The St. Louis waterfront in the 1890s was a hopping place for music, dancing, and entertainment. The sand, mud, and cobblestones of the city’s levee furnished rich soil for the cross-fertilization of music and dance that shaped the cultural history of the Mississippi River. In 1898, a shantyboat settlement on St. Louis’s north levee was at the center of an exploding dance craze and gang subculture. Jack Oliver, “King of the Raggers,” tended bar five nights a week and lodged at Louis Seibt’s waterfront saloon, grocery, and beer grove in Little Oklahoma, near the foot of Destrehan Street. The ragger craze, marked by its distinctive style of dancing, mode of dress, dialect, and toughened gang swagger and bravado, originated among a subset of white working-class teenagers in north St. Louis. On Sunday afternoons, about 200 raggers and their “petties” [girlfriends] hung out at the beer grove. When asked by a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter to define a ragger, Oliver replied: “Well, he’s a whole lot. He’s a swell dresser, a swell dancer and he’s a good scrapper. Sometimes he don’t look for a scrap, but he won’t get out of the way. He’s gotta know how to walk and he’s gotta know how to talk. And, he’s gotta have a pettie which knows all them things, only he does the scrapping for her.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 31, 1898)
On the dance floor, Oliver wore a blue ragger suit and brindle hat. The single-breasted coat sported three rows of buttons on each sleeve, twelve in each row. The double-breasted vest, which sat low on the waist, featured two double rows of buttons, four in each row. A dozen buttons adorned the bottom of each leg of the pants, which measured twenty-four inches around the knees and at the bottom. The pants had to hang just right. Oliver wore a white shirt with a turned down collar, pleated bosom and silk puffs, and suspenders. His feet were squeezed into tan, pointed-toe shoes, and he fashioned a black tie from a piece of ribbon worn by his “pettie,” Jessie Gillespie. All in all, he spent about 40 dollars to dress in the ragger way, but he often added new wrinkles to the style of dress to maintain his status and stay ahead of countless imitators.
It cost much less to outfit a ragger’s “pettie.” A white shirtwaist, black skirt, spring-heel shoes, and a sailor hat did the trick. “Well, the goils ain’t so swell as the boys,” Oliver told the Post-Dispatch reporter. “You see they’re nearly all woiking goils and they gotta give their money home. The boys wear the flashy paint and the goils spoit the pretty mugs and the swell shapes. Say, any goil whit a little waist and a good pair of stilts can be somebody’s pettie right sudden if she goes in the right company.”
Raggers performed adaptations of popular dances from waltzes, ballroom glides, and square dances to the Black cakewalk, once a plantation dance which was transformed into a ragtime dance by Black vaudeville musicians. Less than a month after being featured in the Post-Dispatch, raggers were in high demand. The craze spread to south St. Louis, the wealthy west end, and to excursion boats on the Mississippi River. Reuben Welch, manager of Koerner’s Garden at the intersection of Kingshighway and Arsenal Street, featured them in August 1898. The Garden was filled with attendees from all over the city. Soon, raggers provided featured performances in Klondike Park, Bell’s Hall, theaters, and other indoor and outdoor entertainment venues. Ragger dance contests (“medal twists”) became highly popular. The Fourteenth Street Theater rushed an advertisement to employ twenty raggers and their petties. Wealthy residents on the west end hired them to perform at private parties in their home, and political parties hired them to entertain at political gatherings and fundraisers.
To become a full-fledged ragger required more than the clothes, glide, spiel, and gum-chewing partner. A ragger rolled his own cigarettes, and he had to “lick” another ragger to gain his bona fides and acceptance. Plenty of ragger rivals were itching to knock King Jack off his throne. They resented the Post-Dispatch‘s crowning of him. Amid a verbal confrontation with a gang of rival raggers in the waterfront saloon, Oliver and his brother from behind the bar pulled out pistols and ordered them out of the place. Someone in the saloon fired a shot behind them to hurry them out of there. Later, the gang returned and shot up the saloon, wounding Oliver’s brother in the process. King Jack lay low for a while, but soon he was out and about and being feted at ragger events again.
At the invitation of the Post-Dispatch, Oliver attended the highly exclusive annual Veiled Prophet grand ball and pageant on October 4, 1898. There he rubbed elbows with dignitaries, debutantes bedecked in diamonds and jewels who were on a secret list of invitees, and other members of St. Louis’s social and political elite. Oliver went from his lodging room in Little Oklahoma’s levee saloon to the city’s most extravagant ritual and gala event. Surrounded by high society, including the city’s former mayor and ex-Governor David R. Francis, he met the mysterious, secretly chosen Veiled Prophet and watched the crowning of the Queen of Love and Beauty.
For a few years, St. Louis residents couldn’t seem to get enough of the ragger phenomenon. Antonio Bafunno, director of Bafunno’s Concert Band, composed a ragtime or cakewalk march, “Queen of the Raggers,” to honor the Post-Dispatch for “discovering” the subculture. On October 26, 1898, touring bandmaster John Philip Sousa played the song at the St. Louis Exposition Coliseum to continue celebration of raggers. The names of Petie Quinn, Spider Meyers, Rag Mantell, and other contenders for Jack Oliver’s throne appeared regularly on the pages of the Post-Dispatch. The newspaper even gave Petie Quinn his own guest column. For more than a year, he dispensed pearls of ragger wisdom and commentary on politics and any subject imaginable. His columns often featured one of his songs (e.g., “Petie Quinn’s Pettie”) or poems (e.g.,”I Rather Be a Ragger”). But, when the bloom came off the ragger rose, the subculture found itself under attack. In fact, raggers were sometimes banned from events. On September 16, 1902, an entertainment columnist in the Post-Dispatch blasted the craze as “one of the most intemperate things that ever came down the social pike.” Captain Harry Brolaski ejected a group of raggers from the Corwin H. Spencer excursion boat for what he derided as “wiggle wiggle” dancing.
Franklin Fyles, a drama critic for the New York Sun who also wrote for the stage, attended the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. While there, he observed raggers in the amusement resorts of the Arizona mining camp with its mining exhibits, saloons, and dance halls. The camp exhibit featured vaudeville, burlesque, and plenty of hard drinking. Fyles, comparing life in mining camps to life on the levee, wrote: “The ‘ragger’ is a local type. . . He is to St. Louis what the Bowery Boy is to New York.”
(Franklin Fyles, “Arizona Camp in Saint Louis,” Buffalo Morning Express and Illustrated Buffalo Express, Buffalo, New York, August 14, 1904, p. 29.)
For more on the ragger craze, see my book, Shantyboats and Roustabouts: The River Poor of St. Louis, 1875-1930 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2023), pp. 136-144.
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