[The author of the following sketch was a New England physician, who came to New York about 1830 and entered into the bookselling business. He wrote several works of humorous tales and sketches, including “The Perils of Pearl Street,” “A Glance at New York,” etc. He died in 1837. We subjoin a biographical notice of a well-known and ubiquitous city character, who has long outlived his biographer.]
THE firm of Smirk, Quirk, and Co. affected a great parade and bustle in the way of business. They employed a large number of clerks, whom they boarded at the different hotels, for the convenience of drumming, besides each member of the firm boarding in like manner and for a similar purpose. They had an immense pile of large boxes, such as are used for packing dry-goods, constantly before their door, blocking up the sidewalk so that it was nearly impossible to pass. They advertised largely in several of the daily papers, and made many persons believe, what they boasted themselves, that they sold more dry-goods than any house in the city.
But those who were behind the curtain knew better. They knew there was a great deal of vain boast and empty show. They knew that Peter Funk was much employed about the premises and putting the best possible face upon everything.
By the by, speaking of PETER FUNK, I must give a short history of that distinguished personage. when, or where, he was born, I cannot pretend to say. Neither do I know who were his parents, or what was his bringing up. He might have been the child of thirty-six fathers, for aught 160 I know, and instead of being brought up, have, as the vulgar saying is, come up himself.
One thing is certain, he has been known among merchants time out of mind; and, though he is despised and hated by some, he is much employed and cherished by others. He is a little, bustling, active, smiling, bowing, scraping, quizzical fellow, in a powdered wig, London-brown coat, drab kerseymore breeches, and black silk stockings.
This is the standing portrait of Peter Funk, — if a being who changes his figure every day, every hour, and perhaps every minute may be said to have any sort of fixed or regular form. The truth is, Peter Funk is a very Proteus; and those who behold him in one shape to-day may, if they will watch his transformations, behold him in a hundred different forms on the morrow. Indeed, there is no calculating, from his present appearance, in what shape he will be likely to figure next. He changes at will, to suit the wishes of his employers.
His mind is as flexible as his person. He has no scruples of conscience. He is ready to be employed in all manner of deceit and deviltry; and he cares not who his employers are, if they only give him plenty of business. In short, he is the most active, industrious, accommodating, dishonest, unprincipled, convenient little varlet that ever lived.
Besides all the various qualities I have mentioned, Peter Funk seems to be endowed with ubiquity, — or at least with the faculty of being present in more places than one at the same time. If it were not so, how could he serve so many masters at once? How could he be seen in one part of Pearl Street buying goods at auction, in another part standing at the door with a quill behind each ear, and in a third figuring in the shape of a box of goods, or cooped 161 up on the shelf, making a show of merchandise where all is emptiness behind?
With this account of Peter Funk, my readers have perhaps by this time gathered some idea of his character. If not, I must inform them that he is the very imp of deception, that his sole occupation is to deceive, and that he is only employed for that purpose. Indeed, such being his known character in the mercantile community, his name is sometimes used figuratively to signify anything which is employed for the purpose of deception, — or, as the sharp ones say, to gull the flats.
Such being the various and accommodating character of Peter Funk, it is not at all surprising that his services should be in great demand. Accordingly, he is very much employed in Pearl Street, sometimes under one name and sometimes under another; for I should have mentioned, as a part of his character, that he is exceedingly apt ot change names, and has as many aliases as the most expert rogue in Bridewellor the Court of Sessions. Sometimes he takes the name of John Smith, sometimes James Smith, and sometimes simply Mr. Smith. At other times he is called Roger Brown, Simon White, Bob Johnson, or Tommy Thomson. In short, he has an endless variety of names, under which he passes before the world for so many different persons. The initiated only know, and everybody else is gulled.
Peter Funk is a great hand at auctions. He is constantly present, bidding up the goods as though he was determined to buy everything before him. He is well known for bidding higher than anybody else, or, at all events, running up an article to the very highest notch, though he finally lets the opposing bidder take it, merely, as he says, to accommodate him; or, not particularly wanting the article himself, he professes to have bid upon it solely 162 because he thought it a great pity so fine a piece of goods should go so very far beneath its value.
It is no uncommon thing to see the little fellow attending an auction in his powdered wig, his brown coat, his drab kerseys, as fat as a pig, as sleek as a mole, and smiling with the most happy countenance, as if he were about to make his fortune. It is no uncommon thing to see him standing near the auctioneer, and exclaiming, as he keeps bobbing his head in token of bidding, “A superb piece of goods! a fine piece of goods! great pity it should go so cheap. I don’t want it, but I’ll give another twenty-five cents, rather than it should go for nothing.” The opposite bidder is probably some novice from the country, — some honest Johnny Raw, who is shrewd enough in what he understands, but has never in his life heard of Peter Funk. Seeing so very knowing and respectable a looking man bidding upon the piece of goods and praising it up at every nod, he naturally thinks it must be a great bargain, and he is determined to have it, let it cost what it will. The result is that he gives fifty per cent. more for the article than it is worth; and the auctioneer and Peter Funk are ready to burst with laughter at the prodigious gull they have made of the poor countryman.
By thus running up goods Peter is of great service to the auctioneers, though he never pays them a cent of money. Indeed, it is not his intention to purchase, nor is it that of the auctioneer that he should. Goods nevertheless are frequently struck off to him; and then the salesman calls out the name of Mr. Smith, Mr. Johnson, or some other among the hundred aliases of Peter Funk, as the purchaser, But the goods, on such occasion, are always taken back by the auctioneer, agreeably to a secret understanding between him and Peter.
In a word, Peter Funk is the great underbidder at all the 163 auctions, and might with no little propriety be styled the underbidder-general. But this sort of characters are both unlawful and unpopular, — not to say odious, — and hence it becomes necessary for Peter Funk, alias the underbidder, to have so many aliases to his name, in order that he may not be detected in the underhanded practice of underbidding.
To avoid detection, however, he sometimes resorts to other tricks, among which one is to act the part of a ventriloquist, and appear to be several different persons, bidding in different places. He has the knack of changing his voice at will and counterfeiting that of sundry well-known persons: so that goods are sometimes knocked off to gentlemen who have never opened their mouths.
But a very common trick of Peter’s is to conceal himself in the cellar, from whence, through a convenient hole near the auctioneer, his voice is heard bidding for goods; and nobody but those in the secret knows from whence the sound proceeds. This is acting the part of Peter Funk in the cellar.
But Peter, for the most part, is fond of being seen in some shape or other; and it matters little what, so that he can aid his employers in carrying on a system of deception. He will figure in the shape of a box, bale, or package of goods; he will appear in twenty different places at the same time on the shelf of a jobber, — sometimes representing a specimen of English, French, or other goods, but being a mere shadow, and nothing else, — a phantasma, — a show without the substance. In this manner it was that he often figured in the service of Smirk, Quirk & Co.; and, while people were astonished at the prodigious quantity of goods they had in their store, two-thirds at least of the show was owing to Peter Funk.