Octopi Wall Street!

A few days ago, photographer and idea blogger David Friedman tweeted, “Octopi Wall Street. You can have that.” Beyond the Occupy Wall Street-inspired wordplay, he was on to something. There’s a long American tradition of mixing economic populism with cephalopods.

Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi famously described Goldman Sachs as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” More recently, Mother Jones cartoonist Zina Saunders drew the Koch brothers as the twin heads of an oil- and money-spewing “Kochtopus.” But the first comparisons of moneyed interests to voracious tentacled creatures date back to the Gilded Age. Here, a quick review of the metaphor’s greatest hits.

In this 1882 illustration, a grinning 10-tentacled octopus (decapus?) headed by California railroad tycoons ensnares everything in its path, from farmers and miners to an entire sailing ship.

caption TK: credit TKThe Curse of California Wikimedia Commons


The arms of the Traction Monster, drawn by George Luks in 1899, include a variety of monopolistic entities, from the Steel Trust to John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, a favorite target of antitrust foes.

The Monopoly Octopus: Wikimedia CommonsThe Traction Monster Wikimedia Commons


In this 1904 illustration by Udo Keppler, Standard Oil wraps its tentacles around the Capitol and average Americans, while eyeing the White House.

caption TK: credit TKStandard Oil vs. America Library of Congress


Standard Oil again, this time drawn as “A Horrible Monster, whose tentacles spread poverty, disease and death.”

caption TK: credit TKA Horrible Monster International Team of Comics Historians


In this 1899 cartoon, the Devil Fish of California Politics (a San Francisco Democratic party boss) emerges from a Sea of Corruption, his “rapacious maw” agape.

The Devil Fish of California: Library of CongressThe Devil Fish of California Politics Library of Congress


Octopus-mania also extended to other causes. Here, the Liquor Octopus taunts the entire world in a 1919 prohibitionist cartoon.

The Liquor Octopus: Anti-Saloon LeagueThe Liquor Octopus Anti-Saloon League

Note the octopus lounging in the Fountain of Taxation, in which the Burden of Taxation trickles down to the Laboring Class. “Eventually the bottom basin gets it.”

caption TK: credit TKThe Fountain of Taxation Library of Congress


Which brings us to this Occupy Wall Street stencil by artist Molly Crabapple, in which Taibbi’s vampire squid tips its top hat to its Turn of the Century forebears.

caption TK: credit TKFight the Vampire Squid Molly Crabapple


For many more examples of classic octopus propaganda, check out Vulgar Army‘s well-stocked collection.


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

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