The aftermath of Mose trying to pass himself off as 'Scotch'. Artist: George Herriman.


Medium: Newspaper comics
Appearing in: The Pulitzer papers
First Appeared: 1902
Creator: George Herriman
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George Herriman, widely acknowledged as one of the greatest cartoonists of the early 20th century, achieved enduring fame, first for The Dingbat Family/The Family Upstairs, and then for its spin-off, Krazy Kat. But before that, he created Major Ozone, Gooseberry Sprigg and any …

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… number of other odd features. One thing they had in common was that none lasted very long. In fact, his very first recurring comic, Musical Mose, had only three episodes before being consigned to the Dustbin of History.

Mose was a musically talented guy, apparently able to play any instrument, who made his living in a way more common in his time than ours — by playing outdoors, i.e., in a place where he didn't have to pay rent on a hall, and surviving on the generosity of nearby music lovers. Only trouble was, he'd always do so in the guise of some ethnicity he didn't belong to, and was always clobbered for it by authentic members of the human type he was trying to pass himself off as.

What made it hard to get away with his impersonations was the fact that he stood out like a sore thumb among people of any European or Asian heritage, because his own heritage came from Africa. His wife, Sal, would warn him about being too "dark-complected" to pull off the deception, but he didn't listen. In his first outing, which appeared in the Pulitzer papers (The Yellow Kid, Nibsy the Newsboy) on February 16, 1902, he tried to pretend he was "Scotch" (so he could serenade the widow Malone), and got his bagpipe wrecked. (Modern people usually use the term "Scots" on grounds that the word "Scotch" refers to whisskey, hot human beings.)

The irony was, the cartoonist himself was doing something very similar. Tho he was light-skinned enough to "pass" during his lifetime, it's now known that most of Herriman's own ancestors came from Africa.

Such a one-note was unlikely to hold readers' interest for long. But it didn't have to, because before long, Herriman was finished with Mose. His stellar career went on to include Baron Mooch, Stumble Inn, Professor Otto and a wide variety of other comics, but he never looked back at Musical Mose.


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Text ©2010 Donald D. Markstein. Art ©: Musical Mose is in the public domain. This image has been modified. Modified version © Donald D. Markstein.