One cool November evening a man was walking down a quiet Syracuse city street when, suddenly, the terror of the city sidewalks caught him unaware! It had him on the ground within seconds, fracturing his skull. The man was quickly taken to his home by passersby and a doctor was called, but to no avail. The man was dead 24 hours later. What could create such terror and cause such tragedy? It was none other than the banana peel. As the Syracuse Standard stated on November 11, 1890, “Another death has been added to the already long list of casualties caused by that terror of the city sidewalks, the banana peel.”
The man was Thomas Hughes, a contractor and stone mason, living with his wife and five children on East Adams St. in the City of Syracuse. He was born in Ireland, around 1848 and moved to Syracuse circa 1869 or 1870. At the time of Mr. Hughes’ death at age 42, his children ranged in age from 11 to 20. The fate of his widow, Mary Hughes, and family is uncertain but it seems she ultimately left Syracuse, as she is not listed in the Syracuse city directories after 1894.
This article was discovered while doing family research for one of the patrons at the OHA Research Center. Two things that were learned on reading this: first, the inevitable slipping on the banana peel is not just for cartoons and clowns, and secondly, this was not an uncommon or unheard of occurrence. It was not an isolated incident, as one might assume. Upon further research into this banana peel phenomenon, it seems they were quite the nuisance for city pedestrians. As one article put it “The guileless banana peel can down anything but the thermometer.” (Syracuse Daily Standard, August 14, 1885).
Other headlines refer to the “Deadly Banana Peel”, and “The Invincible Banana Peel.” Another tells the gruesome tale of a young man who slipped on a banana peel and fell under the wheels of the street car he was attempting to board. Not only did newspapers announce tragic accidents related to troubles caused by banana peels, but I also found narratives, poems, and editorials.
One writer for The Post-Standard had these strong words to say about those who litter the streets with the dangerous banana peels: “If the strains and sprains and broken bottoms occasioned by falls upon banana peels thrown carelessly about on the Syracuse sidewalks might be suffered by the fellows who throw the peels, there would be no fault found, but it is a case, like many another, wherein the innocent is made to suffer for the guilty. The throwing of banana peel on the sidewalk is an exhibition of reckless brutality; and the man or woman caught doing it should be rated as a brute.” (The Post-Standard, October 17, 1899). It’s interesting that what is, today, used solely as a comedy gag was once a serious safety issue facing our city.
The best article by far that shows the gravity of this menace to walkers everywhere is actually an advertisement for shoes. “The Banana Peel which at the beginning of the present century was the most dangerous enemy one could meet upon the public highway, is about to lose its Death-Dealing Qualities. G. D. Wallace, 64 South Salina, has perfected a process by which all boots, shoes, rubbers, etc., sold at his establishment are rendered Peel Proof. Purchase here, thereby Insuring yourself against accidents and perhaps an Early Grave.” This advertisement appeared in the Evening Herald on September 20, 1883. I wonder if those poor banana peel victims knew about Mr. Wallace’s revolutionary shoe design; perhaps if they had, tragedy could have been averted.
The insidious nature of a carelessly dropped banana peel was common knowledge to Syracusans of yesteryear and their contemporaries. They knew that, despite the sometimes comical aspects of slipping on a banana peel, it had the potential of bringing calamity and misfortune into people’s lives. Although this banana peel trivia is slightly amusing, I will definitely steer clear of any thoughtlessly discarded banana peels in my path from now on.
By Sarah Kozma