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“I Was a Very Apt Scholar in This Kind of Street Etiquette”: William Otter Brawls His Way Through New York City, 1830s

While most working-class autobiographers followed the example of Benjamin Franklin and portrayed the “industrious apprentice,” William Otter showed another side of plebian life. Otter took his readers into the world of heavy drinking and nativist violence of antebellum urban life. Cities increasingly became unruly places to govern in the decades before the Civil War with their rapid population growth and jostling of immigrant and native born. Competition for jobs and just plain scapegoating led to brawls between native-born, foreign, and African-Americans workers. Otter participated in the urban diversions made possible by the new commercial culture such as boxing, baseball and other sports, or games at local taverns, along with the competitions between rival militia companies and neighborhood street gangs. All of these boisterous activities could turn violent. Otter was born in England and impressed into the British navy. He jumped ship and came to New York in 1831. While apprenticed as a plasterer, he entered a world of masculine culture that he colorfully displayed in his History of My Own Times (1835).

My father then came home and ... said he hoped that I would be a good boy, and carry myself straight, and would get into some useful occupation; he then asked me a second time what I intended to learn, I told him I thought I would learn to be a shoemaker; he immediately consented if I could get a good master. I went to market with my father every day, at length I found for myself a master by the name of John Paxton, a resident in Water street in the city of New York, to him I went upon probation of a fortnight’s duration, and staid with him a week all but three days, and then put out. From there I went home again, my father asked me how I liked the trade; to that enquiry I answered, that I did not like it at all, I had quit it; he asked me if I had told Mr. Paxton so; I told him I had; he asked me why I had quit; I told Mr. Paxton that it hurt me across my breast; my father asked me what are you going to learn now, I told him I did not know yet; I then walked about the city for two or three days.

I hunted for myself a master, in the meantime, and took a notion to learn the venitian blind making business, and found for myself a master in a man of the name of William Howard, who followed that business in Broadway, opposite the park he also took me on probation (as I had no notion to run a head of the wind) for two weeks; which is the established rule in the city, as to taking apprentices on probation. Mr. Howard put me at painting blinds; in that office I held out five days and found that the effects of the paint, on my part was intolerable; I told Mr. Howard I believed I would leave him, that I could not stand it, I would go home; he said, well you must know best yourself, I do not intend to persuade you against your own will,—and there, and in manner aforesaid, ended my second apprenticeship, and I put out home. When I came home my father was absent, my mother asked me how I liked my new trade; I told her I had quit; why, said she, William you learn your trades quick; I told her yes; and what are you going to do now, continued my mother: I told her I did not know. In the evening my father came home; my mother told him that I had learned another trade; he then asked me had I quit again; I told him yes; he asked me if I had told Mr. Howard, that I intended to quit; I told him I had; he then said that was right. He then asked me what I would join next, I told him I thought I would try to learn the carpenter business; well, said he, seek for yourself another master, I told him I would; accordingly I went in quest of a master and got one, by the name of Gausman, a Scotchman, in Broadway: he put me to sawing out boards all that week; on Sunday I went home; father asked how I come on, I told him very well, he said he was glad to hear it, hoping I would get myself bound the next week, I told him I would wait till next week was over before I got myself bound; I kept on sawing boards until Thursday; I told the foreman I believed I would quit it, that I had the back-ache and the work was too hard: and without any further ceremony I put out for home, and so ended my third apprenticeship. My father asked me how I came on at the carpenter’s business; I told him I had quit it, he then gave me to understand that he entertained the thought that hard work and myself had had a falling out; I told him yes, that I did not like it much. He told me in good earnest to make up my mind and go to some trade and stick to it and learn it, as I was fooling away my time to no purpose, in the way I had been leaving trades; as bye the bye, I was master of none: and that after a while my name would become so notorious that I could not get a master, as he wished to see me do well; and if I got a master again to get myself bound straightway. If I did not do that, I would never get a trade.

I then took a notion to learn the bricklaying and plastering business, and went to hunt a master in good earnest, and found one by the name of Kenweth King. I asked him if he would take a boy and learn him his trade; he asked if I was the boy, I told him yes, he then asked me my name and where I lived, which inquiries I answered; he told me to bring my father there the next day, I told him I would; the next day about two o’clock according to promise my father and myself called to see Mr. King. My father signified a wish to have me bound instanter as I had so many masters, and flew as often too; Mr. King told my father he had no apprehension about im; but that he could make a good boy out of me, as he had no less than eight boys at that time; my father told him if it suited, he would like to have me bound on the spot, to which Mr. King said he had no objections if I was agreed; I told him I was perfectly satisfied, and we went straight to a squire-shop and got myself bound for four years. The next morning I went to work in my new birth, and worked on till Saturday evening; I asked permission of my master to go home and see my parents, he consented I might go provided I returned on Sunday evening; I told him I would; I went home, and father asked me how I come on. I told him very well; he asked if I liked my trade and my master, I told him I did; he said he was very glad to hear it, hoped that I would stay and learn my trade and make myself master of it. My mother said that she was glad that I had found a man and trade that I liked. On Sunday evening, according to promise, I returned to my master and went to work as usual, and worked about a year at my trade; where my mother sent for me, being then afflicted with infirmity and sickness, she made a dying request, by saying she hoped that I never would go to sea again, that I would stay with my master, learn my trade, and be a good boy, I made the promise to her that I never would go to sea again, and staid at home until I had performed the last sad sepultural rights; I saw her interred......

The holydays being over, I was put to night-school by my master, and I happened by some means or other to miss attending school as often as I happened to attend it; one night that I failed in attending school having business at a Mr. Francis Drake’s in Orange street, in lending a hand to a dance that happened to be there, when we came to the door, a shilling was demanded by the door keeper as an admittance fee, we told him we had no small change about us, but when we came in we would pay him; he said he was not quite so green; that he had been sucked in too often for that; we found we could not get in by stratagem, we went out to the front door at the street and began to kick up a row amongst ourselves which was merely done to call his presence and attendance there, and we succeeded in the design, for he came as we wished he should, to the front door to see what was the matter, while we had him there we surrounded him and we kicked and knocked him about till we had all slipped in; he came and reported his case to Mr. Drake, how we had maltreated him, and that we were a set of audacious rascals, and had not paid our entrance. Mr. Drake asked him, if he knew any of us, he said, he did not know, that it was too dark to be sure, yet he thought he could point some of us out, he said that, at any rate, none of us had any tickets. Mr. Drake came up to me, and asked me for my ticket, and by this time I had ingratiated myself into the good graces of a young lady, to vouch for me certain facts, to clear myself, which she consented to, and accordingly she bore me out; I replied to Mr. Drake’s inquiry, that I had got a glass of punch at the bar for the ticket, and that me, and the young lady I was in company with, had helped me to drink it. She was called upon to verify my assertion, and she confirmed it, by answering the appeal made to her, in the affirmative, and said that I was clear; and Drake catching the word, well then you are clear; in the mean time, snug as I felt, still I believed that I was the biggest scamp among the whole bunch, for, in justice to myself, I was the original inventor of the plan to get the door-keeper into the street, and to kick and cuff him in the manner we did, and was one among the first who commenced the exercise on him. Mr. Drake asked several others for their tickets, some had one excuse, some had spent their tickets at the bar, &c. &c.; at last he inquired of a lad of the name of Dick Turner for his ticket, Dick told him it was none of his business; that reply of Dick’s, was paramount to a declaration of internal wars. Drake then told him that he believed that he was one of the rascals. Dick told Drake, he was a liar. Drake drew his club at Dick, and Dick seeing the storm gathering to burst over his head, and to avert it, he availed himself of this advantage of pugilistic science, let Drake have a Kenset and felled him we all took the hint at Dick’s performance; chimed in, whipped Drake and the door-keeper, cleared the ballroom of stray hands; blew the lights out; drank as much as we wanted, and cleared the gangway, before time could be allowed to call upon the watchman for aid; and dispersed and went to our respective homes; and took care not to visit that part of the city for about two weeks.....

One evening, a parcel of us lads went to the house of a certain John M’Dermot, keeper of a victual and oyster shop, in George’s street, New-York, with a view to set things to rights in his establishment, as he deserveed it, being of an overbearing turn of mind, and saucy as mischief itself; and we came to the conclusion to put him where he ought to be. After we had got our gang together, and thought ourselves strong enough, we began to play, what was termed “patent billiards,” for drink and oysters. We played about one hour. We began to quarrel amongst ourselves, as he thought, to lead the lad on the ice, and as we became too loud for Mr. M’Dermot, he appeared amongst us, and told us, that if we did not keep less noise, that he would put the whole of us out. To this menace of his, we just told him, that he could not do that. No sooner than he had heard our answer, than he laid to grabbing at some of us, and we took the hint, and let him have it. The first thing that he was conscious of, was, he found himself sprawling on the floor, received the hearty kicks of every one who could get foot on him. Some of the spare hands fell upon the negroes who were employed by him to shock oysters, and drove them into the cooking room, and beat them, poor d—— ls, into a jelly; being in a cellar, this whole performance was conducted in silence, unknown to the watchmen. After we had laid Mr. M’Dermot and his hands speechless, the way his geese, chickens, oysters, hams, &c. were slashed about, was nobody’s business.

After the glories of the several sprees, as I was a very apt scholar in this kind of street etiquette; in the mean time I would attend night school by time, to keep up what may be termed a liberal attention to classic lore. What I forgot to learn one night, I’d be sure to learn the next. I attended night school for ten nights in regular succession.

Source: William Otter, History of my own times; or, The life and adventures of William Otter, sen., comprising a series of events, and musical incidents altogether original (Emmitsburg, Md., 1835), 67–73, 86–89, 98–99.