Of white hats and stolen donkeys

U 8.605-6: Take off that white hat

In the "Lestrygonians" chapter of Ulysses, most of which is presented in the form of Leopold Bloom’s stream of consciousness, Bloom’s thoughts turn to Dublin theatres of yesteryear:

Sloping into the Empire. […] Where Pat Kinsella had his Harp theatre before Whitbred ran the Queen’s. […] Take off that white hat. (8.599-606)

The Empire Buffet was located in 1904 at 1–3 Adam Court, off Grafton Street, in the building that used to be the Harp Musical Hall, operated by Pat Kinsella (1845–1906).  Kinsella closed the Harp in 1893. Englishman James W. Whitbread (1847–1916; the misspelling “Whitbred” is Joyce’s) was the manager of the Queen’s Royal Theatre on Great Brunswick Street from 1884 until 1907.1

The phrase “Take off that white hat”, occurring only here in Ulysses (8.605-6) but numerous times in various forms in Finnegans Wake, had been identified, at least since Adaline Glasheen’s A Census of Finnegans Wake as “a catch line” of Moore and Burgess,2 a minstrel duo that achieved great popularity in Britain and Ireland in the late 19th century.3  This gloss has been accepted by Joycean annotators including Don Gifford and Robert Seidman4, Roland McHugh5, and, until recently, Sam Slote, Marc A. Mamigonian, and John Turner.6  It has also been accepted in such solid scholarly works as Len Platt’s Joyce, Race and Finnegans Wake7 and Brian Cox’s recent James Joyce’s America.8

The references to Eugene Stratton and the Bohee Brothers in Ulysses, as well as the more extensive deployment of minstrelsy in Finnegans Wake, provide ample evidence of Joyce’s interest in and use of minstrelsy.9  However, while Cox is undoubtedly right in connecting the “white hat” motif to the white hood of the Ku Klux Klan in Finnegans Wake (e.g., “Why coif that weird hood?” at 342.11), it is harder to accept this as “the echo of the minstrel catchphrase,”10 since no evidence has yet been offered to show that “Take off that white hat” has any actual connection to Burgess and Moore or to minstrelsy in general (which is not to assert that no such evidence exists).  Rather, it can be seen that the phrase has a separate life of its own.

Moore and Burgess (Americans George Washington “Pony” Moore and Frederick Burgess) enjoyed tremendous popularity in Britain in the late 19th-early 20th-centuries, performing from 1859 through 1904 at the St. James Theatre in Piccadilly in London.11 The aforementioned Eugene Stratton became a member of the Moore and Burgess troupe in the 1880s and married Moore’s daughter.12 It is unsurprising that Joyce knew of them and alludes to them; but we have found nothing that connects Moore and Burgess with the phrase “Take off that white hat.”

It is for this reason that in the revised edition (2015) of Slote, Mamigonian and Turner the undocumented connection between Moore and Burgess and “Take off that white hat” is dropped, and replaced by what we feel is a stronger note that is not only based in a period-appropriate source but also refers specifically to the Queen’s Theatre, which is the proximate subject of Bloom’s reminiscences in this passage:

8.605–6: Take off that white hat

The Dublin gallery was notorious for ‘the extreme personality of its remarks' (Frank Hudson, 'Humours of the Dublin Gallery', p. 56). 'Take off that white hat' was a catchphrase primarily associated with the Queen's Theatre: 'An old fellow wearing a white hat entered the latter portion of the [Queen’s Theatre] one night. Why a white hat is such an eyesore to Dublin playgoers I cannot imagine, but so it is. "Take off that white hat!" "Who shot the donkey?" and other remarks of a like nature greeted the stranger'. (p. 57)

There are additional, and earlier, attestations of the relationship between Dublin theatres and “Take off that white hat.” An 1862 account in the London magazine Temple Bar states that

This Dublin Olympus [i.e., the Theatre Royal, referred to rather archly in the article as the "Royal Eblana Opera House"] has always been famous for its notes and comments, bandied in a conversational tone across the theatre; that ‘tween the acts is a perfect conversational saturnalia, in which the utmost license is tolerated, and neither age nor sex spared. It must be painful for that military dandy, who has entered his box with much stateliness and dignity, and who, turning unconsciously to arrange his seat, exhibits his hair divided with a matchless perfection, to be asked publicly, "Ah! misther, now! who sphlit your head down the back?" It must be equally unpleasant for another “curled and oiled Assyrian bull” to have public attention directed to him by a covert allusion of this sort, pitched in a feminine key, "Oh, mamma, who is that nee-ice young man just come in?" The presence of constituted authority always excites a just indignation: "A groan for the horny in the pit." "Ah, he’s more useful than hornymental." "The inspector’s screwed." "No, he’s bolted." "How dare you look up at me, sir? sit down, sir." "Take off that white hat, sir."13

A letter of 28 September 1869, to the editor of the Dublin Daily Express titled “Misconduct in the Theatre Royal” complains of “the indecency and ruffianism which characterize the conduct of the frequenters of the top gallery of the chief theatre of the city.” Among the many examples cited is the “If any individual happens to appear in the house with a headdress which is not black, he is peremptorily ordered to remove it. ‘Take off that white hat,’ is the one witticism which the united energies of the denizens of the top gallery have succeeded in achieving for their own admiration, and the contempt of the rest of the house.”  In words that could plausibly be lifted from the writings of the young Joyce, the writer wonders “how long is this rabble to hold sway? When will the public opinion of Dublin assert itself against barbarism which the people of no other city in Europe would tolerate for a single night?”  Why, even now the rabblement may be standing by the door!

The quote in our 2015 annotation from Frank Hudson dates from 1888 and appeared in the The Era Almanack. Several years later, in a different publication, Hudson tells the same story with a bit more information:

A white hat among the audience is, of course, a mark for all the shafts in the gallery arsenal. I remember on one occasion an old fellow with a very tall and very white hat, taking his seat in the pit. Immediately the storm began. 'Take off that hat!' 'Who stole the donkey?' 'Who killed Palmer?' etc, etc. The old fellow either did not, or would not, understand that the storm up over his head was all raised by his offending tile. His cool indifference only increased the hubbub, until at length the performance had to be suspended. Then the old gentleman rose from his seat, and looking up at the gallery, motioned for silence. The noise ceased for a moment. 'Gentlemen,' he exclaimed, 'if this noise continues, I shall leave the theatre! He resumed his seat amidst a roar of laughter and applause.14

Hudson no longer expresses bewilderment over the problem of the white hat: it and its wearer are “of course” an occasion for abuse.

Nor was this a strictly cisatlantic issue, with evidence of American intolerance of the white hat to be found in Appleton’s Journal in 1873:

The readiness with which those Wall-Street merry men pass from absorbing business to school-boy fun, might be shown by a hundred illustrations, but one will suffice here. … [A] man wearing a peculiar white hat appeared in the gallery. A broker, turning from one of the groups, looked up and saw him. No sooner did his eye take in the unusual chapeau, than he faced the stranger and roared:

"Take off that hat!"

Instantly the panic was forgotten, the whole business of the Exchange came to a sudden stop, and almost every man on the floor looked to the gallery and shouted, at the top of his voice:

"Take off that hat!"15

While further researching this matter for the forthcoming Annotations to James Joyce’s Ulysses,16 I uncovered much additional information, starting with various dictionaries of slang.  Eric Partridge is informative but terse to the point of being cryptic. He says of the phrase “Who stole the donkey” that “Sometimes another person added, the man in or with the white hat: this latter represented also the occasion: ca. 1835-70. Ex an actual incident.”17

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable provides these glosses for “Who stole the donkey”: first, that “This was for many years a jeer against policemen. When the force was first established a donkey was stolen, but the police failed to discover the thief, and this failure gave rise to the laugh against them”; but also that the answer to this question is “‘The man with the white hat.’ It was said, in the middle of the nineteenth century, that white hats were made of the skins of donkeys, and that many donkeys were stolen and sold to hatters.”18

Moving backwards in time, Albert Barrère and Charles Godfrey Leland’s 1895 A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant offers this uniquely offensive explanation:

"Who stole the donkey?" This was and still is a common street cry in Houndsditch and the other Hebrew quarters of London when a man wearing a white hat makes his appearance. The low Jews had or have a notion that no one but a Christian—and certainly no Jew—ever wears a white hat. They also have a saying that the Founder of Christianity stole the donkey on the back of which He rode into Jerusalem. Hence the expression.19

Farmer and Henley’s Slang and Its Analogues explains that:

"Who stole the donkey" was "A street cry once in vogue on the appearance of a man in a white hat. With a similar expression 'Who stole the leg of mutton'? applied to the police, it had its rise in a case of larceny. J. H. Dixon, writing to Hotten, Nov. 6th, 1864, remembered both. The first occurred at Hatton Garden Police Court, where a man, wearing a white hat, was charged with stealing a costermonger’s donkey."20

Under the phrase “Does your mother know you’re out?” they list “Who stole the donkey: the man in the white hat!” as among the many other phrases similarly “expressive of contempt, incredulity, sarcasm, anything you please.”21

The aforementioned Hotten, i.e., John Camden Hotten, recorded in his Slang Dictionary of 1865 that “I am unable to explain the phrase, but any one wearing a white hat, whether in town or country, is shouted after invariably by the street urchins, ‘Who stole the donkey?’ to which another in the gang replies, ‘The man in the white hat,’ and they then disperse.”22

If Hotten had been writing a few years later he might have had the advantage of hearing a popular song, “Who Stole the Donkey,” by Englishman Charles Vivian, which tells of a fellow with “a new white hat” on his head who is abused by some boys who shout “Who stole the donkey?”23  Vivian’s other animal-related accomplishment was probably more enduring than the popularity of this song: he would go on to become the founder of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.24

Perhaps not surprisingly, discussions of the origins of these phrases occupied space in the columns of Notes and Queries. For example, a correspondent in the issue of 13 February 1864 wonders about the fashion of wearing a white hat, and “Whence, also, its continued unpopularity? for twenty years since, the wearer of one was hooted at by boys in the streets, and termed a ‘Radical’; and, even now, he is frequently questioned by them as to his affinity to the ‘Man who stole the Donkey’.”25  If nothing else, the Notes and Queries correspondents attest to the fact that the wearing of a white hat was often an occasion for the abuse of the wearer.26

The clearest explanation of the connection between the otherwise inexplicably linked question (“Who stole the donkey?”) and answer (“The man in the white hat!”) is Brewer’s, and it is supported by correspondents in The Leisure Hour in 1901.  A certain M. S. of Cheltenham writes that “this was said because in the middle of the nineteenth century it was said that white hats were made of the skins of donkeys. Many donkeys were stolen and sold for this purpose”.27

A news account of Saturday 12 June 1847 in The Lancaster Gazette, under the alarming headline “A Brutal and Cowardly Assault Upon J. Hawthornwaite, Gamekeeper to John Walmsley, Esq., Richmond House,” unfolds a story of said “wanton and unprovoked assault” by five men in the village of Halton.

On going through the village, he observed a great crowd standing opposite the Horse and Farrier public house, and the five defendants were amongst them. When he had passed them a short distance, some person shouted—“Hie, him with the white hat, who stole the ferret?” Another voice answered, “Great Hawthornwaite.” A third shouted, “Who stole the donkey?” An answer was made, “Him with the white hat.” Another cried out, “Come back and I will hammer you.”  He [i.e., Hawthornwaite] had a white hat on at the time.

The account explains that the previous year Hawthornwaite had had some of the men involved in the incident up “before the magistrates for ferreting”; it would appear that the memory of this combined with the sight of the white hat was too much for the men to bear.  The narrative of the hearing continues with a summary of the cross examinations. Hawthornwaite testifies that “He did not threaten to fight any one of them. He did not know the meaning of ‘Who stole the donkey?’”

The earliest explicit linking of the phrases which I have seen28 appears in the Monmouthshire Merlin of 12 September 1835:

A rather ludicrous circumstance occurred on the river on Wednesday last. A few young men, who got a holiday, hired a boat for the purpose of meeting the Prince of Cambridge on his trip, and when near the "Hurdle-house" they met a boat with two gentlemen and a boy wearing a white hat on board—not for a moment imagining the presence of royal blood, one of the lads called out “Who stole the donkey?” and rowed up the stream; when evening closed in they returned, under the impression that the young Prince would not come!


* * * * * *

As with so many slang or colloquial phrases that pass out of use, the passage of time has obscured both the meaning and the origins of “Take off that white hat” and what I take to be its sibling (or progenitor) “Who stole the donkey: the man in the white hat”.  We have seen that in the case of “Take off that white hat,” it is documented as having had a particular currency in the world of the Dublin theatre in the 19th century.  The record on “Who stole the donkey: the man in the white hat” shows this as having been in use at least since the 1840s, and that a white hat as a source of humorous abuse was longstanding by Joyce’s time. In no case have we seen any connection to minstrelsy, much less to a particular minstrel act.  This is not to say that a phrase already in general colloquial use could not have been used in minstrel shows, too—and further research may show that to be the case.

Marc A. Mamigonian


1 See notes on this passage in James Joyce, Ulysses: Based on the 1939 Odyssey Press Edition, revised and corrected edition; annotated by Sam Slote, Marc A. Mamigonian and John Turner (Richmond: Alma Classics, 2015). My thanks to my co-annotators Sam Slote and John Turner for their input and insights into this passage which informs this short article, and to John Simpson for additional valuable suggestions.

2 Adaline Glasheen, A Census of Finnegans Wake (London: Faber and Faber, 1956), p. 91. Hers is the earliest gloss on this phrase that I have located.

3 See, inter alia, Tim Brooks, The Blackface Minstrel Show in Mass Media: 20th Century Performances on Radio, Records, Film and Television (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2019), p. 209. On minstrelsy in Britain generally, see Sophie Nield, “Popular Theatre, 1895-1940,” in Baz Kershaw, ed., The Cambridge History of British Theatre, Volume 3 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 98-104.

4 Don Gifford with Robert J. Seidman, Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988); it went unnoted in their earlier Notes for Joyce: An Annotation of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1974), as well as in Weldon Thornton’s Allusions in Ulysses (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968).<

5 Roland McHugh, Annotations to Finnegans Wake, first published in 1980 by Keegan Paul and subsequently by Johns Hopkins University Press.

6 Ulysses: Based on the 1939 Odyssey Press Edition, Annotated by Sam Slote, Marc A. Mamigonian and John Turner (Richmond, UK: Alma Classics, 2012).

7 Len Platt, Joyce, Race and Finnegans Wake (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 137

8 Brian Cox, James Joyce’s America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), pp. 91-2.

9 For which, see Platt and Cox; as well as Cheryl Herr, Joyce’s Anatomy of Culture (Urbana and Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1986), inter alia.

10 Cox, p. 92.

11 Richard Waterhouse, “The Internationalisation of American Popular Culture in the Nineteenth Century: The Case of the Minstrel Show,” Australasian Journal of American Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1 (July, 1985), p. 3.

12 See Michael Pickering, “Eugene Stratton an Early Ragtime in Britain,” Black Music Research Journal, Volume 20, No. 2 (Autumn 2000), p. 159.

13 Temple Bar: A London Magazine for Town and Country Readers, Vol. 4 (March 1862), pp. 500-1.

14 “Humours of the Dublin Gallery”, in The Theatre: A Monthly Review of the Drama, Music, and the Fine Arts, New Series, Sept. 1891, p. 124.

15 Daniel Connelly, “Among the Bulls and Bears”, Appleton’s Journal, Vol. 10, no. 235 (20 Sept., 1873), p. 371.

16 Sam Slote, Marc A. Mamigonian, John Turner, Annotations to James Joyce’s Ulysses (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), forthcoming.

17 Partridge, Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, 8th ed. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1984).

18 E. Cobham Brewer, Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, New edition (London: Cassell and Company, 1900), p. 372.

19 Albert Barrère and Charles Godfrey Leland, A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant, Vol. 2 (The Ballantyne Press, 1895), p. 321.

20 John S. Farmer and W. E. Henley, Slang and Its Analogues: Past and Present, Vol. 2 ([London]: 1891), p. 308.

21 Ibid., p. 300.

22 John Camden Hotten, The Slang Dictionary: or vulgar words, street phrases, and "fast" expressions of high and low society (London: John Camden Hotten, 1865), p. 123.

23 Charley Vivian’s Who Stole the Donkey Songster (New York: Robert M. De Witt, ca. 1868). See also https://www.loc.gov/resource/amss.sb40557a/?st=text&sp=1.

24 See Charles Edward Ellis, An Authentic History of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (Chicago, 1910).

25 Notes and Queries, Third Series, Vol. 5 (January-June 1864), p. 136. The matter is discussed in other issues as well.

26 Clearly the “white hat=good guy, black hat=bad guy” code, probably a device created in the Western film genre, did not yet apply.

27 The Leisure Hour: an illustrated magazine for home reading (December 1901), p. 170.

28 I thank John Simpson for bringing it to my attention.

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