Journals 5.6 – A Frenchman in America by Max O’Rell (Part 6)

This is the final part of my essay on A Frenchman in America.  For the previous parts please see the earlier entries from 17th, 21st, 25th, 29th July, and 2nd August 2015.


University Fire

University College Toronto Fire, 1890, Dominion Illustrated

Less than a decade before O’Rell’s visit, the Salvation Army had begun its work in Canada, initially led by British immigrants. Visiting Kingston, Ontario, O’Rell had his first encounter with the Army, and was not impressed:

Kingston is a pretty little town on the border of Lake Ontario, possessing a university, a penitentiary, and a lunatic asylum, in neither of which I made my appearance to-night. But as soon as I had started speaking on the platform of the Town Hall, I began to think the doors of the lunatic asylum had been carelessly left open that night, for close under the window behind the platform, there began a noise which was like Bedlam let loose. Bedlam with trumpets and other instruments of torture. It was impossible to go on with the lecture, so I stopped. On inquiry, the unearthly din was found to proceed from a detachment of the Salvation Army outside the building. After some parleying, they consented to move on and storm some other citadel.

The next stop on the Canada leg of the tour was Toronto, which was ‘thoroughly American’ in appearance with ‘blocks of parallelograms and dirty streets’, but ‘British in heart, in tastes, and habits.’ The suburbs were more attractive, with ‘fine villas standing in large gardens’. He admired the university, but was one of the last tourists to do so. Three days after his visit servants dropped two kerosene lamps on a wooden staircase in University College, starting a devastating fire which destroyed much of the interior of the building, with the loss of 33,000 books.

O’Rell was also impressed by the observation of the Sabbath in Toronto, where no ‘tram-car, omnibus, cab, nor hired carriage of any description is to be seen abroad’ on a Sunday, in comparison with England at the time, where ‘the Bible has to compete with the gin bottle’. However, there were posters all around the city, including the walls of the churches, ‘announcing in loud colors the arrival of a company of performing women’, with one poster depicting ‘Cleopatra in a bark drawn through the water by nude female slaves.’

These placards are merely eye-ticklers. But this mixture of churches, strict Sabbatarianism, and posters of this kind, is part of the eternal history of the Anglo-Saxon race — violent contrast.

Also in the state of Ontario, O’Rell travelled to Brantford. A few miles from the town, he visited the ‘Indian Reservation’, the Six Nations of the Grand River. He formed a rather cynical opinion of the success of English colonies in comparison with the American approach to native peoples:

Whereas the Americans often swindle, starve, and shoot the Indians, the English keep them in comfort. England makes paupers and lazy drunkards of them, and they quietly and gradually disappear. She supplies them with bread, food, Bibles, and fire-water, and they become so lazy that they will not even take the trouble to sow the land of their reservations. Having a dinner supplied to them, they give up hunting, riding, and all their native sports, and become enervated. They go to school and die of attacks of civilization. England gives them money to celebrate their national fêtes and rejoicings, and the good Indians shout at the top of their voices, God save the Queen! that is — God save our pensions!

England, or Great Britain, or again, if you prefer, Greater Britain, goes further than that. In Brantford, in the middle of a large square, you can see the statue of the Indian chief Brant, erected to his memory by public subscriptions collected among the British Canadians.

Here lies the secret of John Bull’s success as a colonizer. To erect a statue to an Indian chief is a stroke of genius.

Crossing back into the USA, O’Rell enjoyed a visit to a museum, where he observed another example of the ‘servants of the public’ being in charge of the public. Whereas in England there would be notices in museums such as ‘the public are requested not to touch’, or in France they would be ‘begged’ not to do so, in America things were a little different.

In America, the notice is “Hands off!” This is short and to the point. The servants of the public allow you to enter the museums, charge you twenty-five cents, and warn you to behave well. “Hands off” struck me as rather off-handed.

In Detroit, O’Rell was informed by a friend that the museum was the subject of a petition to ‘drape all the nude statues, and intimating their intention of boycotting the institution, if the Venuses and Apollos are not forthwith provided with tuckers and togas.’

It is most curious that there should be people who, when confronted with some glorious masterpiece of sculpture, should not see the poetry, the beauty of the human form divine. This is beyond me, and beyond any educated Frenchman.

An article in The Chicago Tribune (July 6th, 1890) indicates that the petition was successful, with the announcement ‘the directors of the Museum of Art order all the nude statues to be clothed, so that blushes may not be brought to the cheek of any young person’. The challenge was then to decide upon suitable clothing for the statues, with some advocating ‘wide-checked breeches’ for Apollo, some suggesting a ‘bathing-suit’ and some ‘somber-coloured trunks’. The action of clothing the statues was widely mocked, with the president of the Chicago Art Institute commenting that he ‘didn’t suppose that the people of Detroit were capable of such foolishness.’

Approaching the end of his tour, O’Rell was starting to tire of the country, with ‘the monotony of life’, the ‘sameness of everything’ and the ‘absense of the picturesque’. He found himself longing to ‘see an old church, a wall covered with moss and ivy, some good old-fashioned peasantry not dressed like the rest of the world.’

When you meet an American with all his beard, you want to shake his hands and thank him for not shaving it, as ninety-nine out of every hundred Americans do.

A visit to a town in Virginia did little to lighten his mood, staying in a hotel with a ‘bedroom so dirty that I shall not dare to undress to-night’, and lunch that consisted of ‘a piece of tough dried-up beef, custard pie, and a filthy glass of water’. He felt ‘wretched’.

I am sore all over. I spent the night on the bed, outside, in my day clothes, and am bruised all over. I have pains in my gums too. Oh, that piece of beef yesterday! I am off to Philadelphia. My bill at the hotel amounts to $1.50. Never did I pay so much through the nose for what I had through the mouth.

Neither did the architecture of Virginia impress O’Rell. He saw a ‘church built on the model of a Greek temple, and surmounted with a pointed spire lately added’, which he compared with ‘Julius Caesar with his toga and buskin on, and having a chimney-top hat on his head.’ He was not much happier in Cincinnati, with the ‘hundreds of chimneys vomiting fire and smoke’. The place reminded him of Glasgow. It was not long before O’Rell experienced some fire and smoke at much closer quarters, when a building opposite his hotel caught fire.

The guests of the hotel were in the corridors ready for any emergency. Had there been any wind in our direction, the hotel was doomed. The night was calm and wet. As soon as we became aware that no lives were lost or in danger in the burning building, and that it would only be a question of insurance money to be paid by some companies, we betook ourselves to admire the magnificent sight. For it was a magnificent sight, this whole large building, the prey of flames coming in torrents out of every window, the dogged perseverance of the firemen streaming floods of water over the roof and through the windows, the salvage corps men penetrating through the flames into the building in the hope of receiving the next day a commission on all the goods and valuables saved. A fierce battle it was between a brute element and man. By three o’clock the element was conquered, but only the four walls of the building remained, which proved to me that, with all their wonderful promptitude and gallantry, all firemen can do when flames have got firm hold on a building is to save the adjoining property.

The next morning the newspapers broke the story in a typically American fashion, with ‘columns of details most graphically given, sensational, blood-curdling.’ The calm reaction of the local people who, according to O’Rell, ‘had all dressed and were looking quietly at the fire from the windows’, was reported as ‘a crowd of people in despair: women disheveled, in their night-dresses, running wild, and throwing themselves in the arms of men to seek protection, and all shrieking and panic-stricken.”

O’Rell was starting to tire of train travel by now, especially when things went wrong. On one occasion everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Stopping to change trains, he went to a lunch room at the station, to find that they sold only peach pie, apricot pie, apple pie or mince pie. His pie lunch gave him stomach troubles for the rest of the day. Then he missed his train, bribed the station-master to allow him to jump onto a moving freight train, on which he travelled in the rain. Arriving at his hotel late in the evening, ‘benumbed with cold, wet through and famished’, he retired to bed, only to be interrupted by a rude reporter insisting on an interview at 11.30pm. Eventually turning the man away without a story, O’Rell found when he looked at the papers the next day that the man had simply made everything up about him instead:

This morning I opened the Brushville Express, and, to my stupefaction, saw a column about me. My impressions of Brushville, that I had no opportunity of looking at, were there. Nay, more. I would blush to record here the exploits I performed during the Franco-Prussian war, as related by my interviewer, especially those which took place at the battle of Gravelotte, where, unfortunately, I was not present. The whole thing was well written. The reference to my military services began thus: “Last night a hero of the great Franco-Prussian war slept under the hospitable roof of Morrison Hotel, in this city.”

In Indianapolis, O’Rell observed a meeting of the Grand Army of the Republic. This was to be the year of their peak membership, with nearly half a million members.

All these veterans have large, broad-brimmed soft hats and are covered all over with badges and ribbons. Their wives and daughters, members of some patriotic association, have come with them. It is a huge picnic. The entrance hall is crowded all day. The spittoons have been replaced by tubs for the occasion. Chewing is in favor all over America, but the State of Indiana beats, in that way, everything I have seen before.

This was the peak of popularity for chewing tobacco in the States. Even at the Opera House, ‘nineteen mouths out of twenty’ were chewing in the audience, ‘the men tobacco, the women gum impregnated with peppermint.’ At times chewing seemed to take the place of conversation:

On returning to Denison House from the theater, I went to have a smoke in a quiet corner of the hall, far from the crowd. By and by two men, most smartly dressed, with diamond pins in their cravats, and Bowers embroidered on their waistcoats, came and sat opposite me. I thought they had chosen the place to have a quiet chat-together. Not so. One pushed a cuspidore with his foot and brought it between the two chairs. There, for half an hour, without saying one word to each other, they chewed, hawked, and spat — and had a good time before going to bed.

O’Rell also saw an opera in Chicago, at the Auditorium Theatre. Completed a year before his visit, the theatre was state-of-the-art, with 3,500 carbon filament light bulbs and 26 hydraulic lifts to raise sections of the stage.

Inside, it is magnificent. I do not know anything to compare with it for comfort, grandeur, and beauty. It can hold seven thousand people. The decorations are white and gold. The lighting is done by means of arc electric lights in the enormously lofty roof — lights which can be lowered at will. Mr. Peck kindly took me to see the inner workings of the stage. I should say ” stages,” for there are three. The hydraulic machinery for raising and lowering them cost $200,000.

Mr Peck was Ferdinand Wythe Peck, who had inherited a fortune from his father, who had made his money in real estate. Peck financed the building of the Auditorium. Keen to experience the full range of culture in Chicago, O’Rell also visited a dime museum, a popular form of entertainment for the working classes during the 19th Century. The most famous was the American Museum in New York, run by PT Barnum. In the museum, O’Rell saw a bearded lady, who he observed had ‘very, very masculine features’, causing him to recall one of General Horace Porter’s anecdotes:

A school-master asks a little boy what his father is.

“Please, sir, papa told me not to tell.”
“Oh, never mind, it’s all right with me.”
“Please, sir, he is the bearded lady at the dime museum.”

In Washington it was finally time for O’Rell to have his most important meeting on the tour: a conversation with President Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd President of the USA. O’Rell described Harrison as ‘short, exceedingly neat, and even recherché in his appearance. The hair and beard are white, the eyes small and very keen. The face is severe, but lights up with a most gentle and kind smile.’ He made a prediction:

General Harrison is a popular president; but the souvenir of Mrs. Cleveland is still haunting the minds of the Washingtonians. They will never forget the most beautiful lady who ever did the honors of the White House, and most of them look forward to the possibility of her returning to Washington in March, 1893.

Two years ago O’Rell had met Steven Grover Cleveland, the 22nd President of the USA. His prediction was correct. Grover Cleveland was elected to become the 24th President in 1893. The reference to Mrs Cleveland is due to the fact that he originally became President as a bachelor, but married Frances Folsom in the White House, only the second President to marry while in office (the first being John Tyler, the 10th President), capturing the imagination of the public. Harrison was not in such a happy position, as his wife had contracted tuberculosis, and died before the 1892 election.

O’Rell took his leave of America with ‘sweet recollections’, vowing to return again. He embarked on his final lecture tour in 1902, and died the following year at the age of 56.

And now, dear reader, excuse me if I leave you. You were present at the friendly farewell handshakings on the New York side; but, on this Liverpool quay, I see a face that I have not looked upon for five months, and having a great deal to say to the owner of it, I will politely bow you out first.


We will begin looking at another journal in a few days.  The next one will be an unpublished manuscript from 1832.  I have some decyphering of handwriting to look forward to…

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About Windows into History

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