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Mean Federalist Streets

June 2024
1min read

History of My Own Times

by William Otter, Cornell University Press, 248 pages .

Federal-period America produced autobiographies by preachers, surgeons, philanthropists, politicians, war heroes, and newspaper editors, but the people who worked anonymously with their hands left few histories behind. William Otter’s is a powerful exception, but then Otter would be the first to insist he was no ordinary man. He was both a prominent plasterer and a ruffian.

Born in England in 1787, he ran away to sea at age eleven when his father whipped him for not weeding the garden. Ice sank his ship off Greenland; Otter was rescued by a second vessel and later impressed into His Majesty’s navy, which he deserted. He wound up in New York City, where he began his American education with a local plasterer and also with a city gang, the Highbinders. His book reads something like a Dickens story until 1806, when the poor, buffeted English boy sheds his innocence by joining in an anti-Irish riot. From here on follow stories of an American lout, cutting school, running with the gang, starting fights in grogshops, and eluding the watchman. One night he lay in wait for a local grocer who had clubbed him: “I let slip a war-hawk and missed him, the stone took a keg, and spent its idle force there; he came to the door and looked up and down the street… I prepared for another shot, and let slip another, and hit him on the jaw and knocked him down.…” This is not the usual fare in autobiographies of the time.

The rest of Otter’s life is a similar rowdy mix of working, drinking, and tribal violence against Irish and blacks. This side of life is rarely given voice in accounts of the period, let alone such an agile voice. The gap between Otter’s fluent history and his brutish actions keeps the book as absorbing as a good period novel.

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