Beer and Loafing in Niagara Falls: Sarcastic Shenanigans from Q.K. Philander Doesticks
“The vault at Pfaffs where the drinkers and laughers meet to eat and drink and carouse
While on the walk immediately overhead pass the myriad feet of Broadway...”
—Walt Whitman (from an unpublished poem)
A century before gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson and his antihero Raoul Duke there was Mortimer Thomson and his fictional persona Q.K. Philander Doesticks. One of the “bohemian” gang who gathered at Pfaff’s Beer Cellar in Manhattan, Thomson published jaunty anecdotes under his unusual penname in newspapers across America during the 19th century.
His own creation—full name Queer Kritter Philander Doesticks, P.B. (Perfect Brick)—quickly became a favorite reporter. In November 1854 a New York Evening Post article, likely written by Thomson himself, provides this biographical information on Thomson’s eccentric alter ego:
Doesticks is a modest young clerk in this city, whose life thus far has only spanned some twenty-three years, and he is disinclined, at present, to part with his anonymous obscurity. He has nothing to offer the publishers at present, and when he has, if ever, he thinks it will be time enough to reveal his whereabouts and whatabouts. He is not looking to literature as a profession, sees no literary merit in what he has done, writes to the Advertiser to oblige a younger brother who is connected with that journal, and for no other object. He was one of the students of Michigan University who were expelled some years ago under the decree issued against secret societies in that institution.(1)
Doesticks was, of course, not without his detractors. In December 1854 The Portage County Democrat, of Ohio, explained the absence of his essays in their publication:
We have not honored our columns by an insertion of any of his effusions. The articles of “Doesticks” are designed to be satirical, the object being to “shoot folly as it flies.” The articles present a strange medley and admixture of wit, vulgarity, obscenity and profanity. The Aaron and the Hur of “Doesticks,” who hold up his weary hands, and who are his chosen bosom companions, are “Bull Dogge,” and “Damphool.” As a man is known by the company he keeps, so the character of “Doesticks” can be inferred from the names of his assistants.(2)
Doesticks had earned his reputation. Five months before the commentary above appeared, Doesticks had filed his treatise, “Niagara Falls – Doesticks on a Bender”—
Dear Editor:—I have been to Niagara, you know—Niagara Falls—big rocks, water, foam, Table Rock, Indian curiosities, squaws, moccasins, stuffed snakes, rapids, wolves, Clifton House, Suspension Bridge, place where the water runs swift, the ladies faint, scream and get the paint washed off their faces; where the aristocratic Indian ladies sit in the dirt and make little bags; where the cars go in a hurry, the waiters are impudent and all the small boys swear.
When I came in sight of the suspension bridge I was vividly impressed with the idea that it was some bridge, in fact, a considerable curiosity, and a considerable bridge—took a glass of beer and walked up to the Falls—another glass of beer and walked under the Falls; wanted another glass of beer but couldn’t get it; walked away from the Falls, wet through, mad; triumphant, victorious, humbug! —humbug! sir, all humbug!(3)
Another glass of beer—‘twas forthcoming—immediate—also, another, all of which I drank. I then proceed to drink a glass of beer, went over to the States, where I procured a glass of beer—went up stairs, for which I paid six-pence over to Goat Island, for which I disbursed twenty-five cents, hired a guide to whom I paid a half a dollar—sneezed four times, at nine cents a sneeze—went up on the tower for a quarter dollar, and looked at the Falls—didn’t feel sublime any, tried to but couldn’t, took some beer, and tried again, but failed—drank a glass of beer and began to feel better—thought the waters were sent for and were on a journey to the—; thought the place below was one vast sea of beer—was going to jump down and get some, guide held me, sent him over to the hotel to get a glass of beer, while I tried to write some poetry…(4)
Unsurprisingly, his day ends in disaster:
…bought a boy a glass of dog with a small beer and a neck on his tail, with a collar with a spot on the end—felt funny, sick—got some soda water in a tin cup, drank the cup and placed the soda on the counter, and paid for the money full of pocket—very bad headache; rubbed it against the lamp post, and them stumped along; station house came along and said if I didn’t go straight he’d take me to the watchman—tried to oblige the station house—very civil station house, very—met a baby with an Irish woman and a wheelbarrow in it, couldn’t get out of the way, she wouldn’t walk on the side walk, but insisted on going on both sides of the street at once; tried to walk between her; consequence collision, awful, knocked out the wheelbarrow’s nose, broke the Irish woman all to pieces, baby loose, court house handy, took me to the constable, jury sat on me, and the jail said the magistrate must take me to the constable; objected; the dungeon put me into the darkest constable in the city; got out, and here I am, prepared to stick to my regular opinion—Niagara unus humbug! non excelsus, non indignus admiracaloni.(5)
Doesticks again outdoes himself in an article titled, “Astonishing Effects of Croton Water”—
Once in my life have I been drunk. It was a youthful inebriation; caused by partaking too freely of cider, made from apples, with worms in it. At present I am sober. Whether for the last four-and-twenty hours I have been so is the point requiring elucidation. If during that period I have been intoxicated, then the time has arrived when any person who wishes to have a regular “drunk” need only apply to the nearest hydrant. Heretofore I have supposed water to be a beverage innocent and harmless; but now—well, no matter; I will not anticipate. Listen, while I relate a “plain unvarnished tale.”
I left my boarding-house in company with a friend, intending to witness the Shaksperian [sic] revival….Before leaving the hotel, at his suggestion we partook of a potable, known, I think, as punch—whiskey punch. I watched attentively the preparation of this agreeable beverage, and I am certain that there entered into its composition a certain amount of water—Croton water, as I have every reason to believe; and I am also sure that in that treacherous draught I imbibed the first installment of that villanous [sic] liquid which produced the diabolical state of facts I am about to describe; and also that the second and third of those ingenious inventions (both of which we drank on the spot) were as guilty, in this respect, as their “illustrious predecessor!” And I furthermore conscientiously state that my glass of brandy (one of a couple we ordered soon afterwards, and which, according to my invariable custom, should have been “straight”) was surreptitiously diluted with the same delectable fluid by the malicious bar-keeper, for I remember experiencing a slight confusion on going out, and mistaking a topsail schooner for the Broadway theatre.(6)
Doesticks soldiers on only to discover his gin cocktails and brandy smash also contain Croton water and his friend, “although a single man, had, by some mysterious process of multiplication, become two.”(7) His evening ends with the infamous last words, “The last thing I distinctly recollect is trying to pay the fare for three on this novel craft with a single piece of money (which I now know to have been a Bungtown copper) and demanding two-and-six-pence change, which I didn’t get.”(8)
However, Doesticks wrote about more than his own outlandish behavior. In describing his search for a boardinghouse, he writes of a recurring beef.
Another search and another home. Here for a week things went on tolerably well; the steak was sometimes capable of mastication, the coffee wasn’t always weak, nor the butter always strong; but one day there appeared at breakfast a dish of beef, (Bull Dogge asserts that it was the fossil remains of an omnibus horse,)—it was not molested; at dinner it made its appearance again, still it was not disturbed; at tea fragments of it were visible, but it yet remained untouched; in the morning a tempting looking stew made its appearance, but alas, it was only a weak invention of the enemy to conceal the ubiquitous beef; at dinner a meat pie enshrined a portion of the aforesaid beef; it went away unharmed. For a week, every day, in every meal, in every subtle form, in some ingenious disguise, still was forced upon our notice this omnipresent beef; it went through more changes than Harlequin in pantomime, and like that nimble individual came always out uninjured.(9)
No less idiosyncratic, according to Doesticks, was the crew of, and his journey aboard, The Ohio:
Which said boat is very much the shape of a Michigan country-made sausage, and is built with a hinge in the middle to go round the sharp bends in the river, and is manned by two captains, four mates, sixteen darkies, two stewards, a small boy, a big dog, an opoasum [sic], two pair of grey squirrels, one clock, and a cream-colored chambermaid; fog so thick you couldn’t run a locomotive through it without a snow-plough; night so dark the clerk has two men on each side of him with pitch-pine torches, to enable him to see his spectacles, (he wears spectacles;) pilot so drunk the boys have painted his face with charcoal and cokeberries, till he looks like a rag carpet in the last stages of dilapidation; and he is fast asleep, with his legs (pardon me, but—legs) tied to the capstan, his whiskers full of coal-dust and cinders, and the black end of the poker in his mouth; boat fast aground, with her symmetrical nose six feet deep in Kentucky mud; there she complacently lies, waiting for the mail boat to come along and pull her out. Passengers elegantly disposed in various stages of don’t-care-a-cent-tiveness, and the subscriber, taking advantage of the temporary sobriety of the clerk, and his consequent attendance in the after-cabin to play poker with the mates, to drop you a line.(10)
Doesticks’ superficial sarcasm and wit often concealed a deeper skepticism toward many popular subjects and practices including spirit rapping(11,12), street preaching(13), and attending church(14).
He also addressed slavery and the slave trade.(15) In March 1859 Doesticks traveled to Savanah, Georgia, as a reporter for the New York Tribune to cover a widely advertised sale of nearly 450 enslaved African Americans. Believed today to have been the largest single slave sale ever in the United States. the two-day auction of the human property of bankrupt brothers Pierce and John Butler became known as “The Weeping Time.” Written under his Doesticks pen name, Thompson's harrowing account for the Tribune was reprinted as a 28-page pamphlet by the New York American Anti-Slavery Society:
In “Doesticks Invents a Patent Medicine” he turns to the lighter topic of alternative medicine with his typical esprit, writing—
Congratulate me—my fortune is made—I am immortalized, and I’ve done it myself. I have gone into the patent medicine business. My name will be handed down to posterity as that of a universal benefactor.(16)
He continues, describing his creation:
Bought a gallon of tar, a cake of beeswax and a firkin of lard, and in twenty four hours I presented to the world the first batch of “Doestick’s Patent Self-acting Four-horse Power Balsam,” designed to cure all diseases of mind, body or estate, to give strength to the weak, money to the poor, bread and butter to the hungry, boots to the bare-foot, decency to blackguards, and common sense to the Know Nothings. It acts physically, morally, mentally, psychologically, physiologically and geologically, and it is intended to make our sublunary sphere a blissful paradise, to which Heaven itself shall be but as a side-show.(17)
Never without anecdote, the more extraordinary the better, these extraordinary claims are supported with the following laudatory letter from an Oregon farmer:
Dear Sir—The land composing my farm has hitherto been so poor that a Scotchman couldn’t get his living off it, and so stony that he had to slice our potatoes and plant them edgeways; but hearing of your balsam, I put some on the corner of a ten acre lot, surrounded by a rail fence, and in the morning I found the rocks had disappeared—a neat stone wall encircled the field, and the rails were split into ovenwood and piled up symmetrically in my back yard. Put half an ounce into the middle of a huckleberry swamp—in two days it was cleared off, planted with corn and potatoes, and had a row of peach trees in full bloom through the middle, as an evidence of its tremendous strength, I would state that it drew a striking likeness of my eldest daughter—drew my youngest boy out of the mill-pond—drew a load of potatoes four miles to market, and eventually drew a prize of ninety-seven dollars in the State lottery.(18)
In an article that is reminiscent of his spree at Niagara, Doesticks embarks on an electoral escapade during which he ruminates on the necessary qualifications for candidates to various public offices:
…went to the polls, wanted to vote, wasn’t particular who for, if he only had the biggest flags and the most ballies; was a little puzzled after all how to do it; had read all the political prints to find out the best man, but in judging from what the newspapers say concerning the different candidates, the various factions in this city entertained peculiar ideas about the requisites necessary to qualify a man to fill a public station. Not an individual is ever nominated for any office who is not eulogized by some of the public journals as a drunkard, liar, swindler, incendiary, assassin or public robber. Assuming from the wonderful unanimity of the papers on this subject, that these amiable qualities constitute the fitness of the nominees for places of honor, trust or profit, I have endeavored to analyze the gradations of criminal merit, and discover exactly how big a rascal a man must be to qualify him for any given office. The result of my investigations are as follows:
No one is eligible to the office of Mayor of the city, unless he has forged a draft and got the money on it; and, on at least two separate occasions, set fire to his house to get the insurance. Candidates for Aldermen qualify themselves by carrying a revolver, getting beastly drunk, and stabbing a policeman or two before they get sober. A Common Councilman must drink with the Short Boys, give prizes to the Firemen’s Target Excursions, carry a slung shot in his pocket, and have a personal interest in a Peter Funk auction shop. A Police Justice must gamble a little, cheat a considerable, lie a good deal, and get drunk “clear through” every Saturday night; if he can read easy words and write his name, it is generally no serious objection; but the Know-Nothings will not permit even this, on the plea that the science of letters is of foreign origin. A man who can pick a pocket scientifically will make a good constable. Aspirants to minor offices are classified according to desert but no one who has not at least committed petit larceny is allowed a place on any regular ticket. As for offices of more importance, I should say, from what I can now judge, that no man can ever be elected Governor of the State unless he is guilty of successful burglary, complicated with a midnight murder.(19)
Mortimer Thomson even found humor in the aftermath of a robbery. In “To Sneak Thieves and other Honorable Gentlemen of the Free and Easy Profession,” he wrote, “I desire to return my unaffected thanks in this public manner to the gentleman who, on Friday afternoon last, entered the basement of my house at No. 102 Hampden street, Brooklyn, and accumulated my spoons. I thank him, not that he did take the spoons, but that he did not take the forks, which were in the same basket.”(20) He concludes with a tempting offer, “I have, however, two tea-spoons remaining of the same pattern and mark as those removed by the considerate domestic filibuster, which I desire to present him in token of my appreciation of his generosity, especially as they are of no use to me, and will complete the set for him. He will please call at the rear door any day between 10 and 12 A.M.”(21)
After too short a life, Mortimer Thomson died in New York City on June 25, 1875. On the following day, the Commercial Advertiser printed a solemn front page, center column notice remembering his many endeavors and accomplishments.(22)
Also found in the same edition is the somber headline, “Preparations for the Burial of Doesticks,” under which Thomson’s friends “are requested to meet at the Scribblers Club, No. 45 East Tenth street, at 8 o’clock this evening…”(23)
- “Who Is Doesticks?” Evening Post (New York, New York), Nov. 18, 1854, p. 2.
- "’Doesticks’ Blown Up!” Portage County Democrat, published as The Portage County Democrat, (Ravenna, Ohio), Dec. 27, 1854, p. 2.
- “Niagara Falls Doesticks on a Bender,” Trenton State Gazette, published as State Gazette (Trenton, New Jersey), Aug. 2, 1854, p. 1.
- “Astonishing Effects of Croton,” Daily National Intelligencer (Washington (DC), District of Columbia), Sept. 19, 1854, p. 2.
- “Doesticks Looks for a Boarding House,” Charleston Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), Oct. 17, 1854, p. 2.
- “Doesticks On The Ohio,” Evening Post (New York, New York), Oct. 20, 1854, p. 2.
- “Doesticks Sees the Spirit-Rappers,” Charleston Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), Nov. 11, 1854, p. 1.
- “Doesticks Receives a Communication from the Spirit World,” Charleston Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), Dec. 7, 1854, p. 2.
- “Doesticks Hears Street Preaching,” Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), Nov. 6, 1854, p. 1.
- “Doesticks Goes to Church in New York,” Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Virginia), Oct. 3, 1854, p. 2.
- American Slavery Collection, 1820-1922: From the AAS, no. 3154.
- “Doesticks Invents A Patent Medicine,” Evening Post (New York, New York), Nov. 13, 1854, p. 2.
- “Doesticks down on Patent Medicine,” Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), Nov. 14, 1854, p. 1.
- “Doesticks Goes To 'Lection,” Evening Post (New York, New York), Nov. 16, 1854, p. 1.
- “Doesticks Robbed,” Boston Evening Transcript, (Boston, Massachusetts), Nov. 17, 1858, p. 4.
- “The Death Roll,” Commercial Advertiser (New York, New York), June 26, 1875, p. 1.
- “Preparations for the Burial of Doesticks,” Commercial Advertiser (New York, New York), June 26, 1875, p. 3.