Of Dreams and Patent Medicine

Early narrative phonography was as creative and conceptually groundbreaking in its way as early narrative film.  Take just one example: Muggsy’s Dream (1908).  The audio presented here was transferred from a cylinder in my collection by Dan Figurelli and Melissa Widzinski of MDPI on the Endpoint Audio Labs Cylinder Playback Machine (to get some practice before tackling the thousands of unique field recordings held by Indiana University’s Archives of Traditional Music).  There’s also another copy at UCSB available online for listening, but mine’s in better shape.  The performers are Len Spencer, an important pioneer of phonographic theater, and his frequent collaborator Ada Jones, whom he’d recruited in 1904 as one of the first phonographic voice actresses.

“Muggsy’s Dream” by Ada Jones and Len Spencer, Edison Record.
MUGGSY: Papers!  Papers!  Hully gee, it’s cold.  Here’s a warm corner, me to close me blinks.  [Yawns.]
POLICEMAN: Here, here, move on, you Spartan!  Why, sure, the kid’s asleep.  Ah, well, I’ll let him dream on.
[Music starts calmly, becomes agitated; clip-clopping of hooves; barking.]
GIRL: Oh, save my dog!
MUGGSY: Muggsy’s on the job!  I’ve got the mutt!  [Barking.]  He ain’t hurt, missy.
GIRL: Oh, thank you!  Come home with me and my papa will reward you.
MUGGSY: Why, missy, I don’t want nothin’.  Youse has got the cayoodle and I got a smile, that’s enough.
GIRL: No, come in with me.
MUGGSY: Here in the big house?  Nix, they wouldn’t let me.
GIRL: Oh, come on in.  See, here’s my teddy bear, and my dolls—and oh, here comes Peter with lunch.
MUGGSY: Oh, pipe the feed!  Oysters on the half, turkey and stuffin’—oh, why it beats the Salvation Army on Thanksgivin’!
GIRL: How funny you talk!  I wish you could play with me always.  Won’t ya?
MUGGSY: Won’t I—what?
GIRL [singing]: Won’t you be my Baby Boy?  Won’t you be my bunch of joy?  It’s a chance, don’t miss, oh, won’t you try one little kiss, and be my Baby, Baby Boy?
MUGGSY: Hey there, Peter, {…} the turkey once more.  [Laughs.]
GIRL [singing]: Won’t you be my Baby Boy? [fading out] Be my Baby Boy.
[Yawn, police whistle, striking of policeman’s club.]
POLICEMAN: Here, wake up, go on!
MUGGSY: All right, sergeant.  Oh, gee, me pipe’s out.  It was only a dream.  Papers!  Papers!

When this selection was released in March 1908, the Edison Phonograph Monthly advertised it as follows:

Muggsy (Mr. Spencer) is selling his papers on a cold night. He finds a warm corner in which to take a quiet sleep. At this point in the Record, effects to imitate a runaway horse, a dog’s bark and a girl’s scream are introduced. The girl is crying for some one to save her dog. Muggsy is right “on the job,” and after restoring the “mut” to its owner is invited to ride with her to her home. After experiencing pleasures almost unheard of, he is rudely awakened by a policeman, and feels rather forlorn when he finds out that it was but a dream. During the sketch Miss Jones sings “Won’t You Be My Baby Boy.” Original arrangement and not published.

In many respects, Muggsy’s Dream typifies the Jones and Spencer team’s broader corpus.  For example, many of their routines feature recently-published songs, and I suspect—albeit without any direct evidence—that they may even have been contrived in part to help promote these songs in cahoots with music publishers.  In this case, “Won’t You Be My Baby Boy” had appeared in print in 1907 with music by Gus Edwards and lyrics by J. Clarence Harvey.  It wasn’t exactly a smash hit, and Muggsy’s Dream appears to mark the only time it was ever recorded commercially.  The song fits neatly into the rest of the narrative, but we couldn’t really say that the narrative is “based on” it.

Like most phonographic selections from the same period, Jones and Spencer’s routines also tend to exist in multiple variants with greater or lesser differences among them, whether separate versions performed for different companies, multiple takes performed for each company, or both.  In this case, the Victor Talking Machine Company issued a longer version of Muggsy’s Dream—on Victor 5410, available from the Internet Archive—with more dialog to flesh out parts of the story, more of the featured song, and snoring and smooching effects that are missing from the Edison cylinder version presented above.  The Discography of American Historical Recordings (DAHR) also reports that there were two different issued Victor takes, both recorded on the same day (January 31, 1908).  By itself, then, the Edison version is a fully legitimate manifestation of the phonographic sketch Muggsy’s Dream, but it doesn’t constitute “the work” any more than one of multiple tellings of a folktale or one of multiple performances of a jazz standard.

Many Jones and Spencer sketches involve the stylized mimicry of ethnic ways of speaking and rely on the stereotypes these invoked for contemporaneous audiences to do the heavy lifting when it came to quick-and-dirty character development.  In this case, Len Spencer performs the part of Muggsy in stage Bowery dialect and the part of the policeman in stage Irish dialect, while the opening announcement illustrates his default, unmarked way of speaking.  Ada Jones performs the part of the wealthy girl in similarly unmarked fashion and even draws attention explicitly to the strangeness of Muggsy’s speech (“How funny you talk!”), but we find her too adopting Bowery dialect in other sketches she performed with Len Spencer, as when she takes the role of Maggie in the “Jimmie and Maggie” (or “Chimmie and Maggie”) series.  In Muggsy’s Dream, the moment contemporaneous listeners heard Muggsy or the policeman or the wealthy girl, they were expected to draw inferences about these characters based on their ways of speaking.  Those inferences were then borne out by the storyline, reinforcing the stereotypes in turn.  At the same time, the ability to adopt stylized dialects was a prized skill at the time, typically judged based on how well it was done in a formal sense, and its expression was by no means limited to aural performance genres.  For example, Bowery stage dialect had a popular written counterpart in “eye dialect” for readers to experience in the mind’s ear, as illustrated by the following excerpt from Bowery Life (1904) by Chuck Connors:

I wuz out wid a bloke, showin’ him de sites uv de Reservation, an’ he asks me wot I’d do if I had a million bones. It nearly took me bre’th away t’inkin’ uv it, an’ I ain’t got over it yet. Dat’s a swell bunch uv money fer a guy to hev, an’ dat ain’t no mistake, either. Every time I t’ink uv it it makes me take a long bre’th, an’ if I had it—say, on de level, I don’t t’ink I’d ever be able ter get me bre’th at all.

R. F. Outcault’s “The Yellow Kid” was associated with the same stylized Bowery dialect Muggsy uses in Muggsy’s Dream—but in written rather than aural form.  Image from Wikimedia Commons.

I haven’t tried to emulate these conventions in my transcript of Muggsy’s Dream.  However, by consulting literature in Bowery “eye dialect,” we can often find written examples of distinctive turns of speech heard in Muggsy’s Dream to help us confirm what we’re hearing. “Hully gee,” for example, was a popular taboo deformation of “Holy Jesus,” associated among other things with Richard Felton Outcault’s famous “Yellow Kid.”  (There’s another connection with Outcault besides: one of the few contemporaneous references I’ve seen to the song “Won’t You Be My Baby Boy” identifies it as one of the numbers introduced in performances of Outcault’s stage adaptation of Buster Brown.  It also appeared in My Nephew’s Wife, though, and doesn’t seem to be “from” Buster Brown specifically.)

Even after such investigation, one word among Muggsy’s lines has been a real poser for me when it’s come to transcription.  To my ear, “{…} the turkey” could be “work the turkey,” “walk the turkey,” “hoist the turkey,” or “waltz the turkey,” among other possibilities.  After all, the acoustic recording process does a poor job both of capturing h and s and of differentiating the stops p, t, and k, and Spencer’s stylized and inconsistent treatment of Bowery dialect vowels introduces further ambiguity.  I’ve scoured the print Bowery dialect literature of the same period in vain for any parallel expression that might clinch matters, and the “turkey” line is missing from the Victor version of the sketch, so we get no help from that quarter.  From context, though, the meaning at least is clear: Peter is supposed to bring a turkey which he’d served previously back around again for seconds.  And the important thing for audiences of the early twentieth century may not have been the exact word Muggsy chooses here so much as the sheer fact that he’s using another clever turn of speech to express himself.  “How funny you talk,” says the girl.  Point taken.

Len Spencer is often credited as the author of the sketches he performed with Ada Jones, and Muggsy’s Dream is no exception.  But I wonder.  Consider the line “Won’t I—what?” (or, in the Victor version, just “What?”).  In neither case does Spencer’s intonation match the apparent sense of the scripted line (“Won’t you?”—”Won’t you what?”—”Won’t you be my Baby Boy….”).  Instead, it sounds as though he didn’t understand the line, which would imply in turn that he hadn’t authored it.

But whoever may actually have written the script for Muggsy’s Dream, it’s impressive for its ambitious conceptualization.  Perhaps the best way to appreciate its ingenuity is to follow along while posing the question: whose point of view are we experiencing?—except, of course, that it’s a matter of hearing, not viewing.  After the opening announcement, we first find ourselves eavesdropping on a fictional “real world” as Muggsy or any of its other inhabitants would have heard it.

MUGGSY: Papers!  Papers!  Hully gee, it’s cold.  Here’s a warm corner, me to close me blinks.  [Yawns.]

Then, still in the “real world,” we hear the policeman; but at this point we’re listening to words Muggsy wouldn’t have heard because he’d fallen asleep.

POLICEMAN: Here, here, move on, you Spartan!  Why, sure, the kid’s asleep.  Ah, well, I’ll let him dream on.

Next we switch auditory perspectives to enter the subjectively experienced soundscape of Muggsy’s dream, accompanied by some extradiegetic orchestra music.

[Music starts calmly, becomes agitated; clip-clopping of hooves; barking.]
GIRL: Oh, save my dog!
MUGGSY: Muggsy’s on the job!

We now remain within Muggsy’s auditory fantasy until close to the end of the sketch, when the dream girl’s voice fades away and our hearing returns with Muggsy’s to the cold reality of the “real world.”

GIRL [singing]: Won’t you be my Baby Boy? [fading out] Be my Baby Boy.
[Yawn, police whistle, striking of policeman’s club.]
POLICEMAN: Here, wake up, go on!

If a comparable sketch had been enacted live on a stage, it would surely have been expected to provide visual complements for each of these transitions, including something to represent the “dream world” and a shift of scene to the interior of the wealthy girl’s house.  Moreover, Muggsy and the policeman couldn’t both have been played by the same actor.  Muggsy’s Dream is able to circumvent these issues as a piece of audio theater scripted specifically for its medium, just as fiction films routinely employ strategies that wouldn’t work in live theater.

But the recording industry of 1908 doesn’t seem to have been quite sure how to package creative works like Muggsy’s Dream.  For a decade previously, aggressive advertising campaigns had been framing the phonograph as a transparent medium of authentic past realities—one that transcended illusion, free from any taint of imitation or fakery.  That agenda generally required works of narrative phonography to be touted not as clever illusions in their own right, but as faithful records of familiar kinds of performance event that happened to contain fictional elements.  Thus, the genre label printed on the rim of my cylinder of Muggsy’s Dream is “STREET SCENE.”  As a theatrical label—in vaudeville, for example—”street scene” would have referred to a sketch performed in front of a backdrop painted to look like a city street, with the implication that the action was also to be understood as taking place on a city street.  But this doesn’t quite fit Muggsy’s Dream, which shifts fluidly from (1) a “real world” city street to (2) a “dreamed” city street to (3) the “big house” and finally back to (4) the “real world” city street.  Meanwhile, DAHR associates the Victor version with the description: “Descriptive scene, with orchestra.”  That might seem a bit more open-ended, but it also invokes the descriptive specialty as a musical genre—another “live” point of reference for fictions contrived with sound.  Neither “street scene” nor “descriptive scene with orchestra” really does justice to Muggsy’s Dream as an ambitious foray into the unique possibilities of audio theater as an emergent art form.  Nor can Muggsy’s Dream be reduced to a recorded vaudeville sketch, a piece of phonograph “comedy,” or a straightforward “spoken word” recording, which are the retrospective categories most often forced onto such works today.

By way of comparison and contrast, I suppose we could explore the representation of dreams in other quintessentially retroductive media, such as photography.  For example, there are various stereoviews out there with titles such as “The Orphan’s Dream” and “Dream of Christmas,” contrived through double exposure with the content of the dream artfully superimposed above the image of a sleeping person.  But instead I’d like to turn next to a handwritten document that appears to be a record of a real dream.

“Beautiful To Think Of”

A few years ago, I picked up a small group of miscellaneous papers in a bagged lot at the Exit 76 Antique Mall in Edinburgh, Indiana.  The item in it that had caught my attention was a handwritten account of a dream someone had evidently had between going to bed on Saturday, January 6, 1877, and waking up the following Sunday morning.

Like Muggsy’s Dream, this dream record requires a little deciphering.  Here’s my attempt at a strict transcription:

Sunday M Jan 7 / 77
Last Night i drempt i Saw my Wife & Child they was in a Large stone
bulding Looking out of a Window, and i was on a butiful Lawn
with nice gravell Walk.  i had a Little Bunded in my hand i
thought that i was goin some Whears, and in frunt of this butiful
house and green Lawn as a Large body of peppel congrated
at a meeting of Some Kind or was promenading around. they
was all Drest in gay Collars the Ladyes, was.. i was Drest as
for Summer. When i Saw Louisa i thought that i would go
and See he again and Stop with her for the night before i
Left and as i Stept Down, from the gravell walk, Down
a Stone Steps about 4 in number i Came on a green
plot of grass, i Saw Louisa Leening out the Window Watching
me coming Leening with he Chin on her hand.  Looking plesent
but i Did not get in Side the house i awoke = and all
Look plesent and buteful to think off..  Satuardy Night Jan 6

And here’s a neatened and corrected version, although I’ve had to make some educated guesses about the writer’s intentions:

Sunday morning, January 7, 1877.  Last night I dreamt I saw my wife and child.  They was in a large stone building looking out of a window, and I was on a beautiful lawn with nice gravel walk.  I had a little bundle in my hand.  I thought that I was goin’ somewheres—and in front of this beautiful house and green lawn—as a large body of people congregated at a meeting of some kind or was promenading around.  They was all dressed in gay collars, the ladies was.  I was dressed as for summer.  When I saw Louisa, I thought that I would go and see her again and stop with her for the night before I left, and as I stepped down from the gravel walk, down a stone steps about four in number, I came on a green plot of grass.  I saw Louisa leaning out the window watching me coming, leaning with her chin on her hand, looking pleasant, but I did not get inside the house.  I awoke—and all look pleasant and beautiful to think of.  Saturday night, January 6.

The back of the same paper contains part of a pencil drawing of a horse and an attached fragment of another torn page in the same ink and handwriting.

It’s hard to make much of the fragmentary text, but for what it’s worth I think I can decipher: “to…. on…. & Lottie or….  Last….  the last that…. [Le]tter for….  where the so[?]…. went to bed…. [br]eckfast…. Letter…. [le]tter nor mail…. Degrees heav[?]…. for England…. many of…. foot bad…. Linim[ent?]….  Remedy…. or Card…. cold.”  Overall, this piece has the general look and feel of a diary or scrapbook into which the dream narrative had once been pasted, and out of which it had later been rather carelessly ripped.

As noted earlier, this item reached me in a small lot of ephemera rather than singly by itself.  Some of the other papers in the same lot aren’t very interesting, including mangled fragments of issues of the London Illustrated News and Harper’s New Monthly Magazine with dates in 1855, while others are more noteworthy, such as a couple rare broadsides with topical song lyrics.  However, two items stand out in particular for the light they shed on the papers’ origin, presuming they all came from the same place.  One is a badly torn and faded “diploma” issued by the Northern Ohio Fair Association in September 1879 to T. G. Trembath of Cleveland, Ohio.  It seems Trembath had won a competition for the best botanical compound at that year’s Northern Ohio Fair, and this document certified his victory.

Another is a label for Dr. Trembath’s Golden Ointment, circa 1906, apparently designed to be wrapped around a bottle.

The evidence thus hints at some connection between this lot of papers and somebody named T. G. Trembath.  So who was he?  And could he have been the author of our dream narrative?

The answers, as it turns out, are easily found.  The 1880 federal census lists one “Thos. G. Trembath” living in Cleveland, occupation “Patent Medicine,” age 49, born in England, with his English-born wife Louisa, also age 49, and a nine-year-old daughter, Charlotte, born in Ohio and referred to in later censuses as “Lottie.”  That information perfectly matches the details of the dream narrative: Trembath had a wife named Louisa and a child who should have been five or six years old in 1877—probably the same “Lottie” who’s mentioned in the fragmentary text on the back.  A little further digging reveals that Thomas and Louisa had immigrated to the United States in 1855, maybe from Cornwall, since Trembath is a Cornish family name and dialect features of the dream narrative, such as “they was” and “somewheres,” are consistent with Anglo-Cornish: like Muggsy’s Dream, this record presents traces of a vernacular idiom, but for entirely different reasons.  We learn further that Thomas had been a physician in Twinsburg, Ohio, in 1860; that he’d served in the Civil War and become a naturalized citizen in 1865; that he’d been an agent for the Wheeler & Wilson sewing machine in 1872-73; that his Trembath Medical Company had been in business by 1880; and that he died in 1884.  The 1886 Cleveland City Directory lists his widow Louisa as the new proprietor of the Trembath Medical Company, then operating out of her residence at 16 Rawlings Avenue.

Apart from the label shown above, print advertising for Trembath medicines seems to be nonexistent, so they were likely purveyed in person by patent medicine pitchmen—or, in Louisa’s case, perhaps pitchwomen.  It’s easy to imagine the form the pitch might have taken from the wording of the label, which sports a classic list of ailments: “For Sores, Diphtheria or the Malignant Black Tongue, Scalds, Freezes, Bruises, Sprains, Sore Throat, Quinsy, Pain in the Side, Breast, or Shoulders, Cutaneous Humors of the Skin, Rheumatism, Kidney Affections, Pleurisy, Nervous, Toothache, Ague in the Face or Breast, Scald Head, Piles, Affection of the Spine, Croup or Rattles, Hard Tumors, Salt Rheum, Sick Headache, Hair Restorative.”  The text at the bottom of the label must refer somehow to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, even the June 6th date doesn’t actually correspond to its time of passage, and that act would have required the label to identify the presence and percentage content of “alcohol, morphine, opium, cocaine, heroin, alpha or beta eucaine, chloroform, cannabis indica, chloral hydrate, or acetanilide.”  Since the label doesn’t mention any of these things, Trembath’s Golden Ointment presumably didn’t contain them.  However, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t still questionable stuff.  An extended debate had occupied the pages of the British Pharmeceutical Journal back in 1882 as to the composition of “golden ointment,” the upshot of which seems to have been that the article then being manufactured and sold under that name was a preparation of mercury oxide, and not of arsenic sulfide as some authorities suggested (and as might formerly have been the case).  American pharmaceutical encyclopedias from the 1830s, such as this one, confirm that “golden ointment” was mercury-based on this side of the Atlantic as well.  Great for black tongue, sore throat, tonsillitis (“quinsy”), and toothache!

No doubt Trembath himself would have been in constant contact with the stuff if he was manufacturing it, and Wikipedia reports: “Long-term, low-level exposure [to mercury] has been found to be associated with less pronounced symptoms of erethism, characterized by fatigue, irritability, loss of memory, vivid dreams, and depression.”  Now, there’s nothing strange about the impulse to write down a description of a dream.  People do it all the time.  But it’s still interesting to consider the impact mercury poisoning could have had on Trembath’s case, making his dream more wonderful, his memory of it more fleeting, and the prospective loss of that memory more painful.

MUGGSY: Oh, gee, me pipe’s out.  It was only a dream.  Papers!  Papers!

“Feats of Legerdemain Commonly Known as Magic”

To bring things back full circle to the world of audio theater, let’s take up George Graham’s Street Fakir, recorded on May 23, 1896, and issued as Berliner 638Y, presented online courtesy of the Library of Congress.  I have my own copy (see image below), but in this case the copy that’s already available out there is in better shape than mine, which was ground pretty well to death on authentic period gramophones before I got it.  I’ve therefore embedded the Library of Congress sound file.  Still, in the interest of providing some added value, I’m pleased at least to offer my own transcription—never let it be said that Griffonage-Dot-Com reaps where it does not sow.

George Graham, from a Berliner record catalog of April 1897 (image provided by Paul Charosh)

Imitation of a street fakir by George Graham. Now, friends, if you’ll gather ’round and give me your kind and undivided attention for a few moments, I will endeavor to entertain and amuse you by the performance of several feats of legerdemain commonly known as magic. Now, a good many people seeing me appear upon the public thoroughfare imagine that I have got something to sell. Such, I assure you, is not the case. I am here simply to advertise, to advertise and introduce a preparation that has a reputation extending from ocean to ocean. I refer to Doctor Boccaccio’s Celebrated Egyptian Liniment, one of the grandest preparations ever invented. It cures coughs, colds, sore throats, rheumatism, neuralgia, in fact all aches and pains. Now, I have in my possession testimonials from some o’ the most wealthy and influential citizens of this city. There was Grover Cleveland, was laid up with the rheumatism so that he could not move, couldn’t walk. He used one quarter of a bottle of this preparation, and today he is as well as ever and is in good shape to walk out o’ town the next fourth o’ March. There was an old lady down in South Washington, a hundred and seventy-five years old, had been bedridden for seventeen years. She used one half a bottle of this preparation and today she is earning a good living for herself dancing in the valley in The Black Crook. Now, people, the regular price of this preparation is one dollar per bottle. But today in order to advertise it I shall pass it out at the phenomenally low price of twenty-five cents a bottle. Anyone wish a bottle? Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. And thank you, sir. Thank you, sir, and I guarantee you’ll derive more benefit from this quarter than many a quarter you have invested. Thank you, sir. You too, sir. Thank you very kindly, sir.  Well, as I see the blue-coated guardian of the peace comin’ around the corner, I will now leave for fields and pastures new.

The sketch opens with the fictional pitchman’s efforts to attract an audience by promising a magic show (which never materializes) and claiming he won’t be trying to sell anything (which of course he will).  He alludes to listeners “seeing him appear upon the public thoroughfare” (if I understand that bit correctly) and anchors his spiel deictically to Washington, D. C. (“this city”), which is where a handwritten inscription etched on the disc indicates Graham actually performed it into the recording horn.  President Grover Cleveland was set to “walk out o’ town” on March 4, 1897 because that was when his term was due to expire, and he wasn’t seeking reelection.  The Black Crook was a song-and-dance extravaganza notable mainly for its reliance on a troupe of scantily-clad actresses who first appeared onstage in a “garland dance” set in a valley in the Hartz mountains, which accounts for the humor in the claim that an ailing 175-year-old woman treated with his medicine had afterwards been able to join this troupe.  Graham doesn’t merely deliver the pitch itself, but also simulates some subsequent interactions with customers (“Thank you, sir.  And thank you, sir….”).  Much like the scene transitions in Muggsy’s Dream, these interactions were far simpler to contrive in a piece of audio theater—feats of phonogenic legerdemain, magic through mediatization—than they would have been live on a stage, where they would have required either additional actors or some kind of gestural miming of handing over bottles, taking money, and so forth.  The piece concludes with the pitchman’s successful disengagement, timed so as to maximize sales while avoiding a brush with the law.

Some other similar audio sketches exist—including Len Spencer’s Patent Medicine Man and Byron G. Harlan and Steve Porter’s Old Time Street Fakir—but Graham’s work may have a unique claim to authenticity among them.  Although he identifies what he’s doing as an “imitation,” he sometimes also earned a living working as a pitchman for real—or at least so claims Fred Gaisberg, who writes in The Music Goes Round (p. 11) of

employing lower-paid local talent secured from the beergardens and street corners of Washington. One of these, George Graham, was a character of Washington life, a type of happy-go-lucky vagabond met with in the saloons, mostly near the free lunch counter, dodging the eyes of the bartender and cadging for drinks.  He steered the easiest course through life, sometimes as a member of an Indian Medicine Troupe doing one-night stands in the spring and summer and in the winter selling quack medicines on the street corners.  His tall, lanky figure, draped in a threadbare Prince Albert coat and adorned with a flowing tie, his wide-brimmed Stetson hat and his ready stream of wit combined to extract the dimes and nickels from his simple audience in exchange for a bottle of colored water.  I discovered him one day on the corner of Seventh and Pennsylvania Avenue selling a liver cure to a crowd of spellbound negroes.  He was assisted by John O’Terrell, who strummed the banjo and sang songs to draw the crowd.

For a long while, this account constituted pretty much all anyone knew about George Graham’s background, leading Jim Walsh to characterize him as “a patent medicine salesman who made records as a sideline.”  In my dissertation, however, I pointed out that this wasn’t the whole story; newspaper references reveal him to have been fairly well known and respected on the local stage as a minstrel performer and comedian.  Moreover, when it came to rheumatism, Graham seems to have been just as familiar with the perspective of the sufferer as with that of the patent medicine pitchman, as we learn from the Washington Post of October 25, 1895:


Local Artists Assist in a Programme at National Rifles’ Armory.

George Graham, the popular local comedian, who is seriously ill from rheumatism, was tendered a benefit by his legion of friends at the National Rifles’ Armory last night and a goodly sum was realized for the popular and deserving actor.

The following well-known local artists took part: George O’Connor, vocalist; Susie Humphrey, skirt dancer; William Hale, club swinger; Prof. John Pistorio, orchestra leader; Master Walter Burk, monologue artist; Little Magdalene Turnburke, dancer; Del Ray Brothers, acrobats; Howard and Leigh, contortionists; Meig Parham, negro impersonator, and C. G. Conn Drum Corps.

Mr. Graham, despite his illness, was the star feature of the programme, and his monologue sketch was repeatedly encored.  Susie Humphrey, an ingenious tot of nine, scored a hit with her graceful skirt dancing.

It was nine months later that Graham made the recording of Street Fakir presented above.  For several years thereafter, he continued to perform both live and for the phonograph, although sometimes he did so in a state of physical debility, judging from an episode recounted by Harry Sooy:

On May 4, 1900, George Graham came to the Laboratory to fill an engagement to make some speeches, and upon his arrival he was very much under the influence of liquor, in fact so much so he was unable to stand in front of the recording horn without assistance. Therefore, I made an iron yoke to fit his forehead, this yoke I drove into the partition, so it extended to just where I wanted Graham in front of the horn, then I led him up to the horn and let him rest his head in the yoke so he could not wobble all about. After all this preparation we proceeded with the engagement.

In spite of such measures, Graham’s recording work and stage career had both ground to a halt by mid-1903, and the Washington Post of August 23, 1903, reported: “George Graham, the well-known monologue comedian, is in Silver City, N. M., for his health.  He has canceled all his vaudeville work for the coming season.”  That’s the last we hear of him, although Jim Walsh states on uncertain authority that he “was dead by 1908.”  Wikipedia currently identifies him with a George W. Graham who was born in Virginia in 1866 and died in Washington DC in November 1903, but apart from the convergence of name, place, and date there seems to be no solid evidence that this was the same person, and I have my doubts.  If it were, this would contradict the only other piece of genealogical data we have from Jim Walsh: that he was the brother of Charles Graham, composer of “Two Little Girls in Blue,” whose obituary states in turn that he (Charles, not George) had been born in Boston, England, in 1862 as the son of a musician and composer.

In any case, Graham’s own battle with rheumatism adds some unexpected poignancy to his sales pitch for the fictional Doctor Boccaccio’s Celebrated Egyptian Liniment.  When he speaks of Grover Cleveland beating a case of rheumatism so that he could walk again, and of a bedridden woman recovering well enough to join the dancing girls in The Black Crook, he’s describing a cure he would desperately have wanted for himself, if only it had existed—a dream as tauntingly elusive as Muggsy’s.

2 thoughts on “Of Dreams and Patent Medicine

  1. Pretty neat stuff here! The 175 year old woman must still have the Guinness record, and not just for long life but for oldest dancer!

    On Wed, Dec 12, 2018 at 5:41 PM Griffonage-Dot-Com wrote:

    > Patrick Feaster posted: “Early narrative phonography was as creative and > conceptually groundbreaking in its way as early narrative film. Take just > one example: Muggsy’s Dream (1908). The audio presented below was > transferred from a cylinder in my collection by Dan Figurelli and” >

  2. Pingback: All Griffonage That On Earth Doth Dwell | Griffonage-Dot-Com

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