Thursday, December 7, 2023

The Great Horse Hoax –


‘The First Reader’, by Harry Hansen, The Pittsburgh Press, August 13, 1943

Horseplay doesn’t get much attention in this soberly serious town nowadays. Practical jokes are considered amateurish and foolish antics, symptoms of a fading mentality. A man can’t stand on his head in front of the Public Library without giving his wife grounds for divorce. Obviously, we have grown up, but the crazy cavorting of the old days must have been fun for spectators.

Leo Carillo, Variety 20, 1910

I don’t doubt that one of the liveliest of hoaxes was that of the horse lost in the subway, which Harry J. Coleman, the veteran newspaper photographer, describes in his rambling and rattlety-bang reminiscences, “Give Us a Little Smile, Baby.” This happened in 1903, a long time ago, surely, but as important to some people as Washington’s farewell in Fraunce’s Tavern and the Big Blizzard that tied up the Long Island Railroad. The horse, as Harry Coleman describes it, was the invention of a vaudeville comedian named Leo Carillo, who could imitate the call of a wild stallion on the lone prairie, hitherto unheard in the New York subway.

Leo Carillo, Variety 18, 1910

You have to take into consideration two elements now missing: the practice of making the rounds of “the better bars,” which was being built and there was Harry Coleman and the two cartoonists – TAD and George Herriman, and the fact that the subway was just being built and there was every likelihood that a horse might fall into it. TAD and his pals put on an act at a subway tunnel and Carillo bellowed and neighed, and soon a crowd collected. “The police reserves arrived with ropes, ladders, and sappers.” Shovel bearers arrived from the white wings. The fire department arrived with ladders. It was early dawn and there were plenty of alcoholic celebrants afloat. Carillo sped up and down the subway whinnying and neighing.

Its one of those stories that gains in the telling, and at the end Coleman says the scene was “an inextricable mass of fire department equipment, police squads, milkmen, and drunks, all engaged in the largest horse hunt in history and the most frustrated.

I am not one to deny that it happened. I wasn’t there. Moreover, Coleman is yarning about the exploits of the past, and that’s good even in these days, when drinks come high. In that day, long ago, when “drug stores sold drugs,” TAD (He was the late Thomas A. Dorgan) was quite a joker.


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