The History of Masked Balls in NYC


The masked balls, which are held in the city every winter, are largely attended by impure women and their male friends. Even those which assume to be the most select are invaded by these people in spite of the precautions of the managers. Some of them are notoriously indecent, and it may be safely asserted that all are favorable to the growth of immorality. On the 22d of December, 1869, one of the most infamous affairs of this kind was held in the French Theatre, on Fourteenth street. I give the account of it published in the World of December 24th, of that year:

“The ‘Société des Bals d’Artistes,’ an organization which has no other excuse for existing than the profits of an annual dance, and which last year combined debauchery with dancing in a manner entirely new to this city, on Wednesday night had possession of the Théâtre Français, in which was to be given what was extensively advertised as the ‘First Bal d’Opéra.’ The only conspicuous name in this society (which is composed of Frenchmen) is that attached to the circular published below, but it is reasonable to suppose that the men who got up the ball were animated by a purely French desire to make a little money and have a good deal of Parisian carousing, which should end, as those things do only in Paris, in high and comparatively harmless exhilaration. But they mistake the locality. This is not Paris. The peculiar success of the ball given under their auspices last year was not forgotten by the class of roughs indigenous to New York. Under the name of Bal d’Opéra, licence, it was found, could be had for actions that would be no where else tolerated in a civilized community. It was found, moreover, that this description of ball would bring together, with its promise of licence, that class of reckless women who find opportunities to exhibit themselves in their full harlotry to the world, too much restricted and narrowed by enactment and public opinion not to take advantage of this one. The scenes which took place about the entrance of the French Theatre, when the ‘artistes’ commenced to arrive, were sufficiently indicative of the character of the entertainment. At 11 o’clock there were about a thousand men and boys there congregated, forming an impenetrable jam, through which the police kept open a narrow avenue for the masqueraders to pass from the coaches to the door. This crowd was manifestly made up of the two sui generis types of character which in this city have received the appellation of ‘loafers’ and ‘counter jumpers.’ Wide apart as they ordinarily may be, on such an occasion as this they are animated by common desires and common misfortunes. The inability to buy a ticket of admission, and the overpowering desire to see women disporting themselves in semi-nude attire and unprotected by any of the doubts which attach to their characters in ordinary street life, brought these moon-calves together, on a wet and chilly night, to stand for hours in the street to catch a passing glimpse of a stockinged leg or a bare arm, and to shout their ribald criticisms in the full immunity of fellowship. It was enough for them that the women came unattended. Every mask that stepped from her coach was beset by hoots and yells and the vile wit of shallow-brained ruffians, or the criticism of the staring counter-jumpers. There was also the chance open to the rougher members of this assemblage of ultimately getting into the ball without paying. They had no well-defined plan, but they felt instinctively that when their own passions had been sufficiently aroused, and when the later scenes inside had grown tumultuous, they could knock the door-keeper’s hat over his face, and go brawling in like wolves. There were knots of half-grown men on the corners of the street and about the adjacent pot-houses who were driving a good traffic in tickets, and other knots of creatures, neither men nor boys, but that New York intermedium, who has lost the honesty of the boy without gaining the manliness of the man, were speculating upon the probabilities of a fight, and expressing very decided opinions as to the possibility of licking the Frenchmen who would endeavor to keep them out or keep them orderly after they got in.

“The attendants upon the ball, on entering the vestibule, were handed the following circular, printed neatly in blue ink:

“‘The purpose of the President and Committee of the Société des Bals d’Artistes is to preserve the most stringent order, and to prevent any infraction of the laws of decency. Any attempt at disturbance or lewdness will be repressed with the most extreme severity, and sufficient force is provided to warrant quietness and obedience to laws.

‘The President, L. Mercier.’

“That such was the purpose of the committee we have no reason to doubt. But it was no wiser than the purpose of the man who invited a smoking party to his powder magazine, and told them his object was to prevent explosion. The dancing commenced at 11 o’clock. At that time the floor, extending from the edge of the dress-circle to the extreme limit of the stage, presented a curious spectacle. Probably there were a hundred masked women present, among five hundred masked and unmasked men. These women were dressed in fancy costumes, nearly all selected with a view to expose as much of the person as possible. By far the greater number wore trunk hose and fleshings; but many were attired in the short skirts of the ballet, with some attempt at bayadere and daughter of the regiment in the bodices and trimmings. Here and there a woman wore trailing skirts of rich material, and flashed her diamonds in the gaslight as she swung the train about. There was no attempt on the part of the men to assume imposing or elegant disguises. The cheapest dominoes, and generally nothing more than a mask, afforded them all they wanted—the opportunity to carry on a bravado and promiscuous flirtation with these women. That part of the family circle tier which faces the stage was given up to the musicians. The rest of the gallery was crowded with spectators. The boxes below were all taken up, the occupants being mainly maskers overlooking the dance. But the proscenium boxes, and notably the two lower ones on either side, were filled with a crew of coarse-featured, semi-officious looking roughs, who might be politicians, or gamblers, or deputy-sheriffs, or cut-throats, or all, but who, at all events, had no intention of dancing, and had hired these boxes with the one view of having a good time at the expense of the women, the managers, and, if necessary, the public peace itself. They were crowded in; some of them stood up and smoked cigars; all of them kept their hats on; one or two were burly beasts, who glared upon the half-exposed women on the floor with a stolid interest that could only be heightened and intensified by some outrageous departure from the seemliness of simple enjoyment. They have their fellows on the floor, to whom they shout and telegraph. They have liquor in the boxes, and they use it with a show of conviviality to increase their recklessness.

“At twelve o’clock there is a jam; most of the crowd outside has got in by some means; the floor is a mass of people. Suddenly there is a fight in the boxes. Exultant cries issue from the proscenium. At once turn up all the masked faces in the whirling mass. It is a Frenchman beset by two, aye three, Americans. Blows are given and taken; then they all go down out of sight—only to appear again; the three are on him; they are screeching with that fierce animal sound that comes through set teeth, and in men and bull-dogs is pitched upon the same note. The maskers rather like it; they applaud and cheer on—not the parties, but the fight—and when the police get into the boxes and drag out the assaulted man, and leave the assailants behind, the proscenium bellows a moment with ironical laughter, the music breaks out afresh, and the dancers resume their antics as though nothing had happened.

“Enough liquor has now been swallowed to float recklessness up to the high-water mark. There is another fight going on in the vestibule. One of the women has been caught up by the crowd and tossed bodily into the proscenium box, where she is caught and dragged by half a dozen brutes in over the sill and furniture in such a manner as to disarrange as much as possible what small vestige of raiment there is on her. The feat awakens general enjoyment. Men and women below vent their coarse laughter at the sorry figure she cuts and at the exposure of her person. Presently the trick is repeated on the other side. A young woman, rather pretty and dressed in long skirts, is thrown up, and falls back into the arms of the crowd, who turn her over, envelop her head in her own skirts, and again toss her up temporarily denuded. The more exactly this proceeding outrages decency, the better it is liked. One or two repetitions of it occurred which exceeded the limits of proper recital. The women were bundled into the boxes, and there they were fallen upon by the crew of half drunken ruffians, and mauled, and pulled, and exhibited in the worst possible aspects, amid the jeers and laughter of the other drunken wretches upon the floor. One, a heavier woman than the rest, is thrown out of the box and falls heavily upon the floor. She is picked up insensible by the police and carried out. There is not a whisper of shame in the crowd. It is now drunken with liquor and its own beastliness. It whirls in mad eddies round and round. The panting women in the delirium of excitement; their eyes, flashing with the sudden abnormal light of physical elation, bound and leap like tigresses; they have lost the last sense of prudence and safety. Some of them are unmasked, and reveal the faces of brazen and notorious she-devils, who elsewhere are cut off by edict from this contact with the public; a few of them are young, and would be pretty but for the lascivious glare now lighting their faces and the smears of paint which overlay their skins; all of them are poisonous, pitiable creatures, suffering now with the only kind of delirium which their lives afford, rancorous, obscene, filthy beauties, out of the gutter of civilization, gone mad with the licence of music and the contact of men, and beset by crowds of libidinous and unscrupulous ninnies who, anywhere else, would be ashamed of their intimacy, or roughs to whom this kind of a ball affords the only opportunity to exercise the few animal faculties that are left to them.

“M. Mercier stands in the middle of the floor, and shouts to the musicians to go on. For it isn’t safe for them to stop. Whenever they do, there is a fight. One stalwart beauty, in bare arms, has knocked down a young man in the entrance way, and left the marks of her high heels on his face. She would have kicked the life out of him while her bully held him down, if a still stronger policeman had not flung her like a mass of offal into a corner. There she is picked up, and, backed by a half dozen of her associates, pushes and strikes promiscuously, and the dense crowd about her push also and strike, and sway here and there, and yell, and hiss, and curse, until the entire police force in the place drag out a score of them, and then the rest go on with the dancing, between which and the fighting there is so little difference.

“In one of the boxes sits — —, with a masked woman. But it is getting too warm for him. The few French women who came as spectators, and occupied the seats in the family circle, went away long ago. They were probably respectable. On the floor one sees at intervals well known men, who either were deceived by the announcement of a Bal d’Opéra, or were too smart to be deceived by anything of this sort. A few newspaper reporters, looking on with stoical eye; here a prize-fighter, and there a knot of gamblers; here an adolescent alderman, dancing with a notorious inmate of the police courts; there a deputy sheriff, too drunk to be anything but sick and sensual. Now the can-can commences. But it comes without any zest, for all of its peculiarities have been indulged in long before. It is no longer a dance at all, but a wild series of indecent exposures, a tumultuous orgie, in which one man is struck by an unknown assailant; and his cheek laid open with a sharp ring, and his white vest and tie splashed with blood, give a horrible color to the figure that is led out.

“There is an evident fear on the part of the ball officials that matters will proceed too far. They endeavor to prevent the women from being pulled up into the boxes by laying hold of them and pulling them back, in which struggle the women are curiously wrenched and disordered, and the men in the boxes curse, and laugh, and shout, and the dancers, now accustomed to the spectacle, give it no heed whatever.

“If there is anything in the behaviour of the women that is at all peculiar to the eye of an observer who is not familiar with the impulses and the manifestations of them in this class, it is the feverish abandonment into which drink and other excitements have driven them. It is not often that a common bawd, without brains or beauty enough to attract a passing glance, thus has the opportunity to elicit volleys of applause from crowds of men; and, without stopping to question the value of it, she makes herself doubly drunken with it. If to kick up her skirts is to attract attention—hoop la! If indecency is then the distinguishing feature of the evening, she is the woman for your money. So she jumps rather than dances. She has a whole set of lascivious motions, fashioned quickly, which outdo the worst imaginings of the dirty-minded men who applaud her. She springs upon the backs of the men, she swaggers, she kicks off hats. She is a small sensation in herself, and feels it, and goes about with a defiant and pitiless recklessness, reigning for the few brief hours over the besotted men who feel a fiend’s satisfaction in the unnatural exhibition.

“To particularize to any greater extent would be to make public the habits and manners of the vilest prostitutes in their proper haunts, where, out of the glare of publicity, they may, and probably do, perfect themselves in the indecencies most likely to catch the eyes of men little better than themselves, but which thus brought together under the gaslight of the public chandelier is, to the healthy man, like the application of the microscope to some common article of food then found to be a feculent and writhing mass of living nastiness. That respectable foreigners were induced to attend this ball by the representations made by the managers is certain. That they were outraged by what took place there, is beyond all doubt. To suppose a man deceived as to the character of the entertainment, and to go there and mingle with masked ladies, who for a while ape the deportment of their betters, is to suppose a sensation for him at once startling; for when the richly dressed ladies doff their masks, he finds himself surrounded by a ghastly assemblage of all the most virulent social corruption in our civilization; dowagers turn out to be the fluffy and painted keepers of brothels; the misses sink into grinning hussies, who are branded on the cheeks and forehead with the ineradicable mark of shame; and the warm and coy pages, whom at the worst he might have supposed to be imprudent or improvident girls, stare at him with the deathly-cold implacability of the commonest street-walkers—those in fact who glory in their shame, and whose very contact is vile to anything with a spark of healthy moral or physical life in it. If, indeed, they had lain off their sickly flesh with their masks, and gone grinning and rattling round the brilliant hall in their skeletons, the transformation could not have chilled your unsuspecting man with a keener horror. But it is safe to say the unsuspecting were few indeed.

“At two o’clock this curious spectacle was at its height. All about the Institute, and on the stairs, and in the cloak-rooms, and through the narrow, tortuous passages leading to the stage dressing-rooms were vile tableaus of inflamed women and tipsy men, bandying brutality and obscenity. The animal was now in full possession of its faculties. But, just as the orgie is bursting into the last stage—a free fight—when the poor creatures in their hired costumes are ready to grovel in the last half-oblivious scenes, the musicians rattle off ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ with a strange, hurried irony, and the managers, with the same haste, turn off the gas of the main chandelier, and the Bal d’Opéra is at an end.”

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