1,001 apologies to everyone who participated in the Buster Keaton blogathon 2016.
Around the time I planned to begin work on Part Two, professional complications in my daily life---which remain ongoing as I write this--prevented me from giving this the effort and attention it needs. Very little has been accomplished so far, as "real life" takes priority. Fingers crossed that I'll have the next entry ready for the 2017 event. It's amazing how fast a year can fly by.
In the meantime, I'm leaving Part One available for those of you who have not yet read it.
Sunday, February 8, 2015
A multi-part series of articles exploring the meanings and myths behind the name “Buster.”
( Note: This article is posted to participant in the First Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon, hosted by Silentology ( https://silentology.wordpress.com/ ) It has been posted to meet the event’s February 8, 2015 deadline without benefit of a second pair of eyes properly copy editing it for grammatical errors, misplaced punctuation, etc. I welcome comments that point out copy editing oversights)
Part One: Busters Before Buster
Was the stone faced comedian really the first person named Buster?
By Marty Jones
To know the story of Buster Keaton’s life is to know the story of how the man got his name. A year or two after his October 1895 birth, young Joseph Frank Keaton Jr. toddled at the top of a boarding house staircase and tumbled down it’s full length. A group of horrified grown-ups are relieved to discover that the child not only survived uninjured but, apparently, enjoyed the ride.
“My, that was some buster your boy took!” says a man to the father. A “buster,” it has since been explained, was 19th century slang for a particularly lively fall. There is some debate whether or not the man who made this observation was the young, yet-to-be-famous escape artist Harry Houdini. Regardless, dad is inspired to make a word meaning “fall” his son’s nickname and from that point forward little Joe Keaton Jr. would forever be known as Buster.
Through out his life Buster Keaton provided this Houdini-gave-me-my-nickname anecdote to anyone who asked. It was left for the historical record in his 1960 autobiography My Wonderful World of Slapstick.
Furthermore, Buster informed his readers that he was given the name before that other contemporaneous well-known Buster, Buster Brown of newspaper comics fame. And his claim didn’t end there. “As far as I have been able to learn,” he wrote, “I was the first person given that nickname.” He backed this up four years later when he told a Canadian interviewer that up until he became famous as a child star in vaudeville the word “....‘buster’ meant a fall. That was the only time it was ever used, or (as in) a bronco-buster...It was never used as a name.”
Subsequent biographies have echoed this belief. The Damfino’s, a modern day international fan club devoted to preserving an accurate historical legacy for the comedian, has posted on it’s website that “Keaton became the first person to use Buster as a name. Buster Brown, Buster Crabbe and Buster Poindexter all came later, presumably owing their names indirectly to Harry Houdini.”
This has always struck me as a far more significant part of his legacy than the attention it has gotten. After all, today the name is in widely recognizable usage, such as with current baseball star Buster Posey or the former world heavyweight champion Buster Douglas. And not in every case is it a nickname. Wikipedia lists a half dozen notable persons to have come along since the baby Keaton who have been given Buster as their christian name. That it all sprang from the early fame of this boy comedian in slap shoes is not a minor point of his legacy. But is it true?
Let’s pay closer attention to the phrasing Keaton used: “...as far as I have been able to tell.” The man wrote those words in 1960. The research methods available in those pre-computer days (involving mostly footwork) made it difficult to suss out the sort of references necessary to vet Buster’s statement. However in the 21st century we have internet technology at our fingertips. With my laptop open I can, in a surprisingly short amount of time, call up a variety of sources that can either buttress or debunk Buster’s claim.
Birth records, censuses, and last wills and testaments are widespread online. Likewise, university and public libraries hold vast collections of pre-20th century texts: newspapers, magazines, books, journals, diaries, etc. Some of these texts have been scanned page by page, digitized and made available online. Most of these websites have a search function where by entering “Buster” they will call up hits that recognize words containing the b-u-s-t-e-r letter sequence, such as “bronco-busters” or the political term “filibuster.”
Setting those aside, I can unequivocally state that contrary to our hero’s belief, Joe Frank Keaton Jr. arrived in a world already filled with far more Busters than either he or this researcher would have guessed. During the hundred years before his 1895 birth people were going about their daily lives in English speaking countries knowing, seeing and being Busters. Humans, animals, fictional characters, even objects and places shared the nickname.
Furthermore, the word had multiple meanings beyond its description of a fall. It existed as a verb, a noun, an adjunctive, as slang, and as part of a short-lived catch phrase. Most revealingly, it appears to have been a stock-type name used in fiction for the type of child Keaton would soon begin playing in the family vaudeville act, The Three Keatons.
In short, Buster Keaton has passed along misinformation. It has been accepted without challenge through out the later half of the 20th century and grown into a modern day urban myth. That his claim of being the world’s first Buster appears as a “trivia” entry on the man’s page at the online International Movie Data Base (a.k.a. IMDB), a widely referenced source to which anyone can contribute, confirms this to be so.
My research into this—initially born of idle curiosity—has opened a Pandora’s box of discoveries that have me questioning other myths that have sprouted from the familiar origin story of Buster Keaton’s name.
This study, then, will attempt to bring some clarity—and accuracy—to the story behind the man’s name for the benefit of future Keaton scholars, researchers and fans.
Some Other Busters
I spent an afternoon familiarizing myself with earlier Busters of all stripes: good Busters, bad Busters, Buster’s that barked, Busters that meowed. Even a Knighted British military officer who was known to all by his Buster nickname. Just imagine: Sir Buster.
Among those pre-dating Keaton were Buster Tomney, a professional baseball player with the Louisville Colonels; Buster Hart, a hero boatman who saved numerous lives in San Francisco Bay; Buster Bowers, who murdered a relative in a domestic dispute; Buster de Graftenreid, a gun fighting cowboy; Buster Hogan, nabbed while robbing a chicken coop; Buster Alexander, an 11-year old pyromaniac; Buster Gribbon, attacked by a leopard.
And, yes, there were slaves named Buster. No guessing how many there were in this mostly undocumented community of bondsmen but I stumbled across several casual mentions. One who was the property of a South Carolina plantation owner pops up in a Last Will and Testament dated January 21, 1774, making him the earliest Buster I unearthed. So here we have evidence of a Buster who not only predates the birth of Keaton but also the birth of the United States.
There are other kinds of Busters. Race horses named Buster ran regularly during the 1880‘s and 90‘s in New York. The subject of an article titled “Buster the Sailor Cat” was revealed to have accompanied it’s seaman owner to ports on every inhabited continent. The subject of another article was “Buster the Ocular Mule.” I’m not sure if this soothsaying donkey is fact or fiction, for–indeed–the list is long with fictional Busters. Joel Chandler Harris, author of the famous “Uncle Remus” stories, wrote 6 children’s books that featured as one of two protagonist an 8 year old lad named Buster John. Another young reader’s book, published during the civil war, was titled Buster and Baby Jim. In “The Ambitious Turkey” Buster was a gobbler who has tragic delusions regarding his Thanksgiving day fate. In “Honeybun’s Ride with Santa Claus” a boy named Buster joined his little brother on a fantastical journey.
Then there are places and things that used the name, such as Buster’s Ferry in Macon, Missouri, or Buster’s Gulch in La Porte City, Iowa, or Buster’s Hall, a prominently located saloon in downtown Baltimore.
The single usage of the name that I suspect would have most pleased Keaton was found in the July 5, 1860 Wilmington (North Carolina) Journal. Certainly the man who made the civil war train adventure The General would have been delighted to learn that prior to the actual war there ran in Cincinnati a steam locomotive called “The Buster.”
My favorite of all Busters was Buster Kelly, a notorious Brooklyn street thug whose runs-in with the law were chronicled in New York city papers between 1886 and 1892. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle described him as “...a large, powerful fellow, over six feet in height” and also as being frequently “...well loaded with South Brooklyn fire-water.” Further descriptive color was provide by The New York Sun, which informed readers that Buster had previously “...lost an arm by being run over by a street car while trying to escape from a policeman, and one of his eyes was gouged out in a rough-and-tumble scrimmage.” Among his escapades were: a fight on a street car; being part of a cock-fighting ring; fatally injuring a man in a barroom brawl; and demanding gold—without reason—from the county treasurer. In this last episode he “...became so violent that it required four policemen to overpower him.” I picture him as the real-life version of Eric Campbell’s character in Charlie Chaplin’s Easy Street, minus a limb and with an eyepatch.
I could cite more Busters but they would merely be adding to the list. All the ones mentioned are verifiable by the references at the end of this article. So if you want to read more about a fortune-telling donkey or an 11-year old who plays with matches, have at it.
Keep in mind that the digitized online collections used for this research represent just a fraction of the publications of the era. Most have not survived time. One can deduct from this that the pre-Keaton world contained far, far more Buster’s than just those I came across in a deliberately cursory search. Especially considering my efforts account for only those Busters who merited mention in some sort of publication.
Whether I unearthed hundreds of thousands of Busters or just one they all add up to the same irrefutable fact: that Buster Keaton went through his entire life with a misapprehension about the uniqueness of his own name.
Why this was the case is conjecture–and I aim to offer a number of possible reasons at length in a future part of this series.
A search for uniqueness
Having confirmed that Keaton was not the first person named Buster, can my research be used to salvage any sort of claim of originality regarding the man’s usage of the nickname?
Can it be said, for example, that Keaton was the first person to use the name professionally? After all, among the very formal customs of pre-20th century life it was rare for any kind of official acknowledgment of one’s nickname.
This is perhaps best borne out with a word-search of military records posted on the National Parks Service’s online Soldier’s and Sailor’s Database. There is not a single reference to a Buster who fought in the civil war on either side—a highly improbable occurrence considering the abundance of Busters. Or take the ballplayer Buster Tomney: did he play the sport officially billed by his nickname or was it only used in casual references? His contemporary baseball card (a cabinet card, actually) labels him by his last name and position only.
Despite the tendency to not use nicknames professionally before Keaton’s day, there were businesses such as the Baltimore saloon “Buster’s Hall.” One assumes Buster was the name of the man who owned or ran the place. But it could have just as easily referenced one of the several other usages of the word’s meaning (which will be detailed in the next part of this series. )
The nearest hard evidence I uncovered of Buster being used professionally was an advertisement in a Carthage, North Carolina newspaper. An entrepreneuring merchant proudly called himself “the Buster,” as in “....try buster bargains in all lines of groceries.” In large typeset letters he reminds his customers: “DON’T FORGET THAT I.W. WILLIAMSON IS THE BUSTER.” But does this mean Mr. Williamson was known by the nickname (as in “I got a good deal from Buster Williamson”) or was it more of a professional label (e,g, “I got a good deal from ‘the Buster’”?) It’s hard to say,
A similar gray area occurs in trying to determine if Keaton was, at least, the first Buster to appear on stage. The July 22, 1861 Brooklyn Daily Eagle tells us in an article headlined “Theaters in America” that “...the great American tragedian, Forrest, is thus irreverently introduced under the name Buster.” This is possibly a reference to the legendary 19th Century Shakespearian actor Edwin Forrest. While this nugget of text might reveal that at least one of his offstage nicknames among intimates was Buster, there is no record of him being billed as such professionally.
On the other hand, William Henry Crane may not have technically been a Buster but he preceded Keaton by two decades in playing a character billed in advertisements as Buster.
As one half of the long forgotten performing duo Robson & Crane, he and his partner toured American stages from 1876 to 1888 in multiple productions. The team’s debut vehicle was the three act play Forbidden Fruit, touted as “...the funniest comedy known to the English stage.” In their roles as Cato Dove and Sergeant Buster, the duo were billed as Dove & Buster, a pair of married men engaged in a night-on-the-town-behind-the-wives-backs-subterfuge that reads like a Laurel and Hardy two-reeler. A reoccurring line in the script, “charge it to Buster!” was the show’s biggest laugh and was used to promote the play.
The line apparently was popular enough to became something of a period catch phrase. It appears as early as 1877 in an issue of Puck and was still in usage as late as 1905. An 1880 report from New Orleans tells of a woman— possibly a prostitute—who robs a man in a tavern. Upon being exposed she shouts “charge it to Buster!” The phrases’ definition escapes me. I assume it’s something of the nature of a kiss-off insult, such as “so’s your old man,” or “you and what army?”
By the way: a little truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tidbit regarding the onstage Buster, William Henry Crane. With his partner he later went on to score a big hit with The Henrietta. Many students of Keaton’s work know that this play was adapted for the screen in 1920 as The Saphead, Buster Keaton’s first starring feature film. But that’s not the strangest coincidence here. Appearing in the movie in the co-starring role as Buster father, at age 75, is none other than Mr. Crane himself!
But being billed as a character named Buster is not the same as being a Buster. Yet I did find at least one person named Buster who preceded Keaton on stage. The December 1878 issue of Scribner’s Monthly magazine contains a lengthy reminiscence by one who was a member of a theatrical society. He identifies himself only by his nickname: “...in college at the time...the writer was called ‘Buster’... and for all present purposes I prefer to remain ‘a-non.’” This is to spare himself the embarrassment of the story’s confession: that because women were not allowed in the troop it was he who had to dress and perform as a lady—a theatrical tradition common to the period. (Let us note that Our Buster had no compunction about appearing in drag, as anyone who has seen either Back Stage or Doughboys can attest.)
So the question remains did this cross-dressing thespian bill himself on stage as Buster? Or even receive billing at all? The article doesn’t address the matter. A vaguely defined ‘theatrical society’ could have been anything from a touring company seen by a paying audience to merely an amateur troop of college kids performing for other students.
One thing that is certain, however, is that Our Buster was not the first famous person with that name. The aforementioned Sir Buster, real name James Browne (yep, an earlier Buster Brown, albeit with a different spelling), gained distinction as a military engineer in British colonial India. His notability was such that in addition to knighthood and a slew of other honors he was the subject of a 456 page biography published 9 years after his 1896 death, his well-known nickname earning a place in it’s title: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF GENERAL SIR JAMES BROWNE, R.E., K.C.B., K.C.S.I., (BUSTER BROWNE).
Keaton was not even the first Buster child celebrity. That distinction (unless there is someone yet to be unearthed who predates him) goes to Buster Depew.
Born as Chauncey M. Depew, Jr. in 1878, his claim to fame came by way of being nothing more than the only child of Chauncey Depew, Sr. Although the senior Depew draws a blank today in his time he was, according to a contemporary issue of the Chicago Tribune, “....a household name throughout the United States.” As an associate of Cornelius Vanderbilt he was among the most powerful railroad executives of the era. Every four years during the late 19th and early 20th centuries his name was among those considered as the Republican party’s presidential nominee. He settled for serving two terms as Senator from New York.
Republican friendly papers had a vested interest in promoting the senior Depew as an extraordinary man, which extended down to his namesake. Buster’s celebrity began around 1889 at age 10 when he was touted as a political prince in waiting, a precocious home-taught youth who was a whiz at history and had mastered multiple languages.
No doubt his public profile was abetted by the family being based in New York City, the hub of the only mass media of the day–the newspaper industry. Thus, stories about him fanned out nationwide. How famous was he? Engravings of his portrait accompanied several of the articles, a true sign of pre-20th century distinction.
Under headlines such as “A Bright Boy is Buster” readers were amused by tales of how the lad would ‘play act’ his father’s profession. An example is the anecdote given about the senior Depew being aroused by noises at night only to discover Buster had snuck into the library and was “...standing on the center table in his night dress...and with his right arm upraised was delivering a speech” to an imaginary audience of library books. “Just practicing, papa,” the boy explained.
As the kid grew into a young adult he apparently felt he deserved to be addressed by a name more dignified. When The Times reported on “...his first appearance among public men at the recent Harmony Dinner in New York,” it was emphatically stated that “....the future statesman is Chauncey M. Depew, Jr., once, but no longer, known as ‘Buster.’ ”
But despite his desire to distance himself from his childhood nickname, well into the early 1900’s papers in St. Louis and Chicago were still pointedly identifying him as “Chauncey M. Depew Jr., who is better known to New York as “Buster...”
For all the hope and promise that Depew Jr. would grow into a successful, useful life, his 1931 obituary—dead of pneumonia at age 54—informs us that the never married man, following in the path of so many children of the rich “...took no part in either business or professional affairs.” But by then he had succeeded in at least one goal: as an adult his celebrity was long behind him and nowhere in his brief obituary does it mention he had once been known nationwide as Buster.
So in summing up where Keaton fits in among all these Busters, I think the following can be said with tentative accuracy: He was not the first person named Buster. Nor was he the first famous Buster. It’s unclear if he was the first person to call himself Buster professionally. He was not the first person nicknamed Buster to have appeared on stage. However, he may have been the first performer to openly, consistently bill himself onstage using Buster as his public name, as opposed to playing a character named Buster. I emphasize my use of the word ‘tentative’ here. Further evidence of earlier professional or theatrical Busters may yet turn up.
So, why Buster?
Although by the time of Keaton’s birth the name was in familiar usage, a Buster was no Tom, Dick, or Harry. It was a particularly quirky name to have and in some of the references I came across there are explanations given as to why a certain person (or pet or thing) had earned the sobriquet.
By far the most common connection among those who owned the name was its attachment to early childhood. In fiction, especially, it was used to convey little boys. Like similar “pet” names of youth, such as Buddy, Chip, Sissy, Missy or Junior, the name was normally left behind in the preteen years. But in many cases it would stick with the person for life.
Whereas some of these nicknames have unambiguous origins (“Buddy” being a ‘bud’ growing from something larger, i.e. an offspring; “Chip” being “a chip off the old block;” “Sissy” deriving from little sister, etc.) it’s not so obvious how—and why—the word ‘Buster’ applies to a child.
In the next part of this study I will go deeper into the origin and meaning of the word, and look at it’s other usages as a noun, verb, and adjective. In doing so it will be revealed that the name came to describe not just any child but a child of a very specific kind.
Then it will become clear why the name Buster, far from the legend of it being uniquely applied in Keaton’s case, was, in fact, at the turn of the century an obvious (dare I even call it cliched?) name to give to an undisciplined child in a rough house family vaudeville act.
Copyright 2015 Marty Jones
Marty Jones is a professional magazine designer who works and lives in the wider Washington DC metro area. He previously worked as an animator and children’s comic strip writer and illustrator. He graduated Ball State University in 1981 with a BS degree in telecommunication with a focus on film studies.
He can be reached through the comments section here or via facebook: https://www.facebook.com/martyinfredmd
Books with reference to the origin of Buster Keaton’s name:
Blesh, Rudi, Keaton, The Macmillan Company (1966) See pg. 4.
Dardis, Tom, Keaton, the Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down, Penguin Books (1980) See
Keaton, Buster, My Wonderful World of Slapstick, Doubleday (1960) See pg. 20
McPherson, Edward, Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat, Newmarket Press (2007)
Kindle Edition, see chapter “Cyclone Baby”
Meade, Marion, Buster Keaton, Cut to the Chase, Harper Books (1995) See pgs.
Slide, Anthony, The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville, University Press of Mississippi, 2012
reprint edition, see pg. 498.
Vance, Jeffery and Eleanor Keaton, Buster Keaton Remembered, Abrams (2001) See
Buster Keaton interviewed by Fletcher Markle on Telescope, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1964. Can be viewed at: http://www.cbc.ca/archives/categories/arts-entertainment/humour/laughs-from-the-past/deadpan---buster-keaton.html
Some Other Busters
(Buster Tomney reference) Wikipedia.
(Buster Tomney cabinet card) Heritage Auction Galleries, www.ha.com
“Brave Buster Hart,” The Morning Call (San Francisco,) Sept. 29, 1890
(Buster Bowers reference) “Murder in Carter County.” The Knoxville (Tennessee) Daily Chronicle, Jan. 15, 1880
(Buster de Graftenreid reference) “Whiskey and Pistols,” Las Vegas Daily Gazette, Dec. 27. 1885
(Buster Hogan reference) “Too Fat for a Chicken Thief,” The Kansas City (Kansas) Gazette, May 3, 1895
(Buster Alexander reference) “A Youthful Criminal”, The Charlotte (North Carolina) Observer, Feb. 1, 1890
(Buster as a slave name references): “Freed Children in Virginia,” Chetopa (Kansas) Advance, Dec, 28, 1870; ‘Buckshot: A Record, The Atlantic Monthy, Oct. 1884;
An 1835 bill of sale for pieces of pottery crafted by slave named Buster see
Viach, John Michael, The Afro-American Tradition of Decorative Arts, University
of Georgia Press (1990), see pg. 81; “Mammy Guyer,” The Times-Picayne (New Orleans) Aug 12, 1888. “Last Will and Testament of John Ellis,” Halifax County Will
Book Vol. 1, 1758-1774, publisher unknown, see page 343-44.
(Buster race horse references) “Turf and Field Sports,” The New York Times, May 26,
1880; “The Hurdle Race,” The New York Times, Aug. 1, 1883;
“Buster the Sailor Cat,” Juniata Sentinel and Republican (Mifflintown, Pa.) Jan. 20, 1886
“Buster, the Oracular Mule,” Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), Feb. 28, 1891, pg. 10
Brasch, Walter M., Brer Rabbit, Uncle Remus, and the “Cornfield Journalist”: The Tale of Joel Chandler Harris, Mercer University Press, 2000.
Buster and Baby Jim (complete book) can be found at: https://archive.org
“The Ambitious Turkey,” The Coffeyville (Kansas) Weekly Journal, Nov. 25, 1882.
“Honeybun Rides with Santa Claus,” Syracuse (New York) Daily Courier and Union,
Jan. 2, 1865
(Buster’s Ferry reference untitled) The Macon (Missouri) Republican, Nov. 13, 1890
(Buster’s Gulch reference) “The School Mistress in Shantyville, Progress Review, Nov.
(Buster’s Hall reference) Untitled notice, The Sun (Baltimore) Feb 18, 1853.
(‘The Buster’ locomotive reference) Untitled, Wilmington (North Carolina) Journal, July
(Buster Kelly references): “A Cock Fight,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Mar. 18, 1886;
“Mr. Kelly Creates Lively Scenes for Passengers,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb. 10. 1890; “Occurrences of Interest in Brooklyn and Vicinity,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle,
Mar. 22, 1892; “Fatal Results of a Saloon Fight,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov. 16, 1892; “Crank Kelly Demands Gold,” The New York Sun, March 9, 1892.
A search for uniqueness
(I.W. Williamson, a.k.a. “the Buster” advertisement) The Carthage (North Carolina)
Blade, Jan 15, 1895.
(Edwin Forrest as Buster reference) Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 22, 1861.
(W. H. Crane billed as Buster reference) Untitled notice, The Philadelphia Times, Dec.
(“Charge it to Buster” used to promote ‘Forbidden Fruit’) Chicago Daily Tribune, Oct. 19, 1884.
(“Charge it to Buster” as catch phrase references) “Ethereal Mildness Come Again!,” Puck, April 1877; “Plan Discovered to Remedy Shortage of Naval Officers, Chicago Tribune, March 13, 1905; “A Police Raid,” The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, La.) Nov. 22, 1880.
“He Playing She,” Scribner’s Monthly, Dec., 1878.
The Life and Times of General Sir James Browne, R.E., K.C.B., K.C.S.I., Buster Browne (complete book) can be found at: https://archive.org
(Buster Depew references): “Depew: the Younger,” The Times (Owosso, Mich.) Nov. 2,
1895; “Chauncey;s Boy Buster” The Sandusky (Ohio) Register, Jul 2, 1895;
“Buster Depew: A Very Bright and Dangerous Rival to His Father,” The Morning
Call (San Francisco) March 28, 1892; (Illustration example of Buster Depew) Jamestown (North Dakota Territory) Weekly Alert, July 28, 1892; “Chauncey’s
Great Surprise”, St. Paul Daily Globe, June 30, 1895; “Thrice Married in Two
Days,” St. Louis Republic, Dec. 29, 1901; “An Eminent Man’s Wife,” Logansport (Indiana) Pharos-Tribune, May 28, 1890; “A Bright Boy is Buster,” New York World,
March 20, 1892.
Newspapers and magazines cited in this article can be accessed through these sites:
http://www.newspapers.com/ (pay site, with a short term free trial option)
http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/ (free, limited selection)