Journals 5.5 – A Frenchman in America by Max O’Rell (Part 5)

The following is a continuation of my essay on A Frenchman in America.  For the previous parts please see the earlier entries from 17th, 21st, 25th and 29th July 2015.


The Montreal Snow Shoe Club on Mount Royal, Canadian Illustrated News, 1873.

Leaving Pittsburgh, the train passed by Johnstown, Pennsylvania, causing O’Rell to reflect on the disaster of 1889, when flooding had caused a dam to burst, destroying the town in minutes with millions of tons of water and leaving streets and houses buried under mud and debris. Over 2000 people died.

The terrible calamity that befell that city two years ago was before my mind’s eye; the town suddenly inundated, the people rushing on the bridge, and there caught and burnt alive. America is the country for great disasters. Everything here is on a huge scale.

If disasters were on a huge scale, so was the relief effort. The American Red Cross, established just eight years before, swung into action with tents for the homeless and dozens of doctors and nurses. The town was up and running within months, stronger and more successful than before the disaster.

Travelling by train gave O’Rell further cause to complain of the behaviour of employees in America, a country of ‘lions governed by bull-dogs and asses.’ A typical example occurred when he went to the lavatory to wash his hands, to find the ‘fat, sleek, chewing, surly, frowning, snarling’ conductor was there.

“What do you want?” said he.
“I should very much like to wash my hands,” I timidly ventured.
“You see very well I am using the basin. You go to the next car.”

Conductors continued to annoy him throughout his tour, culminating in an encounter on a train from Petersburg to Richmond in Virginia, when a conductor finally pushed him too far.

Before I return to Europe I will kill a railway conductor.

From Petersburg to Richmond I was the only occupant of the parlor car. It was bitterly cold. The conductor of the train came in the smoke-room, and took a seat. I suppose it was his right, although I doubt it, for he was not the conductor attached to the parlor car. He opened the window. The cold, icy air fell on my legs, or (to use a more proper expression, as I am writing in Philadelphia) on my lower limbs. I said nothing, but rose and closed the window. The fellow frowned, rose, and opened the window again.

“Excuse me,” I said; “I thought that perhaps you had come here to look after my comfort. If you have not I will look after it myself.” And I rose and closed the window.

“I want the window open,” said the conductor, and he prepared to re-open it, giving me a mute, impudent scowl.

I was fairly roused. Nature has gifted me with a biceps and a grip of remarkable power. I seized the man by the collar of his coat.

“As true as I am alive,” I exclaimed, “if you open this window, I will pitch you out of it.” And I prepared for war. The cur sneaked away and made an exit compared to which a whipped hound’s would be majestic.

Then, arriving in Cincinatti, O’Rell’s suitcase was thrown from the baggage van onto the platform, whereupon it burst open, scattering his clothes across the platform. Nobody sprang to his aid.

In England or in France, half a dozen porters would have immediately come to the rescue, but here the porter is practically unknown. Three or four men belonging to the company gathered round, but, neither out of complaisance nor in the hope of gain, did any of them offer his services. They looked on, laughed, and enjoyed the scene.

A visit to St. Johnsbury, Vermont, was a happier occasion. He described it as a ‘charming little town’ and was impressed when 1100 of the town’s 6000 inhabitants attended his lecture. In Maine he found audiences were less enthusiastic, tending to be somewhat ‘frigid’.

Half-way between St. Johnsbury and Portsea, the day before yesterday, I was told that the train would be very late, and would not arrive at Portsea before half past eight. My lecture in that city was to begin at eight. The only thing to do was to send a telegram to the manager of the lecture.

(Portsea is clearly a mistake from O’Rell and must be Portland, Maine)

I dressed in the state-room of the parlor-car. At forty minutes past eight the train arrived at Portsea. I immediately jumped into a cab and drove to the City Hall, where the lecture was to take place. The building was lighted, but, as I ascended the stairs, there was not a person to be seen or a sound to be heard. “The place is deserted,” I thought; “ and if anybody came to hear me, they have all gone.”

I opened the door of the private room behind the platform and there found the manager, who expressed his delight to see me. I excused myself, and was going to enter into a detailed explanation when he interrupted:

“Oh, that’s all right.”
“What do you mean?” said I. “Have you got an audience there, on the other side of that door?”
“Why, we have got fifteen hundred people.”
“There?” said I, pointing to the door!
“Yes, on the other side of that door.”
“But I can’t hear a sound.”
“I guess you can’t. But that’s all right; they are there.”
“I suppose,” I said, “I had better apologize to them for keeping them waiting three-quarters of an hour.”
“Well, just as you please,” said the manager. “I wouldn’t.”
“Wouldn’t you?”
“No; I guess they would have waited another half-hour without showing any sign of impatience.”

I opened the door trembling. My desk was far, far away. My manager was right; the audience was there. I stepped on the platform, shut the door after me, making as little noise as I could, and, walking on tiptoe so as to wake up as few people as possible, proceeded toward the table. Not one person applauded. A few people looked up unconcernedly, as if to say, “I guess that’s the show.” The rest seemed asleep, although their eyes were open.

Arrived at the desk, I faced the audience, and ventured a little joke, which fell dead flat. I began to realize the treat that was in store for me that night. I tried another little joke, and — missed fire. “Never mind, old fellow,” I said to myself; “it’s two hundred and fifty dollars; go ahead.” And I went on.

I saw a few people smile, but not one laughed, although I noticed that a good many were holding their handkerchiefs over their mouths, probably to stifle any attempt at such a frivolous thing as laughter. The eyes of the audience, which I always watch, showed signs of interest, and nobody left the hall until the conclusion of the lecture. When I had finished, I made a small bow, when certainly fifty people applauded. I imagined they were glad it was all over.

“Well,” I said to the manager, when I had returned to the little back room, “I suppose we must call this a failure.”

“A failure!” said he; “it’s nothing of the sort. Why, I have never seen them so enthusiastic in my life!”

One might think a word or two of introduction from the manager could have helped O’Rell on occasions such as this, at least preventing him from having to ‘tiptoe’ onto the stage and start his lecture in such an awkward fashion. However, O’Rell had very strong views about being introduced, remarking that very few chairmen had ever helped him. The problem was, they often tended to take their duties a little too seriously, and some did their job very badly, or even a little too well:

Sometimes the chairman is nervous; he hems and haws, cannot find the words he wants, and only succeeds in fidgeting the audience. Sometimes, on the other hand, he is a wit. There is danger again. I was once introduced to a New York audience by General Horace Porter. Those of my readers who know the delightful general and have heard him deliver one of those little gems of speeches in his own inimitable manner, will agree with me that certainly there was danger in that; and they will not be surprised when I tell them that after his delightfully witty and graceful little introduction, I felt as if the best part of the show was over.

A well-known veteran of the Civil War who had written about his experiences, Horace Porter served as Ulysses S. Grant’s personal secretary, before becoming vice president of the Pullman Palace Car Company during the time period O’Rell describes. Later, he would be appointed the Ambassador to France from 1897-1905. Difficult though this kind of celebrity chairman could be, at least he was able to introduce O’Rell in an intelligent manner, rather than frequent examples he suffered of being ‘introduced to audiences as Mossoo, Meshoe, and Mounzeer O’Reel, and other British adaptations of our word Monsieur‘. There was often worse to come at the end of the lecture:

Another kind of chairman is the one who kills your finish, and stops all the possibility of your being called back for applause, by coming forward, the very instant the last words are out of your mouth, to inform the audience that the next lecture will be given by Mr. So-and-So, or to make a statement of the Society’s financial position, concluding by appealing to the members to induce their friends to join.

Then there is the chairman who does not know what you are going to talk about, but thinks it his duty to give the audience a kind of summary of what he imagines the lecture is going to be. He is terrible. But he is nothing to the one who, when the lecture is over, will persist in summing it up, and explaining your own jokes, especially the ones he has not quite seen through. This is the dullest, the saddest chairman yet invented.

Some modest chairmen apologize for standing between the lecturer and the audience, and declare they cannot speak, but do. Others promise to speak a minute only, but don’t.

“What shall I speak about?” said a chairman to me one day, after I had been introduced to him in the little back room behind the platform.

“If you will oblige me, sir,” I replied, “kindly speak about — one minute.”

Returning to his beloved Quebec for the first time on this particular tour, O’Rell was pulled up to the top of Mount Royal, the mountain after which Montreal is named, in a sleigh. On his way, he saw people on toboggans sliding down the mountain. The speed of the toboggans was breathtaking. The sport of tobogganing is in fact thought to have originated on Mount Royal, and by the time of O’Rell visit had recently begun to spread to the USA.

I drove back from the club with my manager and two English gentlemen, who are here on a visit. As we passed the toboggan slide, my manager told me of an old gentleman over sixty, who delights in those breathless passages down the side of Mount Royal. One may see him out there “at it,” as early as ten in the morning. Plenty of people, however, try one ride and never ask for another.

O’Rell admired the attitude of the typical Canadian towards the cold winters. Montreal had recently experienced an astonishingly cold winter in 1889, even by Canadian standards. In fact, average temperatures for February were so extreme that they set a record that stood until 2015. The locals were undaunted.

In Russia and the northern parts of the United States, the people say : “It’s too cold to go out.” In Canada, they say: “It’s very cold, let’s all go out.” Only rain keeps them indoors.

The final part of this article will follow in a few days.  In the meantime, there will be another ‘snippet’ to look forward to!


About Windows into History

Author of Co-writer on Administrator of
This entry was posted in 19th Century, History, Journals, Travel, USA and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s