Asbury’s Chapter VI, Section 1 of The Gangs of New York (on the Police and Dead Rabbit riots of the late 1850s) begins with two very disjointed paragraphs in which he attempts to convey the tumultuous changes in American society of the 1850s. He does this by naming some of the cultural icons of the period: preacher Henry Ward Beecher; dancer Sontag; singer Adelina Patti; Uncle Tom’s Cabin; actor Edward Askew Sothern….and the 1854 debut of America’s first chiropodist, “Dr. James Littlefield.” These paragraphs read as a capricious hodge-podge, capped by the mention of Dr. Littlefield, who was hardly a cultural touchstone. What was Asbury thinking?
Alas, he wasn’t thinking–he was just poaching from his source material, Nation-Famous New York Murders (1913) by Alfred Henry Lewis. Moreover, it was a very ill-advised appropriation, because Lewis had a very distinctive, conversational writing style (he would have been a great monologist) that was alien to Asbury. Also, the Lewis source paragraph was written about a much more limited, 2-3 year period, 1852-1855, prior to the killing of Butcher Bill Poole. Here is the Lewis text:
These, you are to understand, were not timid, but strenuous, days. Franklin Pierce was President, with Governor Marcy of New York — he who, in Jackson’s iron hour, had announced as his declaration of political faith that “To the victors belonged the spoils of the enemy” — as his Secretary of State; Fannie Wright was lecturing against marriage, and in favor of free love; Commodore Stevens had taken his skimming dish, the America, and beaten the English to a standstill off the Isle of Wight; animal magnetism, which had been mesmerism, was reappearing as hypnotism; Jones Wood, opposite Blackwell’s Island, was in process of being rejected by the city authorities as a public park — upon the thoughtful argument that it offered too many East River opportunities for quietly shoving overboard an undesirable acquaintance — to make way for the acceptance of Central Park which, at a popular cost of $5,169,369, was preferred in its stead; the Black Ball clipper Sovereign of the Seas, with four feet of green water washing her forward decks, her masts bending like whips, had hung up the record of 13 days and 19 hours between the Liverpool lights and Sandy Hook; Kossuth, the Hungarian liberator, was on his way to these shores ; Adelina Patti, cetat eleven, was singing at Niblo’s; river pirates Hewlett and Saul were being hanged; Lola Montez was trying to draw old-time crowds — and failing — as Mazeppa at the Broadway; Doctor Kane was poking about, blue-nosed and frozen, among arctic ice in futile quest of Sir John Franklin; Sontag was alarming the pulpits and enchanting the town with her high-kicking; the razor-strop man, the four-cent man, the ginger-bread man, the lime-kiln man, and the blue man were abroad as public nuisances in Nassau Street; Cow Bay and Murderers Alley were becoming interesting features of the Five Points; the city council, with Bill Tweed and Slippery Dick Connelly as head-liners, was creeping into celebration as the Forty Thieves; the great new play, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was in the midst of its phenomenal run of two hundred nights at the National; Putnam’s Monthly, in charge of editor Briggs, Parke Godwin and George William Curtis contributing, was shoving painfully from shore; the elder Sothern, who would later become Lord Dundreary, was holding, under the theatrical alias of Stewart, the half-paid boards in Barnum’s lecture room; the Times, Henry J. Raymond, editor, was in its swaddling clothes ; Corn Doctor Littlefield, as the first “chiropodist,” had just opened his toe parlors at 413 Broadway; while down in the Governor’s room at the City Hall, Washington Irving was presiding over the memorial service held in honor of his dead rival, Fenimore Cooper, to which the Mayor then and there present contributed a false note with what the Tribune spoke of as his “Fernando Wooden smile.” Truly, as was said above, these were not idle, but strenuous, days.
Asbury, during his translation of this material, left out more half the names; he indicated that everything he mentioned took place in the decade (not 2-3 years in the mid 1850s) before the Civil War, and he inexplicably deemed mention of Dr. Littlefield worth retaining. Perhaps Dr. Littlefield’s life and career had some significance that has been lost to current generations?
Well, no. John [not James!] Edward Littlefield (1815-1864) was a successful chiropodist (a now obsolete term for podiatrist) and family man, who made no newspaper headlines outside his advertisements. He was not the first chiropodist to practice in America: two foreign-born doctors were advertising their practices prior to Littlefield; and Littlefield began announcing his services in 1841, not in the 1850s. Lewis and Asbury should have tread more lightly on Dr. Littlefield’s toes.