Category Archives: Entertainment

1661: London prostitute gets rich from novelty coin act

The site of Priss' "Chuck Shop" even has its own blue plaque.
The site of Priss’ “Chuck Shop” even has its own blue plaque.

Priscilla ‘Priss’ Fotheringham was one of 17th century London’s more colourful prostitutes and brothel madams. Born in Scotland around 1615, the young Priss was reportedly a “cat-eyed gypsy, pleasing to the eye”. By her early 30s, however, Priss’ looks had faded, thanks to a bout of smallpox and years of swilling gin. In 1652 Priss made the first of several court appearances when she was charged with running a house of ill repute, after being discovered:

“…sitting between two Dutchmen with her breasts naked to the waist and without stockings, drinking and singing in a very uncivil manner.”


She did a stint in Newgate for this and other offences but was back on the streets before 1656. Sometime around then she met her future husband, Edmund Fotheringham, himself the son of a bawd (his mother Anne ran a busy but seedy brothel on Cow Lane, Finsbury). In the late 1650s Priss took up residence in a tavern on the corner of Whitecross and Old Street. Now in her 40s, her youthful looks all but gone, Priss searched for another method of luring customers. Her solution was a long-forgotten novelty act known as “chucking”. Supported by two male volunteers, Priss would balance on her head, stark naked with her legs akimbo, while patrons took turns inserting half-crown coins into her “commodity”. The act was described in The Wand’ring Whore, a 1661 guide to London’s prostitutes:

“Whereupon the sight thereof [of] French dollars, Spanish pistols, English half-crowns are plentifully poured in… as she was showing tricks upon her head with naked buttocks and spread legs in a round ring, like those at wrestling…”

According to legend Priss Fotheringham’s “commodity” could fit 16 half-crowns, the princely sum of 40 shillings. Reports suggest that she performed this act several times daily, making it quite an earner. “Priss Fotheringham’s Chuck Shop” became one of the most popular haunts in London, making Priss enough cash to set up and staff her own brothel. Her husband died in 1663 and Priss followed him five years later, both from advanced syphilis.


Source: John Garfield (attrib.), The Wand’ring Whore, London, 1661. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1744: Long Island septuagenarian jumps “upon his bum”


Alexander Hamilton was a colonial American doctor, traveler and writer. Born in Scotland in 1712, Hamilton was educated at the University of Edinburgh where his father, Reverend William Hamilton, was an influential academic. In 1739 Hamilton emigrated to Maryland and started his own practice in Annapolis. In 1744, after a period of ill health, Hamilton embarked on a tour of New England, riding on horseback to Maine and back. During this four-month sojourn he recorded his experiences of the colonial towns and people he encountered. During one overnight stay at Brookhaven, a hamlet on Long Island, Hamilton met a septuagenarian named Smith who claimed to be looking for work as captain of a pirate ship, despite having no previous experience. According to Hamilton:

“He showed us several antic tricks, such as jumping half a foot high upon his bum, without touching the floor with any other part of his body. Then he turned and did the same upon his belly. Then he stood upright upon his head. He told us he was 75 years of age and swore damn-his-old-shoes if any man in America could do the like.”

Hamilton later returned to his practice in Annapolis and married into the powerful Dulany family. He became a respected physician, popular for his forthright but easy nature and his dry wit. After serving briefly in the Maryland assembly, Alexander Hamilton died in 1756.

Source: Dr Alexander Hamilton, Itinerarium, 1744. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1633: Women actors are “notorious whores”, writes Prynne


William Prynne (1600-1669) was an English lawyer and writer, famous for his provocative and controversial essays. One of the most Puritan of the Puritans, Prynne was not afraid to take aim at popular conventions, culture or leaders. One of his earliest and best known works was Histriomastix, a 1633 attack on just about anything considered fun. Historiomastix strongly criticised parties, masquerade balls, country fairs, mixed dancing, feast days, wakes, sports, even hairstyles and colourful stained-glass windows. But much of this particular text is a condemnation of theatrical performances and those responsible for them. Plays, Prynne claims are “the chief delight of the Devil”, wanton and immoral displays of debauchery filled with:

“…amorous smiles and wanton gestures, those lascivious complements, those lewd adulterous kisses and embracements, those lustful dalliances, those impudent, immodest painterly passages… they are the very schools of bawdery, real whoredoms, incests, adulteries, etc.”

As to those who regularly attend the theatre, they are:

“…adulterers, adulteresses, whoremasters, whores, bawds, panders, ruffians, roarers, drunkards, prodigals, cheaters, idle, infamous, base, profane, and godless persons.”

Histriomastix was especially severe on actors and actresses. The ranks of male actors, Prynne claimed, were filled with “Sodomites” who spent their time writing love letters and “chasing the tails” of “players boys”. As for actors of the opposite gender, Prynne offered a simple but biting four-word assessment:

“Women actors, notorious whores.”

A drawing of William Prynne, right, being reacquainted with his ears
A drawing of William Prynne, right, being reacquainted with his ears

This anti-thespian tirade soon got William Prynne into trouble. One woman who quite enjoyed masked balls, mixed dancing and the occasional acting role was Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I. The queen, who appeared in a speaking role in a prominent play not long after the publication of Histriomastix, took his slurs personally. In 1634 Prynne was hauled before the star chamber, charged with seditious libel against the queen and others and found guilty. He was fined £5000, stripped of his academic degrees, given two days in the pillory and sentenced to have the tops of his ears clipped off with shears. And if that wasn’t enough, hundreds of copies of Histriomastix were rounded up and burned before Prynne’s eyes as he languished in the pillory.


Source: William Prynne, Histriomastix, London, 1633. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1529: Antonius de Arena’s rules for dancing


Antonius de Arena was born into a well-off family near Toulouse, France, sometime around 1500. He studied law at Avignon and later joined the French army, participating in the Italian War of 1521-26. Arena, who was a romantic at heart and something of a ladies’ man, did not enjoy military life; he much preferred writing and teaching. Arena wrote several texts on matters of law, as well as manuals on conduct and etiquette. In 1529 he penned The Rules of Dancing, a quite thorough account of of several examples of basse danse, the slow-moving court dances popular with the French nobility. Arena urged his readers, particularly young men, to take their dancing seriously, for “to dance badly is a great disgrace”. The young person who cannot dance well, he writes, is likely to fall victim to “proud ladies and damsels who gossip away like magpies”. In contrast, the man who can dance well will “kiss many charming ladies and a thousand girls”. He goes on to offer advice on music, movement and choreography – as well as proper deportment while dancing:

“Wear the most elegant clothes when you are dancing and are all set for love… the slovenly dressed man will be ridiculed…”

“Do not have a dripping nose and do not dribble at the mouth. No woman desires a man with rabies…”

“Do not scratch your head in search of lice…”

“When you are dancing do not keep your mouth open, since the flies… could easily fly into your gaping mouth and choke you…”

“Do not eat either leeks or onions because they leave an unpleasant odour in the mouth…”

“Always maintain a smiling aspect when dancing and, I pray you, a pleasant friendly expression. Some people look as if they are weeping and as if they want to shit hard turds…”

Source: Antonius de Arena, The Rules of Dancing, 1529. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1816: Pious teen avoids rope swing – just like Jesus


James Walter Douglas was born in Virginia in November 1797. After completing his primary education Douglass moved to the village of Christiana, Delaware, where he obtained a position as a trainee clerk. The teenaged Douglass also became a pious and active member of the local church. The extent of his faith is evident in Douglass’s personal diary. In its pages he explains his reasons for not using a rope swing, popular with numerous other young men in Christiana:

“A very high and quite expensive swing was put up in the village by the young men [and has become] a great resort for the young people of the town. I was very much in doubt whether I ought to attend it, and at length determined that I ought not, for these reasons:

1. It takes time and we must account for our time.

2. It is setting an example of levity.

3. The Lord Jesus would not attend such a place.

4. Nor [would] his apostles.

5. Nor [would] our minister Mr Latta…

6. Please when carried to excess is criminal. Is this not excess?

7. What good can I get [from the swing]. Will I be more virtuous? Wiser? Better tempered? More full of grace? No, no I will not…”

In October 1816 Douglass had another moral dilemma when he visited New York. Out walking, he found himself continually drawn towards the printed handbills of the theatre, which threatened to “inflame [his] imagination”. But Douglass triumphantly reported being able to return to his lodgings without passing the theatre and looking inside. Perhaps unsurprisingly Douglass later entered the church. By 1823 he was preaching in North Carolina and in 1833 he married a woman from Virginia. He died prematurely in August 1837, just weeks before his 40th birthday.

Source: Diary of James W. Douglass, July 1st 1816. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.