, 1898, page 10 (from The New York Herald).

When they performed well under fire, a supporter called for those who had published the jokes about the golf clubs and valets should retract their statements.  And despite the fact that only a few of the Rough Riders may have been members of the Knickerbocker Club, the name of their club appeared in the request.

Some of the comic paragraphers who wrote of the Knickerbocker Club dudes and the college swells of the Rough Riders organization, and their imaginary valets and golf clubs, ought, in decency, since the fight at Guasimas, to go out and hang themselves with remorse.

“The Rough Riders’ Fight at Guasimas,” Richard Harding Davis, Scribner’s Magazine, Volume 24, Number 3, September 1898, page 267.


An Early Suggestion for the Etymology of “Dude”

The notion of New York clubmen looking out the Knickerbocker Club’s Fifth Avenue windows was a common thread in the early reference to August Belmont Jr. passing by in his “latest imported” clothes to the legend of the immobile “stuffed dudes” staring out the windows.  An early suggestion of the etymology of “Dude” included a similar anecdote, but at a different club. 

In 1889, a contributor to American Notes and Queries claimed that Hermann Oelrichs coined the word at the Union Club when an “overdressed youth” pass by their Fifth Avenue window after hearing another member of the club hum, “du, da, de du-du, de, du,” in time with the youth’s “mincing gait.” 

“It is stated that Mr. Hermann Oelrichs invented this word, or else the traditions of the Union Club are way off.  The simple fact is that Mr. Oelrichs, who is distinguished by a deep contempt for effeminancy in either dress or manner, sat one day at a window gazing out on Fifth avenue.  Along came a very much overdressed youth, with so mincing a gait, that involuntarily one of the clubmen with Mr. Oelrichs began humming an accompaniment to the step, thus: ‘Du, da, de, du-du, du, de, du.’ ‘That’s good!’ said Mr. Oelrichs; ‘it ought to be called a dude.’ And dude it has been called ever since.” C. L. F. Newark, N.J.”

American Notes and Queries, Volume 2, Nov. – Apr. 1888-1889 (January 19, 1889), page 143.

The traditions of the Union Club may be way off, but it is interesting to note the thematic similarity between Mr. Oelrichs sitting “at a window gazing out on Fifth avenue,” and the Knickerbocker Club “gazing eagerly at the latest imported clothes” worn by August Belmont Jr. 

If W. A. Croffut’s suggestion that Robert Sale Hill was specifically influenced by the members of the Knickerbocker Club when writing “The True Origin and History of ‘the Dude’” were true, the members of the Knickerbocker Club in 1883 may have been the original “Dudes.”  And if the earlier story about the Knickerbocker Club “gazing eagerly at the latest imported clothes” were also true, August Belmont Jr. could be considered the first “Dude.”


August Belmont, Jr., "First Dude" (?) Library of Congress, Item #2001696742



[i] For the poem, see, “The True Origin and History of ‘the Dude,’” .  For an in-depth discussion of the history and etymology of the word, “Dude,” see, “Dudes, Dodos and Fopdoodles – a History and Etymology of ‘Dude’!!!,” Early Sports ‘n’ Pop-Culture History Blog.               

[ii] Memphis Daily Appeal (Memphis, Tennessee), April 22, 1883, page 2.

[iii] Clues in the letter identify the person wearing the imported clothes as the 30-year old brother of Congressman Perry Belmont.   “I don’t suppose he would care if his name was published, as he is used to seeing it in all of the society papers, and is the acknowledged leader of the more exclusive society men of New York, but I won’t give it this time.  His brother, who is in Washington during the session of congress, never achieved distinction as a society man, or in any other way indeed, except in fighting a former secretary of state who tried to corner Peru.”  Congressman Perry Belmont was then in a public spat with James Blain over the acquisition and use of guano deposits in chile and Peru.  Based on the stated age, this proto-dude would likely have been August Belmont, Jr., who was nearly 30 at the time; his younger brothers, Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont and Raymond Belmont were 23 and 19.  August Belmont Sr. was one of the founding members of the club’s board of governors. The Times (Philadelphia), June 14, 1885 (“In 1871 twenty-one of the most prominent members of the old New York Club formed themselves into a Board of Governors, with Alexander Hamilton as President, and with a limited number of men of their own choice organized the Knickerbocker Club.  The Board of Governors of this club is a close corporation.  The club members have no control over it; it fills vacancies itself and is in fact the club. . . .The club was an immediate success, owing firstly to the social prominence of the governors, among whom were August Belmont . . . .”).

[iv] The description of August Belmont Jr. as “short” appears to be accurate.  An article about an altercation in which August Belmont, Jr. allegedly struck another man with a “heavy cane” describes him as, “very short and slender, his weight not exceeding one hundred pounds.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 27, 1883, page 6.

[v] W. A. Croffut, wrote numerous “New York Letters,” with insider gossip and intelligence about the goings-on in New York society.  His New York letters were published in dozens of newspapers and magazines.  Beginning in about 1890, he would write similar “Washington Letters” about happenings in the Capital.  W. A. Croffut is known to have had access to the types of people who were members of the Knickerbocker and other exclusive clubs.  He wrote a book entitled “The Vanderbilts and the Story of their Fortune,” which was published in 1886.

[vi] Robert Sale-Hill was, among other things, an accomplished amateur cricket player.

[vii] Des Moines Register, March 6, 1883, page 1.


Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Snorkeys, Red Caps and Railroad Tracks - a Melodramatic History of Amputee Baseball and the Tied-to-the-Tracks Trope


“Snorkeys vs. Hoppers,” National Police Gazette, October 29, 1887.[i]

The novel spectacle of eighteen men with but fifty-four limbs prancing over the diamond was enjoyed by over five hundred people at the Philadelphia grounds yesterday afternoon, when the “Snorkeys” and the “Hoppers” played their annual game of base ball.  The Snorkeys are all one-armed men and each “Hopper” is minus a leg.  The two nines are composed mostly of employes of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad who have lost their missing members in the performance of their duties.

The Times (Philadelphia), September 20, 1887, page 1.

Three-limbed amputees played six annual baseball games in Philadelphia from 1883 through 1888.  The games are largely forgotten, except for references to them in the occasional this-day-in-sports items.  A sports podcast[ii] and an online magazine devoted to amputee issues[iii]  have also discussed the games in more detail during the past few years.

The games are merely a footnote in baseball history, but the name of the one-armed team, the “Snorkeys,” is securely tied to the origins of a long-running trope in pop-culture entertainment – the rescue of a damsel-in-distress tied to a railroad track in the face of an onrushing locomotive.  The Snorkeys borrowed their name from a one-armed character in a popular stage play, who was tied to a railroad track and rescued in the most dramatic scene of the play. 

Surprisingly, perhaps, the original “Snorkey” was a one-armed man, not a woman, and was rescued by a woman, not a man.  And the line Snorkey delivers immediately following his rescue is a progressive message in support of women’s suffrage.

Snorkey. Here – quick!  (She runs and unfastens him.  The locomotive lights glare on scene.) Victory! Saved! Hooray! (Laura leans exhausted against switch.) And these are the women who aint’ to have a vote!

(As Laura takes his head from the track, the train of cars rushes past with roar and whistle from L. to R. H.)

Augustin Daly, Under the Gaslight: A Totally Original and Picturesque Drama of Life and Love in These Times, New York, Printed for the Author, 1867.

M. Willson Disher, Melodrama Plots That Thrilled (Illustrated from the Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson Theatre Collection), New York, The MacMillan Company, 1954, page 14 (Media History Digital Library).

(Compare: Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties Intro.)

The rescue scene, if not the play, was memorable.  A half-century later, H. L. Mencken classified the scene as one of the “Great Moments from Rotten Plays.”[iv]


Under the Gaslight

Augustin Daly’s play, “Under the Gaslight, a totally original and picturesque drama of life and love in these times,” debuted at the New York Theater in New York City in August of 1867.

New York Times, August 18, 1867, page 7.

 The rescue scene was a highlight of the play.

Dyke detects Snorkey’s pursuit, lays a trap for him, and with fiendish malignity condemns him to an awful fate, leaving him bound and helpless to count the moments he has to live.  But help is near, in the form of Laura, who is, however, shut up in the way-master’s hut.  By her own heroic exertions she frees herself and Snorkey, and they then both wait for the Down Express train to Long Branch, in order to forestall Dyke, who is bent for that destination to rob and murder. 

Chicago Tribune, October 29, 1867, page 4.

Realistic theatrical effects created a tangible sense of danger for the audiences of the time.[v] 


Declared by the universal voice to be the most surprising thrilling dramatic effect ever seen upon the New-York stage, and nightly witnessed by amazed auditors with bated breath and suspended animation.

. . . [I]ts principal incident – the binding of  a one-armed soldier, and the placing of him on the railway track – is simply horrible in all its suggestions.  It makes a strong appeal, however, to the lovers of the sensation element.

New York Times, August 18, 1867, page 7.

Augustine Daly’s Sensational Play, Under the Gas Light, with its startling effects. The New York Tombs, The Great Pier Scene, Train of Cars at Full Speed.

Philadelphia Inquirer, June 6, 1868, page 8.

[H]ow could language depict the wild excitement of a crowded audience witnessing a train of cars at full speed about to crush to atoms a man who is bound upon the track before them? It all seems so real that for the moment the auditor loses his presence of mind, forgets that he is witnessing a mere play, and he involuntarily holds his breath for the moment that the thunder of the iron horse is upon his ear and the train is rushing by.  If you love excitement, go and see “Under the Gaslight” on Monday night.

Galveston Daily News (Texas), October 25, 1868, page 2.

The following is from the Virginia City [Nevada] Enterprise: “Mr. Haydon, the gentlemanly doorkeeper at Piper’s Opera House, informs us that he has in his possession about twenty jack-knives of all sorts, styles and sizes, that were thrown upon the stage night before last, to be used by the heroine of the piece (‘Under the Gaslight’) in cutting the rope which bound Snorkey to the railroad track. . . .”

The New Orleans Crescent, May 9, 1868, page 2. 


Life Imitates Art

The play was so well known that the title of the play was used as a verb to describe copycat crimes.

A man was Under-the-Gaslight-ed on the St. Joseph and Council Bluff Railroad, near Hamburg, Iowa, a few days ago.  He was waylaid by two men, robbed, and bound to the railroad track.  He managed to extricate himself before a train passed.

Bangor Daily Whig and Courier (Maine), March 10, 1869, page 1.

Although the victim in the Hamburg, Iowa incident escaped without injury, other victims of similar crimes were not so lucky.

An Atrocious Crime.  The details of the recent tragedy in Southern Indiana, where August Gardner was robbed and then bound to a railroad track, reveal one of the most atrocious crimes on record.  When the victim was first discovered it was found that his left leg had been torn off by a passing train.  He was weak from the loss of blood, too, but he revived for a time after being discovered and told his horrible story.

The St. Albans Weekly Messenger (Vermont), September 11, 1874, page 1.

In the early 1900s, several widely reported incidents caught the public’s attention.

In 1902, an Italian Count was found tied to the tracks of the Hudson River Railroad at 115th Street, put there, he said, by relatives trying to prevent him from claiming his inheritance of an estate in Spain.

Carlo Cattapani, an artist, who calls himself the Marquis de Cordova, and says he is an Italian nobleman and has been engaged for several years in a search for papers to prove his right to an estate in Spain, was found bound hand and foot and tied to the track of the Hudson River Railroad at One-hundred-and-fifteenth-st. early yesterday morning.

New York Tribune, June 15, 1902, page 5.

In 1905, a DKE fraternity pledge at Kenyon College, in Ohio, died in a hazing ritual gone bad.

Chicago Tribune, November 12, 1905, page 1.

In 1910, bandits tied a railcar-rigger to the tracks in Vicksburg, Mississippi, for refusing to divulge the combination to a safe.  He was rescued before the next train passed.

Times-Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania), January 25, 1910, page 9.

Art Imitates Art

In addition to inspiring copycat crimes, the play inspired copycat plays.  One of the imitators, entitled “Under the Lamplight,” was a burlesque (spoof) with music and comedy.  It ended with the railroad scene[vi], which was reportedly even more dramatic than the original, although the rescue itself may not have been successful.

The burlesque of “Under the Lamplight” is admirably done.  In many respects it is better than the original. . . the dancing is quite as good and the singing better.  The railway scene is horrorious,

And blood chilling,

And marrow freezing,

And the best thing in the play. I advise all moderate drinkers to go and see it . . . excess leads to destitution, and that to suicide.  Many people have an idea that the true way to commit suicide is to lie on a railway track, and await the coming of death.  Go and see the railway scene in “Under the Lamplight,” modern drinkists, and you will never die that way on purpose.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 21, 1867, page 2.

Another imitator, Dion Boucicault’s After Dark,[vii] borrowed the plot element of a train track rescue, but in a play about life in London instead of New York City, and with the rescue on the tracks of the London Underground.  Although rescuing someone from an on-rushing train may be a well-known trope now, it was apparently novel stuff in 1868. 

Boucicault may have sensed he was treading on thin legal ground, as he placed a disclaimer in his published script of “After Dark”[viii]: “Notice. – The Railway effect is not derived from Mr. Daly’s “Under the Gaslight,” but is a London stage machinist’s invention of as early a date as 1843.” 

The rival train scenarios were on a collision course for copyright litigation.  Daly prevailed, receiving $50 a night for each performance of After Dark.

A Railroad Collision.

The modern dramatist, not content with introducing his charactgers in the drawing room, garden, woodland or landscape scenes . . . to-day favors us with steamboats, telegraphic apparatus, and whizzing locomotives life-size upon the stage.  Whither, having exhausted this class of novelties, he will, goaded on by the popular craving for sensation, impel his footsteps, we are left to speculate.  Fort the present it is enough for us to know, that upon the stages of two of our theaters there nightly appear shrieking, hissing, clattering locomotives, startling in their resemblance to reality, and that, horrible to relate, a collision has taken place between them.

Mr. Augustin Daly wrote “Under the Gaslight,” and in it introduced the express train scene with a man bound down upon the track and rescued apparently at imminent peril.  The idea was a hit, and the piece drew immense crowds.  By and by, Mr. Boucicault came out with “After Dark,” which in due time was produced at Niblo’s, and was uproariously applauded by spectators who saw before them also a railroad scene with the accompanying rescue.  Mr. Daly, claiming the idea as exclusively his own, enjoyined the scene in “After Dark” as an infringement, and, after considerable litigation was awarded fifty dollars a night from the Niblo receipts so long as the scene was played.  There the matter, as far as New York was concerned ended.  Now, however, the trains arrive in New Orleans and here again collide.

The New Orleans Crescent, February 11, 1869, page 4.

Daly and Boucicault remained in litigation in one form or another for more than two decades, until the Supreme Court finally put an end to the matter, upholding Daly’s claims in 1899.

The supreme court has decided the controversy of ten years standing between Augustin Daly and his executors and William A. Brady.  The case involved the copyrighting of the railroad scene in the play, “Under the Gaslights.” . . .  The supreme court sustains the lower courts in awarding damages to the amount of $6,300.

Hartford Courant, November 22, 1899, page 10.

Despite the legal win, the basic plot element of tying someone to a railroad track to create dramatic tension, with a nearby rescuer facing obstacles to the rescue, became a common element of generally low-comedy or drama. 

A 1907 film entitled “The Bad Man” featured a scene similar familiar to fans of “Under the Gaslight;” a man tied to railroad tracks and rescued by a woman who was locked up in a nearby telegraph office.

Later that same year, a popular stage play entitled “Nellie, the Beautiful Cloak Model” debuted, but with the roles reversed – placing the heroine in danger and casting a hero as the rescuer. 

The play featured 14 scenes and 14 rescues – each scene more ridiculous than the next; Nellie is thrown in a freight elevator with a ton of freight descending rapidly, thrown from a yacht, and rapped on the head and placed on the tracks in front of an approaching train.  In each case she’s rescued at the last moment.  Nellie also survives attempts on her life by dint of her “iron constitution,” surviving having her car blown up while crossing the Brooklyn Bridge and drinking wine with enough poison to kill a family.[ix]

The Truth (Saint Paul, Minnesota), September 28, 1907, page 3.

The scene at the track received laughs when the story appeared on film in 1924.

Screenland, Volume 8, Number 5, February 1924, page 62.

Of course the thrills are pretty wild with the efforts of villain Lew Cody to put Claire out of reach of a fortune, providing most of the excitement.  It wasn’t considerate of the Capitol audience to laugh when Clair was tied to the “L” tracks and the express train came within an inch of decapitating her pretty blonde head.  But they seemed to enjoy the thrill of this and other bits, nevertheless.

The Film Daily, April 20, 1924, page 11.

In 1913, Ford Sterling famously tied Mabel Normand to a railroad track in "Barney Oldfield's Race for Life."

The climax comes when Oldfield rounds a curve at fifty miles an hour, stops the car and Sennett jumps out and rescues Miss Normand from the shadow of the approaching train. 

Motography, Volume 9, Number 6, March 15, 1913, page 206.

The Thanhouser company’s “Million Dollar Mystery” serial, entitled, “In the Path of the Fast Express,” returned to the man-in-danger theme, with a quick thinking heroine named Florence who arrives too late to cut the ropes, “so, instead, she hurries to a nearby switch and sidetracks the express train and then returns to release Norton.”

Motography, Volume 12, Number 11, September 12, 1914, page 384.

In 1917, Gloria Swanson was ready for her close-up in “Teddy at the Throttle.”  The leading man, Teddy, was a large dog who summons her beau to the rescue and warns the locomotive engineers to stop the train.  But in a cinematic twist, the train stops too late and the front end of the train passes right over her. 

Gloria Swanson in Teddy at the Throttle.

The express train does not stop a few feet away from where Miss Swanson is chained to the tracks.  The warning has not come quite soon enough for the train to be stopped.

The train actually passes over her as she cowers between the rails, and cuts the chains that bind her.  This remarkable thrill is shown in the “close up” so that even the most skeptical may see that it is not a fake or a trick, but an audacious stunt that was actually performed.

The Morning Tulsa World (Oklahoma), May 27, 1917, page 6.


Artist Imitating Art Loses Life

In a sad, ironic twist, an actor in England died while filming a scene in which he was tied to a railroad track when a train failed to stop “owing to an error in the signaling.”

The Leaf-Chronicle (Clarksville, Tennessee), April 22, 1907, page 7.


Red-Cap Soldier Messengers

In the first scene of “Under the Gaslight, shortly before Snorkey’s entrance, another character describes him as “one of those soldier messengers, red cap and all that.”  He enters with “a large bouquet in his left hand, and his hat is under the stump of his right arm, which is cut off.”  He is delivering the bouquet to Laura on behalf of an anonymous customer who had taken a fancy to her.[x] 

These several aspects of Snorkey’s character (amputee/soldier messenger/red cap) were not assembled at random.  Audiences at the time and place of the original production would have understood them as all fitting together naturally.  The Civil War produced many amputees, and many of those amputees were employed in uniformed Soldiers Messenger Corps, an employment for disabled veterans first established in New York City and later implemented elsewhere.  They were stationed throughout the city in convenient locations and available for hire to deliver messages or carry parcels according to a set schedule of fees.  They wore blue uniforms with red caps, and became widely known as “Red Caps,” perhaps a precursor to the railroad station porters known as “Red Caps” since the 1890s.

Soldiers’ Messenger Corps.  A system of public messengers has been organized in this city under the auspices of the Bureau of Employment for Discharged Soldiers.  The messengers are placed at various stations where they can be called upon to convey parcels, messages, &c., to any part of the city.  The first messenger, a one armed veteran, took his station at No. 69 Wall-street, yesterday. . . .

The uniform of the messengers is blue, and they will wear on their caps a badge, with the letters “S. M. C.,” signifying Soldiers’ Messenger Corps.

New York Times, August 19, 1865, page 8.

Although the initial announcement of the creation of the corps did not specify the color of their caps, they would soon wear distinctive red caps, earning the nickname, “Red Cap.”[xi]

Since the close of the war the ‘Messenger Corps,’ or ‘Red Caps,’ as they are familiarly called, have monopolized the errand and small parcel business of [New York City].

Chicago Evening Post, September 24, 1868, page 2.


The Soldier Messenger.

By Agile Penne.

“Here, Red Cap!” cried a tall, well-built gentleman standing on the steps of the Metropolitan Hotel, one fine May evening in the year 1869.

The man addressed as “Red Cap” was sauntering slowly by the hotel.  His garb of faded blue – his red cap, and the empty right sleeve of his coat told that he was a disabled soldier – one who had fought for Uncle Sam and had left his trusty right arm on some southern battle-field.  And now, the soldier who had marched to the quick-step of the Union and sealed his loyalty with his blood, was reduced to earning a scanty subsistence as a “Soldier Messenger” – a carrier of letters and parcels, eager to do any errand to gain him bread.

The Perry County Democrat (Bloomfield, Pennsylvania), December 20, 1871, page 1 (from the Saturday Journal).

The Soldiers’ Messenger Corps remained in existence in some places for more than two decades, but died out by the late 1890s, displaced in some places by messenger services employing young boys.[xii]

Soon after the close of the civil war, at the suggestion of Surg. Gen. Dale, the soldiers’ messenger corps was organized and the state made appropriations for the benefit of the members of the red cap messengers until 1888, when the corps was given up as a state affair.  For a few years longer, some of the old messengers continued to ply their vocation.  In 1895 there were but two of these red cap messengers in this city.

The Boston Globe, June 19, 1904, page 36.

At about the same time the Soldiers’ Messenger Corps were dying out, railroad companies established similar services for rail travelers, dressed in similar blue uniforms and red caps.


Beginning to-day, passengers arriving in New York by trains on the New York Central will find printed leaflets in the cars giving notice that the Grand Central station attendants will be in waiting on arrival of the trains to assist passengers with their hand-baggage and to aid them in various ways.  The attendants will wear a blue uniform trimmed with bright red, and a red cap.  It is intended that the uniform shall be different from any worn by other attaches or that might be worn by a passenger, so travelers can make no mistake when calling for assistance.

Buffalo Courier, March 1, 1895, page 9.


The Northwestern has put into effect a most excellent scheme for the proper care of passengers reaching Chicago over its lines.  At the station the trains are met with men in blue uniforms and red caps, an article of headgear which can be seen and distinguished instantly in a crowd, to attend to the wants of the passengers.  The plan is designed particularly for mothers and little children and for those unacquainted with Chicago.

The Cedar Rapids Gazette, September 13, 1897, page 8.


Station Agent C. R. Estabrook has received instructions from headquarters that within a few days uniformed passenger attendants will be at the Oakland pier, the ferry depot in San Francisco and at the foot of Market street and at the corner of Third and Townsend.  They will wear dark blue suits and bright red caps bearing in gold the words “S. P. Porter,” and thus may be readily distinguished.  Their duties will be to assist passengers in every way possible, directing them to proper trains, boats, entrances, ets., helping ladies and children without escort on and off trains, and showing such attention to the traveling public as will tend to make them a popular feature of the company’s service.

The Californian (Salinas, California), March 13, 1901, page 3.

Red-capped railway station porters became a ubiquitous presence in railroad stations across the country by the early 1900s, and became widely known as “Red Caps.” The similarity in uniform and services rendered suggest that the “Red Caps” of the Soldiers Messenger Corps may have been the model for the uniformed and red-capped style later used by railway station porters.[xiii]


The Snorkeys vs. the Hoppers

 On May 23, 1883, the one-armed “Snorkeys” defeated the one-legged “Hoppers” in their first of at least six annual contests.  The Snorkeys borrowed their name from the one-armed veteran and “soldier messenger,” Snorkey, from Augistine Daly’s stage play, “Under the Gaslight.”  The derivation of the Hoppers nickname is more obvious.  All but one of the players lost their respective limb in railroad accidents.

Lest the unitiated may be unduly puzzled by these strange titles it should be explained that the Snorkeys are one-armed players, named after one of John Brougham’s stage heroes, and the Hoppers are one-legged men, whose peculiar motion is appropriately described by their name.  The two nines were composed of young and active men, all of whom, with one exception, owed the loss of their limbs to railroad accidents.  The once exception was William Young, a Snorkey, who left one of his arms at Gettysburg.

The Times (Philadelphia), May 24, 1883, page 4.

The hometown paper’s detailed, inning-by-inning account of the proceedings gave the final score as 19-13 in favor of the Snorkeys, in a game suspended in the fourth inning to darkness.[xiv]  The relative advantages of one-armedness over one-leggedness, at least so far as playing baseball was concerned, explained the lopsided score in this and later contests.

The one-armed men had all the advantage in running, and it was to this that they owed the largeness of their scores.  They stole runs audaciously, taking the chances that the fielding by the one-legged men would be fumbled.  Now and then they were caught at this game, and once a well-managed double play sent two of them out and ended an inning.

The Times (Philadelphia), May 24, 1883, page 4.

But in some cases, the disadvantage of one condition was offset by another disadvantage of the other condition, so that the score was not more lopsided than it was.  For example, although having only one leg might make properly covering the outfield  a daunting task, one-armed players had a hard time hitting into the outfield, so the one-legged outfielders had little to do.

Most of the time the one-legged long fielders had an easy time of it and leaned leisurely upon their supports and watched the game with interest; but once in a while some lusty Snorkey would send a sky ball out their way and prompt them to heroic movement.

The Times (Philadelphia), May 24, 1883, page 4.

All of the Hoppers wore prosthetic legs, and a couple used crutches as well.

. . . .

The teams played at least five more times; every year from 1883 through 1888.  Presumably the Snorkeys won each game, although a search of newspaper archives found the score of only three games; the first one in 1883, a 35-14, complete nine-inning blowout in favor of the Snorkeys on September 19, 1887,[xv] and a slightly less decisive 33-15 win for the Snorkeys in a six-inning affair played July 24, 1888.

The prosthetics and other devices used by both sides due to their respective conditions presented novel questions of baseball law, as described in an account of the 1887 game.

When the Hoppers came to the bat, Tom Lincoln hit the ball with his artificial leg.  He claimed he was entitled to first base on the ground that he had been struck on the leg, and he was allowed to hobble to first.

The Times (Philadelphia), September 20, 1887, page 1.

A prosthetic worn by a Snorkey verified one of the details in the Police Gazette illustration of the game.

Jack O’Brien, who looks not unlike his professional namesake, guarded second base.  He wore a hook a la Captain Cuttle on the stump of his starboard shoulder.  He inserted this hook so effectively in the broad portions of the Hoppers’ trousers that none of them succeeded in stealing third base.

The Times (Philadelphia), September 20, 1887, page 1.

“Snorkeys vs. Hoppers,” National Police Gazette, October 29, 1887.[xvi]

In the last inning “Snorkey” Ward batted a ball to the shortstop, who fielded it to first baseman “Hopper” Dowd.  Then Ward ran to first base and claimed he was not out because Dowd didn’t have his foot on the base.  As Dowd only had one foot and had his crutch planted on the bag an interesting dispute arose.  After a lengthy argument Umpire Pratt gravely decided that in the absence of Dowd’s left leg his crutch acted as the substitute and consequently Ward was out.  This decision will go on record for guidance in future matches between tri-limbed players.

The Times (Philadelphia), September 20, 1887, page 1.

At the close of the ninth inning the score stood 35 to 14 in favor of the Snorkeys, and the two nines, headed by the Clover Fife and Drum Corps, marched off the field to the tune of “Boulanger’s March.”  The game lasted three hours.  The official scorer, who tried to count the errors, threw up his job and fled at the fifth inning.

The Times (Philadelphia), September 20, 1887, page 1.

[i] “Baseball’s Forgotten Amputee Stars: Part II,” Living With Amplitude, July 22, 2017.

[ii] “One-Armed, One-Legged Baseball Players,” Josh Hartley, That One Sports Show, episode 97, recorded June 1, 2017, posted  online June 5, 2017.

[iii] “Baseball’s Forgotten Amputee Stars: Part II,” Living With Amplitude, July 22, 2017.

[iv] “Repetition Generale,” H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, The Smart Set, Volume 61, Number 1, January 1920, page 51.

[v] A recent revival of “Under the Gaslight” by the Crystal Sea Drama Company used less realistic effects.

[vi] The Chicago Evening Mail, January 23, 1871, page 4 (“Joe overtaken by Spikes and bound to the railroad track and left to perish; help! help!! will no one save me? fruitless efforts of Zephyrina to save Joe; periolous situation; noise of the train in the distance; a moment more and the one armed soldier is a lifeless man; the train dashes across at lightning speed –  ‘startling sensational tableau.’  The end.”).

[vii] You can read a summary of the plot in a review of a recent revival of the play from The Guardian.  “After Dark review – a deliciously dank vision of Victorian London,” Michael Billington,, June 23, 2019.

[viii] Dion Boucicault, After Dark, a Drama of London Life in 1868, New York, The De Witt Publishing House.

[ix] The Akron Beacon Journal, November 20, 1907, page 7.

[x] Augustin Daly, Under the Gaslight: A Totally Original and Picturesque Drama of Life and Love in These Times, New York, Printed for the Author, 1867.

[xii] The Boston Globe, November 17, 1897, page 6 (“Mr. Seymour has been and still is a member of the soldiers messenger corps, but his income from this source is now the merest trifle, as district messenger service by boys is at the present time almost universal.”).

[xiii] St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, the authors of Black Metropolis, a Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (1945) suggest an alternate, earlier origin of the red-cap style used by station porters. “Tradition has it that on Labor Day in 1890 a Negro porter at the Grand Central Station in New York tied a bit of red flannel around his black uniform cap so that he could be more easily identified in the crowd. As a consequence of this strategy he ‘cleaned up,’ and set a style which became the emblem of a n entire occupational group – America’s Red Caps.”

[xiv] Several abbreviated accounts of the game in out-of-town newspapers reported the score of the game as 34-11 in five innings.  Later references to the game, including That One Sports Show podcast and the Living with Amplitude article, generally repeat the same result.

[xv] The Times, (Philadelphia), July 25, 1888, page 4 (“The Hoppers and the Snorkeys, the one-legged and the one-armed heroes, played their sixth annual game on the Athletic grounds yesterday before a large and appreciative crowd.  The Snorkeys won by this score . . . 33-15.”).

[xvi] “Baseball’s Forgotten Amputee Stars: Part II,” Living With Amplitude, July 22, 2017.