THERE is, perhaps, no other delusion so far-reaching, or so fondly cherished by the human race, as the popular belief which attributes to our youthful days the doubtful merit of being, in all things, better than aught of these ” degenerate times.” With the middle-aged and the elderly the feeling is almost universal that men were more moral, more virtuous, and more upright; and that they were less given to sensuality and dissipation; that peace, order and sobriety reigned supreme ” in short, that the world was one grand, moral paradise, as compared with the present; whereas, in point of fact, nothing could be farther from the truth.
Life was just as real, earnest and exacting in the past as in the present; love, hatred, jealousy ” all held sway over men’s minds then, as now, for human nature has doubtless been much the same in all ages. Into each human history is woven more or less of the good and the bad, the false and the true. Many an airy castle, which we builded in our youth, was a mere vagary of the imagination ” a mere fiction of the fancy ” created out of nothing, and to nothing soon returned. Thoughtfulness and sobriety belong only to maturity of years, and follow in the footsteps of age.
Youth is indeed the spring-time of life, and is glorious in its strength and beauty. But age should be no less glorious, in its dignity, serenity and wisdom. Love, virtue and goodness, with their kindred attributes, were man’s inheritance from his Maker, and will continue to bless and to comfort him to the end of time. So, also, were his sins and his weaknesses a part and parcel of his human nature. If it be admitted that man has not degenerated, as I think it must, the theory that the world has grown worse than formerly can be nothing short of a fallacy.
The progress of recent times, not only in the arts and sciences, but in morality and religion, as well, is indeed too evident to be mistaken, and is quite sufficient to prove the very contrary of the proposition. It may be truly said that the good that men do lives after them, the evil is interred with their bones; for, do we not, in our contemplation of the past, remember only the virtues, the friendships and the loves of the long ago ” forgetful of the sins and the weaknesses and the human frailties, which beset us then, as now ? And thus it is; we dwell so fondly on the past, and think the elder days were better than the new.
Nothing can be truer than that the world has always been wicked. Vice and immorality have been the inheritance of all peoples and all times; and, for at least a partial illustration of this truth, we need not go from home. The writer distinctly remembers that in our own moral (?) little city, with but a tithe of its present population, and comparatively few of the influences now so conspicuous for evil, we were yet far from being altogether good. Mischief often held high carnival in our midst; pugilistic contests were not uncommon, and the baser passions were by no means always in abeyance, even surrounded, as we were, by a people, so remarkable for piety, good order and peace principles, as were the Friends, who were dominant at the time.
The unruly element was rarely ever traceable to their ranks, yet these baser spirits lived and flourished here, as elsewhere, and as they ever will, in all communities, to a greater or less degree. I occasionally meet one of these old-time “Pariahs” upon our streets””lonewandering, yet not lost””who, in earlier days, was wont to make night hideous in his cups. His companions have mostly found shelter in their graves, while he, illy clad, neglected and alone, a wreck in morals, character and health, will soon descend in sorrow to his own.
It used to be the delight of the “hoodlums” of those days to appoint a meeting somewhere on Main street ” usually selecting a moonlight evening ” and after the villagers had retired for the night, to either build a fire upon the ground, or procure an old stove from the premises of some dealer, gravely set up the pipe and put on a kettle of water, and, after all was in order and the steam and smoke ascending, hot drinks would be prepared and passed around, to add fresh fuel to the flagging fires within. They would then join hands all around, and shout and dance and sing till the welkin fairly rung, conducting themselves like a company of savages, far into the ” wee small hours,” unmolested by officers or citizens.
At times the dry goods boxes from the four quarters of the town would be collected during the night and piled many feet high, across the principal thoroughfare, completely barricading it against the traffic and travel of the following morning, when, at a late hour, the obstruction was generally removed by the owners of the property appropriated ” the guilty parties meanwhile chuckling at the annoyance and vexation thus created. Sometimes the signs would be taken down all over the village, and so changed around that the dry goods merchant got the grocer’s sign, and the grocer the dry goods dealer’s; the banker became a bookseller, and the book-seller a banker; or it sometimes chanced that the doctor’s front door would be ornamented by the dressmaker’s tin sign, and she, in turn, would rejoice in the professional insignia of the disciple of Esculapeus.
On one occasion a monied institution was made to represent a shaving shop, by setting up a barber’s striped pole in front of it. Once, upon a Sunday morning, after the ” boys” had indulged in their customary Saturday night’s revel, a new farm wagon was to be seen drawn up by the side-walk, on East Main street, having placed upon it a delapidated outbuilding, ornamented with the gaudy sign of a well known tonsorial artist, looking, “for all the world,” like some bona fide establishment on wheels, quietly awaiting its share of the public patronage.
On some occasions the gates would be taken from their hinges and carried off to some secure hiding place, to be returned at will, or perhaps never. Again, it might be the wheel of some carriage or buggy that was missing, subjecting the owner to untold annoyance, and a fruitless search of days, or even weeks, when at last some one would fish it from the bottom of the river, where it had been sunk, or, perchance, recover it from the roof of some distant barn, or out-building, where it had been placed by the authors of the mischief.
During the period from 1848 to 1852, Richmond had nothing better than a couple of old “hand engines” with which to protect her property from fire. The companies in charge were poorly organized, and consisted largely of young men and boys, few of whom had any interests at stake. Many were reckless and irresponsible, and, in the writer’s opinion, frequently guilty of firing old buildings, and possibly, also, some of the better sort ” solely to get out the engines and see which could get on first water.
The excitement often ran high, and sometimes the ill-feeling engendered would culminate in a row, or a personal combat, between the contestants of the rival companies. There is little doubt that these organizations were responsible for a vast deal of mischief, since, immediately after the adoption of a paid fire department, the alarms, both true and false, fell off at least one-half. There used to be two brothers here, named, respectively, Dave and Sam Edwards ” both blacksmiths ” and one Joshua Horner ” also a son of Vulcan ” besides other kindred spirits, either dead or retired, by reason of age or infirmity, from their wonted occupations, who never failed to participate in every fray which ingenuity or insult could bring about; and, as they wielded fists like sledge-hammers, they rarely failed to be the victors.
At times these contests would seem to become contagious, and a perfect row would result, involving many individuals. The writer has seen a whole square in commotion, at the same time densely packed with a swaying, surging mass of humanity. These disgraceful occurrences took place mostly on some public occasion ” such as election or show days ” when the streets would be thronged by our own citizens, or people from the country.
At such times many became intoxicated, consequently excitable, and ready for anything that might offer, however foolish, daring or desperate. The recollection of one of these old-time roughs occurs to me, who was never absent from a fire, who was rarely ever sober, and who was sure to do more harm than good in his possibly well-meant endeavors. I have seen him break down doors, cut down handrailing, and knock out window-frames and sash, throw out mirrors, and carry down feather-beds, in his drunken and insane excitement, and all this in a part of the house wholly free from danger.
This same individual, when in liquor, was the terror of his neighborhood. He became furious as a wild beast, fearless as a savage, and reckless as only bad whisky can make a man. In this condition he would be extremely uncivil and abusive, and thereby get himself into numerous difficulties. At such times few men would have deemed it safe to interpose as peace-makers, yet his wife ” who was but a frail woman ” could approach him and, placing her hand upon his arm, would quietly lead him away, utterly subdued and without a murmur ” just as a loving mother might lead away a little child.
It is scarcely necessary to remind the reader that, at the period to which these sketches refer, we were not yet blessed (?) with an efficient (?) police force, as now; but, if my memory serves me, we had but two peace officers, whose jurisdiction pertained to the village proper ” namely, the mayor and town marshal. The latter was himself too often under the influence of the ” flowing bowl” to fully comprehend the failings and offenses of his fellows; while the former, although a worthy and upright gentleman, was neither aggressive nor progressive.
These pictures have been drawn from real life, in our own midst, as it existed here some forty years ago, mainly for the writer’s own gratification and amusement, as well as to wrest from oblivion some of the valorous (?) deeds and pastimes of our early contemporaries; and, secondly, to in some measure dispel the oft-cherished delusion that the past was better than the present.
This is the end of Emswiler’s 3-part (recollection) series
Poems & Sketches; Paper #2; By George P. Emswiler; 1897