“Folks felt traveling underground was like being too close to the Devil—you were taking a great risk in God’s eyes using the ‘subway’.” (Electricity & 1889

I love this illustration! It’s original caption read “The Unrestrained Demon!” And it is a telling depiction of the way the public viewed the idea of the burgeoning use of that frightening invention—electricity and its infiltration into the “modern” lives of urbanites during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

As with ALL changes to the ways we live, the idea of electricity, especially in situations where exposed wires hung precariously about, was frightening and to say it had its “critics” is an understatement. The illustration first appeared on the cover of Judge magazine in October of 1889. When I was researching it, I came across a brief Reddit discussion that is priceless. I include it below. 💡⚡️💀


“The Unrestrained Demon!” This illustration—while maybe silly to us today, in 2018–was in response to the death of linesman John Feeks in New York in 1889. The illustration appeared on the cover of Judge magazine on October 26, 1889 (Bettmann/CORBI). You can purchase an affordable print here… https://www.magnoliabox.com/products/an-unrestrained-demon-illustration-be052519

I first saw the illustration on a PBS documentary (streaming now on Netflix) called “American Experiance: A Race Underground”, which tells the story of the patented “Sprague electric motor” and how it changed the face of public streetcar transportation in Boston, Massachusetts and then the world.


Frank Sprague, ca. Early 1900s (Public Domain).

“Frank Sprague, largely forgotten today, invented the first and best electric railway motor (According to his former boss, Thomas Eddison, it was the “best motor” out there. Eddison later bought the patent from Sprague and had “Eddison” replace “Sprague” on the parts themselves). It was the invention and successful use of Sprague’s motor in Boston that ‘made people rethink how their city could look and function…and the profits were soon rolling in for the West End Street Railway Company. In just five years more than 80% of the system was electrified and overhead, wires lined the city streets…’”

American Experiance: A Race Underground (PBS)


In this famous photo of New York’s “Blizzard of ’88”, you can see the way the electrical wires were strung about the city streets like the lair of an insidious trolley-sized arachnid!(Photograph: Museum of the City of New York)


Ducktor_Beak• May 19, 2018, 7:44 AM
Is this electricity? Did someone dislike lightbulbs? What is being pro/demoted here?

FaustestSobeck • May 19, 2018, 7:49 AM
Ya theres a great doc on Netflix/PBS “American Experiance: A Race Underground” about the first subway in the US. Late 1880s – 1900s when electricity was first being invented and applied to cities a lot of people were scared/worried about it. ‘Some invisible force that can kill you’ so a lot of people were against overhead powerlines in cities.

Some news articles from the time about deaths from electricity:


Aqquila89 • May 19, 2018, 9:46 AM
This one in particular was in response to the death of linesman John Feeks in New York in 1889. It was on the cover of Judge magazine on October 26, 1889.

On October 11, 1889 John Feeks, a Western Union lineman, was high up in the tangle of overhead electrical wires working on what were supposed to be low-voltage telegraph lines in a busy Manhattan district. As the lunchtime crowd below looked on he grabbed a nearby line that, unknown to him, had been shorted many blocks away with a high-voltage AC line. The jolt entered through his bare right hand and exited his left steel studded climbing boot. Feeks was killed almost instantly, his body falling into the tangle of wire, sparking, burning, and smoldering for the better part of an hour while a horrified crowd of thousands gathered below.

“The Boston subway was not a foregone conclusion—not by a long shot…there was a petition at one point with 12,000 businessman in Boston opposed to the subway. There we’re going to bee streets torn up, sewer systems affected, water pipes affected, wires and electric lines affected. Secondly, folks felt like traveling underground was very close to the ‘netherworld’; that you were getting closer to the Devil—that you were taking this great risk in God’s eyes by traveling on a subway.”

American Experiance: A Race Underground (PBS)

Edward_Tellerhands • May 19, 2018, 7:47 AM
The tangle of electrical cables that were strung up carelessly in cities.

Ducktor_Beak • May 19, 2018, 7:50 AM
Neat. So like a hyperbolic newspaper cartoon? Certainly gets the point across, Ill pay.

Edward_Tellerhands • May 19, 2018, 7:54 AM
not that hyperbolic, actually. see the wagon driver? accidental electrocutions happened, as they still do in the Third World when overhead live wires zap workers carrying aluminum ladders and whatnot.

abx76 • May 19, 2018, 9:26 AM
Considering the Year this might be an AC vs DC poster cause during the intergration of electricity systems Eddison and Westington both got in fights over their electric systems it was called the War Of Currents and resulted in the invetion of the electric chair http://www.nola.com/crime/index.ssf/2017/04/thomas_edison_the_electric_cha.html . Eddisons main argument was that AC energy is super dangerous and he proved this by killing animals with AC and bring up stories of kids getting killed by eletric lines, and the electric chair being the peak

RiggzBoson • May 19, 2018, 8:13 AM
Even when being electrocuted, women always swooned when falling over back then.

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