The National Police Gazette

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In the America where the Police Gazette flourished, every town, even the smallest, had a Bijou Theatre or a Gayety. (In my own small town in upstate New York, the space above what is now our local drugstore was, from 1880 to 1900, referred to as the Grand Opera House.)

 

The lighting was terrible in these places, and the stage boards creaked. But down the street was a depot—in my town there were, in fact, three depots, and now, of course, there are none—and from time to time there arrived a troupe of touring players. Out in the dreary prairie hamlets the players got off the cars covered with dust; in the South they would be sweaty all over. Their costumes were frayed. Nevertheless, they represented glamour equally mixed with Sin. The very words used for the feminine players were charged with excitement for the mill hands and cowmen: soubrette, ballet girl .

The dramatic plays were old reliables in which the villain got his in the last act. The musicals were loud. The comedians were far from the polished performers of the vaudeville days of thirty years later. But these troupers brought the great world to the little lonely towns on the great continent that in the late nineteenth century was essentially unpeopled and undeveloped. The players brought a bit of color with them, and left behind inflamed farm boys and, sometimes, farm girls who, though forbidden to go to the performance, might have caught enough of a glimpse of the players in the street to engender the hope that they, too, might someday drink champagne —“wine,” it was called—and have a handsome leading man and go about in a flare of glamour—and be something. Be an actress.

The clergymen thundered against all this. (A story has come down over the years that a group of reverends called upon Fox in his office, bearing, with horror, a picture he had published of a vilely exposed soubrette. “Let us pray!” cried the leader of the dominies, and Fox at once dropped to his knees before his desk and chanted away for a while. After that there seemed nothing for the men of God to do but take their leave.) Constables threatened action if performances should prove obscene, and good ladies flounced away when the sinners appeared on the streets near their hotel. But the theatre flourished in those years.

 

It might not have done so handsomely had the Police Gazette never been. Before Fox, the stage people had gone almost wholly unchronicled. Fox saw them as aids to circulation, and to this end not an issue of his paper appeared without some theatre gossip, some discussion of players’ love affairs and plans, and—most important of all—at least one Favorite of the Footlights to set the pulse beating. To our eyes these girls seem unbelievable—incredibly thick of limb, heavy of jowl, arch of countenance, cow-eyed—but to our great-grandfathers they were spicy, daring, exciting, stimulating, all that Theatre was supposed to be.

Our great-grandparents for the most part lived their lives on the scanty proceeds of damned hard work and damned long hours in foundries and blacksmith shops, in sawmills and factories and sweatshops and farm fields, in tobacco-stripping plants and lumberyards, in kitchens sweltering in summer and freezing in winter—but a very tiny percentage of them lived in the Gilded Age. For these few, the actress was as much a part of education as Princeton or Harvard. The dudes and swells had to have their fling. And the girls at Vassar naughtily experimented with cigarettes and the wearing of trousers. These scandals were always grist for Fox’s mill. Sin —that sold papers. And how Fox ranted against it!

But, of course, the Police Gazette itself was sinful. When you get right down to it, that is what it was. The illustrations showed women’s ankles . All the time! In every issue! Writing in 1930, the renowned columnist Franklin P. Adams, looking back to his youth, said that the pugilistic stuff never had interested him—what got to him was the ankles. “Yes, I used to stare at those pictures, and so did all the boys that I knew.”

Fox never came out and said that ankles and even knees were the subjects of half the illustrations. It was just that women tended to fight with one another in Kenosha, or get tossed by a steer in Laredo, or get caught in barbed wire in Rochester —and when this happened, their skirts jumped up. And sports reading of these events and studying the woodcuts in an atmosphere of cigars and bay rum—for the true home of the Police Gazette was the barbershop and saloon—well, they read and studied. Who can blame them? They lived in towns in which the street paving ended where the trolley made its turnaround. Their wrists were thick and their nails dirty. They drank, being largely of the lower orders (as was 95 per cent of the population) and therefore pretty much immune to the genteel Women’s Christian Temperance Union ideas of the middle classes. Their surroundings were grimy and dreary: coal dust in the winter and mud in the spring and the smell of horse manure all year round. There was precious little spice in their lives. So they looked at ankles.