Plagues Gone Past

Where are the plagues of yesteryear?

So there I was, reading Fifty Years in the Magic Circle by Signor Blitz (the memoirs of a mid-19th-century magician) when I saw this bit (pp. 58-59):


                           Irish Wit. 

During the season, a band of Russian horn-players 
appeared at the Theatre Royal. Their style of music was 
original and novel ; each instrument played one note only, 
all harmonizing correctly and producing the sweetest tones, 
much resembling those of an organ. The horns were of 
various sizes, from one foot to thirty, and the latter were 
supported on trestles. The company numbered nearly 
forty persons, who were said to be the slaves of a prince, 
who had given them permission to leave their country for 
two years. 

They had visited Italy, Germany, France, and England, with much success. At one of their concerts the house was densely crowded, and the band had for some time delighted the audience, when suddenly a person seated in the gallery, in a full Hibernian voice, cried out, " Plaze, play up the Cholera Morbus." Immediately the whole audience in the gallery made the same demand, when the uproar became general, so that ultimately Mr. Calcraft, the manager, found it necessary to make his appearance. After learning their wishes he communicated with the leader, in French, who stated they were not acquainted with the air. On Mr. Cal- craft's repeating this to the audience, the Hibernian in the gallery exclaimed, "Be faith and sure, Mr. Manager, is it not a Russian air, — for did not the cholera come from Rus- sia in a ship laden with hemp?" At this explanation, a gen- eral clapping of hands and laughter took place which lasted several moments, much to the surprise of the Russians, who were of course unable to appreciate the musical capac- ity and ready wit of a fun-loving Irishman. The band shortly afterward sailed for the United States, where they succeeded admirably, but an unfortunate dis- agreement among themselves caused a complete separation.

That sounds like a marvelous orchestra and I wish I could have heard them.

The event would have happened sometime before 1834 (when Blitz sailed for America, never to return). This instantly caused me to wonder, “What’re the words (and music) for Cholera Morbus?”

After many journeys through the Google-indexed web, I found these verses, referring to the cholera outbreak of 1831/32, under the title “The Cobbler o’ Morpeth” (dialect humor!) published in The Tyne Songster, 1840, page 73, and credited to John M’Lellan.

The Cobbler o’ Morpeth myeks sic noise,
He frights the country round, sirs;
That if yen i’ the guts hez pain,
By the Plague they think he’s doom’d, sirs.
It was but just tother day,
A Skipper, when at Sheels, sirs,
Drank yell till he cou’d hardly see,
Or ken his head frae heels, sirs.

Bow, wow, wow, &c.

The song continues for several more verses, which are easily found by those who seek. Morpeth is a town in Northumberland, UK.

Ah, but what was the tune?

By dint of tenuous strings of logic based on “to the tune of” comments here and there, I came to “old English” air, which we find sung (with words other than Cholera Morbus):

Sheet music can be found here: Barney Buntline

If you read the words to Barney Buntline printed there, you find Barney talking with his friend “Billy Bowling.” I suspect that the character’s actual name was “Billy Bowline” (pronounced approximately the same). The bowline (if I could only take one knot with me to a desert island, it would be a bowline) and a buntline hitch are kinds of sailor’s knots.

Was this the actual song that the witty Hibernian was calling for from the Russian horn-players?  Darned if I know.  But there it is.



Blitz, Antonio. Fifty Years in the Magic Circle: being an account of the author’s professional life; his wonderful tricks and feats; with laughable incidents, and adventures as a magician, necromancer, and ventriloquist. Belknap & Bliss, 1871

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: