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.

About the author

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