Monday, May 16, 2022

Charles Elmer Hires and The Roots of Root Beer

 

                            Pharmacist, teetotaler, and entrepreneur Charles Elmer Hires.

Note—The blog is back.  I have still not been able to restore my Facebook but now have over 150 friends on my new page—about 10% of my old one—and still have not been able to get in several of the interest groups where I routinely posted links to entries.  If you are a fan of this hodge-podge you can help by sharing links widely and inviting me to join groups where you have seen posts before.  Thanks for the sympathy, encouragement, and support many have lent me and this little pop stand at the far end of the cul de sac.

Root beer is fading fast.  Once one of America’s favorite soft drinks it is in danger of joining other 19th Century concoctions in obscurity.  Sarsaparilla has already virtually disappeared except for Western theme parks and roadside tourist attractions.  Ginger ale survives mostly as a cocktail mixer.  Cream Soda, both clear and tawny, lingers in some isolated regional niches.  Sure, you can still get root beer in bottles and cans at the local store and fill an enormous cup at a gas station/convenience store pop machine, but it has been largely eclipsed by ubiquitous colas, super sweet sodas, and more recently iced teas and energy drinks.  The soda fountains and root beer stand drive-ins that once fueled its popularity have virtually vanished. 

The once popular beverage originated with Charles Elmer Hires, a Philadelphia Quaker druggist on May 16, 1866 according to several sources.  But that year Hires, who was born in 1851, was only 15 years old and while he was working as a clerk in a local drug store, had not yet opened his own shop and certainly was not on a honeymoon in New Jersey where, according to the tale, he was inspired by the female proprietor of the hotel who served a hot drink she called root tea.

The information on the inspiration may, or may not, be accurate, but the date is clearly wrong, yet persists across multiple sources.  Hires was an enterprising youngster, however and raised the money to open his own store before he was 20 by the sale fuller’s earth—a pharmacy staple—he obtained, you should excuse the expression, dirt cheap from the potter’s clay dug up in the excavation of foundations near his employer’s shop.  He married shortly after and was soon marketing an early version of his invention around 1871.

No surprise there.  Pharmacists concocted most of the classic American soft drinks in the post-Civil War era and peddled them as miraculous health elixirs.  They took off because they tasted better than most patent medicine and did not have the high alcohol content of those bottled remedies.  In fact, Hires, like other druggists, was a teetotaler and Temperance advocate who promoted his beverage as a booze alternative.  Most druggists also continued to make money on the high proof patent medicines which they could piously claim as medically beneficial.  It was the best of both worlds and for several decades made the local drug store one of the most lucrative of Main Street businesses—and a social center.

An early ad for Hires' Root Beer--for just a quarter the box could make 5 gallons of root beer at home when mixed with water, sugar and yeast.

The root in his root tea inspiration was sassafras, long regarded as having medicinal benefits.   He was soon selling his more concentrated powdered version in packages for home use.  Water, sugar, and yeast need to be added.  But you could still not buy a glass in his shop.

It wasn’t until 1875 that he began to market a syrup to other pharmacies, some of whom had opened the latest fad—the soda fountain.  These were the first to mix soda water and sell it by the glass.

A classic drug store soda fountain circa 1890.  They were already using paper cone cup inserts.  The young man ad boy were not yet called soda jerks or wearing iconic white paper caps--both of those arrived with the Jazz Age 1920's and by then the charging fountain had been moved below the counter with beer-tap like lever handles on the bar.  Fountains grew from three or four stools to as many as twenty in large urban drug stores.

The next year the 1876 Centennial Exposition in his own hometown, Philadelphia, represented a golden marketing opportunity to expand his business.  Somewhat reluctantly he was persuaded by the Reverend Dr. Russell Conwell, a prominent temperance leader, to open up a refreshment kiosk at the fair where he sold “the temperance drink and the greatest health-giving beverage in the world.” He was also now selling his product as root beer, not root tea.  Fellow temperance advocates had convinced him that the name would attract hard drinking Pennsylvania working men and offer them an alternative to the stuff from breweries.  When heavily charged with soda, the drink even raised a lager-like head of foam to complete the illusion.

Needless to say, the exposure from the fair helped Hires’ product take off and he was soon shipping his extract syrup far beyond the City of Brotherly Love just in time for the explosion of popularity of soda fountains. 

As late as the 1920's Hires was still marketing his root beer in the home mix box along side of bottled and soda fountain versions.

In 1886 Hires followed the lead of other pharmacy-created soft drinks like Coca-Cola and Dr. Pepper and began to sell a bottled version of his root beer for home consumption.  By the turn of the 20th century, his bottled root beer was sold nationally and was featured at many soda fountains.

Naturally, other manufactures entered the fray with their own creations, some of them mildly alcoholic—usually less than 2% or about the same as near beer. Most, like Hires, used a sassafras base but one early competitor, Barq’s, which was founded in 1898, employed sarsaparilla instead with a variety of other flavoring herbs and spices.

An open air A&W root beer stand serving frosty mugs.  Probably a boardwalk or beach stand about 1930.

In 1919, just in time for both Prohibition and the triumph of the automobile, Roy Allen opened a root beer stand in Lodi, California, which led to the development of A&W Root Beer.  Aside from roadside service convenience, A&W’s big innovation was serving its signature drink in frosted glass mugs.  This was soon copied by most soda fountains and by upstart competitors like the Midwest’s iconic Dog n Suds carhop served drive-ins of the 1950’s.

Prohibition did indeed spread the popularity of root beer, just as it did for most carbonated soft drinks.  The Depression somewhat nicked sales, and many adults returned to guzzling the real stuff, but the popularity of the drink with children and teens still made it a good business.

Snoopy quaffing a few root beers with Bill Mauldin was an annual Veterans Day feature in Peanuts.

In the ‘50’s and ‘60’s root beer held its cultural niche.  It was the proclaimed favorite of Dennis the Menace in both comics and on the TV sitcom.  And every year on Veteran’s Day in Peanuts Snoopy in his World War I Ace outfit would “head over to Bill Malden’s for a root beer quaff.”

How successful root beer was as a deterrent to alcohol is open to question.  It was my beverage of choice as the kid growing up in Cheyenne, but the attraction was that it looked so much like real beer in those frosty mugs with the head of foam.  I felt grown up drinking them, pretending it was real beer.  It turned out to be a training beverage and no deterrent at all.

Just try finding root beer in a frosty mug.

But the soda fountains and drive-ins are the stuff of mere nostalgia now.  Try finding a frosty mug of root beer.  And it just ain’t the same in a foam cup over chipped ice.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Blog on Temporary Hiatus


Due to serious technical issues Heretic, Rebel a Thing to Flout will be on temporary hiatus for—I hope—a short time.  I was locked out of Facebook, the primary means I have for promoting the blog and connecting with readers through post links on my Timeline and in several interest groups.  Not only am I locked out, but Facebook security has completely removed my account including removing every post I have made in the last 16 years, my nearly 1,500 friends list, access to pages and groups to which I administer, and hundreds of photos.

In case I cannot get my original account restored, I have created a new account.  Please accept new friend requests from me and send me a friend request if you don’t get one.  Also if you are a member of any of the groups I regularly post to, please link to this blog. try and add me as a member if you are able


New Facebook security measures are a nightmare.  I spent all day yesterday trying every FB suggestion to re-authorize my account multiple times and the Lords of the Metaverse offer no way to speak to a human for help.  I am not the only person who has been affected by this—I know of others, especially the marginally tech savvy and elderly who have also fallen victim.  

 

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Irving Berlin Was The Songwriter of the American Century

Irving Berlin--American master song smith.

There was a lot of buzz recently over Rolling Stones list of the “100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time.”  There is always room for entertaining debate about such lists.  But this one doesn’t come close to living up to the claim of representing “All Time.”  The earliest on the list were Woody Guthrie and Fats Domino.  Most were active from the 1970’s—the magazine’s birth decade—and were limited to rock, pop, R&B, and a smidgen of rap.  Not a single mention of any of the composers and lyricists from the Great American Song Book who were active from about 1900 to the ‘60s.  That’s a lot of enormous talent to overlook.  And the most egregious omission was this guy.

Say happy birthday to Israel Isidore Baline, born May 11, 1888 in the city of Tyumen in the Ural Mountains 1200 miles west of Moscow.  His father, a Canter, moved his family to the relative safety of the United States in 1893 after Cossacks burned the Jewish Quarter of Tyumen to the ground.  Only three years later his father was dead and the eight year old boy had to quit school and work as a news butcher—a street peddling paper boy—for pennies a day.

He left home at 14 so his mother would have one less mouth to feed and began to support himself singing for tips in saloons, eventually working up to being a song plugger at Tony Pastor’s seminal night club in New York City. 

Berlin in costume in some sort of parade in New York City in 1911, his break-out year with Alexanders Rag Time Band.

He changed his name to Irving Berlin and began to try his hand at songwriting.  His first success was Alexander’s Rag Time Band in 1911which became a sensation after he wrote words to go with his music and got it placed in a Broadway review.  Its fresh sound and syncopated rhythm helped set off a new national rage for Rag Time music, which had gone out of fashion a decade earlier.  

Self-taught on the piano—he never could play in any key but F—and unable to read music, none-the-less he eagerly launched himself on a career as a songwriter.  His first Broadway show, Watch You Step in 1914, starred dancing sensations Verne and Irene Castle and included several hits including Play a Simple Melody, the first of his famous “double” songs in which two different melodies and lyrics are counterpointed against one another. 

He would continue to write for Broadway and films for the next 60 years producing an unrivaled string of hits that included, A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody, Always, Blue Skies, God Bless America, and There’s No Business Like Show Business to name just a few. 

                            Sheet music for one of the songs from Belin's Doughboy revue Yip Yip Yaphank

Nearly as patriotic as George M. Cohan, Berlin penned Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning for his World War I camp show with an all doughboy cast, Yip Yip Yaphank.   God Bless America was also written for that revue but somehow failed to make the cut.  In 1938 he gave it to Kate Smith for a special 20th anniversary Armistice Day Broadcast and it became a virtual second national Anthem.   He toured for three and a half years to posts in the U.S. and Europe with a second all-GI review This Is the Army in which he sang This is the Army Mr. Jones in GI uniform.  The show became the basis of a 1945 film of the same name staring Ronald Regan and Joan Leslie in which Smith reprised God Bless America. Berlin signed over all royalties from that song to benefit the Boy Scouts of America earning them millions of dollars. 

Berlin, a secularized Jew, is also known for his holiday songs including Easter Parade and White Christmas both of which were featured in the 1940 film Holiday Inn with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire.  Easter Parade was the only song not written for the movie.  It first appeared in the 1933 revue As Thousands Cheer which presented each number as an item in a newspaper, Marilyn Miller and Clifton Webb originally sang it.  Holiday Inn essentially transformed the newspaper items for holidays throughout the year stitched together by the thinnest of plots.  Both Easter Parade and White Christmas were again featured two in enormously successful self-titled movie musicals.  Crosby’s 1948 re-recording of White Christmas remains America’s favorite secular Christmas song and is an annual seasonal hit.  For decades it held the record as the bestselling recording of all time.

The Easter Parade number with Clifton Webb and Marilyn Miller from As Thousands Cheer on Broadway in 1933.

Early Berlin Broadway revues included now embarrassing blackface minstrel numbers and some of those were carried over to the silver screen.  But Berlin was a staunch advocate of civil rights and a long-time member of the NAACP.  In As Thousands Cheer Ethel Waters sang Supper Time, a lament for the lynching of her husband of which she said “If one song can tell the whole tragic history of a race, Supper Time was that song. In singing it I was telling my comfortable, well-fed, well-dressed listeners about my people...those who had been slaves and those who were now downtrodden and oppressed.”  Not surprisingly Hollywood film makers concerned with being able to show films in the segregated South never included Supper Time in any of the several movies they built around the Berlin song book.

Show business itself was often a theme for Berlin including numbers presented as vaudeville acts like A Couple of Swells.  And of course, There’s No Business Like Show Business from his most successful book musical Annie Get Your Gun has become the enduring anthem of the entertainment industry.

Berlin and bride Dorothy depart on their ill-fated honeymoon to Cuba.

Berlin’s personal life from the days when he was singing on the streets for pennies on was reflected in his music.  His first wife, 20-year-old Dorothy Goetz was the sister of E. Ray Goetz one of his early collaborators.  She died tragically of typhoid contracted during their Cuban honeymoon in 1912.  Grief stricken, Berlin could not write for months. Then his first composition was also his first ballad, the heart felt When I Lost You.

Berlin and his second wife Ellin MacKay at their New York City Hall wedding--the beginning of an enduring 63-year marriage.  

In 1924 Berlin married Ellin Mackay, and Irish-American Catholic heiress whose father bitterly opposed the marriage.  He wrote the enduring classic love song Always for her and signed over to her personally rights to the song to make up for being disinherited by her father. The rights to that one song alone would make her independently wealthy.  Their marriage remained a love affair and they were inseparable until Ellin died in July 1988 at the age of 85. They had four children during their 63 years of marriage: Irving, who died in infancy on Christmas Day 1928; Mary Ellin, Elizabeth Irving, and Linda Louise.  Blue Skies in 1926 was a jubilant celebration of his first daughter’s birth.

Berlin wrote in many styles over his long career but is perhaps best remembered for his simple, direct, and heartfelt love songs with lilting melodies and lyrics that seemed an extension of everyday speech.  A classic example was What’ll I Do? From 1924.

Berlin never gave up his love of singing his own songs.  This is from a 1930's outdoor concert and radio broadcast.

In all Berlin wrote around 15,000 songs.  Many of them are as fresh today as when first written and continue to be recorded by artists in many styles.  Berlin died in his adopted hometown of New York in 1989 a year after Ellin at the age of 101.


Tuesday, May 10, 2022

The Day of the Golden Spike Connected America

Union Pacific and Central Pacific tracks meet at Promontory Point, Utah.

On May 10, 1869 the United States was bound together as never before when the final Golden Spike was driven at Promontory Point in Utah connecting the Union Pacific Railroad (U.P) from the East with the Central Pacific (C.P.) from California. Together the two railroads formed the first Transcontinental rail connection

Construction was spurred by the Civil War and the Union’s need to connect to California and its gold wealth to help finance the war.  The construction was authorized and encouraged by the Railroad Acts of 1862 and 1864 which provided financing for the enormously expensive undertaking through 30 year bonds and extensive land grants to the railroad companies along their rights of way.  

Competition was encouraged by tying the land grants to track actually laid.  The Central Pacific got started first in 1863 heading east out of Sacramento and employed thousands of Chinese emigrants as “Coolie” labor for most of the grueling and dangerous pick-and-shovel work.  The western railroad was challenged by the daunting Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Workers had to construct steep mountain-side grades and switchbacks and bore long tunnels through hard rock.  Unstable nitro-glycerin was used for blasting resulting in many deaths and horrible injuries.  Naturally progress on the west end was slow

This 1950 watercolor by Jack Lee captures some of the arduous conditions faced by Chinese laborer for the Central Pacific trying to get through the Sierra Nevadas.

Construction on the Union Pacific ironically was held up by manpower and material shortages due to the war.  It did not start in earnest until the war was over.  The railroad was under the control of Thomas Clark Durant, a crook and charlatan with good political connections—he had hired Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln for some lucrative pre-war railroad business. 

In point of fact, Omaha, across the Missouri River from the official terminus at Council Bluffs, Iowa was the actual jumping off point because no bridge was yet built across the river. In two and a half years since 1863 construction had only gotten 40 miles west of the river as Durant ate up daily government subsidies, directed the line on an illogical course to connect with his land speculations, and built numerous useless “ox-bows” to gobble up more grant land. 

In addition, he contracted with Crédit Mobilier, a construction company he secretly owned, and skimmed profits all the while bribing members of Congress to look the other way.  All of that would blow up into an enormous scandal in the next decade

General Grenville Dodge was marginally less corrupt than Thomas Clark Durant and the competent, efficient, ruthless construction boss on the UP. 

In the meantime, the likelihood of at least some direct Federal oversight of the project caused a new beginning in July 1869 with Durant’s war time collaborator in a scheme to deal in contraband Confederate cotton, General Grenville Dodge, in charge.  At least Dodge proved to be a competent manager.  The line started driving west, rapidly laying track over the open plains of Nebraska. 

The eastern crews were largely Irish emigrant “navies” and rootless veterans of both the Union and Confederate armies.  They were a volatile bunch.  Often paid in script that could only be redeemed at the end-of-track towns known collectively as Hell on Wheels, they drank up their earnings and brawled incessantly.  They were also apt to stage numerous impromptu strikes and job actions.  Still, crossing such relatively good ground they were gobbling up miles—and enriching the U.P.’s land grants at an astonishing rate

The largely Irish Union Pacific laborers were hard working but undisciplined, often rebellious, brawling, and hard drinking.

Accompanying, and working slightly ahead of both lines, were the telegraph wires that hummed with construction business.  Communications in the gap between the two railroads and their telegraphs was the job of the short-lived Pony Express. 

The U.P. began encountering harassment and attacks by Native Americans who recognized that the line was a threat to their way of life.  Numerous attacks somewhat slowed construction, which required U.S. Army protection

Native Americans recognized the threat to their way of life by the railroad.  They also were outraged that construction violated the promises made in the Treaty of Fort Laramie which ended Red Cloud's war in 1868.  While Sioux, Arapaho, Northern Cheyenne, and allied tribes sometimes attacked construction camps and trains, they usually tried to harass isolated work gangs like this crew trying to escape on a hand car.

The vast buffalo herds roaming the land also presented a threat to construction—and an endless supply of cheap meat for the laborers.  The railroad employed hunters like William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) and James Butler Hickok (Wild Bill) to slaughter the animals by the thousands starting the eradication of the great herds that would be almost complete within a decade. 

Meanwhile, the C.P finally broke through the mountains and into the high desert of Nevada and was able to launch its own race to the east.  Unfortunately for the C.P. the lands it was earning were not much suitable for sale or settlement—although they would later yield a wealth of minerals

When the U.P. entered Utah, Brigham Young contracted hundreds of Mormon laborers to the railroad.  These tea-totaling workers disciplined by their own church leaders ended much of the labor turmoil on the line. 

It was determined to run the line north of The Great Salt Lake rather than try to cross that shallow body by trestle.  The route missed the Mormon capital of Salt Lake City, but Young was cut in for rights to build a feeder line.

When the two lines met just north of the lake at Promontory Point, the U.P. had laid 1,087 miles of track and the C.P.  690 hard won miles. 

California Governor and major C.P. investor Leland Stanford, standing center with sledge, prepares to drive the final Golden Spike.

California Governor Leland Stanford, himself one of the Big Four investors in the C.P., came for the ceremonial joining.  Dodge and a host of Eastern politicians were also on hand.  Stanford was given the privilege of driving the final Golden Spike, which was wired to a telegraph line to send a signal across the nation that the job was complete

Overnight traveling time between Omaha and California by wagon was cut from six to eight grueling, dangerous months to six days in an uncomfortable but relatively safe railroad passenger car. The train could also accommodate all the household goods, farm equipment, stock, and supplies that were often destroyed, abandoned, or used up on the long wagon trek.  And suddenly news from San Francisco could reach London and all the European capitals via Western Union and the Transatlantic Cable virtually instantaneously

Despite the linkage, final connections on both ends to make for continuous rail service from coast-to-coast were not complete.  It wasn’t until November that the C.P. completed its link west from Sacramento to Alameda on the shores of San Francisco Bay.  And passengers and freight cars still had to be ferried over the Missouri River until Durant finally got around to building a bridge in 1872. 

By the time the last spike was driven, construction had begun on southern and northern transcontinental lines and on numerous feeder and connector lines.  Just twenty one years after the completion of the line, West was largely settled and the Census Bureau officially declared an end to the American Frontier

The end-of-track town and Hell on Wheels camp at what became Cheyenne, Wyoming which became a major U.P. division point with round house maintenance shops and humping yards to make up trains to cross the Continental Divide.

On a personal note, my hometown of Cheyenne, Wyoming began as just another Hell on Wheels.  Its location about halfway between Omaha and the Great Salt Lake made it the ideal spot for a U.P. division point, and for major maintenance shops and humping yards to make up trains to cross the mountains.  Located due north of Denver, which had been bypassed, it was also the natural location for a feeder line which eventually became part of the Burlington Northern system.  The Cheyenne of my youth was always a railroad town—a U.P. town—and knew it.

 

Monday, May 9, 2022

Sodomites Get the Gibbet After the Raid on Mother Clap’s Molly House

Men arrested at Mrs. Clap's Molly House and others hung in a public execution at Tyburn in 1726.

On May 9, 1726 five unfortunate patsies were strung up and publicly hanged on the notorious gallows at Tyburn, the rural execution spot not far outside the walls of London.  Or it may have been just three.  Accounts differ.  Confusion may have arisen because the busy gibbet often accommodated several hangings at once and there may have been other common criminals dangled with them.  A woodblock print purporting shows the execution shows seven victims.

At the time hanging was a popular public amusement regularly drawing large crowds of witnesses.  The list of capital crimes was long and included not just murder and highway robbery but such petty crimes as pickpocketing or pilfering an apple from a greengrocer.  Twelve year olds were routinely snuffed out for lifting a gentleman’s handkerchief. 

The crime of these particular chaps was sodomy, a capital felony under the Buggery Act 1533.  They were among 40 men plus the proprietor swept up in a raid on Mother Clap’s Molly house on a February Sunday evening.  Margaret Clap operated a coffee house out of her home in Field Lane, Holborn, near the Bunch o’ Grapes tavern

The modest establishment, which Mrs. Clap had opened two years earlier, was supposedly also a Molly house—an establishment that catered to homosexual men.  Several had been operating in and near London since about 1700 discretely but openly despite the sodomy laws. 

Unlike most such places Mrs. Claps was neither a tavern nor did it serve as a bordello providing prostitutes for its customers.  She made her large parlor and several rooms available for the entertainment and amusement of her clients and beds were available in every room.  There was much gayety, dancing, singing, and petting in the common room with men frequently pairing up to be “married” in the smaller rooms, sometimes with doors left open so others could watch the proceedings.   Since she had no license as a pub, Mrs. Clap would frequently have to leave her home to visit the Bunch o’ Grapes to obtain libations for her guests.

Mrs. Clap seems to have been genuinely fond of her clientele and tended to their needs and desires with great solicitousness, going above and beyond the attention of a mere businesswoman.  She often extended small loans to some customers and once let one regular who had been thrown out of his home by an irate wife and was homeless lodge in one of her rooms for a year and a half.  Even while she was being held herself in Newgate prison she evidently arranged an alibi that got one of the men arrested in the raid off the hook.  For their part many of the men returned the affection and tried as much as possible to defend her in their testimony to the court.  They called her in fondness Mother Clap.  She may have been what was in the parlance of 1970’s queer slang, a fag hag.

Gentlemen of quality like this Army officer did play cross dressing games and more hoity-toity Molly houses like Miss Muffs in fashionable Whitechapel, but probably seldom visited the more humble digs offered by Mrs. Clap.

As for her clientele, she served and welcomed all classes but most of the men were local artisans, tradesmen, farmers, and laborers as well urchin street prostitutes who they sometimes brought with them.  There may have been occasional slumming gentlemen if any were caught up in the raid, their connections and wealth soon procured a swift, discreet release without charges.

Despite this, popular illustrations published after the Molly house raids usually depicted clients as gentlemen—often as Army officers, judges, and high churchmen. Whatever might have been the case in some Molly houses in or on the fringes of fashionable districts instead of on the virtual outskirts of London, Mrs. Clap does not seem to have entertained these sorts.  The pictures, however, played into the common perception of many ordinary Britons that the elite ruling classes were riddled with homosexuality.  Which, of course, was quite true.

Convivial gatherings apparently occurred on any evening, but evidently Sunday nights were especially popular and may have amounted to weekly parties.  Authorities were aware of that.  They had the establishment under surveillance for more than a year and coerced a client to turn informer to introduce a police agent into the scene.

Actually, police agent is a misnomer.  There was no police department that we would recognize and would not be for more than a century the Bow Street Runners, bailiffs of the court who exercised arrest warrants were consolidated with local constables by Sir Robert Peel in 1829 as the Metropolitan Police—the Bobbies of Scotland Yard. 

Instead, the investigation and raid were conducted by the Society for the Reformation of Manners, a private organization of zealous reformers out to erase the libertinism that had established itself in London during the Restoration period.  The organization enjoyed support at the highest levels of society and government up to and including the new Hanoverian Dynasty represented by King George I.  Acting in a quasi-official manner, the Society employed its own “constables” and an army of spies and informants who conducted investigations, raids, and pressed prosecutions in its own name.

The Society recruited an informant named Mark Partridge who was enraged at having been revealed as a homosexual in previous investigations and blamed his former companions and lovers.  Partridge identified several Molly houses, including the one maintained by Mrs. Clap, to the society and then introduced one of their constable/agents into the houses as his “husband.”  Notes and testimony by the agent, Samuel Stevens became key in the future prosecutions and provided sensational accounts in newspapers, broadsides, and penny pamphlets.  For instance, he wrote in his report to the Society:

I found between 40 and 50 Men making Love to one another, as they call’d it. Sometimes they would sit on one another’s Laps, kissing in a lewd Manner, and using their Hands indecently. Then they would get up, Dance and make Curtsies, and mimick the voices of Women. O, Fie, Sir! – Pray, Sir. – Dear Sir. Lord, how can you serve me so? – I swear I’ll cry out. – You’re a wicked Devil. – And you’re a bold Face. – Eh ye little dear Toad! Come, buss! – Then they’d hug, and play, and toy, and go out by Couples into another Room on the same Floor, to be marry’d, as they call’d it.

Armed with such intelligence, the raid in February snared 40 men, but none were caught in flagrante delicto which complicated the prosecution on the capital crime of sodomy.  At most some were found with breaches unbuttoned or wearing snatches of women’s clothing.

To obtain convictions, the society had to rely on the testimony of two turn-coat informants, both petty criminals and likely prostitutes, Thomas Newton and Edward Courtney who had already been used as “queer-bait and agents provocateurs or entrappers.”  One or both of them testified to participating in sexual acts with all of those sentenced to hang and others who were sentenced to prison and the pillory.  

As the trial progressed there became some publish backlash for using the testimony of such disreputable characters as the sole evidence of actual sodomy.  That especially was the case for 43 year old Gabriel Lawrence, a milk peddler and widower with a teenage daughter who was able to produce many witnesses to his good character and that no one other than Newton and Courtney had ever been the recipient of any advances.  Lawrence admitted to drinking at Mrs. Claps regularly with a friend, Henry Yoxam the cow keeper who supplied him and several Molly houses with milk, but adamantly proclaimed his innocence of any indecencies.  None the less, he was sentenced to hang.

With outrage for the witch hunt growing, prosecutors quietly declined to press charges against those who had not already either bought their way out of trouble or been freed for lack of evidence.

In multiple sources this illustration is labeled as representing "Mother Clap in the stocks," but a close examination show the victim in male clothing.  No matter.  The brutal treatment of the mob to the prisoners likely fatal.

That did not include Mrs. Clap herself.  When she was finally brought before the bar she pled innocent to the charge of keeping a disorderly house.   She told the jury “I hope it will be consider’d that I am a Woman, and therefore it cannot be thought that I would ever be concern’d in such Practices.”  She was convicted anyway and harshly sentenced for the offense—“to stand in the pillory in Smithfield, to pay a fine of 20 marks, and to suffer two years’ imprisonment.

She never survived to serve her prison sentence.  She was so grievously mistreated by a mob at the pillory—probably pelted with stones and beaten with sticks—that she collapsed three times and had to be carried away insensible.  She probably died of her injuries within hours or days, although no record of her passing has been found.  She simply vanished to official history.

This grisly and unfortunate tale is a useful counter to a somewhat fashionable claim made by some current historians that prior to the 20th Century there was no Gay culture and homosexuality as we understand it did not exist.  They don’t deny that there were individuals who engaged in homosexual acts or relationships, but maintain that society viewed them differently and that so did the individuals whether the acts were suppressed or winked at.  But modern observers will quickly note the characteristics of a well established gay culture in this story—a common code slang, conventions, safe-space gathering spots, role playing, and cross dressing.  Similar establishments and cultures established themselves in large urban centers where there was some sense of anonymity and a certain critical mass of population.  Like the bathhouses of the ‘60’ and’70’s and the bars, clubs, and discos of today, the Molly houses thrived in a culture with a modicum of tolerance and then became rallying points of resistance in times of repression.

                        Poster for the London production of Mother Clap's Molly House by Mark Ravenhill.

The story of Mrs. Clap’s Molly house has become foundational to modern British gay culture.  It has been told and retold in novels, poems, histories and recently in an avant-garde stage musical, Mother Clap’s Molly House by Mark Ravenhill.