Season 2 | Episode 2 | “New York City” | Aired July 8, 2014
Drunk History has finally made its midnight ride to New York City. I assume that this show only rides at midnight, and as it turns out, not all of those rides are remembered by the history books. What other lessons are on tap tonight in the city that never sleeps?
1. You can Kickstart national monuments if you want.
In 1865, French sculptor Frederic Bartholdi (Taran Killam) had an idea, which is to say that his friend had an idea. (Pour one for all of the forgotten best friends of famous people.) Bartholdi’s friend pointed out that someone was sure to give the United States a 100th birthday gift, and it might as well be France. With that in mind, Bartholdi designed a statue of a woman who would light the way with her golden torch. He presented a model to Congress, but they weren’t interested in accepting anything from anyone French. (“The French are kinda not Americans.”) Bartholdi went ahead and built it anyway. He couldn’t worry about whether the United States would take his gift or leave it. He could only worry about making a 300-foot copper statue, which is a pretty significant worry as it is.
By 1876, Bartholdi had only finished the statue’s arm, but his craftsmanship was so on point that Congress agreed to accept the gift after all. Their budget was firm: They would pay for nothing. Even the statue’s base was too much of an expense. Fortunately, American journalist Joseph Pulitzer (Brett Gelman) took up the cause, asking people to donate in exchange for recognition in the newspaper. Pulitzer was flooded with more than enough change to secure a base for the statue. Bartholdi’s work was finally unveiled in 1886, with Bartholdi standing proudly on the torch balcony, while his best friend probably sat at home alone. And that’s the story of how the Statue of Liberty was basically a Kickstarter project.
2. Always carry a tree branch.
Sybil Ludington (Juno Temple) was a 16-year-old girl living in New York at the start of the American Revolution. Her father, Henry (Paul Scheer), head of the local militia, received word one night that the British were burning the town of Danbury, Connecticut. He needed to stay close to home and formulate a plan, but he also needed to gather his troops, some of whom lived as many as 40 miles away. (“It’s not like you can send an Evite out.”) Sybil volunteered to make the trip, and Henry didn’t have any choice but to let her go. Through rain and into the night, she alerted the militia, grabbing a tree branch to hit people’s doors as she went.
As she rounded a corner, a man jumped out and tried to get her off of the horse, so Sybil beat him with her branch and kept right on riding. A militia of 400 men followed her back home, and together they fought back against the British. George Washington later showed up at the Ludingtons’ door to personally congratulate Sybil on her 40-mile ride. A teenage girl did twice as much work as Paul Revere, and no one remembers her. Carry a big stick in her honor.
3. Make them underestimate you.
In the 1880s, journalist Nellie Bly (Laura Dern) tired of reading the usual sexist articles and went to New York City to write something real. She knocked on the door of every newspaper she could think of before meeting Joseph Pulitzer (Matt Walsh), who didn’t take her seriously, but did have an idea. Pulitzer offered Bly a job that most of his journalists had probably been too afraid to accept: He wanted her to fake mental illness in order to go undercover at Blackwell’s Island, the women’s insane asylum. Bly agreed. After a night practicing her craziest faces in the mirror, she went to a boarding house and feigned insanity so well that the headmistress had her committed. (“Yes. This is working. This is super-working for me. I’m super-happy.”)
The treatment Bly uncovered was brutal. Nurses (Michaela Watkins) beat people, and doctors (Derek Waters) deemed women crazy who were perfectly sane but couldn’t speak English. Conditions were cold and unsanitary. After 10 days, Pulitzer revealed his scheme, and Bly wrote an article exposing the misconduct at Blackwell’s Island. Her work was instrumental in getting more funding for the nation’s mental health institutions. Tell that to the next person who catches you making faces in the mirror.
Were you familiar with these stories before this episode? What else about New York hasn’t made the history books? And exactly how much better would history be if it always involved Laura Dern barking like a dog?
Drunk History, rated TV-14, airs Tuesdays at 10/9C on Comedy Central.