The Wrestlers

10:10 AM


Farmer Burns
I have mentioned the Burwood Theater before, but it was short-lived. It opened in 1906, had a local group of players that included Harold Lloyd, and then closed in 1908. Then it reopened as something else: The Gayety.

The Gayety’s producer's tastes tended toward lower-brow entertainment – the theater eventually became a burlesque house. But in their first years, they offered an entertainment that, while flamboyantly theatrical, is not something we tend to associate with the stage.

They offered wrestling.

Let me backtrack just a bit. I can’t provide the entire history of modern wrestling as entertainment, but I think I can give a sense of just how wild its early years were. It is important to note that there are two styles of wrestling in this country: Greco-Roman, which you’ll see in college athletics and in the Olympics, and a style suitably called Catch As Catch Can, which developed at fairs in Britain during the Victorian era.

The style was loose and florid, perfectly suited to performance, and quickly jumped the pond. Carnival wrestlers in the United States would challenge locals – a risky endeavor, as locals could sometimes be quite skilled in their own form of folk wrestling, especially recent immigrants. You didn’t want to spar with a fellow who just got off the boat from Ireland, as they had the Collar and Elbow style of grappling, which included a lot of kicking and tripping. You especially didn’t want to go face-to-face with a man versed in Lancashire wrestling, as they had no compunctions about dislocating your finger.

OMAHA WRESTLERS

Omaha has its own history of wrestling, which is probably worth its own blog, as we were the home of Farmer Burns Wrestling School, which was one of America’s first training grounds for Catch wrestlers, and were also the homes to such legendary professional wrestlers as Baron Von Raschke and Lance Cade. People have been wrestling in Omaha since at least February 13, 1879, when the Academy of Music set up a purse of $1,000 for a match between local boy Clarence Whistler and professional athlete Andre Christol. Whistler was a powerhouse  employee of the smelting works. Christol, in the meanwhile, had been a gymnast since he was 5 years old, was from France, and had a father who died in a wrestling match.

Whistler beat Christol, including completely flinging Christol over his head on two occasions. Christol was relying on the purse, and, finding himself broke, proposed a rematch, or that he box whoever was handy. He and Whistler grappled again that month, each winning a round and then becoming deadlocked for the third round, which lasted a whopping 58 minutes before the referee declared it a draw, with the whole match lasting one hour and forty-five minutes.

By the time the Gayety opened, wrestling had developed a bit of a circuit, with some recognizable names, and even public grudges. No longer were individual wrestlers pitted against burly locals; instead, wrestlers grappled with each other. The sport was still new enough that setting up these matches could be tricky, though, as the World-Herald reported on December 14, 1909. The new manager of the Gayety, E.L. Johnson, had wanted to start with a real splash: Stanislaus Zbyszko, the Polish strongman who was one of wrestling’s first superstars, a 5’8” and 260 pound mass of muscle who won the World Heavyweight championship two times.

Zbyszko was not available, though, so Johnson matched an enormous Dane from Iowa named Jess Westergaard against Charles August Fenby, a titanic German. In writing that echoes later wrestling rivalries, the World-Herald wrote that “Owing to the bickering that has been going on between Westergaard and the German behemoth, much professional jealousy has been engendered, and a hard-fought, vicious battle is bound to eventuate.”

How did it go? About as well as one would hope, as the World-Herald declared it “One of the hardest fought and most interesting mat battles ever pulled off in Omaha,” which is a pull quote I would love to see on a theater poster. I’ll let the newspaper tell of the fight:

“As was generally anticipated, the Iowan won in two straight falls, but at that it is doubtful if he ever had a tougher or busier session in his whole career. Fenby is a big, powerful fellow, and well versed in the science of the pad, and while he had Westergaard in a score of tight places, he was unable to pin his shoulder to the mat. One advantage enjoyed by the Dane was that he had the house with him, while the German had to content himself with the cheers of a limited bunch of followers. But his showing was remarkable and he never gave Westergaard a second’s rest – it was hammer and tongs from the moment they stepped on the pad until the referee slapped the victor on the back.”

This was just the first of many matches at the theater, as manager Johnson told the paper. “The next attraction … will be between two of the most refulgent stars in the grappling firmament,” Johnson said, and, again, what I would give to see these words as part of a theater’s self-promotion.

Zbyszko did make it to Omaha in early 1910, but he was too big a star for the Gayety, instead appearing  at a series of matches in Omaha’s auditorium, battling, in one instance, “The Monstrous Frenchman” De Rou’en, with an introductory match featuring Jensen and M’Cabe, “the heavy weight policemen.” Zbyszko made repeated trips to Omaha, and just following him back and forth to Omaha gives a sense of just how frequently wrestlers appeared in local theaters, as additional matches are often mentioned. A March 14, 1911 article mentions a wrestling match at Krug Theater between champion Frank Gotch and another fighter. Like the Gayety, the Krug was a frequent location for matches. In 1912, another story discusses a match at Boyd’s theater. For a short time, there didn’t seem to be a local theater that wouldn’t turn its stage over to occasional mortal combat.

(As an aside, I just want to mention the amazing name of a wrestler who appeared at Krug in 1913. The World-Herald describes him as a “mat terror” from Chicago, and he seems to have been an early example of a masked wrestler. His name? Mysterious Waffles.)

ONSTAGE AT THE GAYETY

Back to the Gayety in1909, the year of its opening, -- well, onward it went, wrestling on a Saturday, a Christmas show the following Friday (the William Grew company from St. Joseph, MO, presenting “The New Magdalene.”) On December 27 the theater brought to town Rice & Barton, two blackface comedians who eventually founded a burlesque troupe, and the following day they announced Iowa wrestler James Corbin had accepted the theater’s challenge to grapple with Iowa wrestler Bill Hokuff. On New Year's Day, the theater turned over the space to a local reverend, C. W. Savidge, for a public meeting. Savidge invited Omaha’s perpetual mayor, “Cowboy” Jim Dahlman, sending him a note reading “We want the sinners there, you know,” to which the mayor responded he would be there as long as Savidge was as well, writing “We want all the sinners there.”

In January, the Gayety began running ads in the World-Herald trumpeting their schedule, claiming “If it’s at the Gayety, it’s good!” “Devoted to Strictly High-Grade Extravaganza and Vaudeville,” the ad continued, which, even now, is the sort of claim that would make someone read the ad to see what qualifies. There was:

CLARK’S
RUNWAY GIRLS
Headed by
JACK REID
IN THE MAN FROM MAYO
With An All-Star Cast, Including
MISS ESTELLE ROSE
Just from Europe
FRANK L. WAKEFIELD
(Famous Dope Comedian)

And that’s a lot to unpack. “The Man from Mayo” was a burlesque of the style I have mentioned earlier in this blog, consisting of a comic play filled with comely women. Jack Reid, the lead, was an Irish dialect comic, while Estelle Rose was a multitalented vaudeville performer from England who did impressions and sang. Wakefield, in the meanwhile, made a career out of playing a dope fiend, and the show had already attracted my interest, but, with the addition of a drug comic, it now has my attention.

But that wasn’t all! The ad continued:

And for good measure here is
SOME vaudeville:

Baxter and La Conda Acrobatic Dancers
Pinard and Manny Musical Comedians
National Quartette Singers Par Excellence
Perry and Elliot Seaside Chappies
And as an added starter
ELLA REID GILBERT

Seaside chappies? Buddy, you have just sold a ticket.

So this was the Gayety, alternating between these sorts of traveling variety shows and wrestling, and the wrestling continued apace. The first ever black Heavyweight world champion, Jack Johnson, who the World-Herald called “the most unique figure fistiana has even produced,” appeared at the Gayety in April of 1910 and the theater made sure to have a few wrestling matches to accompany him.

Champion wrestler Frank Gotch wrote a letter to the World-Herald in February of 1911 that sounds like every single pre- and post-match wrestling interview I heard on television in the 1970s: “As you are aware, I wrestle Baba Managoff, one of the innumerable Terrible Turks, at the Gayety theater next Saturday night, February 11, in you city, and while I know he is big and strong and clever, I am going to throw him so fast that it will make his head swim.”

“A rough game requires rough work,” he added.

Later that February, Omaha’s Farmer Burns, who was turning 50, retired from the sport on the stage of the Gayety by offering a demonstration of his wrestling skills, along with Professor Simmer, “the world’s strongest human,” who both demonstrated feats of physical strength and gave a lecture on physical training. It was an auspicious event for the Gayety – Farmer Burns was then a grand old man of wrestling, and had done much to popularize the sport, and the event signified the end of an era. Burns had trained Gotch, and he had and would go on to train 1,600 wrestlers total, including two world champions.

He was also a man with a  very thick neck. Twenty inches. He used to have men hang him by his massive neck, and he would affect look of indifference, whistling “Yankee Doodle.” This is from Wikipedia, and the entry cites a WWE article, and so it sounds like a tall tale, even if there are photos of Burns with a noose around his neck. But Burns itself claimed it was true in 1931 in a World-Herald article. He said it had happened in Rockford, Ill, although the hangman would only drop him eight and a half inches. “I wanted to go the whole six feet but they were so scared they wouldn’t let me try it,” he complained.

I mention this because it just makes it so fitting that Farmer Burns retired at that Gayety. After all, the man understood what makes great theater.

Unclad Actresses

10:50 AM



In 1890, in one of Omaha’s first art galleries, a painting was attacked. The gallery? The Lininger, started by civic leader George W. Lininger, whose collection wound up largely at the Joslyn. The painting? “The Return of Spring” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, which was an image of an unclad woman surrounded by naked putti – those fat little babies with angel wings. They fly about the woman like amorous butterflies, but for a few that lounge on the ground like opium addicts. The attacker, C.J. Warpinton (referred to in the World-Herald as “a Crazy Censor”) was apparent incensed by the sheer angelic sensuality of the image that he bashed a chair against it, tearing the canvas.

Someone attacked the painting again in 1976. Apparently it is something of Omaha’s answer to Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” although, to my jaded eyes, it just seems like a bunch of fat babies flying around a classical representation of a naked woman. And, even when it was attacked, locals seemed puzzled. A columnist for the World-Herald who called himself “The Gleaner’s Sheaf” complained in January of 1891 that this was wasted effort.

“If some female Warpinton would start out to annihilate all objects tending to destroy the virtue of the sterner sex, it would be more in accordance with the fitness of things,” the columnist wrote. “[I]t is to be hoped, too, that she would not begin with an $18,000 picture, which had not a trace of the voluptuous or sensual in it, and was exhibited to a generally respectable audience who went to see works of art, and recognized the fact that art had no higher subject to portray than God’s last and greatest physical creation, the human body.”

The Glener’s Sheaf had a recommendation for what a female might instead turn her attention to, were she to want to root out real lewdness, and I mention it because it gives us a sense that in the Victorian era, actresses loomed heavily in the erotic imagination:

“[S]he might pounce first upon those very pictures in saloons which the male Warpinton seems to think was all right. And then she would annihilate those cherished collections of which young men are so fond, containing the figures of actresses in every variety of dress – or lack of dress, and follow it up with the demolition of the flaming theater placards , which are equally suggestive and lewd.”

SUGGESTIVE IMAGES

Our scolding columnist is, of course, referring to suggestive images, and also pornography: The nude photographs and paintings that hung above bars, the collections of scandalous images of female performers in suggestive and somewhat unclad poses, and the signs that hung outside performing venues that seemed to promise licentiousness to be found inside the venue. According to this author, such images could be found everywhere:

“She would go down into the pockets of young men and examine the rivets of their knives, or the hidden mechanisms of their scarf pins, or watch charms, or rings, and away would go more of the vile pictures.” The author makes it sounds as though the typical Omaha young male of 1891 was a sort of pornographic stage magician, with erotic pictures stuffed where a sleight-of-hand artist would tuck a bouquet of flowers, a songbird, a rabbit, and some flash paper. In fact, in May of 1893, the Omaha Bee reported on exactly this sort of young man: Frankie Parks, who was arrested for carrying “a quantity of obscene photographs,” as well as a concealed weapon. Specifically, a “long dirk,” which had they not clarified was a weapon might have generated quite a bit of confusion among the paper’s readership.

Worse, an 1895 article in the World-Herald discusses the discouraging fact that some young men, enamored with certain actresses, would have tattooed onto their bodies suggestive images of the actresses, which proved to be a problem later when they prepared to marry.

I would like to take a moment to distinguish between highbrow theater, where presumably these sorts of lewd images didn’t exist, and the lowbrow offerings of saloon-dancehalls and the like, which, as we have discovered, were often fronts for prostitution. I am sure the performers who appeared at Boyd’s Music Hall would not have been pleased to find themselves on the same blog as the performers who appeared at the Park Theater, and would be reading my blog with a scowled visage. But, then, the moralists of the era didn’t care much to make that sort of distinction. As far as they were concerned, both the highbrow and lowbrow venues sold vice to the public.

I have found a stern lecture from a nearby neighbor, Reverend G.C. Rankin of Kansas City, who railed against the breaking of the Sabbath by attendees of the “Sunday night play house” in January of 1891. “It is not for the benefit and accommodation of the better class of people that the Sunday night theater opens its doors,” he warned in the pages of the Kansas City Times. “… And when the promiscuous mass of pure and impure humanity if gotten together before the footlights of the Sunday night playhouse, instead of being elevated they are left on a lower plane of self-respect than when they assembled. All of them seek lower depths of degradation and shame from that which has been suggested to them by the exhibitions and associations of the occasion.”

In fairness to Reverend Rankin, that does sound like a pretty good evening of theater. And what are these “exhibitions” of which Rankin speaks? According to him, the theaters post “lewd pictures in the faces of our people.” We’ve heard about this now in Kansas City and in Omaha, and it’s probably fair to ask what sorts of pictures these were? In all likelihood, modern audiences would find these images inoffensive, but it is possible to see a large selection of Victorian theater posters online, and they do seem to favor women with exposed legs and shoulders, sometimes being menaced by a man who seems about to beat them, and sometimes posing brazenly in what looks like circus costumes. In 1886, the World-Herald complained of “glaring advertisements of shows and displayed photographs of actresses in suggestive deshabille.”

Obviously, this isn’t the sort of pornography that one could apparently find in every young lad’s snuff case, but, to the ministers and moralists, it wasn’t much better either.

A VICTORIAN UNDERWORLD

There were, to be sure, a lot of actresses in the Victorian era who posed for actual pornography. There is a much-cited scholarly article called “The Actress in Victorian Pornography” which discussed, in part, how common it was to find stage actresses in pornographic images, and just how many of these images explicitly referenced the fact of theater and the stage. There was a child actresses named Isa Bowman, who originated the stage role of Alice in Wonderland, was friends with Lewis Carrol, wrote a book about him, and also, by the way, married the marvelously named pornographer George Reginald Bacchus, and he created an erotic fictionalized memoir based on her life called “The Confessions of Nemesis Hunt.” Obviously, her experiences are not typical, but they do illustrate that the line between legitimate theater and the pornographic underworld was thinner than we might expect.

It’s hard to know how much of this went on in Omaha. There has been pornographic photography in the Gate City since at least 1890, when a woman named Rosa King, who the World-Herald referred to as a “dissolute citizen of the third ward,” went to Council Bluffs and “had a photographer make a number of tin types of her in a state of attire which has not been seen in vogue since the time of Eden.” She was arrested for circulating lewd photographs, which she was circulating to her admirers, presumably to hide in their boot heel or secret away in a secret compartment behind their umbrella handle.

In 1894, we find another Iowan photographer snapping these sorts of images, and I will offer his name without comment: Oscar Seaman. The photographer had apparently set up quite a successful mail-order business, and was sending his photographs throughout the country when the cops got him. “The pictures are described as obscene and degrading in the extreme,” the Bee informs us, and while we don’t know if any of the models were from Omaha, we can probably safely assume that at least a few were from Council Bluffs, because, well, it’s Council Bluffs.

HOLLYWOOD NUDES


I have one more story to tell about this subject, although it is not set here. The story takes place in Hollywood, at the palatial estate of Harold Lloyd. The silent film comic was a native of Burchard, Nebraska, and got his start as a performer at the Burwood theater here in Omaha, as I mentioned. Lloyd was preposterously successful as a film actor, grossing more than Charlie Chaplin, and his estate, Greenacres, was massive.

Perhaps remembering his youth in Omaha, when, presumably, he secreted photos of semi-clad actresses under his straw hat, Lloyd like to use this estate to snap photographs of naked actresses, some of them in 3D. His photography was often featured in men’s magazines, and a collection of his 3D images was released a few years ago, called “Harold Lloyd's Hollywood Nudes in 3D!” His models included pinup queen Bettie Page, cult film legend Tura Satana, and burlesque performer Dixie Evans. Apparently he kept all the images in his photo studio in his house, but where’s the fun in that?

Men are supposed to stash photos of unclad actresses on their person. That’s the Omaha way.

The Divorce

10:09 AM

I promised bad actors with this blog, and, by God, have I got one for you.

I don’t mean this regarding his qualities as a theater professional, which were well-regarded. I refer to his qualities as a human being, which were terrible, if newspapers of the time are to be believed.

His name was Willard Mack, although he was born Charles McLaughlin, and he was not an Omahan, having been born in Ontario and raised in Brooklyn. And I’ll give a quick overview of his theater career before describing how it intersected with Omaha, and how this made him awful.

Mack was an actor and playwright, and wrote a piece about the North-West Mounted Police, who he claimed to have been part of. The play was called “In Wyoming,” and did quite well and traveled throughout America (it played in North Platte in 1910.) His plays were often set in Canada, and several of them were eventually adapted into films, while Mack himself made a career for himself as a Broadway and eventual film actor. He is perhaps best remembered now for having met and coached a young chorus girl named Ruby Stevens, whose career he helped immeasurably, including recommending to her that she change her name to Barbara Stanwyck.

For a while he ran his own stock company, and this is where we come to Omaha, and to awfulness. He started the company with his then-wife, Maude Leone, and Maude was a local actress for some years. She started her career here with the Burwood Theater, a little venue at 1514 Harney Street that also launched the career of silent film star Harold Lloyd. (The theater eventually became a burlesque house called the Gayety, and that will be a story of its own.) Leone debuted at the Burwood in February of 1909 to critical raves, the World-Herald describing her as “a stunningly beautiful woman who comes highly recommended by many managers and critics.” Although her previous engagement was in Duluth, Minnesota, and she had appeared elsewhere, including Chicago, she was, according to the paper, “well-known in Omaha, and is a cousin of Mrs. S. B. Stewart,”

She appeared in the lead role in a play called “All-of-a-Sudden Peggy,” which had been a Broadway smash and eventually a film, and the ads for the film give an abbreviated sense of the story: It tells of a “quick on the trigger girl who proves her own matchmaker.” The World-Herald was ecstatic about her performance, writing “If her work in other productions reaches the same high plane of naturalness, elaboration of detail and the same air of spontaneous dramatic expression, there can be no doubt but that the critics of the Chicago papers were right in their unstinted praise of her work.” The writer then went ahead and quoted some of these critics, probably simply transcribing from a press kit sent over by the Burwood. Then, as now, critics could be lazy.

Her appearance was a sensation. On the closing of the show, the theater held two receptions for her, allowing audience members to join her onstage and shake her hand; both sold out. Knowing they had a good thing going, the Burwood cranked up their publicity, announcing that Leone would play Sapho in their next production. Further, in the production Leone would wear a crystal gown weighing 86 pounds, and the theater was forced to turn to an insurance company to insure the gown against theft. The gown was so heavy that the leading man had to make special preparations for the show, as he would be expected to carry Leone -- and the gown -- up a spiral stairway. He had stuck to an all-beef diet, and was now carrying a sandbag weighing 224 pounds up and down a flight of stairs. Ads for the show played up Leone’s striking physical appearance, showing just her eyes and coyly arched eyebrows. “Maude Leone will use these eyes at every performance,” the ads said.

Leone remained at the Burwood until May, when the Burwood company disbanded.


THE HUSBAND

Leone was married to William Mack all this time, although he is never mentioned as visiting Omaha. They married in 1902 in Cedar Rapids when she was 15, and seem to had performed together since 1900, when they appeared in Sedalia, MO. She starred in the terrifically titled “Madame Satan” in 1903 in Michigan, playing the title role, with Mack as a member of the cast. By 1906, she and Mack had started their own company, called the Leone-Mack Stock Company. They toured relentlessly through 1908, and then, suddenly, in February of 1909, we find Leone at the Burwood with no mention of Mack. At the end of 1909, Leone is back with the stock company and her husband, and there is never any real explanation for her season-long hiatus in Omaha.

They continued to perform for years together, touring the country with their stock company. But in June of 1912, it came to light that maybe Mack wasn’t the best person to share a company or a life with. The first hint of this came in Omaha, where the company was booked to play at the Orpheum and Leone demurred, claiming to be ill. Then, in September, the Seattle Daily Times reported that Mack was divorced and would be marrying Marjorie Rambeau, a former child actress and star on Broadway who was preparing to give up a life in the theater to be Mrs. Mack.

Suddenly, the cause of Leone’s illness came out. Mack had demanded a divorce from her while he was in Omaha. In the meanwhile, when Mack married Rambeau, he claimed to have already been divorced for nine years, saying that Leone had charged him with drunkenness. This lie was enough to land Mack in jail in Utah, where the law said you must be divorced six months before remarrying, and the Salt Lake Tribune had a field day with the story, reprinting letters Leone and Mack had sent regarding the divorce. “He wrote me a crazy letter,” Leone wrote, adding a parenthetical “I think he was full of cocaine when he wrote it.” The contents of the letter? Mack wrote to her “insisting that I say I divorced him. You know he couldn’t get one from me to save his soul. I saw from his letter that he was in some sort of a scrape, and would go mad if I didn’t give him a loophole of escape, so I went quietly to a lawyer here who started my divorce before, and got a divorce from him on the first of this month.”

If this all seems pretty muddled, well, it is. Nobody seems clear on the timeline, or who asked what when, and Mack seems to think he might still get back together with Leone, although admits that he needs to get onto the “water wagon” to do so -- in other words, stop drinking. The Salt Lake Tribune offered up an especially hurt letter from Leone, reading the following:

“I know just how you felt, but, oh, you could have spared me so much,” she wrote. “As it is, the shock has nearly floored me. When the lawyers sent me the papers from Salt Lake it nearly killed me.”

In the meanwhile, Leone’s mother went to the press, claiming that Mack has once threatened to kill her.

It simply got worse for Mack. Although Leone claimed to have filed for divorce in September in Omaha, the County Clerk denied any such filing taking place. Mack stuck by his guns, claiming he and Leone were long divorced, but that he now longed for his ex-wife. “‘Skiddles’ face has been before me almost constantly of late,” he told newspapers. “Skiddles” was, we are told, his nickname for Leone.

Skiddles, in the meanwhile, seemed to have no affection left for Mack. If there was no record of her September petition for divorce, well, it was easy enough to petition again. And this time, she did not hold back. As the World-Herald of October 26, 1912, reports it, in the text of the divorce filing Mack was “charged with being a habitual drunkard and a drug fiend …  He has also been guilty of extreme cruelty without using personal violence.”

The World-Herald continued: “She says that Mack’s conduct in drinking and swearing at her for more than two years past, has been such as to endanger her health and at all times almost unfitted her in a measure to carry out her work as an actress and leading woman in her chosen profession. She fears that he will carry out threats to injure her in person and reputation.”

AFTER THE DIVORCE


That cinched it. With Mack officially, if embarrassingly, divorced from Leone, he was free to marry Rimbaud. Mack and Leone’s careers ran parallel, and sometimes intersected, from that point on -- for instance, both were institutionalized in 1915 following nervous collapse, and Leone starred in several of Mack’s scripts. Leone’s career faltered and was ended by an accident in 1929 when she fell from a bus in Los Angeles, which rendered her an invalid and precipitated a decline that included hallucinations and delusions of persecution; she died in March of 1930.

Mack, in the meanwhile, continued to be successful in the world of theater while notably unsuccessful in the field of decency. He divorced Rimbaud in 1917; she charged him with repeated indiscretions with other women. He immediately married an actress/dancer named Pauline Frederick, who divorced him in 1919. He later married another woman,  Beatrice Banyard,  and she divorced him in 1924, citing his alcoholism. He agreed, speaking to the San Diego Union, saying “The rumor that I had gone crazy is all wrong. It’s ridiculous. I wasn’t loco. I was blind; stone blind. Someone sold me liquid blindness for whisky.”

In 1924, Mack almost literally went blind in one eye when he drank bootleg whiskey made from wood alcohol. He swore off alcohol after that. He died in 1934, and his death brought a last, unexpected gesture of affection. It was not from a wife, but instead from his male secretary, Edgar Mathews. Despondent over Mack’s death, Mathews attempted, and failed, suicide by slashing his wrists.

Stranded in Omaha

6:41 AM
Let me introduce you to sisters Ada and Minna Simms. The two had a florid, invented shared biography, but we won’t concern ourselves with the stories they told about themselves. They also ran the most notorious brothel in Chicago, the Everleigh Club, but we won’t concern ourselves with that. Instead, we are going to look to their early days in Omaha, when they were stranded.

The Simms sisters, according to author Karen Abbott, hailed from Virginia, and were born to a family that was wealthy once, but lost their fortunes in the Civil War. The sisters then became performers, and were stranded in about the year 1895. It was a propitious time to be a stranded actress, as Omaha’s World Fair, the Trans-Mississippi Exposition, was about to get started. So the sisters changed their last name to Everleigh, naming themselves after their grandmother’s letters, which were always signed “Everly yours.” They opened a brothel opposite the Fair, made a small fortune, and relocated to Chicago and into the history books.

And here we have one of the more famous examples of the phenomenon of the stranded performer. Then, as now, there was an appealing if artificial sense of glamor around the performing arts, and it created opportunities for abuse. The World-Herald first addressed the subject in May of 1888 when they ran an article titled “Some Stage Struck People” and subtitled “A Large Lot of Them in Omaha, but They Are Mostly Girls.” After detailing the supposed but nonexistant attractions of the theatrical life, including a high paycheck, traveling in high society, and the opportunity to sleep late, the author tells the story of an ad found in a local paper that read “WANTED -- Young lady, nice-appearing, to go on the road with troupe.”

The author had a friend who was a theatrical manager, and who declared the ad a fake. This manager concocted a scheme to send one of his actresses to answer the ad, and so she did. “The advertiser is AN OLD GUY,” the paper revealed, “an old doctor -- no, don’t use his name, but he is on the fourth floor of the old Paxton block.” It turned out the man had a business selling toiletries, and was, in fact, looking for a woman to work in his office. He knew that women were more likely to answer his ad if they thought he was looking for an actress.

The author concluded with a warning about the attraction of the life of a performer, mentioning that when an Oriental opera company came to Omaha the previous year, two local tailors, Cohen and Weinberg, abandoned their shop on Sixteenth and Burt Street to join the company. They also left their wives behind. The company was broke, and the two tailors were stranded in Denver.

There’s a fairly detailed story in the July 3, 1890 issue of the Washington DC Evening Star called “Scheme of a Stranded Actor.” The story is set 16 years before and tells the true story of a troupe that got stuck in Omaha when they ran out of money, as told by one who was there to a group of appreciative fellow actors. Omaha strandings had already become the stuff of legend, it seems. The actor tells of desperate performers telegraphing for money, pawning their belongings, and begging money off locals in their attempts to get home. This actor concocted a scheme to get back to New York on just $2. He constructed a fake ticket out of an old calendar, and then made a big show of placing it in his hat band before his other passengers. He lay back by the window and pretended to sleep. Presently the conductor came by and gave him a little shake, at which point he pretended to be startled enough to cause his hat to fly out the train window. He scolded the conductor on causing him to lose his ticket, which the other passengers confirmed, and so managed to travel all the way home without paying his fare.

By 1898, strandings were frequent enough the the World-Herald decided to make a joke of it, writing the following in May: “From the number of Shakespearean companies that have stranded this year and the members of which have been obliged to walk home, it looks as though the word ‘legit’ might soon be written ‘leg it.’”

These stories typically involved unscrupulous or incompetent managers, who either made off with the company’s money or slunk away in debt, leaving their performers stuck. Life on the road was uncertain enough that the loss of a performer could strand a troupe, as happened with the Factory Foundling company in October of 1904, as reported by the Kansas City Star in a story called “On the Kerosene Circuit.” The troupes two lead actors, who were owed back pay, quit the company and sued over everything, including the scenery and a Great Dane dog, leaving everyone stranded somewhere. The troupe tried to reorganize in Omaha, where they had a booking, and got stuck there, while the actors and their dog remained in Kansas City, “forced to do manual work,” as the story tells us.

Sometimes managers could be vindictive, as in the following story.

In 1907, three actors were stranded in Omaha when a South Dakota sheriff contacted local authorities and informed them the performers were wanted on a charge of larceny. The three were arrested and locked up for four days, until the sheriff could arrive. When he did, he spoke with them, decided not to press charges, and left again. According to the actors, they had been hired in South Dakota to perform, arrived to discover the venue was substandard, and left again, and the manager swore out a complaint against them, saying they had stolen clothing, simply out of spite.

By the time the sheriff was satisfied the performers were innocent, the actors’ train tickets had expired, and they were destitute, and so could not purchase new tickets.

There was also an incident in October of 1914 when fourteen Sioux Indians  from the Rosebud reservation, who had been hired to perform in a Wild West show, were abandoned by an unscrupulous agent in the Burlington station. The management had handed them a bag when they started home, claiming it had their payments, but when they arrived in Omaha they discovered it was filled with worthless scraps of paper. The leader of the troupe, Chief Strange Horse, promised he would “make things interesting” for the delinquent manager when he got home.

In May of 1915, the Red Rose company came to Omaha with two chorus girls, Vira Burke and Doris Lohhr, and then left without them. The chorus girls claimed they were fired without notice and management refused to pay them what they were owed, leaving them without the funds to pay their own way home.

I started this story with the tale of two stranded performers who became madams, and will end with one more, although this story is impossible to confirm, as is everything in the early life of Anna Wilson.

From 1870 to her death in 1911, Wilson was one of Omaha’s most notorious characters. The proprietor of a 25-room brothel, the common-law widow of legendary local gambler Dan Allen, and eventual city philanthropist (upon her death, Wilson gave her mansion to Omaha to serve as the City Hospital), Wilson was a figure of both fascination and mystery. Almost nothing is known about her life before she came to Omaha. We don’t know if her name actually was Anna Wilson. We’re not sure how or when she got to Omaha.

There is some speculation that Wilson came from New Orleans, and, upon her death, an obituary appears in a St. Joseph, LA, paper that I have never seen elsewhere. It does not credit its sources, but makes explicit claims about Wilson’s past. The paper is called the Tensas Gazette, and its story is titled “Dive-Keeper Gives Riches to Charity,” with the following subhead: “Miss ‘Anna Wilson,’ Who Came as Stage Girl to Nebraska Metropolis, Repentant, Gave Her Resort and Wealth to City.”

Here is the paragraph from the article that explains the appearance of the words “Stage Girl” in the subhead: “Anna Wilson went to Omaha when it was a frontier town several years before the Union Pacific railroad was completed in 1867. Her first appearance was on a music hall stage. She was bright and pretty … The young girl remained on the stage only a short time. When the music hall went to the wall she was without an engagement. In the emergency she took up with a noted ‘square’ gambler, Dan Allen, and became his common-law wife.”

Is it possible? One supposes it might be, although I have known quite a few actors and precious few of them, left stranded in town, would conceive of starting a brothel, as both Wilson and the Everleigh sisters did.

There is another possibility. In her earliest appearances in the newspapers, Anna Wilson is referred to as Annie, and looking through the papers from the era, there is a prostitute, or several prostitutes, named Annie Wilson who makes occasional appearances here and there. In December of 1866, an Annie Wilson is arrested in Harrisburg, PA, during a raid on a bawdy house. Another Annie Wilson, or perhaps the same, was reported as having lost her mind in Cleveland, OH, in 1868; she worked in a brothel, was scarcely 17, and had attempted to physically harm herself. Later in 1868, in Philadelphia, a fistfight in a brothel caused the arrest of an Annie Wilson.

Was our Anna Wilson any one of these girls, or all of them, proving herself to be both unusually mobile and unusually prone to arrest? We just don’t know. All we have to go on is some tantalizing bread crumbs scattered throughout newspapers, and there seems to be no evidence at all that she was ever an actress.

Well, almost no evidence. There is one thing we know for certain, and it does suggest Wilson had a taste for the theater. When she died, Anna Wilson left behind a massive personal library, numbering thousands of volumes. Among these volumes, especially highlighted in the aftermath of her death, was “one of the best Shakespeare libraries in the west,” as the Sandusky Register in Ohio put it.

When your reputation for your Shakespearean library reaches as far as Ohio, there is a real possibility you were once an actor.

Hayseeds, Dancing Girls, and Crime: The Nebraska Music Hall

9:55 AM

THE VENUE

Back in the 1930s, in the middle of the Great Depression, the US government tried to write a history of Omaha. They hired writers through the Federal Writers' Project of the Work Progress Administration, set them out to document the city, compiled the results, and then just … failed to do anything at all with it. I’m not clear on what happened, except that, from the sounds of thing, the incomplete manuscript showed up at the Omaha Public Library, where some industrious librarian glued it all together and then bound the results. The results are something called “Omaha: A Guide to Its History and Environs,” which looks less like a book than a photocopied college thesis.

But it’s just the best. I mean that honestly. When I first moved to Omaha, it was my guide to the town, and it was especially useful, as it has divided Omaha up into a series of walking tours. Following one of the tours, I discovered the story of William Brown, who was lynched at the courthouse in 1919. I wrote a play about it, and have had more than a little success with that play. I also read that Oscar Wilde performed here at Boyd’s opera house, a story that I don’t merely retell here on this blog, but also turned into a play. I read about May Allison, a brutal thief who lived in a now-long-gone part of town called Ramcat Alley, and I have mined that story a few times, once in a play called boyElroy, once for a zine. The book has a collection of slang terms from the meat packing houses in South Omaha that I lifted for a one-act I wrote for the Shelterbelt last year. I have been robbing this history since the day I arrived, and will continue to steal from it until the day I leave.

And so here is yet another story from the book, the story of the Nebraska Music Hall, which is mentioned very briefly. The WPA book has this to say about the venue:

Douglas between 13th and 14th the former Academy of Music: In the late nineties it was occupied by the Nebraska Music Hall, a playhouse patterned after the Haymarket theater in New York. Police records of the day reveal that more robberies were perpetuated here than in any other resort in the city. Cheap cigars, beer, vulgar sketches and the display of the charms by the women performers attracted many rustics

VICE AND PERFORMANCE

So, firstly, the Haymarket theater in New York. This was a three-story dance hall in Manhattan’s vice-ridden Tenderloin district, and was finely built to look like a Broadway theater. From outward appearances, it was a legitimate venue, featuring Moulin Rouge-style dancing girls, but it was a front for prostitution and theft.

And this is precisely what Omaha’s Nebraska Music Hall offered. In fact, the two daily newspapers, the Omaha-World Herald and the Bee, ran parallel histories of the venue. In the World-Herald, it shows up exclusively in the crime section. At the Bee, where the Music Hall ran advertisements, it showed up in the amusements section. So it is that, unique among these sorts of dismal Omaha venues of the era, we can see what sort of aboveboard entertainment they offered to camouflage the vice.

This blog being what it is, we shall start with the vice. We’ve mentioned the Academy of Music before -- it was Omaha’s first dedicated theater building, built in 1866 and home to the city’s first stock company. It first appears in the newspaper as the Nebraska Music Hall in 1896, and, in the World-Herald, it was already a source of nuisance. The paper ran a brief item on May 11 telling of a farmer, Sam Bowen, who was found unconscious at the back of the theater. He had two wound in his head and told the police he was robbed.

Just three days later, the paper ran another tale of an abused farmer. This time, it was a man named William H. Vincent, who was involved in an increasing violent dispute with an employee of the theater named William A. Randall. Farmer Vincent seemed to think he had been taken advantage of, and was about to pull some brass knuckles and settle the matter when a police officer interfered.

Brass knuckles showed up again in August, when a clerk named Clark from Denver received a severe beating in the alley behind the theater, the brass knuckles injuring him so badly the World-Herald expected he would die. The police arrested several people in connection with the beating, including Frank Lawler, the Music Hall’s bartender.

Clerk Clark did recover, and it is another four months before the Music Hall finds itself in the World-Herald again. This time, it appears in a story titled “He Intended to Murder Her,” telling of a machinist named John M. Kinkenon, who shot his wife and then himself. Now, the story starts at a notorious bar at the near northside called The Arcade, which will be the subject of future posts, as it had its own theater and its own history of violence, and Mrs. Kinkenon was employed here as a cook. She left the building with her son and soon found herself stalked by her husband. She contacted a police officer, who questioned the husband, but released him when he pleaded innocence. He followed her around downtown for a little while longer and then, in front of the Music Hall, shot her in the neck and committed suicide. He had been threatening to kill her for weeks, but then, as it too often is now, these sorts of threats were met with official indifference.

In January of the next year, the police commission decided to appoint a special policeman named HD Fisk to the Music Hall. The police force wasn’t terrifically large then, and it’s a sign of the city’s deepening concern over the Music Hall that they assigned one officer specifically to the venue. Shortly after that, arrests began at the venue with some frequency: A waiter named Jack Howard who stole from a patron and from the till; a patron named Ed Clark who started a fight; waiter Charles A. Antwell, arrested for fighting with “a Jew.”

In July of 1898, the World-Herald ran a story about one of the Music Hall’s performers, Professor Alfred Lunblum. He was a 40-year-old violin player who had come from Chicago just a few days earlier for an engagement at the theater. The newspaper wasn’t especially interested in his work as a performer, however. Lunblum, it seems, had abandoned his wife and come to town with $135 of her money and with another woman. The wife showed up, complained to the police, Lunblum left for Chicago with her, and, as the World-Herald puts it, “[t]he girl he brought to Omaha with him will be left behind to paddle in her own canoe.”

On December 12 of 1898, the manager of the theater, George Mitchell, suddenly ran off to Chicago, leaving significant debt behind him and claiming that the theater had not been a success. This was a bit of a surprise to the property’s owner, W.A. Redick, who Mitchell owed money to. He shouldn’t have been surprised. Mitchell’s primary business was as a liveryman, and he had been guilty of crooked dealings previously: In 1895, he accused a man of stealing a wagon and harnesses; these charges were dropped when it came out that the man had bought the items from Mitchell.

1898 had been a bad year for Mitchell. In March, he had slipped under a heavily loaded wagon and lost a good portion of his big toe on his right foot. If he didn’t leave Omaha broke, he did leave it somewhat defeated.

But if Manager Mitchell was gone, the theater remained, and within a year ads began to appear in the World-Herald, such as this one from August 29 of 1899: “WANTED -- One 1st violinist and one cornet player. Apply J. C. Clark, Nebraska Music Hall.”

One suspects this is the same J.C. Clark who made frequent appearances in the World-Herald, starting in May of 1890 in a story called “Sunday Sinners: Fifteen People Tell Why They Did Not Go to Church.” In Clark’s case, he was not in church because he was arrested:

“Clark is undoubtedly a smooth man and is one of those run in with the gang of thieves captured early Sunday morning. He had in his possession a lot of blank checks on every bank in Sioux City. When he was brought before the judge, he sprung a lot of crocodile tears, and a snivel and a pathetic story about his poor wife and dear children, and the judge discharged him despite of the fact that he failed to remember where he had been or what he had been doing during the past year.”

A CHANGE IN MANAGEMENT

The Music Hall quickly made its way back into the crime papers. Interestingly, it seems likely that when Manager Mitchell absconded to Chicago, he left behind a debt to the Bee, as this publication immediately lost interest in the Music Hall as a performance venue and started looking into its criminal activities. So it is on April 16 of 1899 the Bee runs a story called “Dance Artist in Trouble,” telling of Laura Woodson, a song and dance artist of the Music Hall, who was arrested for “getting too fresh with hayseeds.”

The victim was John Long of Auburn, Nebraska, who made the acquaintance of Woodson and soon found his money purse was missing. He complained to management, who brought him to a former boxer who “offered to furnish him the trouble he wanted at reduced rates.” Long decided to prosecute, saying that “he wishes to impress it upon their plebian minds that men from the country should be accorded the same reverential treatment as the most urbane citizen who enters the hall.”

Note that this seems to be a paraphrase on the part of the Bee’s writer. Long himself is quoted upon being ejected from the hall, and he says “These fellows get altogether too fresh with hayseeds.”

In September, the Bee offered a rather odd story called “Baby Wins Rough Man,” telling of performers at the Music Hall becoming concerned when a ragged man with unkempt hair brought a baby girl into the theater with him. He claimed the baby was his own, and had been taking the girl on a tour of Omaha saloons and music halls, but the performers called the police on him. When questioned, the man admitted the baby was not his, he had just found her in the street, but “was attracted by her cute ways.” The infant was returned to her desperate mother.

The rowdiness of the venue continued. On September 4, the World-Herald reported that Richard Leoni, a performer at the music hall, attacked a man named Abram Marks, who gave him a severe drubbing. Leoni claimed Marks had said insulting things about his wife. On the 15th, a woman named Susie Hill and four police officers chased a man into the theater and arrested him. He had blackened Hill’s eye, and when he told the judge that he milked cows for a living, the judge retorted “you’ll pull no udders for many a day.”

In November, according to the Bee, police were looking for “Curly,” the “spieler” for the Music Hall. According to the paper, Curly was a “hot air virtuoso,” which presumably referred to his speaking abilities, but was now wanted for stealing horses from a local livery stable and attempting to sell them in Glenwood, Iowa.

What was a spieler, you may be asking. Well, as it happens, a story from later that month in the World-Herald tells us. The story is one of Charles Anthill, a man who had recently quit his job, brutalized a woman, and was making a reputation on Douglas Street as a desperado. This night in November, Anhill accosted the Music Hall’s spieler, who was standing in front of the venue crying out “Walk right in gents -- the greatest show on earth --” Anthill informed the spieler that Anthill planned to “drink some one’s blood that night.”

Later he shot Dave Hill, the proprietor of the nearby Owl Saloon, grazing his neck. “A one-legged man in the barroom ran out the back way without his crutch and a man with two limbs ran out as though shot in the leg,” the World-Herald tells us.

And that’s the last we hear of the Music Hall, at least in local papers. The venue makes one last appearance in January of 1900 in a Utah paper, The Deseret News. The story, reprinted from the Omaha News, tells of a cattle dealer from the Beehive State who liked to come to Omaha for a good time.

“He had heard that the Nebraska Music Hall has a number of attractions and drifted in there first night in town,” the paper tells us. “What he drank, and how much he drank, or whether he drank at all, he has no positive knowledge, yet his expense bill showed that he had bought early and often. One of the serpentine dancers entertained him from start to finish and did not hesitate to call to her assistance all of her friends.”

The night ended up costing the cattleman $100. The next day, he returned to the Music Hall and demanded to see the woman who had cost him so much money. The manager hesitated, but the cattleman insisted he meant no harm, so he brought her down. The cattleman then proceeded to toast her, saying “In my earliest days, I have rustled cattle, put my brand on my neighbors calves, and now have the reputation for compelling my cattle to drink more water than is good for them just before they are weighed up, but miss, I doff my sombrero to you as the most expert grafter I ever met.”

The venue’s manager, J.C. Clark, makes one more appearance in the World-Herald in 1900, when he arrested in Allegheny after he and his wife shoplifter what the paper described as “considerable loot.” “It is believed that his real name is J. C. O’Neill, and that he was one of the notorious Blinky-Morgan Gang who operated so extensively in this section a number of years ago.” He had, it seemed, been arrested in St. Louis is 1899 and charged with murder, “and police think they are wanted in other cities.”

MUSIC HALL PERFORMERS


So there we have it, a history of criminal mischief in one Omaha performance venue. But as I mentioned, we also have a fairly detailed inventory of the sorts of performance to be found at the Nebraska Music Hall, and I will end this by listing a few of the notable performers:

Della Latham, “contortion dancer”
Ella Dunbar, “the burlesque queen”
Freda Maloof, “muscle dancer”
Ed Brumage, “silence and fun”
Ruby Knight, the “plain American girl”
Thomas Gibbons, “negro delinerator”
Sig. Almon Zrinyi, “the great hand balancer and equilibrust”
Tom Hardle, “Irish character”
Leo La Reno, “the strong man”

It was, in other words, the sort of mixture of dance, comedy, and novelty acts that could be expected from early vaudeville. There was ethnic and blackface comedy, young girls singing popular standards, other girls dancing somewhat risque dance numbers, and a large selection of the sort of entertainment that is mostly lost now. One suspects Ed Brumage offered a silent comedy act, while Almon Zrinyi demonstrated feats of juggling. A “negro delineator” was a one-man blackface show, generally involving songs and monologues, and was a bit different than a minstrel show, in that the white performer was generally attempting imitation rather than mockery -- negro delineators prided themselves on producing performances in which audience members genuinely thought they were African American.

There’s another story, but it is a longer one, and so I will tell is separately. But, for a while, Omaha was home to a performer who claimed to be the original Little Egypt, the belly dancer who had wowed America at the Chicago World Fair. She came in to town on a train dressed as a tramp, and she quickly found work at the Nebraska Music Hall, and we will come back to her story soon.

It’s tempting to view these performances as merely being a front for vice -- especially when so many of these performers were guilty of vice themselves. But vaudeville survived its reckless early years to become one of America’s entertainment institutions, generally offering the same mix of music, dance, comedy, ethnic performance, and novelty acts. Knowing this, the Nebraska Music Hall, and venues like it, seemed to offer a partnership of convenience.

Both vaudeville and vice could do very well without each other -- so much so that one Omaha paper could write exclusively about performance while the other wrote exclusively about crime, and you might not think they were even writing about the same venue. But cheap liquor, cheap entertainment, and cheap companionship are three tried-and-true ways to fleece a hayseed, and Omaha, thanks to the then-booming industries of rail and meat packing, had hayseeds aplenty. All you needed was a building, a show, a liquor license, and a few unscrupulous employees and you had a business plan.

The hayseeds came to town rich. One way or another, they were going home broke.

The Burlesque Troupe

1:41 PM


The Victorians loved burlesque. The word then meant something different than it does now. The Victorian burlesque didn’t involve amply endowed women revealing pulchritudinous flesh while a baggy pants comic waited offstage.

No, the Victorian burlesque was a theater of satire and parody, often lampooning already existing songs and plays. The Victorians made fun of everybody. Shakespearean burlesque was enormously popular, but there were also burlesques of operas, melodramas, folk tales, and popular dances.

Although these burlesques proved to be very popular in New York, and eventually throughout the U.S., they seem primarily to have been an English creation, and reflected certain British sensibilities regarding performance. One of these is comic cross-dressing, a staple of the pantomime (where it was typically men who took female roles). There was also a long tradition of women appearing in male roles, both in mainstream theater (where it was called a “travesti” or “breeches” role) and in the music hall, which had a number of successful male impersonators.

Victorian burlesque seemed to borrow from all this, and I offer all this as an abbreviated explanation as to how a troupe called Lydia Thompson’s British Blondes, led by an actress who had done drag acts in England for years, and featuring scantily clad young actresses pursued by male impersonators, came to Omaha in the 1870s, and wound up leaving one of their own behind.

Firstly, we should introduce Lydia Thompson. She was a London native, the daughter of a bar-owner, and she left home to become a professional dancer at age 14. She quickly became a star, touring Europe. In 1859, The Times declared her “one of the most eminent of English dancers," and, as her career progressed, she found increasing success playing the “principal boy” in burlesques – the lead male juvenile character.

By 1864, Thompson was working with Alexander Henderson, a successful theater manager, and, after a series of lucrative collaborations, married him. The two relocated to New York in 1868, and here began to adapt British burlesques for American audiences, rewriting dialogue and song-lyrics, as well as incorporating songs that were then popular in the United States. They put together a small troupe of women, eventually calling them the “British Blondes,” and the resulting show was a sensation during the 1868-69 Broadway theatrical season. It was meant to run six months, but, including tours of the U.S., it ran for six years.

The show was not without its critics. The use of female performers in male roles drew the ire of some writers, including Wilbur F. Storey, owner of the Chicago Times. In response, Thompson horsewhipped him.

It’s impossible to find any local news coverage of Thomson’s troupe when they reached Omaha – perhaps the intrepid newsmen feared they might likewise be horsewhipped. But thanks to an issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, we know when they were in town. On Saturday, July 16, 1870, the New York newspaper ran this item: “The Lydia Thompson Troupe will begin a season in Omaha July 14th.” Follow up items in the same publication show that the troupe performed through early August.

The same publication also identifies the show, and the cast. It was called “The Bronze Horse,” a burlesque of what was already an opera comique by French composer Daniel Auber. The story is a fantasia set in China, and, according to Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, the cast included Edith Bland, Mrs. De Bar, and May Preston. I mention this because one of those names will prove to be important to this story.

While there are no local references to Thompson’s performance here, we do know about one of her audience members. Her name was Ellen E. Griffin, she was 25, and came from a wealthy New York family. She followed Thomson around the country, and she was desperately in love with her. We know this because the Nashville Union and Democrat documented it, publishing a number of Griffin’s love-struck letters to Thompson, including this one from the Metropolitan House in Omaha, a hotel:

“Well, here I am, my little divinity; at least what is left of me. Now I suppose that you think that fatigue and excitement – sometimes fright – of this trip, will deter me from taking another one; but you are very much mistaken. You know that I love you.”

Later, Griffin wrote Thompson this poem:

“I love you, I love you,
Let Henderson dare
To chide me for loving
Your golden hair.

“I love you, I love you,
And cost what it may
Will follow you again
At some future day.”

Alexander Henderson, Thompson’s husband, did not seem to appreciate Griffin’s affections for his wife. In another letter, Griffin wrote the following: “To Mr. Henderson:--Miss Thompson informed me this morning that you intend shooting me.”

At the start of this story, I mentioned that the troupe ended up leaving one of their own behind. It was Edith Bland, one of the principals from “The Bronze Horse,” and she stayed with her mother, who must have been touring with her. Bland was six foot tall, pretty, and, according to a letter to the Omaha Bee from 1883, had an aristocratic bearing.

It’s unclear why Bland chose to stay in Omaha, although she was offered a job with our first stock company, run by Henri Corri, and that may have influenced her decision. She stayed on for several years, appearing in soubrette roles at the Academy of Music. The Bee recalled Bland and her mother in this way: “These two lived together in rooms in the third story of Caldwell block, the same in which the Academy is situated. They always appeared well dressed, and the taste which Edith used in her toilettes was always particularly spoken of.”

“Edith Blande (sic) was a very ambitious girl,” the Bee continued. “During her residents of about five years in Omaha she worked hard and used all the money she could earn to improve her acting and her wardrobe, for she was aiming to be a star.”

Bland partnered with a local photographer, Frank Currier, to produce a series of photographs of her, which she sent about to agents.

Her diligence paid off. In 1873, Bland received an offer “from an Eastern manager to join a troupe whose destination is Europe,” according to the Sioux City Journal.  On January 13 of 1834, an ad in the Washington Evening Star lists a one-week engagement of a comic opera called “Land of Gold.” Included in the cast is the following: “First appearance of the charming burlesque actress Edith Bland.” By November of 1883, when the Bee wrote their memories of the actress, she had already attained one of the first signs of stardom: she was the subject of gossip. “The rumor that she married the son of a duke in Newcastle is not true,” the Bee informed its readers.

In 1893, the Oamaru Mail claimed that Bland had been in Sydney, Australia, where she attempted to accompany a lion-tamer into his den, but that authorities stepped in and stopped the performance.

She went on to have a successful career in theater, frequently appearing on New York stages, and her private affairs continued to be the subject of public scrutiny. An 1895 article in the Denver Post accused Bland of having been the mistress of Edward Solomon, the English composer, and claimed Solomon had abandoned his English wife to run away to America with Bland. A Daily Illinois State Register story from 1883 had substantially the same information, but added to it claims that Bland paid Solomon’s bills and he beat her. This, however, may be a different Edith Bland – a publication called “Fact, Fancy, and Fable: Ready Reference on Subjects Commonly Omitted from Cyclopedias” from 1889 lists them as two separate women.

In 1896, Bland was sued for divorce by her then-husband, Austin Brereton, for what the Omaha World-Herald described as “her unfounded jealousy of him.” In 1897, the Boston Journal offered the conclusion to the case: dismissed for want of proof. They did summarize his charges against his wife. She was “cruel, had a bad temper, and had abandoned him.” The World-Herald also hinted at a story that I have found no further documentation for, saying that Bland returned to Omaha when a male acquaintance of hers was preparing to marry, and made things difficult for him.

It’s hard not to wonder if a horsewhip might have been involved.

The Orator

11:04 AM


I am going to devote this story to a fellow born in Dresden, New York. After 65 years, he died in Dobbs Ferry, New York. During the expanse of his years, he only spent a few days in Omaha. They were, however, hugely entertaining days, as you will see.

His name was Robert G. Ingersoll, and he was one of America’s great orators. The son of a preacher, he was lawyer, Civil War veteran, close friend of Walt Whitman, and professional speaker of great popularity and erudition. He could speak extemporaneously for three hours before a rapt audience, and he spoke knowledgeably about a variety of topics – including religion. He had his own ideas about this subject, which we shall get to shortly.

Ingersoll spoke at Boyd’s Opera House for the first time on May of 1891, lecturing on the subject of Shakespeare. The text of his speech was published posthumously, and so we can see approximately what he had to say on the subject. Mostly, he passionately defended the Bard’s genius and offered a summary of the man’s biography and works. This was an entirely unsurprising approach to the topic, as the American west was starting to have its share of nouveau riche bankers and ranchers and landowners. (The theater itself was built by a stockyard owner). Omaha was then a dusty frontier town of violent men, muddy streets, gambling dens, and brothels, and its no surprise that the newly moneyed wanted to bring some culture to the Gate City.

But there are a few lines in Ingersoll’s speech that hint that the man was wrestling with some questions of faith. “Famine and faith go together,” he declared. “In disaster and want the gaze of man is fixed upon another world. He that eats a crust has a creed. Hunger falls upon its knees, and heaven, looked for through tears, is the mirage of misery. But prosperity brings joy and wealth and leisure -- and the beautiful is born.”

Heaven is the mirage of misery? Apparently, a few people caught that Ingersoll’s speech was peppered with phrases like this, as populist politician Ignatius Donnelly came to town town the following month offering his own oration at Boyd’s, titled “Mistake of Ingersoll in Literature and Religion.” Italics mine.

Let me take just a moment to detail Ignatius Donnelly’s viewpoints, because he was a crank. More than that, he was a sort of crank extraordinaire. He challenged Ingersoll’s entire biography of Shakespeare, claiming the playwrights works were actually written by Francis Bacon. He also published a popular book on Atlantis, a book theorizing that the earth was about to be destroyed by an enormous meteor. (The book was called “Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel,” which sounds less like a doomsday book that a Swedish death metal album.) He once founded a failed utopian community in Minnesota. So whatever Ingersoll thought, Donnelly was probably going to take issue with it, because seemingly everything Donnelly believed was mad.

But what did Ingersoll believe? He expounded on this in October of 1893 on a return engagement with Boyd’s, a speech titled “Myth and Miracle.” Boyd’s was filled for this event.

This was, I should note, Boyd’s second music hall, located at 17th and Harney. I mentioned his first in another article, and that seated 1,700. This new opera house was larger than the first, so Ingersoll’s lecture drew 2,000 people.

And what did Ingersoll wish to tell the assembled masses of Omaha? The World-Herald selected some of his plum quotes and reprinted them, such as “There is only one good in this world, and that is happiness” and “Spiritual people look upon this world as containing little that is good” and “More beautiful truths fell like diamonds from the mouths of Shakespeare’s clowns than can be found in all the books of Moses.”

So we have a portrait of a man who seems deeply ambivalent about religion. In fact, The World-Herald was a bit circumspect about Ingersoll’s viewpoints.

Robert Ingersoll was an atheist.

He didn’t use that word for himself – his nickname, instead, was “The Great Agnostic,” which suggests ambiguity. But Ingersoll’s viewpoints were hardly ambiguous. He viewed most religious writing as hogwash and most religious leaders as charlatans, and said so. Here are some quotes from a transcribed version of Ingersoll’s “Myth and Miracle” that the World-Herald didn’t print:

-- These spiritual people have been known as prophets, apostles, augurs, hermits, monks, priests, popes, bishops and parsons. They are devout and useless. They do not cultivate the soil. They produce nothing. They live on the labor of others. They are pious and parasitic.
-- The spiritual have endeavored to civilize the world through fear and faith -- by the promise of reward and the threat of pain in other worlds. They taught men to hate and persecute their fellow-men. In all ages they have appealed to force. During all the years they have practiced fraud.
-- The "spiritual" have been, are, and always will be the enemies of the human race.

And that’s just from his introduction! One cannot help but admire the temerity it must have taken to stand before 2,000 of Omaha’s best citizens and excoriate them as suckers for believing in the mystical mutterings of con artists.

Unexpectedly, nobody seemed that bothered. A local rabbi, Leo Franklin, offered a response (published in the Bee) that included “let us not be too hard on this poor infidel.” Franklin felt that Ingersoll was just making a living, which he didn’t seem to mind, but ultimately felt atheism was an expression of ignorance.

The World-Herald, in the meanwhile, took the tack of self-congratulation. “Ingersoll stands today as living evidence of both the tolerance and the Christian sentiment of the American people,” the World-Herald claimed. “Though his opinions are directly opposite of the people of this country, he is personally one of the most popular of its citizens.”

A little while later, in frigid December, a writer at the World-Herald used Ingersoll as the setup to a joke: “If Bob Ingersoll insists that there is no hell,” the writer asked in mock irritation, “will he please explain what becomes of the caller who leaves the office door open in winter?” Ingersoll remained a figure of fun in the World-Herald, although they followed his career with no small amount of fascination.

Ingersoll returned again in 1895, and his topic this time seemed designed to inflame passions: “The Bible.” He opened with these extraordinary words:

“Somebody ought to tell the truth about the Bible. The preachers dare not, because they would be driven from their pulpits. Professors in colleges dare not, because they would lose their salaries. Politicians dare not. They would be defeated. Editors dare not. They would lose subscribers. Merchants dare not, because they might lose customers. Men of fashion dare not, fearing that they would lose caste. Even clerks dare not, because they might be discharged. And so I thought I would do it myself.”

Gauntlet thrown down, he proceeded to call the bible ignorant and savage, its authors uneducated, its contents cruel, absurd and impossible, and its followers brutal.

He sold out Boyd’s, of course. The World-Herald identified local religious leaders in the audience, but they were in the minority. Most of the audience were appreciative, and Ingersoll had to frequently stop for applause or for laughter. These do not sound like Americans who disagreed with him but were filled with Christian tolerance. This sounds like an audience that was genuinely receptive to Ingersoll’s message.

Ingersoll brought a revised version of one of his older speeches, “Superstition,” to Boyd’s in January of 1899. The World-Herald wrote of him in unabashedly complimentary terms: “Erect, magnetic, urbane, and genial as ever, age sits well upon him,” and concluded their article with a hopeful note from Ingersoll, who said “The majority are advancing in spite of themselves.” It was to be the last time Ingersoll would appear at Boyd’s; he died in July of that year.

It’s hard to tell how many adherents Ingersoll had in Omaha, or in general. In the period after the Civil War, America experienced a crisis of faith. Some, like Ingersoll, rejected religion altogether, but many looked for alternatives to mainstream Christianity. In particular, this period saw the rise of Spiritualism, an indigenous American religion rooted in communicating with the dead. Spiritualism had followers in Omaha, some of whom might have shared Ingersoll’s skepticism regarding Christianity without concerning themselves with the wholesale rejection of the supernatural.

Additionally, at this time, atheism was increasingly becoming associated with radical political movements in Europe. Anarchism and communism were both explicitly atheistic, while nihilism rejected all authority, earthly and sacred. These movements began to take root in America, and many Americans started to define themselves in opposition to this new form of alien radicalism. The Russian Revolution seemed to cinch it, reinforced by decades of Cold War. America stood in opposition to Communism, and American churches stood in opposition to Communist atheism.

Just this past year, a Pew study determined that even now, in 2014, half of Americans objected to the idea of a family member marrying an atheist. Half! It’s hard to imagine Robert Ingersoll now, taking the stage before 2,000 Omahgans and telling them that their beliefs are bunk.

What a different world it was back in the 1890s, when a man like Ingersoll could find a mass audience in America, and sell out the premiere opera house in Omaha. Nowadays, we wouldn’t even let him marry our sister.