When A Guy Named 'Preserved Fish' Ruled New York City - Wikipedia Deep Dive

Wealthy, powerful, inexplicably named: meet Preserved Fish.
When A Guy Named 'Preserved Fish' Ruled New York City - Wikipedia Deep Dive

Welcome back to Cracked’s Wikipedia Deep Dive. We’ve already looked at the Devil’s Swedish party island and history’s deadliest minions, while this week we’ll be diving almost alarmingly deeply into a fellow named Preserved Fish. 

Yes, you read that right, Cracked-heads. Your comments, tweets, emails, letters full of anthrax, and lavishly produced protest songs have paid off, because we’re finally doing an article about preserved fish. Everything from canned mackerel to pickled herring will be on the table, plus a special spin-off podcast about the best way to smoke your bloater.

Actually sorry, scratch all that. Following a quick meeting with our editor and his editing stick, it’s been made clear that the article is supposed to be about Preserved Fish the person, not preserved fish the tasty snack. But that’s good too, since Preserved Fish was an important figure in American history, and an even more important figure in the history of dumb names. 

preserved fish

New York Public Library

Plus a bit of a tasty snack himself.

Preserved Fish was born in 1760s Massachusetts, America’s third hardest-to-spell state (after Mississippi and Connectycut). The Fish family were Quakers and they named their son in the rich tradition of old-timey religious names, which also produced such wonderful figures as Kill-Sin Pimple, Lamente Foxe, and Humiliation Hynde (who named his two sons Humiliation and Humiliation, because in a situation like that you’re going to want to spread the pain as widely as possible).

These “hortary names” were intended to be a “a thread tyed about the finger, to make us mindful of the errand we came into the world to do.” Which is why one of the most prominent English politicians of the 1650s was known by the truly sensational name of Praise-God Barebone. Sadly, Praise-God got a little carried away when he supposedly named his son Unless-Jesus-Christ-Had-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned Barebone. Unsurprisingly, the kid changed his name to “Nicholas Barbon” the first chance he got, although his enemies still called him “Damned Barbon” behind his back. 

Nicholas Barbon

Via Wikimedia Commons

Oh snap, looks like he heard them!

Preserved’s own name (it was apparently pronounced pre-ZER-ved) was a reference to remaining preserved from the evils of the world. But Preserved Fish wasn’t just going to stay on the shelf. The first chance he got he moved to New York and became a wealthy merchant trading in … whale oil? Come on man, you’ve got the perfect name for marketing a line of tinned anchovies, how do you find the one sea creature that the “Fish” branding doesn’t work for?

In any case, Fish soon diversified into shipping and stockbroking. By the early 1800s, he was one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the city, controlling the famously crooked Tammany Hall political organization with the help of other wealthy New Yorkers like Gideon Lee and Jonathan Coddington. Can you imagine finding yourself repressed by the corrupt rule of guys named Preserved Fish and Mr. Coddington? At some point you’d really have to start wondering whether you were living in some kind of poorly-conceived Shark Tale spinoff. 

political cartoon from vanity fair in 1861 about nyc whale oil trade

Vanity Fair

Damn these underwater fatcats.

The power of the Fish could only be opposed by a faction with an equally dumb name, which is why the 1830s saw the rise of the Locofocos. These 19th century libertarians were deathly opposed to wealthy bankers like Fish. They soon became a powerful faction in the city and in 1837 they incited a riot, which attacked warehouses where overpriced grain was supposedly being hoarded.

Tammany tried to undermine the movement by sending agents to suddenly turn out the gas lights in the middle of their meetings (political gaslighting is such a problem in America). But the Locofocos simply lit matches and carried on -- the word “locofoco” originally referred to the type of slow-burning match they used.

Preserved Fish was in a pickle. The Locofocos wanted him canned, and there was some concern he might even get smoked. Fortunately, Fish was slippery enough to evade the Locofocos until national events snuffed them out and Tammany’s power remained unchallenged until the 1870s. As for Preserved Fish, he finally expired at the ripe old age of 80 in 1846. Sadly, he was predeceased by his son William, whose outrageous behavior apparently brought the family name into disgrace. Still, we guess that’s what you get for not naming your son Don’t-Bring-The-Family-Name-Into-Disgrace Fish.


Scroll down for the next article
Forgot Password?