The Club of Queer Trades: For Labor Day

A man happy in his work–advertising lemons in a lemon costume. The Club of Queer Trades

Since, at least nominally, the upcoming holiday is dedicated to the country’s workers instead of sunburn, grilled meat, and chilled beer, I thought I would give you a sampling of some inventive ways of earning a living from the past. We can take prostitution, bodysnatching, and murder as read, so let us start with a professional Ray of Sunshine. 

It will not have escaped the attention of the observant newspaper reader that the field of female employment is steadily being extended….Their number has of late years been materially increased and other gainful callings are steadily being added to the rapidly lengthening list.

Some of these are decidedly original and curious, but perhaps the most peculiar of these latter day professions is that practiced by the worker who appears on the books of the New York Women’s Exchange under the description of “the cheering-up lady.” It is said that the ingenious person who has hit upon this plan of earning a livelihood has all the engagements which she can find time to accept, and it is easy to believe it. In this work-a-day world of care and sorrow the number of those who are in need of consolation and encouragement is always large and if the professional cheerer-up is at all able to fulfill the expectations which the announcement of her calling arouses it is only natural that her services should be in great demand. Cheering up is precisely what a great many despondent men and women chiefly need. The benefactor who supplies this want ought to be able to make a good living and to enjoy a large measure of personal independence.

Yet the profession is little likely to become overcrowded, for small is the number of those who ware qualified to pursue it. Like the poet, the cheerer-up is born, not made. It is a matter of temperament, not an ability which can be acquired. There are those, and they are the majority, whom not the best will in the world or the most strenuous effort would enable to shed around them that good cheer by which the lives of others are brightened and the hopes of others raised. They may mean well, but they lack the gift. Either they are not themselves brightly and buoyantly inclined or they are without the power to communicate any reflection of the happiness and confidence they feel. There are others—and it would be well for the world if their number were greater—whose very presence is helpful, who seem to shed around them a kind of moral sunshine and t exert an inspiring, uplifting, consoling influence upon all with whom they are brought into association. Such people are a benediction and a boon, and if the professional “cheering-up lady” is one of these, as she surely ought to be, it would be difficult to exaggerate the value of her ministrations.

In some ways her occupation has its advantage, but it must be very trying and exhaustive in its effects. To spend one’s days in cheering the despondent and in sympathizing with the sorrow-stricken for a cash consideration must involve a strain upon the mind and nerves not easily to be endured. It is a question how long the “cheering-up lady” will be able to stand the racket and to dissipate the despondency of others by the emanations of her own brightness. One would think that after a while she would herself become a subject of the cheering-up treatment. In the meantime she is engaged in a good work for which the compensation should be something handsome. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 26 May 1903: p. 8

Frustratingly vague about the details of the cheerer-upper’s specific duties and rate sheet….

This lady created happiness by being fired:

In New York women make a business of being discharged from the department store in which she is “employed” once or a dozen times a day if occasion demands. When a haughty, pompous customer complains of negligence or impertinence or what-not on the part of a clerk, the woman in question is summoned to the front office as the one in charge of that particular department, given a good dressing down before the angry customer and peremptorily discharged. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 8 April 1911: p. 11

 You have to admire this plucky linguist’s adaptation of his talents to the lucrative pet market.


A peculiar profession is that of a man in Chicago who is a teacher of languages to parrots. The Chicago Tribune says that while this foreigner was doing translations and giving French and German lessons at starvation prices, he chanced one day to talk with a parrot dealer, and asked him if many birds were sold abroad.

“No,” said he, “but only on account of the difference in language. English-speaking parrots would hardly be in demand in a foreign country.” This gave the linguist an idea. He took home an uneducated bird, and in a few weeks had taught it to repeat some short French sentences. After that he began a regular occupation of teaching French, German and Italian to parrots instead of to people.

Diet and warmth are important conditions in this system of education. The birds are kept in a temperature of 80 degrees, and are fed on nuts, bananas, and other fruit. The lessons are given morning and evening. One word may be pronounced for days together; later several words are joined in the form of a sentence. A clever bird will learn a short sentence in less than a fortnight.

One important secret is that of teaching a bird to speak opportunely, as if it understood what is happening at the moment. If the teacher pulls out his watch at the instant of staying “What time is it?” the parrot soon learns to say “What time is it?” whenever he sees a watch.

If he is to be taught to greet a visitor, the teacher, on giving the lesson, must enter the room saying, “How do you do?”

To induce him to say “Must you go? Good-by!” the professor picks up his hat and stick and leaves the room as he repeats the words.  Springfield [MA] Republican 15 March 1903: p. 19 

Would you hire someone to bury himself alive? There were dozens of these self-immurers going about the United States, but most of them called themselves by pseudo-Asian names and claimed to have mystic fakir powers.  Mr. Kaehn used an Anglo-Saxon name seemingly calculated for registering discreetly at hotels and was at least semi-candid about the limits of his abilities.

 A Strange Profession

One of the witnesses in a recent lawsuit in Cleveland was Edward Kaehn. The Cleveland Leader says:

“The examination of Kaehn proved to be very amusing. On the cross-examination Prosecutor Keller demanded to know the business of the witness. The witness said that he lived at 323 Lake Street, and was known as Professor James Smith, and that his specialty was being buried alive for exhibition purposes. He declared that he never had really died, but claimed that he could lie in a grave six days and six nights. He averred that he was ready at any time to be buried for $500 a week, proving that there was a proper and an unmistakably trustworthy committee to play the role of resurrection angels should they be needed to save his life. “He was rather reluctant about ‘topping off his act,’ as he expressed it, but Judge Neff became interested and wanted to hear all about it. Kaehn declared that he has been placed in a coffin which had been properly upholstered and that it has been lowered into a grave six feet four inches deep. An air shaft is constructed and the graved closed.

“What is the air shaft for?” asked the prosecutor.

“’For air,’ replied Kaehn, ‘and for sending down the beer, water and grub.’

“’Then you always had to have air, did you?’ continued the prosecutor.

“’Oh, no. Sometimes I was completely buried for twenty-four hours. In a case of that kind a bucket of water was placed in the coffin and several sponges saturated with water. The water evaporated, and that furnished all the oxygen I needed to live on.”

Daily People [New York, NY] 6 May 1901: p. 3 

I find this next gentleman strangely gallant, ruining his health in the service of justice and law-enforcement (and the support of his wife and daughter.)


The Man Whose Business Is to Get Arrested and Go to Jail.

In a hotel in a small town in a northwestern county of Ohio today is boarding a man who has a strange profession. He will not remain more than  few days. He will be arrested; a splendid burglar’s kit will be found in his possession, and he will be hurried off and placed in the county jail. The little town will go wild over the capture of a notorious and desperate burglar; the newspapers at the county seat will tell the story under three  sheet poster type, and everybody will believe a bloodthirsty night marauder has been caught by jay detectives after all the city sleuths have failed. But that will be a mistake, though many will go on down to their graves believing that a desperado with all sorts of crime on his list was captured before their eyes, says the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

This desperate man of midnight crimes in the little hotel and town is there to be arrested. That’s his business. He makes a living for himself and wife and daughter by being arrested. It is his profession, perhaps the strangest one of thousands by which men make dollars honestly. He will be greatly surprised and indignant when the local officer arrests him on a warrant swore out by a visiting detective, will make some show of resistance, ask for an extra good guard for protection and go off to jail with a meekness that is most commendable. The sheriff, prosecuting attorney and the detective alone know the true story, and in the county jail he will be treated like any felon. In this particular case, which cannot now be made public, he is to worm his way under the confidence of a man under arrest for  a startling crime, and, if possible, secure from him admissions that will convict the suspect, whose trial, soon to begin, will attract the attention of Northwestern Ohio. But there is no objection to giving the name and some of the incidents in the life of this man with the strange trade.

He is Thomas South in private life, and makes his living by hiring out to be arrested. He is known to every private detective and detective agency of any prominence in the central west and south, and has been in jails all over that section charged with all sorts of crime. South resides in Southeastern Indiana. He is at present in delicate health, and is doing one of his last, perhaps very last, bits of work. Exposure, confinement in foul prisons and the excitement of his life have resulted in severe pulmonary disease, and he has reached a point where he feels he must retire. He began his singular business in Louisville, Ky., just at the close of the war, in the secret service, and for the purpose of justice became a member of some of the worst bands of cut-throat thieves which at that time terrorized that city and vicinity. He would become acquainted with the plots and plans and divulge them to the authorities. Disliking this calling, he conceived the idea of becoming a prison confessor, and, explaining his ideas to a number of detectives, was given orders to secure confessions. His fame widened, and other detectives heard of and employed him, though for various reasons he was kept in the background as much as possible and his methods made public as little as the case permitted.

In the years that have elapsed since he adopted his peculiar vocation South has been arrested in a dozen states, and in many counties in each state.  Omaha [NE] World Herald 7 May 1894: p. 3

 The care of the intemperate was a growth industry. 

A very curious profession has lately been started in London. It is that of enabling gentlemen who have indulged in too much liquor to get rid of all signs of intoxication with the least possible effort. Those who practice this new profession provide themselves with little flasks of ammonia and look out for clients in the leading thoroughfares. When they see a man reeling home they rush up to him, offer him their flasks of ammonia, and in nine cases out of ten, he accepts their services and gives them a liberal fee. A careful estimate which has been made shows that these professors earn about five shillings a day each.   Charleston  [SC]  News and Courier 25 June 1896: p. 4  

Guardian Angels in French Wine-Shops

Many low wine-shops in the suburbs of Paris are frequented by sober men, who belong almost to a corporation, and exercise a profession designated in slang phrases as that of Guardian Angels. Their functions consist in taking drunken men home and seeing them safe in bed. [another paper says the fee was 10 sous.] One of these, a veteran named Cohant, and well reputed in the Charenton quarter, was called upon by an old client to take home a drunken customer. The latter was recalcitrant, and replied to friendly exhortations by kicks and cuffs, which ultimately so exhausted the patience of his guide that he gave him an unfortunate push, and a carriage passing crushed out his brains. Cohant was indicted for manslaughter. The Judge suggested that he was probably drunk himself, to which Cohant proudly replied, “Mon President, Guardian Angels are all water-drinkers.”
The Judge was fain to admit the prisoner was not drunk when arrested, but, sticking to his point, as French Judges, who always act as prosecutors, are apt to do, said probably the emotions of the event had sobered him. Cohant got off with one month. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 15 June 1878: p. 11

Paris was often mentioned in stories of unusual jobs. Several lengthy articles discussed the “painter of turkey feet” (to make a tough old tom look like a young bird), a man who creates faux-rabbit heads to pass catsmeat off as rabbit, and a woman who raises ants for their eggs.

A dog’s tailor flourishes in Paris. The tailor is a woman, and in her reception-rooms Prince Bow-Wow has rugs, water bowls and biscuit jars to refresh him during the trying-on process. Here are the daintiest water-color pattern-books to choose from, and anything from sealskin to chamois is provided. Springfield [MA] Republican 29 December 1895: p. 9  

A curious profession for a woman is that of dinner taster. She is a product of Parisian refinement, and spends a portion of each day visiting houses and tasting dishes intended for dinner. She suggests improvements and shows the cook new ways of preparing dishes. The duties are pleasant and the compensation ample. Los Angeles [CA] Herald 16 April 1905: p. 36

In China you could hire a professional scandal-monger. I imagine there was some temptation to embellish the local gossip.

Chinese Gossips

Some of the women in China have a curious profession. They visit various houses and retail gossip at so much an hour. If the hostess be especially pleased with the information thus imparted she makes the lady a present in addition to the regulation charge. Many of these gentle gossips are bright and witty talkers, and by keeping themselves well posted in the local news earn handsome incomes. The Dalles [OR] Daily Chronicle 2 March 1894: p. 4

Forget hiring a hunky escort. If necessary, one could also hire a husband:

Proxy Husbands in Turkey

Divorces are easy to obtain in Turkey, and a husband and wife may remarry three times. If they wish to marry a fourth time, the woman must go through the formality of marrying another man and then of being divorced. This custom has given rise to a curious profession—that of proxy husbands. Such men are generally blind and have no hesitancy in relinquishing their brides for a money consideration. Aberdeen [WT] Herald 20 December 1906: p. 8

Or a father:

For a curious profession, and one which is little known, commend us to the Parisian Vendor of Paternity. He appears to be an individual who takes upon himself the risk of severe punishment if detected in the carrying out of his business, which is to stand in the place of a father to young men who wish to marry and cannot get the sanction of their parents. The Vendor of Paternity here steps in and goes through all the formalities at the Mayor’s office. Marion [OH] Daily Star 13 May 1901

Sometimes it is difficult to know where a profession ends and a confidence trick begins:


Mabel Crosby Makes Her Living By Threatening to Commit Suicide.

Oakland, Cal., Aug. 17 Mabel Crosby, who attempted to commit suicide near Lambertville, N.J., a few days ago, is well known in California. She is known here as Mrs. Pearl Price, and threatening suicide is her profession.

Whenever she becomes financially embarrassed she permits somebody to prevent her committing suicide. Then she takes up a collection, has herself photographed in a living picture pose and goes to another town. In this way Mrs. Price has been quite successful in gaining a livelihood.

She used to be on the stage, which gave her a knowledge of elocution and effective posturing. Later on she performed in a circus, where she gained training that enables her to take high dives into water without any danger of being drowned until someone rescues her.

Last winter she aroused the sympathies of the people of Hayward by trying to hang herself, and secured enough money to go to Los Angeles. Then it was discovered that under the name of Crosby she had previously played the same trick and taken up a collection at Redding, Cal.

Next she appeared at New Orleans and leaped into the Mississippi River, but was rescued by a fireman and sympathetic people sent her on to her starving children in New York. Tacoma [WA] Daily News 17 August 1897: p. 1

A heartrending article about Pearl Prince, married at the age of 13 to the man who so cruelly deserted her, and how she was rescued from suicide in Hayward, is found in The Herald [Los Angeles, CA] 8 February 1897: p. 2. She really had the patter down: “I am simply Pearl Price, the woman tramp, an object of charity, a wreck, with no future so far as I can see. But I shall live in hope for my children’s sake. This rope I have shall be retained as a memento of this awful day in my life.” [Cue the eyes full of tears and the plying of the handkerchief.]

No matter what curious profession you follow, I hope that your Labor Day celebrations will be safe, happy, and entirely free of jails, burial alive, and souvenir ropes. 

The Club of Queer Trades, Part 2 is found here. And Mrs Daffodil tells of the Conversation Crammer and other unusual occupations for ladies here.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.  And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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