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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Madison's First Drunkard


We grow up with the idea that all our pioneer ancestors were church-going pillars of the community. That's because those were the people who wrote the histories. But they actually shared the world with disreputable bullies, gamblers, thieves, and drunks, just like we do.

Like every frontier town, Madison attracted disreputable characters fleeing from civilized society back East. One of these was an eccentric drunk named Pinneo. He arrived about 1837 and supported himself by splitting shingles to cover the houses that were springing up on the isthmus. According to Robert Ream, one of the Capital's first settlers, Pinneo and a partner were "the kind of pioneers it necessarily takes to build up a new country. They were good workmen and useful in their way, and when on a bender, they were the liveliest as well as the noisiest boys in the country."

Pinneo on a Binge

Pinneo lived in a cabin near modern Tenney Park. According to early settler George Hyer, he would "work steadily and quietly until a customer came for shingles, for which terms of payment were positive - cash down. When once in possession of money, there was no more work in Pinneo, who would, by a more direct route, reach town in time to get glorious long before the purchaser made his appearance with the shingles.

"After he had endured a week's drunk, his red face and bare breast shone in the sun with a peculiar brilliancy, and he was a sight as seen in the morning after a night's lodging under a tree, or under some outhouse shelter, as he shook himself and started for his morning potation at the nearest drinking house.

Feet Like Mud Turtles

"He had not worn shoes for years, and in his drunken frolics he had acquired the habit of kicking out grubs and roots with his bare toes. This he was often induced to do for a drink, and many was the grub kicked out of King Street by Pinneo long before Nicholson pavement or the office of Street Commissioner was thought of. His feet looked, in shape and color, like mud turtles, and his toes resembled so many little turtle heads half drawn in, so bruised and battered were they by hard usage."

On one drunken spree, Pinneo "captured an old white horse which had been turned out on the common to recruit, mounted the animal bare-backed, minus bridle or halter, in his right hand holding extended the jawbone of some defunct quadruped (either horse or ox), and proclaimed himself Sampson in quest of the Philistines, as he dashed through the most prominent streets of the town, creating a decided sensation. There were then no police or constables to interfere with any kind of sport or amusement one chose to indulge in."

Pinneo's Tragic Death

Hyer concluded that, "Pinneo had but little to commend him, even to a passing notice; still he was a type of many vagabond frontier men, who, whatever their origin, accomplished nothing useful in life. They generally lived and died wretchedly, as did this Pinneo, who lost his life in a miner's cabin, his clothes taking fire while he was on one of his drunken frolics."

These recollections (and many more) can be found in Daniel Durrie's 1874 History of Madison.


:: Posted in Odd Lives on March 21, 2012
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