Miss Ward, I Presume: A Journalist, an Actress, and a Suicide

2:16 PM

I feel like H.M. Stanley has exited the popular consciousness. When I was a boy, it was still possible to hear the phrase “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” It was infrequent and unmoored from context, but it still made an occasional public appearance as a recognizable idiom.

I can’t remember the last time I heard it, and so context is needed, even though the subject of this article is an early Omaha actress and her suicide.

You see, H.M. Stanley, the Welsh-born journalist/explorer, was an Omahan for a while. He came out when young and broke and wrote tales of frontier life for the New York Herald. An example: He was on a train one day outside Omaha when a man named William Thompson climbed about. Thompson was the subject of a lot of attention, as he had a great gory wound in his shoulder, from a tomahawk, and was missing his scalp.

Actually, it wasn’t missing. It was in a bucket next to him, and he was on his way to Omaha to get it sewed back on. This didn’t work, and you can still see the scalp on occasion at the Omaha Public Library, but that’s another story, because Thompson and his scalp became a short lived theatrical sensation. My point is that this was the sort of story Staley wrote from Omaha.

He proved adept enough at telling beastly tales from awful places that James Gordon Bennett, founder of the New York Herald, retained him and sent him on a variety of journalistic adventures. These included tracing the source of the Congo River, seeking to rescue the besieged governor of Equatoria in Southern Sudan, and finding Scottish missionary David Livingstone, who had vanished in Africa. Stanley found Livingstone in 1871 in Tanzania, where the missionary had been very ill, and declared the famous words “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” Or perhaps not – the phrase may be an invention of Stanley’s for the sake of a good story.

Whatever the case, Stanley ended up famous, knighted, and may have been the inspiration for Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” which itself was the inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now!” In addition, there are two species of snail named after him.

But our story is set before all this, when he was living in Omaha at the dawn of the city, about the year 1868 or 1869, and was so broke his clothes were threadbare and he slept in the offices of a local newspaper. And, as I have said, it is not the story of Stanley, but is instead the story of an actress named Annie Ward, who he fell in love with.

It’s easier to write about Stanley than it is Ward, as he left behind such a celebrated biography, and she barely appears anywhere but as a supporting character in his story. We know that she was a member of Omaha’s forst stock company (the Corri Stock Company) at the Academy of Music, Omaha’s first permanent theater at 13th and Douglas. We know she was beautiful, we know something happened between her and Stanley, and we know that later she killed herself.

What, precisely, happened is different in every telling. One story has him mooning over her, regularly going to her performances, but her being cruel in response, at one point kicking a bouquet of flowers he had thrown onstage. Apparently there are a few letters from her to Stanley in his papers, and she is affectionate to him, so this seems unlikely. “The Story of Omaha” by Alfred Sorenson tells two versions, one in which a local editor mocks Stanley for his affections and is assaulted by him. In another version, Stanley was not in love with Ward, but the local editor, and that Stanley mocked him. There’s another version in which Stanley borrowed a diamond ring from Ward and the fight was over that, and yet another in which Stanley drew a revolver on Ward.

We don’t know what actually happened, except whatever Stanley and Ward’s relationship, it ended. He went off to fortune and adventure, and she may have gone to Utah, and she eventually ended up married in St. Louis

And here is the moment we know the most about in Annie Ward’s short life, for here is where she died in 1873, and the St. Louis Globe told the story in some detail. She was then named Annie Baker and married to Jacob Baker, an employee at a stationary house. She had been employed at DeBar's Opera House, bit had been out of work for a while. Apparently, there was some disagreement between Annie and her husband, and she wrote him a piteous letter that the paper reproduced:

“Jake – Why did you go away last night? Come home as soon as you receive this, for I have a letter to show you. I was very lonely last night, and I cannot rest till I see you. I will wait until half-past ten, and if you are not here I will go and hunt a situation, and you will be annoyed no more by your wife. – ANNIE

“P.S. – The landlord has just come in and inquired for you. I must leave here, that is certain. What can I do? Come.”

Annie ended up staying with her sister for a few days, still waiting the return of her husband and growing more despondent, threatening to drown herself. Finally, on a day in early October, she went out to try to locate her husband, failed, and poisoned herself with arsenic. She was 27.

And that’s all. Or almost all – there are older newspaper stories about a stage actress named Annie Ward, who performed throughout the Midwest. She’s a young woman, pretty, talented, a soubrette, and it’s probably our Annie. For instance, in May of 1870, an Annie Ward appears at the Opera House in Leavenworth, Kansas, in a farce called “An Object of Interest,” where she “favored the audience with some fine singing,” according to the Leavenworth Bulletin. She appeared a few more times in Leavenworth, playing characters with names like “Little Bill” and “Cricket,” and starring as Pocahontas in June.

She’s mentioned as staying in Kansas City in 1972 and  having previously been part of the Globe Theater in Chicago. She’s in Denver in February, where the Denver Rocky Mountain News describes her voice as “charming.”

And that’s it. I wish there was more, as she was among Omaha’s first actresses, and, for a while, she seems to have made a career of it, and even today that is rare and worth mentioning. But there is nothing else I have found about her, and she wouldn’t be remembered at all were it not for a poorly remembered relationship with a famous man and a suicide that, if it is mentioned, is mentioned as an afterthought.

But she was more than a woman who spurned a great man. She was more than a young suicide. Her story, now lost to history, is the story of a professional actress during the frontier years of the American west, and how great would it be to have that story?

All we have is a poorly remembered tale of unrequited love, a sad ending, and a few critical plaudits. It’s not enough, but it’s what we have, and so, for the telling of this story, it will have to do.

About the author

Max Sparber is a playwright and historian who lives in Omaha, Nebraska.