Boz and Juba, an Unknown Image
When I spotted this item as Lot 94383 I was instantly moved to bid my typical $11. The description read: Original Hand-Colored Lithograph, "Heel's and Toe's." Measures 11" x 8". Some wrinkling and handling wear. Very good. From the collection of Zita Books.
With its subtitle of "The African & the Anglo Saxon," I figured this to be yet another in the long line of popular lithographic contrasts between high and low, with the latter as its intended audience. The "African" strides confidently on his heels through the muck and mire of a city street near the fish market; the eels are a first clue. The high-hatted "Anglo Saxon" tip-toes ineffectually.
Knowing that antebellum humor was littered with winks and nudges, I thought harder on what was being signaled here. As an antiquarian in all things with a special knowledge of New York City (and baseball), I recalled that "dancing for eels" was a documented contest near the waterfront or in the Five Points neighborhood and had been memorialized in several period images. John Jay Brown wrote in The American Angler's Guide; or, Complete Fisher's Manual for the United States (1849):
'Intense emotion glitter'd in their eyes,
Each eager watching for the slimy prize,'
surrounded by the fishermen with their red shirts and tarpaulin hats, the various dark-skinned polished face and white-teeth competitors with shingle in hand, watching anxiously their turn, surrounding the inside of the ring, and the motley laughing, joking, and betting crowd without, furnished a scene which we believe has been undeservedly neglected by the artist, and belongs to the history of New York as it was."
I knew that the "African" portrayed in the Heritage Auction litho so evidently of mid-century vintage was not Cuffee, the famous eel dancer shown above in a Currier & Ives print of 1865. If the "African" was a specific dancer, might it be the legendary Master Juba, born as William Henry Lane in about 1825? Juba's innovation as a dancer was born of his neighborhood, the Five Points slum in which blacks and Irish mingled and merged bits of their native origins. In Juba's dance the plantation walkaround merged with the Irish jig. Charles Dickens in his visit to New York that he memorialized in American Notes (1842), wrote of this slum:
"What place is this, to which the squalid street conducts us? A kind of square of leprous houses, some of which are attainable only by crazy wooden stairs without. What lies behind this tottering flight of steps? Let us go on again, and plunge into the Five Points.
"This is the place; these narrow ways diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth. Such lives as are led here, bear the same fruit as elsewhere. The coarse and bloated faces at the doors have counterparts at home and all the world over.
Could this be the "African" in the Heritage image? Yes, I thought ... and might the "Anglo Saxon" be his rival John Diamond? This advertisement from the New York Herald of July 8, 1844 was typical:
great public contestBetween the two most renowned dancers in the world, the Original JOHN DIAMOND and the colored boy JUBA, for a Wager of $200, on monday evening July 8 at the bowery amphitheatre, which building has been expressly hired from the Proprietor, Mr. Smith, for this night only, as its accommodations will afford all a fair view of each step of these wonderful Dancers. The fame of these two Celebrated Breakdown Dancers has already spread over the Union, and the numerous friends of each claim the Championship for their favorite, and who have anxiously wished for a Public Trial between them and thus known which is to bear the Title of the Champion Dancer of the World. The time to decide that has come, as the friends of Juba have challenged the world to produce his superior in the art for $100. That Challenge has been accepted by the friends of Diamond, and on Monday Evening they meet and Dance three Jigs, Two Reels, and the Camptown Hornpipe. Five Judges have been selected for their ability and knowledge of the Art, so that a fair decision will be made.Rule—Each Dancer will select his own Violin and the victory will be decided by the best time and the greatest number of steps.
Then it came to me, several days after I had placed my paltry opening bid. The true likeness of Juba above was drawn during his tour of England, where he performed as "Boz's Juba," the new sobriquet coming from Dickens' description of him in American Notes (Boz was Dickens' pen name for his early works):
I came to that conclusion only yesterday, in time to up my bid before the auction closed. I soared into the unaccustomed ozone of three figures but, as it turned out, won the lithograph for $75.