Spanking the Monkey

The Strangest Children's Book of the 19th Century Teaches You the Facts of Life—Complete With Singing Vagina

The New York Times carried Foote ads trumpeting OLD EYES MADE NEW WITHOUT SPECTACLES and COMFORT FOR THE RUPTURED, and the enticing CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION FOR THE MARRIED. Foote patent medicines like his Magnetic Ointment and Magnetic Anti-Bilious Pills were also hawked for impotency and—for your inevitable return visit after that first cure—for syphilitic and gonorrheal sores. Foote pamphlets claimed that his offices at 120 Lexington Avenue were flooded with letters from grateful patients: "They are convincing. They are overwhelming! . . . There are cords of letters—actually cords—which the doctor has no time to look over."

The letters probably also included attorney invoices. The inventor and manufacturer of his own fish bladder condoms and special rubber diaphragms, and a leading publisher of information on birth control techniques, Foote found himself squarely in the sights of postal inspector Anthony Comstock, a Victorian moral crusader best described as a proto-Ashcroft of prudishness. Nothing, doctor approved or not, escaped his censure. "Comstock not only made no distinction between preventing conception and procuring abortion, he made no distinction between them and obscenity," notes historian Janet Farrell Brodie in Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth Century America (Cornell University Press, 1994).

But Foote could afford good lawyers: Not only did he get off from his Comstock charges with a small fine, he went on to finance the legal defense of other freethinkers under prosecution. He even ran for Congress, albeit unsuccessfully—for, as one friend eulogized after his death, Foote was in "every party that never carried an election." It's a common enough fate for progressive reformers, but there's nobody quite analogous to Foote in our time—though, as Sappol muses in an e-mail, some combination of Dan Savage and Dr. Benjamin Spock might come close.

illustration: Anthony Freda

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But, as Foote wrote, " 'What about the monkey? We want to know how he is,' I imagine some of my uninterested young readers are clamorously inquiring."

It's true. For all his historical importance, Foote's most weirdly compelling legacy is Sammy Tubbs's inimitable mixture of civil rights, health reform, and animal slapstick. There are actually two monkeys in the books: Nobody can much tell them apart. Sponsie 1 and Sponsie 2 are berserk stand-ins for the uncontrollable animality of the human body; observed by the coolly rational Sammy, their mishaps provide the forensic grist for Foote's medical theories.

How? Well, Sponsie 2 gets accidentally sealed alive under some floorboards—his starvation being a handy segue into a lecture on Digestion. He gets his rectum shot off after playing with a gun, all the better to explain incontinence. Ultimately, the unfortunate fellow is accidentally disemboweled by the belt drive of an industrial knife sharpener—"torn all to strings," a witness sadly notes. And Sponsie 1? We are informed that he "contracted a taste for malt liquors while living in Hoboken"; the instructive result of his addiction is that the alcoholic simian tries to hang himself in the attic. After being revived, he turns into a pickpocket, a kidnapper, a Central Park carriage thief; his life of prehensile crime only ends when he gets shot in the head in a duel with the other Sponsie.

But even death is turned to good purpose: Sammy Tubbs yanks out the dead Sponsie's brain and spine to use as props for his lecture on the nervous system, all the better to prepare him for the full medical-school scholarship that he has been awarded at the series' end. In the wonderful world of E.B. Foote, all's well that ends well . . . unless, of course, you're the monkey.


Paul Collins is the author ofSixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books (Bloomsbury, 2003) andNot Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism (Bloomsbury, 2004).

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