M.W. Mowry — and the Klan????


M.W. Mowry’s autograph book, 1878. Author’s Collection.

M. W. Mowry is a name known so far only through a small book of autographs that he passed amongst his schoolmates just before graduation in 1878.  He may be from one of the Mowry families of Rhode Island, or he may be the “M.W. Mowry” who died in Montgomery County, NY in January 1902.  Or he could be from another Mowry family as yet undiscovered.   What we do know about M.W. Mowry, straight from his autograph book, is that he was a talented young man who didn’t let school get in the way of his music-making activities.

East_Greenwich_Academy_in_RI 1878

From Google Images, accessed 01-07-13.

We know more about the school he attended than we do the student.  Wiki tells us the East Greenwich Academy, originally called the Kent Academy, was founded in 1802 by “eight prominent men,” but in 1841 the school was taken over by the Methodist Episcopal Church, who concentrated on producing teachers, both men and women, for the State of Rhode Island.  They were so successful that “by mid-century, nearly three-fourths of all Rhode Island teachers were alumni of the Academy.”  However, the school was also advertised as a “commercial” and “musical” institute, the latter of which must have attracted young Mowry to its doors.


We can only imagine how bad the bass-viol player was. . . and how he must have raked on Philo’s last musical nerve. . .(Author’s Collection)


Apparently Mowry’s musical criticism extended to dancers as well as bass-viol players. . .(Author’s Collection).

Mowry and Fred, "the two off ones."  From M.W. Mowry's autograph book, 1878.  Author's Collection.

Mowry and Fred, “the two off ones.” From M.W. Mowry’s autograph book, 1878. Author’s Collection.

Mowry must have excelled in the official music curriculum offered by the school, if one can judge from his unofficial musical activities referenced in his book of autographs.  Apparently his nickname of “Philo” reflected not only his musical prowess but also his willingness to encourage musical prowess in others.  Mowry played in the “Consolidated Orchestra” and participated in the “string band,” which likely supplied music for the impromptu “hops” (dances) that occurred in the kitchen and in the barn.  His best friend appears to have been Fred Lawford from Wellesley, Massachusetts, the “one who plays the flute,” and with whom drummer Mowry, lacking a fifing companion, played duets, at which time Lawford’s flute became a sort of “bass fife.”  We get a glimpse of one such performance courtesy of another schoolmate, C. W. Betts, who sketched Lawford with his “basso profundo” and a dour-looking “Filoh” urging him not to just play but to “Put in the agony, put on the style.”

Missing the tambourine, but the the other standard minstrel elements -- the fiddle, flute, banjo, and bones -- are represented in the "Knickerbocker Minstrels."   We might assume that it's Mowry, the drummer, who is playing the bones and his duetting pal, Fred Lawford on the flute.

“The Knickerbocker Minstrels” of East Greenwich, Rhode Island.  Author’s Collection.

The book contains another sketch, which in 1878 must have been amusing to some but not so much today, 135 years later.  Although untitled, it shows what Lawford called “The Knickerbocker Minstrels.”   They are missing the tambourine, but otherwise the standard minstrel elements — the fiddle, flute, banjo, and bones — are represented in this sketch.   We might assume that Mowry, the drummer, is playing the bones and that his duet partner, Lawford, is playing the flute.   What is most remarkable, though, and unlike any other minstrel group, is that they are wearing the pointed caps commonly associated with the Ku Klux Klan.

Detail from Music cover, 1843.  Wiki Images, accessed 01-07-13.

Detail from Music cover, 1843. Wiki Images, accessed 01-07-13.

Dan Emmett established minstrelsy in the mid 1840s as a lighthearted form of musical entertainment in which the players “blacked up” to sing comic songs, perform walk-arounds, and recite “stump speeches,” all caricaturing the nameless “dandies” and other “black” characters  invented by white minds.  In fact, Emmett had written “Dixie,” complete with a walk-around, for performance by his group, the Virginia Minstrels, in 1859.  However, minstrelsy was never considered anything more than entertainment, a bit tawdry, perhaps, but entertainment nonetheless.  It attracted large audiences, mostly from the working or “mechanics” class of citizenry, which could get pretty rowdy at times.  It also attracted criticism, mostly from reformers (Frederick Douglass called minstrel performers “the filthy scum of white society”), and today it is criticized as an insult to the dignity of African-Americans.  However crude or vulgar, though, minstrelsy was essentially apolitical (except when poking fun at politicians) and never associated with the Ku Klux Klan – until, that is, this image was discovered in Mowry’s book of autographs.


From Google Images, accessed 01-07-13.

Why “The Knickerbocker Minstrels” chose to wear the pointed caps of the Klan is a mystery.   At this time (1878), there was no real Klan activity in Rhode Island; in fact, there was no real Klan activity anywhere since the organization, founded in 1865, was all but defunct in the early 1870s, a victim of the Force Acts of 1870 and 1871 that were specifically directed against it.  (Not that other vigilante hate groups, such as the Red Shirts, didn’t take their place, but that is another story.)  Was it a stunt, then, some kind of a joke?  If so, who where they mocking, the black man or the lifeless Klan?

Although Mowry and his friends couldn’t know it, things would change some years later.  The film “Birth of a Nation” (1915) fomented a resurgence of the KKK, at which time they retained the familiar pointed caps but added white robes to their costume and cross-burning to their regime of terror.  The new Klan was quite active, hating Jews, Catholics, and immigrants as well as African-Americans.  It was the second Klan that, looking for fund-raising opportunities, borrowed from the minstrel show (rather than, in Mowry’s case, the minstrel show borrowing from the Klan).  The Klan also formed bands, including drum corps. These participated mostly in Klan-sponsored events but also marched in parades alongside the “unpure,” setting aside their hatred for the moment in order to publicize their group and attract new members.

An all-girls Klan-sponsored drum corps, Indiana, 1921.  From http://www.kkklan.com/various.htm, accessed 01-07-13.

An all-girls Klan-sponsored drum corps, Indiana, 1921. From http://www.kkklan.com/various.htm, accessed 01-07-13.

The second-generation Klan, rocked by scandal, essentially self-destructed by the 1940s, but not before the area in and around Liberty, NY, had become a hotbed of Klan activity, which included among its more frightening and gruesome activities, more innocuous ones of music, parades — and drumming.  This bass drum, below, was purchased in 2008 from the granddaughter of its player, who was using it as a coffee table.  Its slick glass top and applied wheels hid the fact that it had been carried by an ancestor in many a Klan parade during the early years of its second resurgence.

A favorite place to nap, atop a ca. 1838 bass drum sold by Klemm of Philadelphia.  That it has been cut down from its original barrel size is evidenced by the off-center eagle.  Author's Collection.

A favorite place for Moo-Cow Kitty to nap, atop a ca. 1838 bass drum sold by the Klemm company of Philadelphia. That it has been cut down from its original barrel size is evidenced by the off-center eagle and shield. Author’s Collection.

M.W. Mowry with his drum and friends? family?  Detail from full-plate tin.  Author's Collection

M.W. Mowry with his drum and friends? family? boarding-house roommates? Detail from full-plate tin, ca 1880-83. Author’s Collection

Copyright January 2013, History of the Ancients Dot Org. All rights reserved.

Hammet Achmet, Middletown’s Not-So-Famous Drum Maker

In the early 1800s, Middletown hosted a sizable free black population, a byproduct of the slave trade of the late eighteenth century. “Plan of Main Street, Middletown,” from “Connecticut’s Historical Collections,” Durrie & Peck and J.W. Barber (1836).

On March 17, 1824, the Middlesex Gazette advised “By order of the Court of Probate for the District of Middletown, will be sold at public vendue, (if not previously disposed of by private sale,) all the estate of David Churchill, late of Chatham deceased.  Said vendue will be held at the late dwelling house of said deceased, on Monday the 20th inst. at 10 o’clock, A.M. at the beat of drum.”

The drummer who summoned bidders to this auction and others like it in Middletown was probably Hammet Achmet.   A former slave who sought day-to-day labor to supplement his modest military pension, Achmet was well known to the upper strata of Middletown, Connecticut society and even to such national celebrities as P.T. Barnum, Senator John C. Calhoun, and George Washington.

Hammet Achmet was born in Africa, probably in 1759.  As a young boy he was “captured and shipped to Virginia,” the further specifics of which are unknown.  While still a child he became a servant of George Washington, first tending his horse and later waiting on the General himself.  Achmet never forgot these years and “continually talk[ed] about Massa Washington;” as an old man he would tell “. . . many long stories . . . of the fine dinners and grand company” he witnessed during his service and would display to anyone interested the sword and lock of hair given to him by the General himself.  Achmet had no kind words for Mrs. Washington, though, and “. . . used to call [her] hard names and find fault with her treatment of him which caused him to run away.

Return Jonathan Meigs, a Middletown native, served with distinction during the Revolution. He went west, served in the Indian Wars, and eventually became governor of Ohio . Courtesy Google Images

Perhaps Achmet ran to Middletown, because in 1777 he enlisted there as a drummer in Captain Benjamin Throop’s Company, Colonel Return Jonathan Meigs’ Regiment of the First (later the Fourth) Connecticut Regiment.  He was a member of the party that stormed Stoney Point and was wounded during the battle of Germantown.  Achmet was also present at the Yorktown surrender in 1783.  Earlier, he had been at Valley Forge, as another soldier named Samuel Fayerweather told pension officials in 1819.  Achmet, he testified, was “among the crowd assembled around the waggons” which brought specie from France to pay the army.  He also remembered seeing “the little black drummer” in 1779, “ . . .the spring of the year after the army quitted Valley Forge,” when Achmet’s attempts to hoard his allotment of rum had amused Fayerweather and his comrades—but not so Achmet.  In anger, Hammet attacked him with the butt of his head, only to “receive upon it,” Fayerweather recalled, “several strokes of my heel” in return.

After the war, Achmet resided in Middletown with his wife Jane and his daughters.  He eked out a living tending his garden and doing odd jobs about town, such as drumming for the vendue and selling old shoes to the local gun factory (these would be made into polishing leather).

Drumming was important to Achmet, and he drummed not only for the auctions but also at various military events held in town.  More importantly, he began making and selling drums, “large and small,” which he advised were “made and sold by General Washington’s Waiter.”  To Middletown citizenry, he was a favorite son, “held in great respect by the community,” as one resident recalled, “Often did I meet him in his rounds, or proudly performing his office at the head of a military company. . .he might be seen any day marching the streets with a string of little drums over his shoulder, he himself dressed in quaint regimentals.”

Here Hammet is paid for goods or services supplied to the town poorhouse. Courtesy Middlesex County Historical Society, Middletown, CT.

To out-of-towners, though, he was a “strange mortal” who walked around town “with a blue jacket trimmed in decayed military trappings.”  His ever-present drum, which had served him so well during the war and helped him earn a living long after it was over, was to them “almost a nuisance.”

Though poor, Achmet had friends in high places.  One was Jonathan Barnes, a local attorney, who oversaw the distribution of Achmet’s military pension.  Obtaining the pension had been a two-year process that Achmet himself, hindered by his thick African accent and “rapidity of speech,” could not accomplish, but he was successful following intervention by District Court Judge Pierpont Edwards of Bridgeport.  Edwards, son of the famous preacher Jonathan Edwards, solicited the aid of none other than John C. Calhoun on Achmet’s behalf, reminding him that Achmet had served in the regiment commanded by the father of current Postmaster General and pointing out that Achmet still had his drum and leather cap from the war, “with the distinctive mark of the United States” still on them.   Other friends included the cadets at the American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy run by Captain Alden Partridge, an institution that continues

Achmet’s first marriage was also rocky at times, as this notice from the “Middlesex Gazette” attests. Still, Achmet was so devastated by Jane’s death in 1827 that he tenderly crafted a wooden gravemarker that he labored upon until it “shone like marble.”

today as Norwich [VT] University.  At one point in 1827, the cadets collected a subscription of ten cents each to give to Hammet, this following the deaths, in close succession, of his wife and daughter.

Hammet soon remarried, this time to a white woman who is reported to have “washed her face and hands in a decoction of mahogany chips” in order to avoid the stigma of a “mixed marriage.”  The marriage was not a happy one:

“Mr. and Mrs. Achmet quarreled sometimes, and once she cut off Hammet’s ringlets as he lay asleep. They were his especial pride . . . , so poor Achmet hid himself til the curls grew again.”

It was Achmet’s service to George Washington that nearly earned him national fame.  According to Emily Stedman, granddaughter of Achmet’s benefactor,

One time when grandfather was attending court in New Haven, a man came to the [Barnes] residence and inquired for grandfather. . . the man. . . was Phineas T. Barnum, and that he was trying to get Hammett Achmet to travel with his “Greatest Show on Earth.”

Judge Pierpont Edwards (b. 1750, d. 1826), one of Achmet’s many friends. He was the younger son of Rev. Jonathan Edwards but nonetheless founded the Toleration Party in 1816. He had the political clout to ensure that Achmet got his military pension.

At that time Barnum was in the midst of the Joyce Heth affair. Heth, an elderly colored woman, had been exhibited in Barnum’s traveling show as the reputed 161-year-old former “servant-woman” who in youth had nursed the infant George Washington.  Heth was a charming addition to Barnum’s show–knarled with arthritis, she delighted audiences by singing hymns–but her death in 1836 sparked a frenzied newspaper scandal accusing Barnum of exploitation and fraud.  Perhaps Barnum sought to downplay the Heth affair by replacing his star exhibition with the more credible Hammet Achmet, but to no avail.  Stedman continues:

Hammet had refused to go unless ‘Massa B—-‘ should say he must.  Not finding it possible to persuade old Achmet, and lawyer B—- not being at home, Barnum hired a horse and carriage (there was no railroad to New Haven then, and the stage went there only every other day), and drove to New Haven to interview ‘Massa B—-.”  Grandfather said he would advise with Hammet, the result being that ‘General Washington’s waiter’ concluded he did not want to be exhibited as one of Barnum’s curiosities; and remained at home.

“Massa B–” took care of Achmet’s finances. Achmet, who could barely write his name, acknowledged his debts by drawing the amounts due, using full circles to represent dollar coins and partial circles to represent portions thereof. Courtesy Middlesex County Historical Society, Middletown, CT

Stedman believed that Achmet lived to be 114, but more likely he was around 83 when he died in 1842.  Within a month his wife “became white again” and was married, this time to “an old sailor and bird fancier” named Andrew P. Folio.  None of Achmet’s drums have been identified, if any have survived, and we don’t know how pervasive his influence was on drumming in Middletown–did he teach drumming, formally or informally?  Was he associated with the “drum school of some celebrity” once located in Middletown Upper Houses?  What were his connections with the A.L.S. & M. Academy?  All we have is the recollection of the old-timers, who agreed in 1893 that “there was real music in old Achmet’s drum.”

Copyright 2011, HistoryoftheAncientDotOrg.  All rights reserved.