The Horribles

Posted on July 1, 2010 – 6:44 AM | by OldManFoster
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By William Burg

In the era following the Civil War, Sacramento and other cities celebrated July 4th with considerable reverence. After the long struggle, patriotism helped heal a wounded nation. In Sacramento, the Independence Day parade brought every local organization of note together, ending with a series of patriotic speeches, poems and reading of the Declaration of Independence at the Grand Pavilion. In the shadow of this solemnity, a band of ill-tempered and intemperate Sacramentans held their own parade, meant to poke the pompous and temper the seriousness of the occasion with acts of public lunacy. They were called the Horribles.

Led by a “General Sloverngovern,” the group began in 1867 as the “Bummers,” who marched dressed as women and Chinese workers, followed by an ersatz cannon made of old stovepipe, with pumpkins as ammunition, behind the main parade. Positive responses encouraged them to return the following year, and eventually they became an official part of the parade, paid a subsidy to sponsor them by the city.

Known as “the Fantastics” for a while, but later settling on the title of “Horribles,” their leader, sometimes called the “Jigadier Brindle” or “Generall Killemall,” always led the procession with his immense, bloody wooden sword, often accompanied by a threadbare “Uncle Sam” character, both mounted on the oldest, mangiest nags they could find. Entrants created floats that poked fun at local or national political figures or prominent businessmen. A “waffle wagon” deep-fried and sugared blocks of wood, then hurled them at the crowd. A float labeled “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” featured a young man seated in a cage with several goats, dogs and cats. An acrobat, “Mademoiselle de Standononetoe,” made futile attempts to do acrobatic stunts on horseback while a barker described the amazing feats that she obviously couldn’t perform. A group of “genuine Indians” rode in a cart labeled “We Are The Native Sons of the Golden West,” poking fun at the “Native Sons,” an organization that, at the time, was limited to the California-born sons of Europeans. Marching bands played instruments constructed of scrap wood or tin cans, mangling patriotic and popular songs of the day. Generally, the “Horribles” made as much noise as possible, via fireworks, playing their improvised instruments, or simply howling and shouting as loudly as they could.

At the end of the procession, a trio of indignitaries, the Declaimer, the Orator and the Poet, took the podium at the Grand Pavilion in a ceremony known as the “Illiterate Exercises.” The Declaimer recited the annual “Declamation of Indignation,” the Orator delivered a speech, and the Poet read a poem. Each attempted to outdo the other with a stream of polysyllabic gibberish, except the Poet did so while trying to rhyme.

In the summer of 1894, the massive Pullman Strike brought federal troops to Sacramento to dislodge strikers from the Southern Pacific Shops. Armies of strikers and soldiers faced off in a tense confrontation that eclipsed a small, subdued July 4 parade, with no “Horribles” present. The strike represented a turning point in American history, foreshadowing an era of industrial progress, with less tolerance for public tomfoolery.

Some Sacramentans, including the editors of the Sacramento Union, publicly opposed the presence of the “Horribles” in the parade, and considered them loutish, offensive and tasteless. Their occasional jabs against City Hall, the Board of Trustees, the police force and civic leaders won them few friends in city government. The last “Horribles” parade was held in 1898, after their city subsidy ended. The Horribles may have been out of place in the more straight-laced era of the late Gilded Age, or became an unwanted relic of Sacramento’s rowdy frontier past. Or, perhaps, they simply made fun of the wrong politician.

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  1. 4 Responses to “The Horribles”

  2. avatar

    By Erin Newbold on Jul 2, 2010 | Reply

    Recently, there was a Horribles festival at St. Rose Of Lima Park, near K Street Mall for 3 or 4 years in a row. They had art, music, a parade and people dressed up. It was awesome!!
    From what I know, the city made it too costly to continue. It’s a bummer too.

  3. avatar

    By William Burg on Jul 3, 2010 | Reply

    I attended one of those “Horribles” events…sounds like something worth bringing back.

  4. avatar

    By Michael Fleming on Jul 15, 2010 | Reply

    I would like a retraction in the next issue of Midtown Monthly. “The last “Horribles” parade was held in 1898” This is NOT TRUE. The last Horribles was held Sunday July 8th at St. Rose of Lima Park. That was the third year in a row that I threw a FREE 12 hour music festival in downtown Sacramento. There were 24 live acts in a 12 hour period. We had over the 3 years bands like The Steady Ups, Nevada Backwards, Pets, Iguanadon, The Storytellers, Art Lessing & The Flower Vato and many, many more. I even PERSONALLY invited the editor of this publication to have his band Th’ Losin’ Streaks play… 2 YEARS IN A ROW! Thanks Tim.

    I would love to hold it every year but the economy has made it hard to throw an event like that out of my own pocket. I am suggesting to you now that Midtown Monthly should be NEXT YEAR’S Horribles main event sponsor.

  5. avatar

    By William Burg on Jul 18, 2010 | Reply

    I would submit that the “Horribles” street fair and music event is not the same thing as a “Horribles” parade. Of course, if you made it into a public parade, I would happily retract that statement, and could probably even be convinced to help organize such a hideous thing. Let’s talk about that.

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