Jugglers and Mountebanks
Bill Long 1/10/06
Wandering in New York's Revised Statutes of 1829
As I was studying the NY divorce law in place in 1829, my eye fell upon another subject, and I thought I would quote a statute dealing with particularly dangerous people--jugglers and mountebanks. The statute provides:
"No person shall exhibit or perform for gain or profit, any puppet-show, any wire or rope-dance, or any other idle shows, acts or feats which common showmen, mountebanks or jugglers usually practice or perform; and no owner of occupant of any house, out-house, yard, field, shed or other place, shall furnish or allow the same to be used for the accommodation of such exhibition or performance. Whoever shall offend against either of these provisions, shall forfeit twenty-five dollars for each offense, to be recovered by and in the name of the overseers of the poor of the town where the offense shall be committed" (2 Revised Statutes of New York (1829), at 660).
Before trying to figure out what mountebanks and jugglers did, I would like to point out three other features of the statute. First is the vagueness of the wording (i.e., what is it that jugglers "usually practice or perform"?) The nineteenth century saw passage of multitudes of statutes framed in the most broad and sweeping terms. These statutes stayed on the books often until well into the twentieth century, when the US Supreme Court developed the doctrines of overbreadth and vagueness to invalidate many of them. The history of how to draft an acceptable statute would make a fascinating study... Second, is the heaviness of the fine--$25. Third is the way that the money collected from fines is to be used. It would go to the overseers of the poor. Thus, in order to know the basics of the law's meaning, we would have to know not only why such people were considered so dangerous to public order but also the social structure of NY towns in the 1820s.
A Few Words
But let's take a moment to explain three words the statute uses: out-house, juggler and mountebank.* The first time the
[*What constituted a wire or rope-act would also be interesting to know.]
word out-house was used in America to signify a lavatory was in a personal diary from 1819. Washington Irving, a New York writer, used the term this way in 1832. But by far the more prevalent usage of out-house in the 19th century was as we might use the word "out-building" today--a "subsidiary building in the grounds of or adjoining a house, as a barn, shed, etc." A 1680 use of the term stressing the subsidiary character of the out-house is arresting: "Our noblest Piles, and stateliest Rooms Are but Out-houses to our Tombs."
Derived from the Latin joculator, meaning one who jests, a juggler originally was a jester, a person who played tricks or one who amused people by song. But as early as the 14th century the term had taken on the meaning of one who played tricks by sleight of hand; an expert in legerdemain; or a conjurer. From Samuel Pepys' 1662 Diary: "After dinner comes in a jugleur, which showed us very pretty tricks." That buffoonery was part of his act was attested in a quotation from 1808: "Buffoons and juglers, who come in groupes with music into the channel, and play their tricks." It was not until the early 19th century that the term was used in the way we primarily make use of it today.
The word mountebank is derived from the Italian, and signifies the raised platform used by itinerant salesmen to hawk their wares. Over time, this word came to be associated with "an itinerant charlatan who sold suppoed medicine and remedies, freq. using various entertainments to attract a crowd of potential customers" (OED, s.v.). Reflecting the early usage, Francis Bacon could lament in 1605 that "Men...will often preferre a Mountabanke or Witch, before a learned Phisitian."
A quotation almost contemporary with the New York statute brings the issue and language into greater focus. From 1783: "The rabble were gathered in knots round the strollers and mountebanks, singing and scaramouching in the middle of the square..." [By the way, the word scaramouching is not attested in that form in the OED, but is listed as scaramouch (n). A scaramouch was originally a stock character in Italian farce, a cowardly and foolish boaster who is constantly being cudgelled by Harlequin. But the OED informs us that in later use it was often employed loosely as a term of contempt, such as rascal or scamp].
Jugglers and Mountebanks Together
But we have to go back further to see the marriage of jugglers and mountebanks, even to the Bard himself. From A Comedy of Errors 1.2:
"..They say this town is full of cozenage,
As, nimble jugglers that deceive the eye,
Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind,
Soul-killing witches that deform the body,
Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks,
And many such-like liberties of sin..."
The interesting thought coming from this passage is that the NY statute might have owed more to the imaginary world of Shakespearean comedy than fine legal distinctions arising from the American experience. A statute like this invites us to a study of the darker side of early 19th century New York. The standard textbooks tell about the economic marvels brought about by the Erie Canal or the religious revivals in the burned over district or the literary output of Washington Irving or James Fenimore Cooper, but few tell us about freaks and showmen, about cozenage and deception and scaramouching, about jugglers and mountebanks.
As might not be unexpected, I have a few more things to say about the following two sections of the statute, but I think it will have to wait for another occasion.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long