It is a truth universally acknowledged that Everything Is Funnier With Monkeys. If J. Fred Muggs, Lancelot Link, or zoo-house fecal tossing have taught us anything, it is that every human endeavor is enriched by the addition of a screaming, leg-humping, ass-biting primate. Even, say, sex education. I beg your pardon? you might ask. Clearly you’re not acquainted with the strangest children’s book of the 19th century—Sammy Tubbs, the Boy Doctor, and Sponsie, the Troublesome Monkey (1874). Written by health crusader and mail-order magnate Dr. Edward Bliss Foote (1829-1906), it’s the five-volume Manhattan saga of the 12-year-old son of freed slaves. It does indeed also feature a sidekick monkey named Sponsie—and yes, as promised, he is troublesome.
Sammy is the door-boy for kindly local doctor Samuel Hubbs, a stand-in for Foote himself—they share the same Lexington Avenue address and have written books with the same titles. Sammy Tubbs becomes his young protégé: In a sort of med-school Pygmalion, the older white Hubbs molds the young black Tubbs into a doctor. In each respective volume, amid servant high jinks and literal monkeyshines, Tubbs gets lectured on Muscles, Circulation, Digestion, and the Nervous System. But the fifth and final volume bears a curious inscription on its cover: A Book for Private Reading. Leaf through it, and you’ll see why: It has line drawings of genitals, of Rand McNally road-map accuracy.
It’s a Victorian sex-ed manual. For children. Starring a monkey.
“Encountering Sammy Tubbs was a eureka moment, like a shot of a very powerful, very pleasurable drug,” Michael Sappol, curator at the National Library of Medicine, tells the Voice. Sappol’s metaphor is apt: The Sammy Tubbs series mixes nearly every progressive and fringe element of 19th-century physiology and politics into a sort of patent-medicine speedball. There are lectures against tight-fitting clothes, against tobacco and alcohol, and for phrenology and animal magnetism; there are thrilling showdowns between bigotry and the rights of women and minorities. And there are, courtesy of illustrator H.L. Stephens, hundreds of drawings of everything from shrub-like capillary diagrams to flying monkeys and animated kitchen appliances. Rather more down to earth—if not downright earthy—illustrations include those of genitalia. One set of these occurs on page 180 1/2—the publishing netherworld equivalent of Floor 7 1/2 in Being John Malkovich—so that mortified parents could razor out the drawings without Junior noticing a break in pagination. But even razored copies still contained a drawing of a vagina with a tiny musical note tooting out of it—a sly touch by Stephens removed from later printings.
Sappol first encountered Tubbs in the early days of researching his recent book, A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth Century America (Princeton University Press, 2002), newly published in paperback and featuring a chapter devoted to Tubbs. Looking through a library catalog, Sappol spotted the intriguing category of Popular Anatomy. “The catalog had only two listings,” he says, “both from the 1870s: Sammy Tubbs, and a minstrel show skit about black body-snatchers conning a judge.” As Sappol notes in his book, Sammy Tubbs is an “idiosyncratic blend of minstrelsy, anatomical instruction, and juvenile fiction . . . a generic hybrid that Foote called ‘Science in Story’ (what would now be termed an ‘edutainment’).”
Foote’s edutainment constantly baits his audience’s preconceived notions—”While reading these volumes keep up with Sammy. Do not let a little black boy do better than you,” he taunts readers at the beginning of one volume. Yet Sammy Tubbs always comes out on top: Beginning as a “poor little ignorant colored boy” living in the attic of Hubbs’s genteel Manhattan home, he rises inexorably to become a self-appointed neighborhood practitioner and health lecturer, addressing halls packed with rapturous black and white women—where his reproduction lecture is introduced by a certain “Miss Goodlove”—and treating not only black patients in his family’s neighborhood, but poor whites as well.
But Sammy gets particularly familiar with white bodies in the form of his girlfriend, Julia Barkenstir. She is—pause for irony—the daughter of a cotton broker. Foote advocated interracial relationships on eugenic grounds of avoiding racial inbreeding, resulting in an extraordinary Sammy Tubbs illustration of Sammy and Julia kissing. It is, Sappol marvels, “perhaps the first positive representation of an interracial kiss in nineteenth century American illustrated fiction.” And Sammy is unapologetic about it, yelling over the protests of Julia’s father: “White men are constantly decrying miscegenation, miscegenation!—while they are the only ones that want to miscegenate. . . .”
Y’got that, Strom?
Like a medical Walt Whitman, E.B. Foote saw nothing impure in human bodies. He sang the body electric. He also sang the “electro-magnetic preventive machine,” a worthless birth control gizmo hawked for $15 by his mail-order business. But for a man denounced in early credit reports as “a splendid specimen of the genus humbug,” Foote was an extraordinarily successful entrepreneur; his two most popular books, Medical Common Sense and Plain Home Talk, had combined sales of more than 750,000. Working from his elegant offices at 120 Lexington Avenue, E.B. Foote’s business was a marvel of vertical integration: He was the author and publisher of his medical theories, the doctor who prescribed his own remedies, and the manufacturer and distributor of those very same medicines.
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.
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 of Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books (Bloomsbury, 2003) and Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism (Bloomsbury, 2004).