Strange, But True: The French Ball in Mid-19th Century New York

The 1869 French Ball. From Barbara Goldsmith's book, Other Powers

The 1869 French Ball. From Barbara Goldsmith’s book, Other Powers

One of the craziest moments in Victoria’s life – and the one that has tripped up more beta readers and agents than any other in my novel – is the French Ball that was held in New York City. No one seems to believe it is real, but I swear it is. The famous female journalist Nellie Bly reported on the tradition, and it’s even the subject of testimony before the New York State Legislature in 1895.

The French Ball was an annual tradition that is in direct opposition with the staid, laced-up view we have of Victorian society – and that’s what makes people think it’s fiction. It began after the Civil War, when a group (either the Cercle Française de l’Harmonie or the Societe des Bals d’Aristes, depending on your source) began hosting masked balls at the American Academy of Music during which the rich of the city would mingle openly with the city’s prostitutes and courtesans.

It didn’t take long for the French Ball to become a by-word for public drunkenness and debauchery. According to Timothy Gilfoyle’s City of Eros, “The Times described it as ‘the naughtiest of the respectable masked balls.’” Both men and women dressed in masks and costumes, the women opening flaunting their bare ankles and shoulders, and showing significant cleavage. One of the most scandalous costumes was that of the ballerina because of the highly revealing tutu – presumably with nothing underneath. The town’s madams were the queens of the night, occupying the boxes normally reserved for men of good name, covered in jewels and basking in the praise of hundreds of male patrons. Over time, fewer and fewer men chose to disguise their identity, openly flaunting their presence at the lurid event, especially if they were well-known public officials or wealthy businessmen/bankers.

Reports paint a scene reminiscent of a Roman orgy, with drunken men seducing half naked women (who likely also were drunk) on the floors and in the halls. In Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull, Barbara Goldsmith writes, “Victoria glanced into the box to her right where a girl lay on the crimson velvet couch, her ballet skirts pulled up over her head while two men mounted her in full view of the public.” Men commonly got into fights inside and outside the Academy and many arrests were made each year, though unrelated to public indecency.

Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennie attended the ball in 1869, with or without Victoria’s husband, James, depending on the source. Victoria’s thoughts on the night were made clear in her letters and newspaper articles. In 1873 she wrote that the boxes at the event were used “for the purpose of debauching debauched women; and the trustees of the Academy know this.” We know Tennie was greatly disturbed by what she witnessed, because in an 1872 article in Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, she wrote about the deflowering of a young girl that night by a man named Luther Challis. “And this scoundrel, Challis, to prove that he seduced a virgin, carried for days on his finger, exhibiting in triumph, the red trophy of her virginity.” This article quickly landed both Tennie and Victoria in jail on charges of libel and sending obscene material through the mail (thanks to Tennie’s description of the night and its aftermath).

I haven’t been able to pinpoint exactly when the tradition of the French Ball ended, but given that the State Senate was still taking about it in 1895, it’s safe to assume it wasn’t until at least the turn of the century.

In my novel, I have dramatized the events of the French Ball based on my sources. Even though it’s a bit jarring, I wanted to include it so that by the time you get to Tennie and Victoria being arrested, you know what they experienced and why Tennie was incensed enough to risk her reputation by writing about it. Plus, it’s a fun tidbit of history I couldn’t bear to not include.

Have you heard of the French Ball before this? If so, how? What do you think about it?

Sources (in addition to those linked above)

Bly, Nellie. “Jolly at the French Ball.” The New York World, February 10, 1889. http://dlib.nyu.edu/undercover/sites/dlib.nyu.edu.undercover/files/documents/uploads/editors/Jolly-at-the-French-Ball.pdf

Gilfoyle, Timothy J. City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920.

Goldsmith, Barbara. Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull.

Advertisements