Mr. D’s History Bookshelf # 4: New York’s Bravest

New York City is not known for its folk heroes.  There are few Paul Bunyans and Peco Bills in the local vernacular. 

Yet we still had one, and it is fitting that New York’s tall tale hero happened to be a firefighter.

Mose Humphrey was a name bandied about in the early 1800s.  The original person was a printer for the New York Sun, as well as a member of a local fire company.  Stories circulated of Mose as a fire fighter who was especially heroic and strong, though it is not certain if they are true.  Furthermore, He also was quite a Bowery Boy, a form of local tough guy that had an unsavory reputation. 

Over time, the Bowery Boy aspect of Mose’s story diminished, and Mose himself grew bigger and more fanciful, reaching eight feet tall with “hands as big as Virginia hams.”  The stories about Mose focused more on bravery and his selflessness to help others in need. 

Mary Pope Osbourne, in a tribute to the firefighters who died on September 11, 2001, decided to rework the Mose legend for younger children.  The result is New York’s Bravest, a book that students young and old will find thrilling, heartbreaking, and packed with moments for study, research and discussion.

Osbourne gears the book for younger readers, from 1st to 3rd grade, and her writing is beautifully clear and direct.  Mose is shown at his heroic best, fighting fires and saving babies, even when facing his inevitable demise.  His “death” is probably the best scene in the book, and Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher’s illustrations add a wonderful exclamation point to the drama.  This book is read every year in my classrooms, and many students have cried and cheered at the end.

Yet despite its reading level, New York’s Bravest can be used on any age in any classroom.  Younger children will grasp the moral aspect of Mose’s good deeds and good heart.  Children of an older age can note the illustrations of 19th Century New York, contrasting them with the look of the city today.

For high schoolers, though, this book can take students in an altogether different direction.  Mose’s story is a great way to discuss the often wide disconnect between mythology and reality.  Firefighters are among the most celebrated and respected professions today.  Yet it wasn’t always this way, especially during Mose’s time.

New York City did not have a professional fire department until 1865.  Volunteer fire companies dotted the city, where local boys and men would join up, drink and carouse, and occasionally fight fires.  Each of the companies had territories they protected from rivals, especially through violence.  Often, fire companies attracted the lowest criminals, and were no better than gangs of thugs who were manipulated by corrupt politicians to fix elections and beat up opponents.

Case in point: William Tweed, the famous boss of Tammany Hall in the late 1860s, got his start with his own fire company, the Americus Fire Company.  Its symbol was a Bengal tiger, which became the symbol of Tammany Hall as a whole.  The scene in Gangs of New York where the two fire companies brawled in the street while a fire raged is quite close to reality–one of the few scenes Martin Scorsese got right.

However you use it, New York’s Bravest is a fantastic read, and a fitting tribute to the firefighters of New York–from the brawling 1800s to our professional companies of today.   Please let us know your thoughts on this or any book reviewed here at the Neighborhood.

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