History is Present

Not Alone in History: Are you laughing during the pandemic?

Who is the American Civil War’s Tiger King

Perhaps it’s Captain Samuel Richardson and his jaguar skin pants with matching pistol holsters? 

Maybe the outsized commander of the Louisiana Tigers, Chatham Roberdeau Wheat? Just look at these photographs of him

In the first weeks of this pandemic and lockdown, many of us became obsessed with the outlandish trashiness of Netflix’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. The cyclone of lunacy that surrounds the drug and money-fueled escapades of big cat keepers Joe Exotic, Carole Baskin, and Doc Antle have produced one jaw-dropping moment after another and launched a thousand memes, jokes, think pieces…and a collective sense of togetherness. 

As one meme would have it, “Joe Exotic would be thrilled to know that he alone brought the nation together as weathered a pandemic. #TigerKing”

So I don’t think Captain Jaguar Pants or Major Wheat really qualify as the Civil War’s Tiger King. They didn’t bring their nation together.

For that exalted title, I’d like to nominate a fellow named Petroleum V. Nasby

Americans of the Civil War era were not all gloomy sentimentalists, overcome with the ever-increasing horror of war. My favorite part of reading primary source documents is seeing how quickly everyone turned to puns and practical jokes. Certain newspaper editors, preachers, politicians, and humorists made high art of low comedy with satire etched with an acid sense of humor. (Have you ever read a Parson Brownlow editorial/sermon? My God…) 

Readers north and south craved the satirical ignorance of opinionated buffoons like Artemus Ward, Bill Arp, Orpheus C. Kerr, and Nasby, all created by veteran newspaper editors and writers. These characters were built on the worst tendencies of American democracy—messy, vicious, lazy, ill-informed, opportunistic, drunk, bombastic, and racist. 

Their authors had much to work with. 

Like Joe Exotic, Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby was a redneck weirdo from the heartland. David Ross Locke, the wartime editor of the Toledo (Ohio) Blade, created the Nasby character to skewer the pro-southern and pro-slavery Democrats known as copperheads that flourished in Ohio. 

Nasby, a part-time minister and perpetually disappointed seeker of small-time political appointments, and a full-time drunk and Democrat, lashed out at abolitionists, Republicans, and the United States war effort from his seat deep in Ohio. In public letters, he wrote and spoke in the dialect often used by humorists of the day, with nearly every word misspelled. Nasby celebrated the defeat of George McClellan’s United States armies, while lamenting that too few abolitionists had been killed. He condemned interracial marriage (Locke was remarkably progressive in his racial politics, even for an abolitionist) while defending white masters having sex with enslaved women.

Nasby’s letters chronicled his creative avoidance of military service, first by claiming that his dandruff and chronic diarrhea made him ineligible, then by flight to Canada before being forced into the army. He deserted to the Confederacy, but quit in disgust over his ragged uniforms.

Americans loved him; none less than Abraham Lincoln. Famous for his own backwoods sense of humor, Lincoln reveled in Nasby’s low-brow comedy stylings. The president also appreciated Locke’s sendup of his Democratic and copperhead opposition. Samuel Clemens also praised Locke’s Nasby character, and you can certainly sense the satirical milieu that Mark Twain emerged from in Civil War comedy.

David Ross Locke with Clemens and Shaw

Locke—and his contemporaries—mobilized a particularly nineteenth century American sense of humor that featured the worst in our society, for the cause of the Union. Today we joke about the trashy characters in Tiger King to reflect our nervous uncertainty about the pandemic. We laugh at ourselves, with a purpose. What would we have without it? Certainly the need to laugh counterbalances the anxiety and partisan wrangling that pervades our lives now. That’s why I think Petroleum V. Nasby is the Tiger King of the Civil War. 

The current obsession with Tiger King will fade (indeed, the backlash is well underway) and a new object of joke-making will undoubtedly arise. Whatever it is, how will it harness the worst about us and the best in us to cope with the present crisis? 

Anyhow, where are you finding distraction and a good laugh now? Have you seen any Civil War themed pandemic memes? If you make one, share it and I’ll pass it along. 

(P.S.. A warning: Locke made Nasby a satire of the meanest proslavery racist, so he drops the N-word and expresses racist attitudes with great gusto. If you want to avoid him, Artemus Ward may be a better pick.) 

For more: 

  • Jon Grinspan wrote this helpful introduction to Nasby for The New York Times. He also used proper English and wise judgment in exploring Civil War humor, in “’Sorrowfully Amusing’: The Popular Comedy of the Civil War,” Journal of the Civil War Era, Vol. 1, No. 3 (September 2011), pp. 313-338. 

Not Alone in History is a 5-part blog series that seeks to find insights in the ways that Americans faced another national crisis as we confront the present COVID-19 pandemic.