The cruelty of early-20th-century celebrity gossip shown in a record mocking an actor with syphilis

An Episode of Syphilis-Shaming Shows How Cruel Early-20th-Century Celebrity Gossip Could Be

An Episode of Syphilis-Shaming Shows How Cruel Early-20th-Century Celebrity Gossip Could Be

The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Jan. 8 2016 10:50 AM

An Episode of Syphilis-Shaming Shows How Cruel Early-20th-Century Celebrity Gossip Could Be


This bizarre recording, an Edison Gold Moulded Record from circa 1904–1908 titled “The Ravings of John McCullough,” is part of a sordid saga of celebrity gossip involving venereal disease, madness, and death. The Davidson Library at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which has digitized the record, identifies the speaker as comedian Harry Spencer, who was active around the turn of the 20th century. 

In the recording, Spencer impersonates the late actor John McCullough, a 19th-century theatrical idol whose final years were marred by botched performances, strange fits of temper, and rumors of alcoholism and sexual excess. (The trade card above, which depicts McCullough playing the role of Othello, was digitized by the Folger Shakespeare Library.) The New York Herald would later recall that at the beginning of his decline “[McCullough] was almost sane, but he gradually sank to a state slightly better than idiocy and some steps, which had long been postponed, had to be taken to protect him.” He died in an asylum in 1885, but, as Spencer’s recording indicates, the rumors and mockery long outlived him.

MicCullough had the misfortune to be one of the first high-profile victims of syphilis at a time when doctors were finally beginning to understand the disease and its effects. Although contemporary newspaper accounts never printed the word “syphilis,” those in the know were aware that it had been McCullough’s downfall. Spencer’s impression of McCullough is exceptionally cruel, beginning with an opening salvo—“They say I’m mad, raving mad”— before dissolving into insane laughter. A few garbled renditions of lines from McCullough’s signature roles follow before the speaker once again begins laughing in a deranged manner.

Spencer's impersonation of McCullough would cause the actor’s friends and supporters much distress, but it’s also a fascinating look at how celebrity culture was evolving in the years just before the emergence of the movie industry. The private lives—and vices—of actors like McCullough had already become matters of public interest, long before Hollywood gossip magazines emerged. Most people would have first heard this recording by paying a nickel to listen to it on a phonograph in a public venue; the theatre critic Laurence Hutton, who counted himself a friend of McCullough’s as well as a fan of his work, recalled seeing it “advertised in large letters under an old lithograph of the dead tragedian” on a busy street. While listening to the recording brought back “memories of [McCullough’s] unusually attractive personality,” Hutton still thought that it was “a brutal exhibition.”

Michael Lueger teaches theater at Emerson College and Northeastern University. He tweets about theatre history @theaterhistory.