Aug 15, 2017

1880: The Perils of Deadheadism

A political cartoon from 1880.
Note the skeleton's hat.

Another example, from the 1813 Pantologia


  1. This post is an experiment - a look at the early uses of the term "deadhead" in the 19th century.
    I didn't transcribe these, but clipped images from a few of the more interesting articles. (Given the small print of the day, some of these are hard to read.)

    I was alerted to its older use by an Archive researcher: "In the late-1800s and early-1900s, a "deadhead" was a person--typically a public official--given a free pass to use a railroad, the railroad hoping to strengthen its political support via its generosity. According to the source I just ran across, 'by 1897, the railroads of North Carolina were giving out 100,000 passes a year, with an estimated revenue loss of $325,000. Paying passengers found it hard to conceal their disgust when they found their seatmate to be a 'deadhead,' for they knew they were indirectly paying his passage.'"

    This use of the phrase was first noted in the 1850s (and helpfully defined by Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms). Deadheads were not limited to the railroads, but were also the scourge of theaters, hotels, restaurants, etc. - basically anyone who got in for free. Some were given free tickets as a policy (trade workers, or journalists), others just wouldn't pay.
    The term arose some time earlier - the earliest example I could find was from 1841. (And it's still used in a similar sense today, for instance on airlines.)

    "Deadheadism" was always referred to in the negative sense, as a plague that must be stamped out (as the train passengers' disgust shows). "Deadheadism is a disease." (1880) "A great trouble with modern life is deadheadism...a very grave evil." (1886) "Abolish every species of deadheadism." (1888)
    The spectacle of some spongers "getting something for nothing" aroused much public ire, with all these articles full of complaints, and the California political cartoon lumps in deadheadism with such odious concepts as "free love," "anarchy," and "the universal co-operative brotherhood."

    "Dead head" was also a technical term used in the casting of cannon (noted in early 19th-century English encyclopedias). I also found references to "dead head" logs and "dead head" insect larva damaging wheat, but these were not common usage.

    Of course, it's a long way from the 1800s to the Grateful Dead, and possibly those who first called Dead fans "deadheads" didn't know the term's etymology, but I'm intrigued by the connection to the past.

  2. Quite the switch...(Grateful) Deadheads creating a vast marketplace in order to pay their own way.
    The above writers from the past should have aimed their ire at Silver Spooned Babies whose entire lives were guaranteed a modicum of success without really having to lift a finger, ie. Donald Trump.
    Heaven forbid that anyone gets Help on the Way home.
    such is life. Finger wagging to preserve hidden truths and lies

  3. To my surprise, Abraham Lincoln also used the term once, in a July 28, 1862 letter about the complaints of Unionists in Louisiana against government policies:
    "The paralysis - the dead palsy - of the government in this whole struggle is, that this class of men will do nothing for the government, nothing for themselves... [Durant] speaks of no duty - apparently thinks of none - resting upon Union men... They are to touch neither a sail nor a pump, but to be merely passengers - dead-heads at that - to be carried snug and dry, throughout the storm, and safely landed right side up... Of course the rebellion will never be suppressed in Louisiana, if the professed Union men there will neither help to do it, nor permit the government to do it without their help."

  4. I was thinking of doing a similar post on the earliest use of the term "grateful dead." But it turned out this wasn't possible, since almost nobody used the phrase before the 20th century.

    It came into use in the 1850s, coined by folklore scholars to label a certain plot-line in old folk tales - as described by the Folklore Society in 1890, "In stories of this class, the hero is helped by a servant, who does all the work and leaves the hero all the profit and credit... He is the soul of a dead man to whom the hero has rendered some signal service, generally that of burial, denied to the dead man by hard-hearted creditors - this story-formula being known as the Grateful Dead."
    A German scholar in 1856 was the first to discover the theme. In 1860, professor George Stephens published an edition of the 13th-century romance "Sir Amadace" titled "Ghost-Thanks, or the Grateful Unburied: A Mythic Tale in its Oldest European Form." In an introduction he outlined other known European versions of the story: "It is in fact the oldest and most beautiful European form which has been hitherto discovered of that profoundly meditated and primitive Temple-lesson - The Sanctity of the Dead, and the Sacro-sanct grace and duty of Charity, which in this world or in a better, in one way or another, shall assuredly meet its celestial reward."

    Up until the day Jerry Garcia spotted the phrase in a dictionary, it was almost never used outside the folktale-motif context, and that only in obscure folklore publications. The most well-known study was Gordon Gerould's 1908 book "The Grateful Dead":;_the_history_of_a_folk_story
    The winding path by which the phrase reached Garcia is outlined in Nicholas Meriwether's essay:

    But there are a couple early unrelated, random instances of "grateful dead" used in the more general sense of the dead who are grateful for being praised by later generations:
    - the London Magazine, 1752: "we do honour to the grateful dead"
    - Daniel Smith's 1876 poem "Our Centennial": "a heart-felt tribute from the grateful dead!"
    It would be neat to see earlier examples turn up.

  5. The Dead's 1980 newsletter compiled some more 19th-century uses of the term "dead head":