Mugshot Histories: Send in the Clowns

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century an interesting form of biography became popular called mugshot histories. Publishers advertised their book with grandiose titles in states or regions to people who could then purchase an entry for themselves. Along with a glowing account of their lives they could pay more to get their photograph included in the book with their entry, thus the name mugshot. One Chicago based publisher A.W. Bowen & Co. released several of these books, including Progressive Men of Montana (1902), Progressive Men of Southern Idaho (1904), and Progressive Men of the State of Wyoming (1903). While doing some research on the Wyoming edition I came across the story of the traveling clown J. H. Foster.

The entry on page eighty-six opens with the usual glowing endorsement of Foster’s heritage. “Combining in his veins the chivralic devotion, gallantry, grace and geniality of France, and the rugged virtues of the Scotch-Irish race…is one whose life and career present unique features.” The phrase unique features vaguely hints at the difficulty the writer had of portraying his life in positive terms when it ran so contrary to societal expectations. His father fought for the Confederacy and “fortunes of war” had driven them from Kentucky. His mother was a native of Paris and there were ten children in the family when the father died and there is so little mentioned about those exact circumstances that it raises some questions.

When he was fourteen years old Mr. Foster joined an uncle who was “a celebrated clown connected with John Robinson’s circus” and the entry reports that he proved gifted enough to take over from his uncle with a scarce two-months experience. The difficulty of the work and his aptitude for it is emphasized in the piece as he toured the country “acquiring a high reputation and a great popularity.” These commendations were  secondary to the later assessment of his clowning career which was that “[he] demonstrated that ‘a circus man,’ could be a man of character and good morals, for during his life as a clown he never used tobacco, never used intoxicant and never used profane language.” The implication that a clown would do both is obviously implied.

In the late nineteenth century Americans developed an increasing mistrust of the traveling worker with some states drafting laws against hoboes and wandering laborers. An offshoot of this seems to have been a growing mistrust of all mobile workers and entries like the one for John Foster seem to indicate this is the case. They also set the stage for the vitriol against the Okies in the 1930s, so perfectly detailed in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. From Chapter IXX, “Sure, they talk the same language, but they ain’t the same. Look how they live. Think any of us folks’d live like that? Hell, no!” As the unknown writer for the Progressive Men of the State of Wyoming noted this is a unique entry and in spite of its bias it offers us a valuable and rare insight into the life of a clown at this time and the ways that wider society perceived them.

 

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About Alan Noonan

Alan Noonan is currently a Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress. He received his PhD in history from University College Cork, and has experience as a historical consultant and researcher. He has been awarded several fellowships including the Glucksman Government of Ireland Fellowship at New York University, a Mellon Fellowship at the Library Company in Philadelphia, and a fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution at the National Museum of American History.
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