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Monthly Archives: May 2009

A mustache that would make Geraldo quiver.

A mustache that would make Geraldo quiver.

You’re in the psych ward of the Auburn Prison in New York state. It’s 1914, and conditions are none too luxurious: there’s a padded cell caked in the bodily fluid stains of yesteryear, and you’re huddled in the corner. A petty thief from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, you’re having a bit of a nervous breakdown due to the bad food, bad company and general chilliness of the building.

In comes Dr. John T. Gerin, prison physician. He walks right up to you, his gold pocket watch chain dangling from his vest, leans over with his hands on his knees and begins screaming incomprehensibly in your face. He’s close enough to you to feel flecks of spittle that — most awfully of all — must pass through the filter of his preposterous ear-to-ear mustache, which is redolent of mustard and creamed corn.

Would that be enough to drive you permanently insane?

If one believes accusations leveled at Gerin in 1914, the scenario is not hard to imagine. According to a New York Times report from that year, George W. Blake, a “special prison investigator” for New York Governor William “Plain Bill” Sulzer, said that Auburn prison had extremely bad conditions, and Gerin was a big part of the problem. Blake charged “that a number of prisoners were driven insane through punishment administered at the institution and that Dr. Gerin was largely responsible for cruel and brutal disciplinary measures.”

Auburn Prison, New York

Auburn Prison, New York

The State Prison Commission eventually cleared Blake of those charges. But it’s worth noting that New York politics — and its commissions — were incredibly corrupt in those days. In fact, Sulzer was later impeached, and historians believe that it was because he refused to abide by New York City political machine Tammany Hall’s instructions about who to appoint on commissions.

The scant historical data leaves us little evidence to settle the matter besides Gerin’s outrageous Franz Josef mustache. (So named because the Emperor of Austria sported a similar one around the same period — a subject for another chapter.) Our resident psychoanalyst says that Gerin’s Geraldo-embarrasing ‘stache hints at a deep-seated sadism, a fear of expressing feelings and, given the hair style’s namesake, delusions of grandeur.

Enough to posthumously convict a man of the wanton neglect of prisoners? You be the judge.

Like a Sphinx.

Like a Sphinx.

Politician and newspaperman Horace Greeley (1811-1872) had a neckbeard that made him look something like a Sphinx. A butt-ugly Sphinx, that is. His head seemed to sprout from a collar of hair that hinted at a vast, luxurious coat of fur beneath his clothes. The suit and long-sleeved coat that he wore in all kinds of weather did not help to assuage the notion that his clothes hid something unspeakable.

Unlike Henry Thoreau (see previous post) Greeley had no lifestyle excuse for his atrocious facial hair. A brilliant journalist who edited the New York Tribune and helped establish modern journalistic standards, Greeley lived in New York and would have had ample exposure to the leaders in men’s fashion. Did his neckbeard help frighten away the wily street urchins that roamed the streets of New York City in those days? Did he have a wool allergy against which the hairy collar provided protection? Or did the beard simply help accentuate the degree to which he felt he had separated his intellect from the baser, animal instincts of his lower half?

The neckbeard may have been used to scare street urchins.

The neckbeard may have been used to scare street urchins.

The answers are lost in the sands of time. But we’ll give Greeley a fashion pass because of his admirable political views. A staunch abolitionist, he helped found the Liberal Republican party and ran on its ticket for president in 1872 against Ulysses S. Grant, whose administration had grown corrupt. He lost in a terrible landslide.

If only Greeley’s political party had had more longevity than his beard style, who knows where this country would be today?

Henry_David_Thoreau

The mid-19th Century saw the flourishing of the neckbeard, here pictured on American transcendalist writer Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). The neckbeard was the mullet of its day, in that it made the wearer ready for different – even contradictory – social occasions with one simple style. The hairstyle conveys both a fresh-faced business mien and the rugged manliness of a north-woodsman. For Throeau, who walked the line between polite society and an outdoor lifestyle, it was the perfect combination. It also kept chill New England gusts from entering the wearer’s collar.

An image of a whiskerless Thoreau from 1854 suggests his neckbeard may have also been designed to disguise a hideous wattle.

A hideous wattle marred his visage.

A hideous wattle marred his visage.

Thoreau was famous for his ugliness, and from an aesthetic perspective, his neckbeard may have been a way of shouting to the world: “I don’t give a fuck.” And it seems to have had the desired effect: According to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journals, novelist Louisa May Alcott said that Thoreau’s facial hair “will most assuredly deflect amorous advances and preserve the man’s virtue in perpetuity.”