Banana peel peril largely extinct; allusion remains in comedy

Most comedy must at least be partially based in reality to work. An audience unable to relate to a subject is usually an audience that isn’t going to laugh because they can’t make a connection to the joke or story being told.

For that reason, most people under the age of, say, 85, have had a hard time relating to the idea of slipping on a banana peel. Yet, it has remained a comedy staple practically since the invention of motion pictures.

This seems as counterintuitive as the French love of Jerry Lewis.

Apparently, though, slipping on banana peels was once a very real concern; hence, their role in comedy.

Consider this 1918 story, under the headline “Banana Peel Gets Verdict,” taken from the Greenwood Index, a South Carolina newspaper:

We note that some days since a suit was brought against the city of Columbia (S.C.) by a party who had received a severe injury as the result of a fall on account of having stepped upon a banana peeling that was thrown on the sidewalk.

This verdict should be a warning to every town to enforce more rigidly the ordinance against throwing these peelings on the sidewalks. We suppose that there is not a town that has not such an ordinance, and yet there is a great deal of unconcern about enforcing it. It is a common thing to see these peelings on the sidewalks of Greenwood, and numbers of persons have had accidents on account of it.

There used to be an ordinance against spitting on the sidewalk, but we seem to have thrown it down, too. It might not be a bad idea to let it be known that more attention will be given to it, and the one prohibiting banana peeling on the sidewalks.

Believe it or not, the banana peel was considered a genuine public hazard at one time, writer Laura Turner Garrison wrote in Mental Floss explained when examining how the banana peel gag became so popular in comedy.

“In the mid-19th century, a man named Carl B. Frank began importing Panamanian bananas to New York City,” according to Garrison. “The fruit quickly became a popular street food throughout America, but the surge in urban migration and lack of sanitation regulation posed a major problem in cities. People often tossed their garbage into the streets, leading to a general foul stench and public waste buildup. A fresh banana peel might seem non-threatening, but a rotting banana peel was a slime-covered booby trap.”

Around 1880, Harper’s Weekly rebuked those who tossed their banana peels on a public walkway, as this would likely result in broken limbs, and some Sunday Schools warned children that an improperly discarded peel would not only definitively lead to a broken limb, but that the individual unfortunate enough to suffer the broken would inevitably end up in the poorhouse due to this injury, Garrison added.

The banana peel gag has been a fixture in comedy since the beginning of the 20th century, with the routine widely accepted to have originated on the Vaudeville stage.

“The gag first appeared on the silver screen in the Harold Lloyd silent film The Flirt,” Garrison wrote. “While sitting in a restaurant, Lloyd’s character diligently peels a banana then tosses the skin on the floor. A snooty waiter walks by with a full tray, slips and falls. Chaos ensues.”

Buster Keaton employed the gag in his 1921 film The High Sign, and Laurel and Hardy used it in The Battle of the Century (1927).

It’s continued to be a regular feature in both comedies and cartoons over the decades through to the present, even though most viewers today likely can’t recall ever seeing a rotting banana peel on a sidewalk.

Perhaps the reason the banana peel gag remains viable is that while few of us have experienced slipping on a rotten peel, we have all slipped and fallen. And, like most things, when it happens to someone else it’s pretty funny.

(Top: New Yorker Cartoon by Liam Francis Walsh.)

Louis Wigfall, Southern aristocracy gone to ‘seed’

Louis Trezevant Wigfall was, by nearly all accounts, an irascible sort, but one not unknown in South Carolina’s antebellum Edgefield District, which was a Wild West before there was a Wild West.

Born in Edgefield in 1816, Wigfall was born of into a planter family and attended South Carolina College and the University of Virginia, but breeding and education did little to mellow his countenance.

He was ardent proponent of the institution of slavery, and as a young man “he neglected his law practice for contentious politics that led him to wound a man in a duel (and be wounded himself) and to kill another during a quarrel,” according to the Texas State Historical Association.

Perhaps having worn out his welcome in the Palmetto State, Wigfall moved to Texas in 1846, almost instantly becoming active in Lone Star State politics, including “alerting” Texans to the dangers of abolition and the growing influence of non-slave states in the US Congress.

After several years in the Texas state legislature, Wigfall capitalized on the fear caused throughout the South by John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 and was elected to the US Senate that year.

He quickly gained a reputation as a leader among the “fire-eaters” – leading secessionists – taking his advocacy for slavery and against expanding the power of national government to the national stage.

Following Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860, Wigfall coauthored the “Southern Manifesto,” which stated that the Union was irretrievably broken and that the only hope for the South was independence.

“Wigfall helped foil efforts for compromise to save the Union and urged all slave states to secede,” according to the Texas State Historical Association.

He appears to have lacked the chivalric manners evident in other key Southern figures of the era, remaining in the US Senate after Texas seceded, spying on the Union, chiding northern senators, and raising and training troops in Maryland to send to South Carolina. Even while serving as a US senator, he took part in the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter by rowing out under fire and dictating unauthorized surrender terms to federal commander Robert Anderson.

He was finally expelled from the Senate in mid-1861. Later that year he became a Confederate officer and promoted to brigadier general  before resigning from the army to take a seat in the Confederate Senate in 1862.

Initially, Wigfall supported Confederate President Jefferson Davis, but, perhaps not surprisingly, he quarreled with Davis before long.

During the last two years of the Confederacy Wigfall carried on public and private efforts to strip Davis of all influence.

He also blocked the creation of a Confederate Supreme Court, fearing Davis’ justices would interfere with states’ rights, according to the National Park Service.

Far from being a pragmatist, he opposed the arming of slaves and was willing to lose the war rather than admit that blacks were worthy of being soldiers.

Among his post-war activities was spending time in the United Kingdom, “where he tried to foment war between Britain and the United States, hoping to give the South an opportunity to rise again.”

As the small clipping from the Sept. 20, 1866, edition of Columbia Daily Phoenix makes clear, he had lost most, if not all of the stature may have once possessed.

Beneath an extract of a speech by Gen. William S. Hillyer about Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and next to a copy of a letter by Emperor Napoleon III of France to King Victor Emanuel of Italy is a tiny blurb that reads, “Ex-Senator Wigfall is in London, looking seedy.”

Wigfall, who returned to US in 1872, returned to Texas in 1874 and died in Galveston on Feb. 18, 1874.

Sir Lucius O’Brien, a politician who impressed only himself

Born on this date in 1731 was Sir Lucius Henry O’Brien, the third baronet of Dromoland, in County Clare.

O’Brien served in the Irish House of Commons for 30 years, but he proved a notable example of how nobility and brains often didn’t come in the same package.

In the mid-1770s, while serving in the Irish Parliament, O’Brien worked to remove restrictions on trade between England and Ireland, making frequent speeches in parliament opposing the government’s stand. However, “his speeches lacked lucidity, and his audience were said to be seldom the wiser for them,” according to the Dictionary of National Biography, a reference work detailing figures from British history.

In fact, O’Brien was eventually described as “a man who disagrees with the rest of mankind by thinking well of himself.”

If modern politicians were to look for a “patron saint,” O’Brien would seem an ideal choice.

(Top: Irish House of Commons in session, ca., 1780.)

Pocket watch of Civil War veteran on the auction block

Heritage Auctions, one the nation’s largest auction houses, has an array of pocket watches for sale this week. One, a silver Newark Watch Works timepiece, in engraved with the initials “O.W. Brackett” and the dates “Jan. 13th 1841 / Feb. 4th 1900”.

A quick bit of poking around on the Internet turned up this bit of information: O.W. Brackett was Orrin W. Brackett, a native of Freeport, Maine, who later moved to the coastal town of Yarmouth and served as private in Co. G of the 25th Maine Infantry Regiment. He was indeed born in 1841 and died in 1900.

It’s likely that good ol’ O.W. had his name engraved on the watch while he was alive, and a family member added his birth and death dates afterward.

Brackett’s Civil War duty was relatively uneventful: He signed up for a nine-month tour of duty, being mustered into service Sept. 5, 1862 in Yarmouth, along the Maine coast, and mustered out with the rest of his company on May 7, 1863, in Chantilly, Va.

The 25th Maine spent a majority of its service around Washington, DC, guarding the “Long Bridge” across the Potomac River, and constructing fortifications. It moved out of Washington onto Chantilly, Va, to serve picket duty before returning to Arlington Heights in 1863.

The 25th Maine didn’t participate in any battles but still lost 25 men to disease.

Brackett apparently felt his nine months of service were sufficient; he did not re-enlist after his tour ended. He likely bought the watch shortly after the war ended; the Newark Watch Co. was only in operation from 1863 until 1870.

O.W. Brackett’s Civil War powder horn, auctioned last year.

Brackett’s brother, Alvin M. Brackett, served as a private in Co. F of the 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment and was killed during Dahlgren’s Raid on Richmond on March 4, 1864, at age 21.

Another Orrin W. Brackett, a private in the 6th Maine Battery and likely a cousin of the aforementioned O.W., hailed from Waterville, Maine. He died of disease at home in March 1863.

Like many men of earlier generations, O.W. Bartlett seemed to be pretty handy with a pocketknife. Last July, Cowan’s Auctions sold a powder horn with the carving “O.W. Brackett / Co. G. 25 Maine Vols / Chantilly, VA / May 7, 1863. / Enlisted in / The Town of / Yarmouth / Sept. 5, 1862”. The 6-1/2 inch powder horn fetched $216.

Despite knowing O.W. Brackett’s full name and likely place of death, I have been unable to locate, at least online, his final place of rest. If nothing else, his memory lives on through his pocket watch.

Update: Thanks to a reader named Maxwell, O.W. Brackett’s final resting place has been located, in Riverside Cemetery in Yarmouth, Maine. 

‘Sunnyside’ a South Carolina tribute to Washington Irving

Not long ago this blog featured the Farmers and Merchants Bank of Charleston, an antebellum structure whose designers were inspired by illustrations from Washington Irving’s work Tales of the Alhambra.

Apparently Irving’s influence was of considerable significance in 19th century America. In Greenwood, SC, 180 miles northwest of Charleston, sits Sunnyside, an 1851 house employing an unusual blend of Gothic Revival and Greek Revival styles of architecture. Tradition holds that both name and style were borrowed from Irving’s Hudson River Valley home.

Sunnyside is a one-and-a-half story structure with flush board siding covering the front façade and weatherboard siding covering the remainder of the house.

Sunnyside is essentially Gothic Revival in style, featuring a gabled roof and dormers with scalloped bargeboard. However, there are Greek Revival elements, including the portico covering the front façade and the heavy proportions of the interior details.  There are two compound interior chimneys located on each front gable end of the house and one large interior chimney located in the central rear section of the house.

The house has been associated with several locally prominent individuals over the years. It was built by Robert Gillam, a prosperous farmer, roads commissioner and postmaster. Gillam lost the home during Reconstruction, but it was purchased by his son-in-law, Augustus Aiken. Aiken kept the home until his wife died in 1877.

In 1906, Harry L. Watson, a newspaper editor and publisher in Greenwood, purchased Sunnyside. Watson also was chairman of Greenwood’s public school system, a trustee of Furman University, president of the South Carolina Press Association and the president of Greenwood’s National Loan and Exchange Bank.

Watson, who was also a noted historian, compiling and publishing a significant amount of information about the South Carolina Piedmont region, served as the publisher of Greenwood’s daily paper, the Index-Journal, from 1919 until his death in 1956.

Following Watson’s death, Sunnyside passed to his daughters Louise Montague Watson and Margaret Josephine Watson. Margaret Josephine Watson was a prominent journalist and historian in her right, having authored Greenwood County Sketches-Old Roads and Early Families.

Although Margaret Watson would live until 1979 and Louise Watson until 1986, the Watson family sold the house in 1974. William James Dean and his wife, who purchased it from the Watsons, restored the structure.

(Top: Sunnyside, in Greenwood, SC.)

It’s been 60 years since Giants, Dodgers left New York

Sixty years ago today the Giants and Dodgers wrapped up their final seasons in New York. There are still some around who remember when the Giants called the Polo Grounds home and Brooklyn’s Dodgers toiled in Ebbets Field. For most, though, the two clubs are as much a part of California as the San Andreas Fault.

In reality, the transition to San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively, was anything but smooth. There were considerable machinations, particularly by Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, in the year or so leading up to the move, along with no shortage of hardheadedness by New York City officials.

And while the rivalry between the two clubs continued, almost none of the stars on either club enjoyed anywhere close to the same level of success once the teams relocated.

The Dodgers’ Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese, Carl Furillo, Don Newcombe and Carl Erskine were at the end of their careers and would never realize the same levels of accomplishment they had in Brooklyn. In addition, Jackie Robinson had retired after the 1956 season, Roy Campanella had been paralyzed in an auto accident in January 1958 and others such as Sandy Koufax hadn’t yet become stars.

For the Giants, who by 1957 had a lineup with considerably fewer standouts than the Dodgers, Bobby Thomson, Hank Sauer and Johnny Antonelli were nearing the end of the line and future greats such as Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal and Orlando Cepeda had yet to make it to the big league club.

The only star from either club whose fame transcended the shift from East Coast to the West Coast was Willie Mays, who would go on to play for 15 seasons in San Francisco.

Today, it seems difficult to fathom major league baseball without operations on the West Coast. There are not only the Dodgers and Giants, but three other teams in California, along with a club in Seattle. Yes, expansion west was inevitable, but did it have to cost the fans of baseball’s biggest market two its most storied franchises?

Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1913 through 1957.

What if, instead of the Giants and Dodgers heading west, the teams had remained in New York and Major League baseball instead had placed expansion franchises in the two cities? The National League did expand in 1962, adding the New York Mets and what was originally known as the Houston Colt .45s, now the Houston Astros. (The American League had expanded a year earlier, also adding two clubs.)

The Mets have won two World Championships and the Astros none since inception, but, at least in the Giants’ case, until recently the results between established franchise and expansion franchise were about the same. The Dodgers have won five titles since moving West, but none since 1988, while the Giants have won three, but didn’t get their first until 2010.

West Coast baseball fans would have been grateful for any big league club in 1958, although in fairness they had enjoyed high-caliber minor league ball through the Pacific Coast League for many decades. In other words, it didn’t have to play out like it did.

Sports and entertainment probably play a larger role in American society than they should. But for many, the diversion of sports can, on occasion, give families a shared interest, bring cities together and provide a common cultural bond.

It wasn’t for nothing that Japanese soldiers used the insult “To hell with Babe Ruth” when attacking US troops during World War II.

The loss of the two clubs left a void in New York, particularly Brooklyn, that has never fully been filled.

The names of O’Malley and then-Giants owner Horace Stoneham still conjure less-than fond memories among old-time New Yorkers, particularly since both seemed opportunistic and unscrupulous schemers who sold out their city and left fans, at least initially, with only the New York Yankees.

Of course, the league’s official stand at the time glossed over any pain on the part of the fans. Then-National League President Warren Giles officially commented on the move of the two clubs in 1957 thusly:

The National League again has demonstrated that it is a progressive organization. The transfer of the Giants and Dodgers means that two more great American municipalities are to have major league baseball without deny another city of the privilege. The National League, and I personally, will miss New York. But it is only human nature to want to reach new horizons.

It was, wrote Red Smith of the New York Herald Tribune, “a paragraph or so of singularly rancid prose.”

Today, the Dodgers continue to play in one of baseball’s best parks, Dodger Stadium, while the Giants, after finally discarding the dismal confines of Candlestick Park, now call inviting AT&T Park home.

Except for a few retired numbers – such as those of former Giants Christy Mathewson, John McGraw, Bill Terry, Mel Ott, Carl Hubbell and Monte Irvin, and ex-Dodgers Reese, Campanella, Snider and Robinson – there are few reminders of New York within either organization.

(Top: Fans outside the Polo Grounds Sept. 29, 1957, during the New York Giants’ final game.)

Renowned rural church approaches 260th anniversary

The current iteration of Salem Black River Presbyterian Church, a looming Greek Revival structure which shows surprising little wear and tear, dates to 1846.

The church, Basilican in plan, with walls and ceilings of plaster and heart pine floors, has a slave gallery and boxed pews. It has played an important role in the development of the surrounding area, including the town of Mayesville, which today has approximately 700 residents, essentially unchanged over the past 125 years.

The congregation dates to 1759, with congregants first worshiping in a log cabin, then moving to a framed structure shortly before the American Revolution. A third church was built in 1804 and used until the current building was erected.

Its full-time first pastor, from 1773 until 1792, was Thomas Reese, a Princeton-educated churchman whose doctoral thesis was titled “The influence of Religion on Civic Society,” likely an unusual topic for an 18th century Colonial American theologian.

The makeup of the church’s antebellum congregation reflected the rural region’s growing dependence on cotton and the need for slaves to sow, tend and reap that crop.
In 1804 the congregation totaled 89: 45 whites and 44 blacks. In 1840, that number was 160, with 42 whites and 118 blacks. By the beginning of the War Between the States, the church’s rolls showed 67 white members and 389 blacks.

Many of the black congregants, who no doubt attended the church because they were required to, left Salem Church shortly after the war’s end to join Goodwill Presbyterian Church, just down the road from Salem Church.

Goodwill

Goodwill Presbyterian Church, just down the road from Salem Church, was begun in 1867 by black members of Salem Church.

Goodwill Presbyterian went on to become the mother church to many African-American churches in South Carolina, according to the blog Everything Happens at the Crossroads, which recounts a history of the Mayesville area.

Today, Salem Church has just 30 members of its roles and averages active attendance of 14 for its services, according to a 2015 article in the Darlington News and Press.

Among noted members of Salem Church have been Robert Witherspoon, a US Congressman who served during James Madison’s first term; Matthew Peterson Mayes, who served in the SC legislature and signed the SC Ordinance of Secession; and James M. Dabbs Sr., who, despite being born in 1896 and growing up on 10,000-acre plantation, was a Civil Rights leader who also served as a professor, farmer, author, church leader and Penn School Community Services trustee.

Dabbs deserve special attention. He took up the civil rights cause in the mid-1940s when he began writing about segregation and racial injustice in Southern culture. Dabbs served as president of the Southern Regional Council from 1957 until 1963, during which time he endorsed a petition requesting executive clemency from President John F. Kennedy for imprisoned civil rights activist Carl Braden. His wife Edith Mitchell Dabbs was also active in the Civil Rights movement.

Salem Church, despite the declining health of the surrounding area and the size of its congregation, continues to hold services twice a month, and both the church and graveyard are kept in immaculate condition.