Sunday, August 3, 2014

A Desperate Plunge Into Esperanto?

That's a charge of felonious
leg pulling
The article in the the August 3, 1907 New York Sun reads like a piece of fiction, though the names are real. So, did this really happen? Was there a “renaissance of culture” among the police in 1907?

I wouldn’t believe it for a minute, but the Sun did publish this. Here’s their tale of the New York police making a desperate plunge into Esperanto. You can decide whether or not to believe it. My mind's made up.
There is Born in Capt. Bowes’s Worried Intellectuals a Sudden Guess that if Anything is Needed in That Precinct It Is a Universal Language, Including Yiddish.

The traveller on the jingling horse car passing the Madison street police station observing its modest, buff colored brick front and the plain iron railing leading to the arched entrance would never suspect the turmoil and heart searching which for the last few weeks have prevailed within those precinct walls. Yet ever since the renaissance of culture among the police south of Canal street the men of the Madison street police station have been agitated in their minds as to what one thing they should contribute tot he movement. It is very well to talk of taking up some one of the fine arts and having all the men become specialists in that, but what are you going to do when right around the corner is the Educational Alliance[1] dispensing free every accomplishment known on the face of the earth? At least, so argued Capt. Patrick H. Bowes, and his bluecoats agreed with him.

The opposition of the Educational Alliance, which keeps a sort of open shop in every branch of culture, worried Capt. Bowes terribly. Try as he would he couldn’t think of anything in the way of refinement which wasn’t taught there. As time went by and THE SUN kept telling how one precinct after another had decided upon its specialty a small voice seemed to repeat: “You’re next!” and the captain’s heart sank.

The captain was talking the situation over with Lieuts. Charles Mc.Carthy and John Ievers.

“If there’s anything we should pray for above all else,” remarked Lieut. Ievers, “it’s the gift of tongues. I don’t know how many languages, dialects and sub-dialects we have to handle in this precinct. It would be astonishing if it wasn’t appalling.”

Capt. Bowes puffed at a cigar thoughtfully.

“Most of it is Yiddish,” he observed, “and most of the men can speak that with peculiar fluency and such grace as the lingo lends itself to. The Greek colony with its kaphpheneion (coffee house) and xenodocheion (hotel) at the foot of Madison stret is just out of our boundaries in the Fifth precinct. Still we have a-plenty to contend with without that. I wonder— —”

The captain’s voice trailed off into silence as he bolted from behind the desk into his private room. He emerged shortly, in his hand a copy of the North American Review, his finger marking the page therein and his features working excitedly;
“Shades of Myra Kelly,”[2] he exclaimed as he hastily opened the magazine. “Just look at this!” He pointed a trembling finger to an article headed “Esperanto.”

“What’s that?” inquired Lieut. McCarthy innocently.

Capt. Bowes cleared his throat.

“Esperanto,” he began, “is a new universal language. It takes no time to learn to read it and less than no time to learn to speak it. The idea of it is that if everybody will learn it we can all converse easily with one another whether we meet on Greenland’s icy mountains or India’s coral strand or on East Broadway.”

“Yes?” said Lieut. McCarthy interrogatively.

“If we all learn to speak Esperanto here,” the captain explained, “the men will be able to talk with any of the precinct’s population.”

“And they will be able to talk back?”[3] Lieut. McCarthy inquired.

“I suppose so,” the captain replied, “though let us hope they will use some discretion about it and not drown us in a flood of words. Anyhow it’s a great scheme. It’s indorsed by The North American Review, which in cultured circles is enough said.[4] Besides, if we adopt it as a study there won’t be any of the precincts will have anything on us.”

“Let’s look at it,” said Lieut. McCarthy. He took the magazine and examined the Esperanto lesson critically.

“Every other word seems to end in j,” he observed. “I wonder what this means: ‘En landoj aliaj , pli belaj, pli sudaj.’[5] Gee! that’s worse than Lithuanian.”

Liuet. Ievers, who was bending over Lieut. McCarthy’s shoulder, made a wry face.

“Cheer up boys,” cried Capt. Bowes, it may be a bit of a bitter pill, but it’s soon swallowed; and remember it’s all for the best. It will be a cinch alongside of Russian and the assorted tongues of all the little Balkans." And he pressed the button for roll call.
Well, there it is, but I don’t believe a word of it.

All of these people existed. Yes, there was a policeman named Patrick Bowes, but he was a sergeant on the Brooklyn police force (while our tale is set in Manhattan). John Ievers lived in the Bronx, and was probably a policeman there too. The same was true of Charles McCarthy. I suspect that if I went digging through the records I would find that none of the three were at the Madison precinct, or any Manhattan precinct.

It’s a little joke on social improvement programs of the Lower East Side, the progressivism and internationalism of the North American Review, and even some at the idea of Esperanto as an international language. We are told that “if everybody will learn it we can all converse easily with one another.” If the policemen learn it but not the general population of New York, well, it’s not going to happen.

Continuing on the joke aspect, all three men listed are of Irish descent. It’s that great cliché, the Irish New York policeman. This is another case where you can’t trust everything in the paper. It’s a little humor piece snuck in with the other articles.

  1. The Educational Alliance notes on its web site that they were “founded in 1889 to help Jewish immigrants get settled in the U.S.”  ↩
  2. A writer of popular fiction.  ↩
  3. I suppose they would be able to talk back when addressed in Esperanto, but probably not in Esperanto.  ↩
  4. A bit of snark here from the writer at the Sun.  ↩
  5. In other lands, more beautiful, more southerly.  ↩

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