Copyright © 2005 by William L. Slout. All rights reserved.
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Minstrelsy for the past seventeen years has been steadily improving, until we now see it firmly established among our standard amusements and sought after as much as the opera or drama; in fact, in some respects, far out-rivaling either in point of patronage. Although this species of entertainment is often discussed, and the merits of the different artists connected therewith criticized, yet the origin, or any pretension thereto, has never been clearly explained (except by the present writer some time since), for two very great reasons. First, because no individual ever interest himself so much as to seek or trace out the foundation or starting place; and secondly, if he had, his labors would have proved fruitless, for who can tell when and where the Negro first introduced the banjo (for it is from that instrument we begin to get at the notes of Ethiopian minstrelsy). Such being the case, it would be in vain to attempt to ascertain how long, when, and where the Negro, or African, first manufactured or introduced the gourd banjo, which instrument, no doubt, has been in existence nearly as long as that race of people. Consequently, it is impossible to get at its origin from that source. The point then is this: who first made pretensions to imitate the colored race or introduce their quaint and humorous character to the public? Some, I know, will doubt, and others will claim their knowledge in the matter as indisputable. Suffice it to say, that this subject will be picked all to atoms, and after the storm is over it will return to its present truthful shape again, as facts indelible. The writer does not go so far back for dates, or even assert anything in this brief description of minstrelsy, but what can be vouched for and identified as facts by actual printed documents of each and every assertion herein made, which documents have ever been preserved with great care until the present time; and now feeling desirous of giving a more general publicity to the same, he does so with no selfish motive or partiality, but with a view of enlightening the minds of the curious, and showing those in the profession the path which their predecessors have traveled, and what has been done towards the elevation of minstrelsy, which amusement, in the writer’s estimation, will in a few years far eclipse all its former improvements, and become an indispensable entertainment, claiming for its support in vocal, instrumental, and physical force, the best talent in the theatrical line. For already has the minstrel introduced his merry afterpiece, with all its appropriate costume, scenery, and music; burlesques upon burlesques have since appeared in rapid succession; operas have also been introduced; and, in fact, artists of merit in former days now seek in vain for positions in minstrel companies.
Many suppose that negro minstrelsy originated about twenty-three or twenty-five years ago, or in the days of Barney Burns, Enam Dickinson, Tom Bleakly, George Washington Dixon, T. D. Rice, Leicester, John Smith, Joe Sweeney, &c., who all had their own peculiar style in singing and dancing, individually; some with the banjo, and some without it; others having for their principal attraction only some simple Negro melody, such as “Coal Black Rose,” “Such a Getting Up Stairs,” “Gumbo Chaff,” “Sitting on a Rail,” “Jim Crow,” and one or two others of less popularity. I will now give a short description of a few prominent performers who succeeded the parties just alluded to and became vastly popular, particularly in this city. These were Dick Pelham, James Sandford, Frank Brower, and others, to whom I shall allude in the following order viz.: 1838---Jim Sandford played the Black Door Keeper or Ticket Taker, at the Franklin Theatre, Chatham Street, N.Y. For the next two or three years very many aspirants for colored fame made their debut with faces blacked. Prior to the organization of the first regular minstrel company, January, 1842, the following parties appeared in public---Charles Jenkins and G. W. Pelham, at American Museum, January, 1842; Frank Diamond, Whitlock, and Tom Booth, at Arcade Garden, 255 Bleecker Street, January, 1842; Dick Pelham, Master Chestnut, Dick Van Bremen, and Joe Sweeney at Bowery Amphitheatre, 37 Bowery, January, 1842; Frank Diamond and Whitlock, at Chatham Theatre, April, 1842; John Smith, T. Coleman, Chestnut and Hoffman, at Bowery Amphitheatre for Smith’ benefit, June, 1842; John Diamond and Whitlock, at American Museum, December, 1842; Dan Emmett, Frank Brower, Master Pierce, Jimmy O’Connell, Frank Diamond and Mestayer (all dancers but Mestayer), Franklin Theatre (Dan Emmett and Master Pierce were performing the same time at the Bowery Amphitheatre), December 29, 1842; Dan Emmett and Frank Brower, at the Bowery Amphitheatre, where, and at which time the idea of a minstrel company was put in motion by the following persons, viz.: Dan Emmett., Frank Brower, Billy Whitlock, and Dick Pelham, who all immediately went into a thorough course of rehearsals at the boarding house of Emmett, No. 37 Catharine Street, kept by one Mrs. Brooks. They were all diligent in their labors and it did not take long to acquire the scanty versatility necessary in those days for a cork professor to delight his patrons. The idea was original; but I might deserve censure in applying it to any one of the number, and have therefore distributed the honor among the party. The cause of their organization was simply to make up a combination of Negro stuff for one night only, which was expressly for the benefit of Pelham, who at that time was dancing between the pieces at the Chatham Theatre.
Their rehearsals were sufficiently encouraging to satisfy them that they had indeed found a novelty. They styled themselves the Virginia Minstrels, made their debut at the above mentioned place (this was early in February, 1843), and were received with deafening plaudits! During the same week they played one night for the benefit of Mr. John Tryon, then manager of the Bowery Amphitheatre. Their performances here met with astonishing success, so much so that they were secured by Messrs. Welch and Rockwell, than managers of the Park Theatre, at which place they performed two weeks in conjunction with the great dancer, John Diamond. This was about the middle of February, 1843; and after this they proceeded to Boston, where they played six weeks with wonderful success. They then returned to New York and performed three nights for manager Simpson at the Park Theatre. Having now fairly introduced their novelty and expecting every day to meet with opposition here in Yankee land, they determined on a trip to England, where all idea of rivalry was out of the question, for a time at least.
Accordingly, with Mr. George B. Wooldridge at their head, they immediately embarked for Europe. Hence arose the various minstrel companies that are now in existence. On the arrival of the Virginia Minstrels in Europe, they immediately gave two concerts in Liverpool. From thence they proceeded to the Adelphi Theatre, London, at which place they performed six weeks in connection with Professor Anderson, the Great Wizard of the North. After this engagement, owing to some misunderstanding, Mr. Richard Pelham left the company. The balance organized in connection with Joe Sweeney, who had then just arrived in the country; and in this way they traveled through Ireland and Scotland for six months with success. The company then disbanded and Whitlock returned to America. The others soon followed him, with the exception of Pelham, who has remained in England up to the present time.
Another company arrived in Europe from Boston, known as the Ring and Parker Minstrels. They performed in Liverpool and Bolton, while the Virginia Minstrels were playing in London. One of the members of the company personated the character of “Lucy Long,” which, evidently, must have been original with them. This rival party afterwards performed at the Garrick Street Theatre, London. They arrived in Liverpool in three or four weeks after the Virginia Minstrels, having organized in Boston at the time the Virginia Minstrels were playing there.
On the return of the Virginia Minstrels to America, they found, as they had anticipated, minstrel companies in abundance all over the country. Band after band was organized, almost every day, with various titles, and many of them passed away almost as suddenly as an April shower. A vast improvement, however, had been made in minstrel business, notwithstanding its short existence.
We now arrive at a period in our little history which is still free in the memory of all who were connected with this profession seventeen or eighteen years ago. I will now name the prominent companies only, that have been regularly organized and met with success since the commencement of Ethiopian minstrelsy up to the present time. It is necessary to mention, however, that in the year 1842 at Vauxhall Garden, New York, under the proprietorship of Mr. P. T. Barnum, the renowned John Diamond first created a great sensation; shortly after, however, owing to some difficulty, Mr. Barnum dispensed with the original John Diamond and secured another person in the same business by the name of Frank Lynch, who was placarded and styled the “Great Diamond.” He was an extraordinary dancer, and afterwards became a very prominent member of his profession.
The originators and inventors of minstrelsy consisted of Dan Emmett, Frank Brower, Billy Whitlock and Richard Pelham, calling themselves the Virginia Minstrels. The next company presenting themselves to the notice of the public was known as the Kentucky Minstrels, composed of Frank Lynch, T. G. Booth, H. Mestayer and Richardson. Some time after their organization, they disbanded; but reorganized under the same title and performed at Vauxhall Garden, etc., with the following persons: William Whitlock, T, G. Booth, Barney Williams, and C. White. The next company were the Ring and Parker Minstrels; and, next on the list, the Congo Minstrels, now known as Buckley’s New Orleans Serenaders.” They performed at the Chatham Theatre. The Original Christy Minstrels were the next company, consisting of E. P. Christy, George N. Christy, L. Durand, and T. Vaughn. This company organized in Buffalo and traveled principally through the Southern and Western country. They first called themselves the Virginia Minstrels. Soon after their organization, Enam Dickinson and Zeke Bachus were added to the company; and they then assumed the title of Christy’s Minstrels. They first appeared in this city at Palmo’s Opera House (late Burton’s Theatre), 1846. On their second appearance in New York, they performed at the Alhambra, Broadway near Prince Street; and from thence to the Society Library (now Appleton’s Building), and afterwards at Mechanics Hall, 472 Broadway, at which place they permanently remained from March 1847 to July 1854.
During the short time that minstrelsy had been in operation, great improvement had been made in a company known as the Ethiopian Serenaders. They organized in Boston, came to New York, and performed with immense success at the Chatham Theatre. They consisted of Frank Germon, M. Stanwood, Tony Winnemore, Quinn, and others. Soon after they remodeled their band and sailed for Europe with Mr. J. Dumbolton as their agent. They then consisted of F. Germon, G. Harrington, M. Stanwood, G. Pelham, and W. White. This was the company that proved so successful at Palmo’s Opera House. While in London, they performed at the St. James Theatre and so great was the demand to see them that they gave morning performances and were frequently solicited to give their entertainments at the private mansions of the highest nobility.
During the success of the Ethiopian Serenaders in Europe, they were called to Arundel Castle by special command of Her Majesty Queen Victoria. For this they each received a splendid crest ring as a token of her appreciation. Some time after their return to America, Mr. Dumbolton, the manager, made an addition to his band and crossed the Atlantic again, taking with him Mr. J. A. Wells and Jerry Bryant.
The next company of note organized in Philadelphia and styled themselves the Virginia Serenaders, consisting of James Sandford, Cool White, Richard Myers, Robert Edwards, &c., &c. They also performed at the Chatham Theatre in this city; also at Boston and all the principal towns and cities East. They were successful and created a great sensation wherever they appeared. Mr. G. B. Wooldridge at that time was their agent.
Next we have another very clever company known as the Harmoneans, consisting of L. V. Crosby, Frank Lynch, Pike, Powers, &c., &c. They organized in Boston and traveled principally through the Eastern states with very great success for a long time.
We now arrive at the true position of White’s Serenaders. They organized in 1846 and consisted of C. White, R. White, F. Stanton, W. Smith, H. Neil, and Master Juba. They performed at White’s Melodeon, White’s Varieties, and White’s Opera House, all in the Bowery. They remained here, continually playing, for a space of eleven years—a longer active permanency than ever attained by any similar exhibition; during which time, and at which places, many of the present prominent performers graduated under the favorable auspices of Mr. White’s establishments.
I shall now record the names of the Sable Harmonists, whom I certainly class as among the best. I am unable to name the exact time of their organization but am almost positive it was in the early part of 1846. They traveled principally through the Southern and Western country. The band consisted of Messrs. Plumer, Archer, J. Farrell, W. Roark, Nelson Kneas, J. Murphy, &c., &c. They performed for a short time at the Minerva Rooms, Broadway, in this city, November, 1847. Now we come to the starting place of the Original Campbell Minstrels, who were brought together in June, 1847, by a gentleman named Mr. John Campbell, who at that time was the proprietor of a restaurant corner of Bayard Street and the Bowery, in this city. The company, all complete, consisted of W. B. Donaldson, Jerry Bryant, John Rea, James Carter, Harry Mestayer, and David Raymond. Shortly after its organization, Mr. Rea withdrew from the company and joined the Original Christy’s Minstrels. Soon after, Mr. Donaldson resigned and the now deceased and much lamented Luke West took his place. They were playing at the American Museum at the time.
Next we come to a company known as the Sable Brothers, consisting of Messrs. Evans, Turpin, Cleveland, &c., &c. They performed at Convention Hall in Wooster Street and afterwards appeared at Barnum’s American Museum. The time of their organization is not known but I am under the impression that they succeeded the Campbells.
From this point, my qualified friends will coincide with me in placing the remaining companies in rotation as follows: the “Nightingale Serenaders,” formerly known as Kunkel’s Minstrels; Sandford’s Opera Troupe, still in operation; Sliter’s Empire Minstrels, Washington Uterpians, Ordway’s Aeolians, Pierce’s Minstrels, at the Olympic; Fellows’ Minstrels, Horn & White’s Opera Troupe, Kimberly’s Campbell Minstrels, Norris’ Campbell Minstrels, New York Serenaders, California, 1850; Raynor’s Serenaders, California, 1850, afterwards appeared in Australia, 1852; Murphy, West & Peel’s Campbell Minstrels, 1852; Backus’ Minstrels, California, 1853; George Christy’s & Wood’s Minstrels, at 444 Broadway, 1854; Perham’s Burlesque Opera Troupe, 1854; Pierce and Raynor’s Christy’s Minstrels, now in Europe, 1856; Bryant’s Minstrels, at Mechanics Hall, 472 Broadway, February 22, 1857; Rumsey & Newcomb’s Campbell Minstrels, April 28, 1857; Morris Brothers, Pell & Huntley’s Minstrels, 1857; Fox & War- den’s Campbell Minstrels,” now in Europe, 1859; Mrs. Matt. Peel’s Campbell’s Minstrels, 1859; Hooley & Campbell’s (late George Christy’s) Minstrels, January 30, 1860; Converse’s Campbell Minstrels, March 12, 1860.
Before concluding these remarks, I will again repeat that it is impossible at this late day to tell who first set the “ball rolling” in negro minstrel business. No one has any idea of its existence beyond the time above mentioned. I would, however, say that individual Negro business was done in character sixty-one years ago at the Federal Street Theatre, Boston. I have in my possession the actual newspaper which gives this information; and for the gratification of the profession particularly, will give a duplicate of the advertisement relative to the fact as it appeared in Russell’s Boston Gazette dated December 30, 1799, which journal, at that time, was the largest in America. The following performance took place on the night in question: “Orinoko, or the Royal Slave” was the first piece and at the end of Act II, “Song of the Negro Boy in Character” by Mr. Grawpner; after which, a pantomime called “Gil Blas, or the Cave of the Robbers”; the whole to conclude with a Representation of A Spanish Fair. It is also underlined at the bottom of same bill that “the Theatre will be hung with mourning.” This was the month and year that Washington died—hence the cause of mourning.The newspaper from which I gather these important facts is also in deep mourning for the same lamentable cause. Thus ends the explanation of negro minstrelsy up to the present time, 1860. I could make the subject somewhat more lengthy by introducing many outside particulars, but as my intention was merely to give a brief sketch of my profession, I trust those who peruse it will look at it as such only.
This is not a history of minstrelsy. In a short review of this kind it would not be possible to enumerate all the troupes or individuals comprising them to the present time. This is the musing of an old-timer, recalling the golden days of minstrelsy from 1843 to 1864. Between those years the Negro slave of the Southern States, toiling in the fields of cotton, cane or corn, created an interest and a sympathy. His songs and peculiar dances appealed to all classes and the white man began to imitate him in his mannerisms. His queer antics and style of vocalism sprang into popularity. His melodies were purely American, easily understood, and better suited to the American taste than the high flown Italian opera patronized, but really not understood, by the richer classes.
The songs were simple, reached the heart, and were of our own soil and its institutions. The instruments used by the slaves were very primitive. The banjo, bones, tambourine and violin. The banjo was borrowed from the guitar and the tambourine from Spanish sources---also the bones to imitate the castanets of the Spaniards and Mexicans. With these, the plantation hands regaled visitors to the planter’s home or amused themselves in their cabins or in the open air in the moonlight.
The Negro composed his own words and melodies and the subjects were taken from everyday incidents or his humble surroundings. Later on, the white minstrels added to the stock of songs and good composers entered the field of minstrelsy and furnished songs that will never die, notably the compositions of Stephen C. Foster. The white performers were quick to note the melodies of the Negroes on the plantations, river fronts or levees, where darkies were employed as roustabouts and deck hands. One of the most popular Negro melodies came from the river darkies. It was called “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bodder me.” But this was after the war; and the firemen of New Orleans gave it its first popularity and then it found its way North.
Before 1843 each circus had one or two “Negro singers,” as they then designated them. They performed on the banjo or violin, with bones or tambourine, and imitated the Negro in all his peculiarity of dance or shouting songs. Notably among these circus singers were Frank Brower, Dick Pelham, Billy Whitlock, old Dan Emmett, Wash Donaldson, George Washington Dixon, Ben Mallory and Joe Sweeney.
So, in fact, minstrelsy as we know it was born in the circus ring and first presented by circus “Negro singers.” It remained for Frank Brower, Billy Whitlock and old Dan Emmett to join together in a benefit performance to be given to Dick Pelham in the Chatham Theatre, January 31, 1843. The four circus Negro singers appeared together for that event and created a sensation....
From 1843 to 1850 the minstrel bands multiplied rapidly under the following titles: Virginia Minstrels, Virginia Serenaders, Ethiopian Serenaders, Ethiopian Minstrels, Kitchen Minstrels, and Kentucky Minstrels. Many of them advertised they were the oldest bands. For instance, the Virginia Serenaders in Philadelphia claimed to have organized in 1840. They had with them: Jim Sanford, Eph Horn, Old Bull Myers, Ed. Deaves, Tony Winnemore and P. Solomons (accordion). There are no bills extant to prove the claim that they were before the public in 1840.
The Christy’s claimed they were organized in 1842 but their earliest program is in August, 1843, and then they were called The Virginia Minstrels. The Buckleys, as the Congo Melodists, claimed to have organized in 1841 but their earliest bills are about 1843.
This latter troupe was composed of the Buckley Family (right name Burke), James, the father; Swaine Buckley, R. Bishop Buckley and little Fred Buckley, called Master Ole Bull Buckley. Ole Bull, the Norwegian violinist, was in America at the time and almost anyone who could perform upon a violin added the name of “Ole” to his name. The Buckleys were a grand troupe of skilled musicians and singers. One of their comedians was billed as S. Samuels, who afterwards adopted the name of Sanford, and then his name on the bills appears as S. Samuel Sanford. He gave many good songs and innovations to this company.
They were popular in the South and, after locating in New Orleans, they called themselves The New Orleans Serenaders. They located in various halls in New York and Boston. Sometimes in the Chinese Assembly Rooms, 539 Broadway, then in 444, and finally built a new opera house opposite Niblo’s, at 585 Broadway but did not long remain there. They visited Europe several times, went to California in the “Days of ‘49,” and performed in all the mining camps and along the Pacific Coast. Their last location was in Boston, during the Civil War; and in this location E. N. Catlin was their leader, Fred Buckley having died.
When the Virginia Minstrels, in 1843, sailed from Boston for England, they did not remain abroad very long; for early in 1844 they were back in America again, leaving Pelham in England, where he opened a public house (saloon).
In 1845, Barney Williams, Dan Rice, J. P. Carter, Howard and Jones appeared in Tryon’s Bowery Circus, under the title of The Negro Band. In 1843 E P. Christy still called his troupe the Virginia Minstrels.
In 1844 Whitlock and Donaldson appeared in Barnum’s Museum as the Kentucky Minstrels. The Great Western was one of the troupe. He was the father of Helen and Lucille Western. And, by the way, the first female minstrels were presented by the Western Sisters in their play of “The Three Fast Men,” in which they presented a first part, March 9, 1857, at the Boston National Theatre.
Almost the same names appear on the bills of the Virginia Serenaders or Ethiopian Troupes or Virginia Minstrels up to 1849, such as Eph Horn, Jim Sanford, Ed Deaves, Ole Bull Myers, Tony Winnemore, J. Kavanagh, James Lynch, Charles Jenkins, Bill La Conta, J. Rudolph, Cool White, Bob Edwards, George Kunkel, Kelly, H. S. Rumsey, Billy Birch, Jim Farrell, Frank Brower, E. M. Dickenson, F. Whittaker, William Horn, Nelson Kneass, F. Solomon. The first lady to “black up” and play with the minstrels is Mrs. Harriet Phillips with the Virginia Serenaders in May, 1848, in the burlesque of “The Bohemian Girl,” in the Chestnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia.
As far back as 1840 Jim Sanford was singing “Jim Along Josey,” and dancing “the Grapevine twist,” with Ole Bull Myers playing the violin for him. Such songs as: “Old Dan Tucker,” “Walk Along, John,” “Old Tar Ribber,” “Lucy Long,” “Dance de Boatman Dance,” “Virginny Rosebud,” “Cudjo’s Wild Coon Hunt,” “Jenny, Get Your Hoe Cake Done,” “Clar de Kitchen,” “Sich a Getting Up Stairs,” “Jump, Jim Crow,” “Pickayune Butler,” “Long Tailed Blue,” “Dandy Jim ob Caroline” and “Old Zip Coon” were the popular darkie songs of that time. Old Daddy Rice (T. D. Rice) sang many of them, also. Daddy Rice’s last appearance upon the stage was in the Art Union Concert Hall, 497 Broadway, in 1860. While performing in “The Mummy,” he was taken ill and died September 19, 1860.
On October 7, 1844, an Ethiopian band appeared in the Bowery Circus---Dan Emmett, Frank Brower, Evans and W. Donaldson. They claimed to be the only original and legitimate band of minstrels. After all, it is a question of the word “minstrels,” for on June 15, 1842, at the Walnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia, five performers took part between the acts and called it on the bill “Negro Oddities, by Five of the Best Niggers in the World.” This is given for the benefit of Master Diamond. The players are Jim Sanford, Master Diamond, Ole Bull Myers, Pickaninny Coleman and Master Chestnut, in a grand trial dance—”Lucy Long,” by Jim Sanford, “Piney Woods Jig,” by Master Diamond.
On June 18, 1842, the same party produced “Oh Hush,” and added Fulton Myers to the troupe as Dinah Rose. They do not call themselves minstrels, but antedate Brower, Emmett, Whitlock and Pelham at the Chatham Theatre, January 31, 1843.
The Serenaders and Minstrels performed in the following places in Philadelphia: Temperance Hall, Third Street, near Green; Walnut Street Theatre; Arch Street Theatre; Old Chestnut Street Theatre; Peale’s Chinese Museum; Barnum’s Museum, corner Seventh and Chestnut Streets; Welch’s National Circus; Melodeon Concert Hall; Franklin Institute; Southwark Hall; Jayne’s Hall; Continental Theatre; Masonic Hall; Washington Hall; Long’s Varieties; Olympic, near Sixth; and a hall next to the Arch Street Theatre.
In New York City the minstrels appeared in Society Library Rooms; Minerva Rooms; Pinteaux’s Saloon, 307 Broadway; Barnum’s Museum; Chatham Theatre; Bowery Theatre; Tryon’s Circus; Hope Chapel; Perham’s, 663 Broadway; Niblo’s Saloon; Olympic, 442 Broadway; 444 and 472 Broadway; St. Nicholas Exhibition Rooms (under the St. Nicholas Hotel); Chinese Assembly Rooms; Stuyvesant Institute, opposite Bond Street; Novelty Hall, Centre and Pearl Streets; Convention Hall; Rutger’s Institute; Franklin Theatre; Old Park Theatre; Bleecker Building; Wood’s, Broadway near Prince; 514 Broadway; Stadt Theatre and Onderdonk’s Hall.
In 1846 the celebrated Ethiopian Serenaders, comprising: Harry Pell, Moody Stanwood, G. C. Germon, Harrington and White attracted a great deal of attention. They went to England and appeared before the queen and were very popular throughout the country. T. D. Rice (Daddy Rice) had paved the way for darkie songs and his singing of “Jump, Jim Crow” made a terrific hit in England. Rice’s memory is still kept green by calling some cars down South “Jim Crow Cars.” At one time Daddy Rice’s wooden figure stood before many cigar stores. T. D. Rice was a wood carver and carved the first statue of himself---and hence the “Jim Crows,” Indians and Highlanders displaced him to some extent.
About 1844 E. P. Christy formed a small band in Buffalo. They performed in a hall near the canal, kept by the widow Harrington. She had a son named George who, under E. P. Christy’s tutelage, became one of the most talented and popular minstrels in this country. They first called themselves the Virginia Minstrels but early in 1847 assumed the title of Christy’s Minstrels. Their first leader was R. M. Hooley, a noted violinist. His place was taken late in 1847 by Charles Abbott....
These were the golden days sure enough. The troupes were small, comprising about seven or eight, including the agent, who traveled ahead, hired the halls and posted the bills, and the manager, who took the tickets at the door. Very often the end man formed one of the quartet. The salaries were moderate, traveling by stage coach or railways was cheap, and hardly any baggage to haul. The baggage often consisted of a few battered trunks, champagne baskets and carpet bags. The minstrels made their own wigs—principally of curled hair from mattresses or sofas. A few corks, burned at gas jets or incinerated in an old tin pail, furnished the make-up. Sometimes they “blacked up” with burnt paper.
The halls were bare of scenery, so each troupe carried curtains which they arranged at each side of the stage and dressed behind them. The footlights were of gas, camphene or kerosene lamps. Their wants were very few, and they performed to “packed houses,” and the profits were enormous for those days. Minstrelsy was a craze, as there was no other entertainment to compete with it. All the jokes and songs were brought to town by them and for days afterwards were the topic of conversation. The halls of Albany, Troy, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Oswego, and, in fact, everywhere, had no scenery. You simply hired the bare hall.
Crowds of boys brought in the baggage and carried pails of water for the troupe, for which they receive free admission. While on the subject of baggage, it may be said that Charles H. Duprez introduced a few reforms. He furnished trunks of similar appearance and covered with zinc. This created quite a lot of comment as this baggage was hauled to and from the hall. Jealous rivals poked fun at this but they fell in line. This was just before the Civil War. Duprez also uniformed his troupe with high hats and coats with chinchilla material around the collars and cuffs. He was the first manager to introduce the brass band in conjunction with his troupe and consequently the parade from depot to hall. Later on he had a spotted coach dog that joined in the parade, receiving its share of attention. The brass band performed in front of the hall or upon its balcony. Nearly all the troupes had fine bands, though small in numbers. Everybody performed on some instrument, and the comedians had charge of the snare drum, cymbals or bass drum.
John Campbell, who kept a small hotel on the Bowery, corner of Bayard Street, organized the first Campbell’s Minstrels late in 1846. Matt Peel, Luke West, Joseph D. Murphy, Jack Herman and several others were the members. From this troupe sprang all the “Original Campbell Minstrels,” first under one manager, then another, with some of the members of the original party to give it a “Campbell” flavor.
In the late forties the programs were very simple, consisting of songs, solos on the banjo or violin, “Essence of Old Virginny,” champion jigs, double polka, solo on a comb, jewsharp, snare drum, or kitchen bellows. The bill was divided into two parts. Part first, as “Dandy Negroes of the North,” attired in black swallow-tail coats, with brass buttons; white vest, tight black pants with straps that passed under the shoes. This was supposed to be the refined part of the bill. Part second was called “Plantation Darkies of the South.” They were attired as field hands, checked shirts, with large collars, striped pants and big shoes. This consisted of plantation songs, grotesque dancing, banjo songs, “Lucy Long,” “Old Bob Ridley,” “The Cachuca” dance, “Banjo Lesson,” and wound up with a festival dance for the whole troupe, called a “walk around.”
In 1849 Earl Pierce left Christy and with J. B. Fellows organized Pierce and Fellows’ Minstrels, and opened in the Society Library Rooms. They removed to Mitchell’s Olympic Theatre, 442 Broadway. Fellows had a building next door (444) re-constructed and, Pierce retiring, he opened 444 and called it Fellows’ Opera House and Fellows Minstrels. In 1850, Eph Horn, Tom Briggs, Sam Wells, Luke West, J. B. Donniker, Jack Herman, Hi Rumsey, Billy Birch, and later the entire Buckley Family, appeared on their bills. Henry Wood succeeded J. B. Fellows in 1852. George Christy, who had a misunderstanding with E. P. Christy, joined forces with Henry Wood late in October, 1853, and the troupe was then called George Christy and Wood’s Minstrels. In 1857, Henry Wood removed to a new opera house he had built on Broadway near Prince Street. Wood retired from business in this year. E. P. Christy retired from the field in 1854. The secession of George Christy had created havoc with his business. Although he had tried the best of performers to take George’s place, the public simply adored him and bestowed their patronage upon him wherever he appeared.
Everything was a close imitation of the Negro, his dialect being one of the essential points necessary for a comedian to possess. Grimaces, contortions, shuffling walks, very comic and ragged garments, large shoes, small hats or battered high hats and old umbrellas, with queer looking carpet bags were absolutely part and parcel of the comedian’s outfit. In the middle fifties he added grotesque female garments for a lecture on “Woman’s Rights” or old military clothes to show the return from the Mexican War, which began in 1846. He also became an orator on the questions of the day as a stump speaker. This enabled the comedian to get off lots of local allusions. One of the funny sketches was “The Rai1road Smash-up.”
In the early days of minstrelsy the “orchestra,” or what few instruments were deemed an orchestra, performed upon the stage for the various acts and did not occupy the pit or orchestra space down front. The “Bryants” kept up this formula almost to the end of their stay at 472 Broadway. “Living Statuary,” on a revolving platform, was presented in March, 1859, by Morris Brothers, Pell and Trowbridge in the Boston Museum. About this time P. S. Gilmore, who was celebrated as the conductor of Gilmore’s Band, was with the Morris Brothers, Pell and Trowbridge, and on one bill he is performing a “Tambourine Solo.” He was the author of many popular songs, also. Late in the fifties there was a steamboat called the Banjo with a troupe of minstrels to play the Mississippi River towns. Ben Cotton, Jim Woodruff, Frank Cordella and Joe Mairs were the principal members.
Charley White was a very prominent figure in the early days of minstrelsy and was the manager of White’s Serenaders. He was located in two different places in the Bowery, 49 and 53. He introduced both Dan and Jerry Bryant to the public and the great dancing Negro boy, Juba, also the two Diamonds, as there were two Master John Diamonds. Master Marks (Dick Carroll) began his career there also. Old Dan Emmett and Dick Sweeny were members of his company.
The Sable Brothers and Sisters appeared in Convention Hall, Wooster Street, opposite the school, in 1847. The Virginia Serenaders were an institution in Philadelphia. In this company Eph Horn first appeared with Jim Sanford as his vis-a-vis on the end as bones. By the way, in the old days the bone player was the dandy coon of the troupe. He assumed the female character and appeared in the then famous “Lucy Long” specialty, or the “Cachuca” dance. Jerry Bryant was great in this delineation and so was George N. Christy. Both were fine as the dusky belle “Lucy Long,” at the soiree.
Some troupes introduced a wench in the first part circle, and called this person “Miss Fanny.” The best known and most popular one was undoubtedly “Master Floyd,” Tom Moxley of Baltimore. He was the whole show down South when he traveled with Kunkel’s Nightingale Minstrels. Everybody would ask for Master Floyd, and his “Lucy Long” was a great feature of the bill. With this troupe was: Harry Lehr, a fine comedian and William Penn Lehr.
Later on, Nelse Seymour was one of the Nightingales. John T. Ford, who managed the Holliday Street Theatre in Baltimore, Md., was the agent of this troupe. Late in the fifties Kunkel and Floyd left minstrelsy and managed the Richmond, Va., Theatre until the Civil War began. Ford, until his decease, managed the theatres in Baltimore. Kunkel’s Nightingales were exceedingly popular down South and, in fact, was regarded as the great Southern troupe.
George Kunkel was the basso of the Virginia Serenaders, who were located in the old Chestnut Street Theatre, Chestnut Street, above Sixth, Philadelphia. In this troupe, Eph Horn, Jim Sanford, Cool White, Tony Winnemore and others were exceedingly popular. It must be recollected that about this time the slavery agitation placed the Southern slave prominently before the Northern public and his sighs for freedom and his lost love sold into slavery to other cotton states created a sympathy or romance and made minstrelsy a little more attractive as the “under dog” in the then gathering controversies fanned by agitators, North and South.
The Campbells had a large poster announcing the “Campbells are coming.” A few camels were on this poster, also several large bells; and the legend above them the “Camp Bells” are coming. Luke West, Matt Peel and Joseph D. Murphy managed the best known Campbell Troupe. Luke West dying, left Matt Peel finally in possession of the trade mark. At one time W. W. Newcomb, Jack Herman, Max Zorer, Tom Briggs, Master T. J. Peel, Max Irwin, Mert Sexton, John Adams and Jack Huntley were of the Campbells. Matt Peel died in 1859 and Mrs. Matt Peel continued the business with J. H. Huntley as manager. For years they conducted a hotel at Catskill Landing and later at Mamaroneck, N.Y. Mrs. Matt Peel is still alive and a fine looking woman, active and lively as ever.
About 1845 J. P. Ordway organized Ordway’s Aeolians in Boston. Ordway kept a music store and was quite a composer. His “Twinkling Stars Are Laughing Love” and “Home Again” are popular to this day. About 1850, Ordway leased the Old Province House, opposite the Old South Church on Washington Street, and, remodeling the interior, called it Ordway Hall. He sat behind the black faced circle and performed upon the piano. Johnny Pell, Warren White, Jack Huntley, the Morris Brothers, Al Jones, Edwin Kelly, Ambrose Thayer and others held forth until the Morris Brothers, Pell and Huntley began operations in 1857. Later, Huntley retired and J. T. Trowbridge became a partner.
This company also called themselves the Cow-bell-o-gians, burlesquing the Swiss bell ringers, who had created a furor throughout the country and especially in Boston. The minstrels performed tunes on the cowbells. After Pell’s death the troupe became known as the Morris Brothers’ Minstrels. It was with this troupe that Fred Wilson introduced the clog dance for the first time with a minstrel troupe. Dick Sands, Tim Hayes, Dick Carroll and Ben Goldsmith introduced the clog dance with the minstrel troupes, also.
For a long time, with the early troupes, the jig dancer was monarch of all he surveyed. He posed about attired in a velvet coat, flashy, flowing necktie, glazed cap, tight pants, patent leather shoes with old copper pennies fastened to the heels. He was the star of the troupe. If he signified his intention of quitting the show the entire troupe would almost upon their bended knees beg him to remain and not leave them to their fate. Without the champion jig dancer the minstrel show was a ship without a rudder.
Dick Sliter, John Diamond, Juba ( colored boy), Jim Sanford, Billy Birch, Pete Lane, Dick Carroll, Mickey Warren, Hank the Mason, Tommy Peel, Joe Brown, Williams and a few others were the great jig dancers of the early troupes. The clog dancer finally displaced him and pulled him “off his pedestal.”
Sam Sanford’s Minstrels were located in Philadelphia in 1853, corner of Twelfth and Chestnut Streets. Here he was burned out and he took the Eleventh Street Opera house, which then (1855) was called Cartee’s Lyceum. He continued there until 1862, when Carncross and Dixey’s Minstrels began their career. With a few changes of ownership the house finally passed under the control of Frank Dumont, who remained there until 1911; and then removed to the Museum, corner Ninth and Arch. This building was first intended to be a minstrel home for Carncross, Dixey and Simpson. After years of vicissitude it finally became the minstrel house it was first intended to be.
All the famous stars of minstrelsy appeared upon the stage of the old Eleventh Street Opera House during its great career. There was: George Christy, Cool White, Kelly and Leon, Billy Birch, Charley Backus, Dave Wambold, Archie Hughes, Sam Sanford, J. L. Carncross, E. F. Dixey, Ira Paine, Charles Campbell (Templeton), James W. Glenn, (alto singer), Jim and Bill Budworth, Unsworth and Eugene, Billy Manning, Frank Moran, Lew Simmons, E. N. Slocum, Byron Christy, Sam Wells, Eph Horn, John Mulligan, W. W. Newcomb, Bobby Newcomb, Gustave Bideaux, the Buffalo Boys, George Charles, John Dudley, Sam Sharpley, Ben Cotton, Dick Sliter, Signor Rafael Abecco, Francis Wilson, Carroll Johnson, George Powers, Carl Schwicardi (a noted basso), Charles Henry (a tenor), and in fact everybody and anybody noted in minstrelsy trod those historic boards. In later years from its stage graduated Weber and Fields, Eddie Foy, Chauncey Olcott, Lew Dockstader, Press Eldridge, Tom Lewis, John C. Rice and many others now famous and prosperous.
When the Civil War began in 1861 there were numerous troupes traveling, more or less successful. Rumsey and Newcomb’s Minstrels, Duprez, Carle, Shorey and Green’s Minstrels, who changed to Duprez and Green and later Duprez and Benedict. There was Sam Sharpley’s Ironclads and Cal Wagner’s Pontoons. There was Skiff and Gaylord’s Minstrels, organized by Johnny Steele (Coal Oil Johnny), who spent thousands buying hotels, diamonds, race horses, etc., etc., but the troupe long survived the spendthrift that organized it. There was George Christy’s Minstrels, Arlington, Donniker, Kelly and Leon’s Minstrels.
Lloyd’s Minstrels was organized by Lloyd, the map man. He took all the famous stars of minstrelsy and promised them huge salaries. Among those he engaged were: Billy Birch, Charley Fox, Dave Wambold, Gustave Bideaux, Cool White and a number of others. Philo A. Clark was the agent. When the members of the troupe called for their salaries, Lloyd sat at a table with a revolver and perhaps dared them to touch the money. He afterwards organized Lloyd & Bideaux’s Minstrels but their career was short. Dan Bryant publicly horsewhipped Lloyd on Broadway. Another short lived troupe was Anderson’s Minstrels of Boston, which started in as opposition to the Morris Brothers. The Clipper at the time predicted an early dissolution and the collapse came as predicted. The fancy salaries and the gathering of so many minstrel stars settled the venture.
In the middle fifties Perham’s company were located at 663 Broadway. Perham tried the gift business to attract crowds. Those who did not draw prizes (and they were in the majority) denounced the swindle and Brother Perham’s gift minstrels fell by the wayside. W. W. Newcomb tried the gift “enterprise” to revive his business while located in Wood’s Theatre, Cincinnati, and he, too, met with disaster. Up to 1864 were the golden days of minstrelsy as a picture of Negro life in the South. With the end of the war or emancipation of the slaves, the Negro lost his pathetic or attractive position as an object of interest. The draft riots in New York were leveled at the Negro.
The slave songs and other bits of Negro life underwent a great change and minstrelsy had to be practically renovated on different lines; but it was still as amusing and the war songs and home ballads superseded the slave songs. We saw the Negro in a new light and important innovations were made in the way of special acts or more attention paid to the singing and instrumentations.
Duprez’s company first introduced the four end-men, namely: Lew Benedict, Hughey Dougherty, Charley Reynolds and Charley Gleason. From the early troupes comprising four or five performers, the minstrel troupes gradually grew larger until some of them would announce in bold type on posters and bills “Ten star performers.” And when a troupe announced “fourteen star performers” other managers would shake their heads and predict an early “burst up” or give them about two weeks to live. Once the slave or Negro of the South lost his “drawing powers” or attractive position, something had to be done to keep minstrelsy before the public just as entertaining as ever.
In 1859, the “variety” entertainment became quite popular in New York and halls formerly used by minstrel companies were leased for variety shows, notably 663 Broadway (Mozart Hall), where Perham’s troupe had been located. This was called The Canterbury Music Hall. The Chinese Assembly Rooms, 539 Broadway, was also given over to variety entertainments. When 663 burned out, Fox and Curran took 585 Broadway (built by the Buckleys) and called it the New Canterbury. Most of the minstrel performers were drawn into this new form of entertainment. Then 444 became the American Music Hall. Here Charley White, Lew Simmons, Bob Hart, Harry Leslie, Tony Pastor, Billy Arlington and all the noted minstrels appeared. At the other houses were Tony Hernandez, Moffit and Bartholomeu, Andy Leavitt, Dan Gardner, Dick Sands, Mike McKenna. During the war the pretty waiter girls flourished in most of the variety places. Old timers will probably remember the Dew Drop In and the Art Union. It was while performing in the Art Union (1861) that Daddy Rice was taken ill and in a few days died, lamented by the whole minstrel profession.
Some grand troupes flourished after the war, on different lines, of course. The crude songs of the slaves had been laid aside for ballads of home and mother. New posters and ideas came forth. Troupes were augmented. Fortunes were made even after the Negro was no longer a trump card as in former years. Many troupes would meet on the New York Central Railroad, some coming in as others were going out of a town. Everybody had money and all were prospering. Several troupes were located at the same time in New York City: Wood’s, Bryant’s, San Francisco Minstrels, Sharpley & Cotton and, late in 1866, Kelly & Leon joined the throng.
From time to time dwarfs have appeared with the troupes and excited attention, notably Japanese Tommy, a colored dwarf, who was quite funny as a “prima donna,” and in the “Essence of Old Virginny.” Bryant’s Minstrels had another dwarf, called “Little Mac.”
After the war Jack Haverly began to loom up as a minstrel manager. He managed Cal Wagner’s Minstrels for a while, then the first Haverly Minstrels. In later years he organized the “Forty, Count Them, Forty,” went to England with them, and then began the gradual disintegration. Imitators had organized large troupes and the novelty was done as a big money maker. The old time troupes and most of the old timers have passed away and with them the real Negro burlesque and mannerisms with the broad dialect. Their mantle has not fallen on the shoulders of many of the present generation.
Fortunes are still gathered in by such clever men as Al. G. Field, Neil O’Brien, George Evans, Lew Dockstader, George Primrose, John W. Vogel, J. A. Coburn and Guy Brothers. These still uphold the banner of minstrelsy and do a land office business, especially in the South.
With closed eyes, musingly, I see the great procession of the early minstrels passing by, the great and famous men of those days, each and every one a grand artist in his line.
Negro minstrels were, I think, more highly esteemed at the time of which I am about to write than they are now; at least, I thought more of them then, both as individuals and as ministers to public amusement, than I ever have since. The first troupe of the kind I saw was the old Kunkels, and I can convey no idea of the pleasurable thrill I felt at the banjo-solo and the plantation jig. I resolved on the spot to be a negro minstrel. Mr. Ford, in whose theatre President Lincoln was assassinated, was, I believe, the agent of this company. I made known my ambition to that gentleman and to Mr. Kunkel himself and they promised, no doubt as the best means of getting rid of me, to take me with them the next year. Meantime I bought a banjo and had pennies screwed on the heels of my boots and practiced “Jordan” on the former, and the “Juba” dance with the latter, till my boardinghouse keeper gave me warning. I think there is scarcely a serious friend of mine acquainted with me at that period who does not remember me with sorrow and vexation. The racket that I made at all hours and in all places can be accounted for only by the youthful zeal with which I practiced and which I despair of describing in anything so cold as words.
I was then in my twelfth year and my own master. At the mature age of eleven I had run away from Buffalo, N. Y., where I had been placed at school, and traveled during six months all over the Western lakes, with one suit of clothes, a single shirt, and a cash capital of five copper cents. I was impelled by the same romantic instincts, I suppose, which at twenty prompted me to undertake the “barefooted” tour of Europe on the sum of one hundred and eighty dollars in United States currency. In which of these two adventurous enterprises I came nearer starving to death, it would be difficult now to say. I had no parents to grieve after me and knew little and cared less about the broad prairie in Ohio which was my patrimony and place of nativity. It was my relatives from whom I fled and to whom I never returned.
Towards the close of my eleventh year, I found myself possessor of a considerable sum of money in bank, which I had made out of my five coppers, after carrying them through all the hunger and squalor of my six months’ wandering. I had these coppers, I remember, in one pocket---it was also the only pocket—of my ragged pantaloons, in the dusk of that summer evening when I escaped from the benevolent gentleman at Detroit, who purposed taking me to the House of Vagrancy. I had made my money by selling papers and books on the lake steamer Northern Indiana, commanded by the late Captain Pheatt. I mention this kindly old gentleman because he suffered a great deal from my early penchant to perform the clog-dance on the thin deck above his stateroom. It is unnecessary to repeat here the eager and emphatic remonstrances which the good captain would make when I had inadvertently seized the occasion of his “watch below” to shuffle him out of a sound sleep. Just before the steamer was laid up for the winter, I had taken my leave of her at Toledo, Ohio, where I was boarding and going to school on my earnings when I met Messrs. Ford and Kunkel. About the same time my landlady gave me warning to take myself and banjo and obstreperous feet out of her house. In the course of a month or two, I left school that I might have more time to devote to minstrelsy. I found another boarding house, however, where the plastering of the apartment below mine was proof against the coppers on my heels and the complicated shuffles of “Juba,” and organized a band of boys into a minstrel troupe and appointed myself musical director, though I knew no more of music than of chemistry. I spent my money for instruments for the company and for furniture to deck the room in which we met for rehearsal. The musical instruments, however, were the least of the expense, since these consisted, if I well recollect, of the banjo before mentioned, three sets of bones, a tambourine, a triangle, and an accordion. With these, nevertheless, we succeeded in making it very unpleasant for some quiet-loving Teutons, who were accustomed to dream over their beer at a Wirthschoft in the same wooden building and, indeed, just under the apartment in which we rehearsed every evening.
On certain occasions, when I executed my “Juba” dance, or in company with others performed the Virginia Walk-around, these honest Germans would leave their beer and sometimes their hats and pipes behind them in terror and rush precipitately into the middle of the street. There they would stand and gaze in silent amazement up at the windows, or utter their surprise and wrath at the proceedings in the expressive speech of fatherland.
The host, a portly gentleman with a red nose, remonstrated with us about four times a week, to little purpose. The owner of the building also remonstrated, but we had rented the apartment and would not leave till our time was out. We were constrained, however, to forego our jig and walk-around. Still our music and singing, to which we were now confined, came near breaking up the poor retail Gambrinus of the saloon beneath. His “stem-guests” fell off one by one and sought a quieter neighborhood for their evening potations. It was only the bravest of them that could be prevailed upon to return for anything more than their hats and pipes, after having been driven into the street on any of our siege-nights.
The best praise I can give the young gentleman who played the accordion is, that he was worthy to be under such a musical director as myself. He could play only one tune from beginning to end and that was “The Gum-tree Canoe.” Now, it happened that none of us could sing the song, which, as is well known, is of the slow, melancholy, sentimental order; so this single tune would have been of very little benefit to us, had we not, luckily, pressed it into the incongruous double service of opening overture and closing quickstep. The songs that we sang, or attempted to sing, were executed to the accompaniment of the three sets of bones, the tambourine, triangle and banjo, with an uncertain ghostly second on the accordion, which, being the same for all tunes and following no lead whatever, was of a sufficiently lugubrious and dismal nature, when it was not wholly drowned by the clangor of the other instruments.
My company, it must be confessed, had zeal, but little talent. I spent what was left of my summer’s earnings before I could get them up to a point that would, in my judgment, warrant a hope of success, should we give the public exhibition for which my minstrels were clamorously ambitious. After many long months of fruitless trial, the rent for our room becoming due, our furniture and instruments were seized; the landlord turned us out of doors; the German beerseller crossed himself thankfully; and I was as completely ruined as many a manager before me.
It may as well be owned that I had no natural aptness for the banjo, and was always an indifferent player; but for dancing I had, I am confident, such a remarkable gift as few have ever had. Up to this day, I did not think I ever have seen a step done by man or woman that I could not do as soon as I saw it---not saying, of course, how gracefully. I am not, however, so vain or proud of this gift as I used to be; and should hardly have written the foregoing sentence at all, had it not seemed necessary to a proper understanding of subsequent passages in this narrative.
I was still so small of stature, and yet capable of producing so much noise with the coppers in my heels, that, by the wholesale clerks and young bloods about town, I was considered in the light of a prodigy and made to shuffle my feet at almost all hours and in almost all localities. It was by this means, at some convivial resort, that I attracted the notice and admiration of a conductor on the Michigan Southern and Northern Indiana Railroad. He determined to have so much talent with him all the time and prevailed upon me to be his train-boy. Here, as on the lake, I had the exclusive privilege of selling books and papers to the passengers. The great railways were not then farmed by a single person or firm as now. I was my own agent and the regulator of my own prices and profits. Both of these latter I found it convenient to make large and was again the possessor of more money than I cared to spend. It was my business to carry water through the cars at stated intervals. On a day train I could afford to perform my duty with promptness, when I had sufficiently worried the passengers with my merchandise. But on a night train, which came to my lot just as often as a day train, I took a more lucrative and, I fear, less reputable means of quenching the thirst of travelers. There were no sleeping cars in those times, and, I believe, no water tanks in the passenger cars. My memory may fail me in this matter of the water tanks, but I am certain I never filled them, if there were any on our road. I don’t know whether more people traveled then than now, but I remember the trains were exceedingly long ones in those hot summer nights and the people became terribly thirsty. And in this way I comforted them. Taking a barrel of water, a pailful of brown sugar, and a proper amount of a well-known acid, I concocted lemonade which I sold through the train for five cents a glass. When thirsty lips asked piteously for water, I would tell the sufferer with perfect truth that there was not a drop of pure water left on the train. I blush to write that I sometimes sold fifteen dollars’ worth of this vile compound in a night. I was taught how to prepare it by a man who traveled with a circus and who assured me that all his ice-cold lemonade was concocted in the same way; and that, far from having killed anybody, it gave perfect satisfaction to the gentlemen and ladies from the country, who were his principal customers. The only excuse I have to offer for myself, now, is that I was not conscious then how great a villain I really was.
Towards the middle of the summer the cholera became so prevalent in the Western cities that I thought it prudent to retire from the active life of a train-boy and live quietly on my earnings. I settled myself, therefore, at a fashionable boarding-house in Toledo. Here the landlady, fearful of dust and anxious for the integrity of her carpet, made a remarkable compromise with me to the glory of aesthetics. Whenever there was a pressing request from the boarders for me to exercise my feet, she would bustle in with a large roll of oil-cloth and spread it uncomplainingly on the parlor floor, near the piano, to the music of which I danced. This was, I think, the first introduction of clogs as a drawing-room entertainment. I soon came to be invited out as a sort of cub-lion; and thus it happened that the rumor and dust of my accomplishments spread gradually through the city.
One evening I strolled into what is now called the St. Nicholas, and, stepping to the bar, which came just up to my juvenile shoulders, I demanded authoritatively of the bar-tender if he had any good pale brandy. He said he had. I told him in the same imperative tone to give me a ten-cent drink, “and none of his instant-death kind, either.” This made somewhat of a sensation among the frequenters of that fashionable resort. They evidently mistook this brandy-bibbing as a swaggering habit of mine; whereas I was honestly prescribing for myself what had been recommended to me as the best preventive of cholera. Having swallowed and paid for the brandy, I was preparing to withdraw, when I heard this dialogue going on behind me:
“Who for pity’s sake is that?”
“That? Why, that’s just the boy you want. But can’t he dance, though!”
Turning, I saw a couple of well-dressed men seated together at the end of the room. I had barely time to observe that one was a stranger to me, when the other called me to him and introduced me to Johnny Booker. Now, I had heard the songs, then popular “Meet Johnny Booker in the Bowling Green” and “Johnny Booker, Help Dis Nigger,” and when I was aware that I was standing before the person to whose glory these lyrics had been written, I was very much abashed. I looked upon a great negro minstrel as unquestionably the greatest man on earth and it was some time before I could answer his questions intelligibly. In the course of a few minutes, however, I was conducted into a private room, where I was made to dance “Juba” to the time which the comedian himself gave me by means of his two hands and one foot, and which is technically called “patting.” My performance, it seems, was satisfactory, for I was engaged on the spot. Mr. Booker was then waiting for the rest of his company to join him; and when they arrived, I was instituted jig-dancer to the troupe, with a weekly salary of five dollars and all my traveling expenses.
It is impossible to convey an idea of the gratified ambition with which I prepared for my first appearance on the stage. The great Napoleon, in the coronation robes which can be seen any day in the Tuileries, was not prouder or happier than I when I made my initial bow before the footlights in my small Canton-flannel knee-pants, cheap lace, gold tinsel, corked face, and woolly wig. I do not remember any embarrassment, for I was only doing in public what I had already done for the majority of the audience in private. If I had acquitted myself much worse than I really did, my debut would still, I am convinced, have been considered a success. So great, indeed, was the local pride of the good Toledans in their infant phenomenon, that, after the company had exhibited a week, my name---or rather the nom de guerre which I had assumed--- was put up for a benefit. On that day I had the satisfaction of seeing hung across the street, on a large canvas, a watercolor representation of myself, with one arm and one leg elevated, in the act of performing “Juba” over the heads and carts and carriages of the passersby. At night the house was crowded and I was called out three times; but what afterward struck me as unaccountably odd was, that I received not one cent from the proceeds of that benefit. When my salary was paid me, at the end of the next week, I was assured that “this benefit business” was a mere trick of the trade, and I was forced to content myself with the fact that I had learned something in my new profession.
We now started on our travels, staying from one night to a week in a city, according to its size, stopping always at the best hotels, and leading the merriest of lives generally. I had the additional glory of being stared at as the youthful prodigy by day and of having more than my share of applause, accompanied sometimes with quarter-dollars, bestowed on me at night. There was in our troupe a remarkable character by the name of Frank Lynch, who played the tambourine and banjo. He and the celebrated Diamond had been in their youth among the first and greatest of dancers. Too portly now to endure sustained effort with his feet, he was yet an excellent instructor and I was constantly under his training.
Lynch and I were together in another troupe afterwards. I never knew him, in all the time of our association, to talk ten minutes without telling some story, and that always about something which had happened to him personally in the show business. In the long nights, when we had to wait for the cars or steamboats, he would sit down and, taking up one theme, would string all his stories on that, and that alone, for hours. His manner would make the merest commonplace amusing. We had been together a year or more, I think, when Barnum’s autobiography came out. I shall never forget my comrade’s indignation when he read that passage of the book which runs something in this way: “Here I picked up one Francis Lynch, an orphan vagabond,” etc., etc. It was really dangerous after that for a man to own, in his presence, to having read the life of the great showman. Henceforth, Lynch omitted all his stories about the time when he and P. T. Barnum used to black their faces together.
Lynch professed to live in Boston, though he had not been there in fifteen years. During all this time, he had been earnestly trying to get back to his home. He would often spend money enough in a night to take him to Boston from almost any place in the broad Union, and back again, and then lament his folly for the next week. Once he left our company at Cleveland, Ohio, for the express purpose of going back to Boston. Unfortunately, a night intervened, and, in the middle of it, the whole Waddell House was aroused from its slumbers by poor Lynch in the last stage of intoxication, vociferating at the top of his lungs that he had been robbed of the money with which he was going back to Boston. By some means, he got hold of a lighted candle without a candlestick, and with this he purposed to search the house. The clerks and porters were called out of bed and, led by Lynch with his flickering taper, came in melancholy procession up the long stairs to the rooms occupied by our troupe. Lynch insisted that we should all be searched---a whim in which, under the circumstances, we thought it best to humor him. This having been done, without finding his lost treasure, he bolted the doors and proceeded to examine the surprised clerks and porters. Meeting with the same ill-success, he finally threw himself in despair upon his bed and wailed himself to sleep. The next morning he found all the money which he had not spent in the side-pocket of his overcoat, where he had carelessly thrust it himself. And his joy was so great at this, and his sorrow so lively when told that he had searched us all, that he insisted on spending what money was left to celebrate his good luck and the triumph of our honesty.
Lynch never got back to Boston. He died several years ago, somewhere out in the Far West. Since then it has transpired that Barnum was wrong in calling him an orphan, at least; for his father sought him a long time, before hearing of his death, to bestow upon the poor fellow a considerable fortune that had been left him by some relative.
Johnny Booker was the stage-manager of the company with which I left Toledo. Our first business manager and proprietor was a noble-hearted fellow, who has since distinguished himself as a colonel in the late war; but the managership changed hands after a while and we finally arrived at Pittsburgh. Here we played a week to poor houses; and, one morning, awoke to find that our manager had decamped without paying our hotel bills. When this became known, through the papers or in some other way, the landlord got out an attachment on our baggage. The troupe was disbanded, of course. When, therefore, I desired to take my trunk and go home, the hotel-keeper told me that I could do so as soon as I paid the bills of the whole company. This was appalling. After a great deal of wrangling the landlord was convinced at last that he could hold us responsible only for our individual indebtedness. Accordingly, Mr. Booker, Mr. Kneeland, a violinist, and myself were allowed to pay our bills and depart with our baggage.
I never learned exactly how the greater part of the company escaped, but it certainly could not have been by discharging their accounts; for they were generally of that reckless disposition which scorns to have any cash on hand or to remember where it has been deposited. The sentimental ballad-singer---the one who was the most careful of his scarves, the set of his attire, and the combing and curling of his hair, and who used to volunteer to stand at the door in the early part of the evening, and pass programs to the ladies as they came into the hall---this languishing fellow, I am sorry to say, was obliged to leave his trunks and the greater part of his wardrobe behind him in the hands of the inexorable landlord.
Frank Lynch had led this nomadic life so long that he never carried any trunk with him. He had already sacrificed too much, he averred, to the rapaciousness of hotel-keepers and the villainy of fly-by-night managers. He contented himself, therefore, with two champagne baskets, one of which, containing his stage wardrobe, always went directly to the hall where we were to play, while the other, containing his linen, went to the hotel, where, in company with the baggage of the whole troupe, it excited no suspicion. Whether or not Lynch left one of his champagne baskets with the Pittsburgh landlord, I cannot say. When I next heard of him he was at Cincinnati in search of an engagement.
The two gentlemen with whom I left Pittsburgh accompanied me to Toledo, where Mr. Booker set to work to get up another company. Lynch was accordingly sent for. Mr. Edwin Deaves, also a member of the former troupe---and now, by the way, a veteran scenic artist at San Francisco—was brought from some other place; and the Booker Troupe set out on its travels.
This company prided itself on its sobriety and gentlemanly conduct. It was the business of the four other members to keep poor Lynch straight, and if, in the endeavor, some of them occasionally fell themselves, it was put down to the reckless good-fellowship of the merry veteran, and hushed up as expeditiously as possible. There were so few of us that we could afford to go to smaller towns than the other troupe had ever visited. It was deemed a good advertisement, as well as in some metaphysical way conducive to the morale of the company, to dress as nearly alike as we could when off the stage. This had the effect, as will be readily understood, of pointing me out more prominently than ever as the juvenile prodigy, whose portrait and assumed name were plastered about over the walls of the towns and cities through which we took our triumphal march.
The first part of our performances we gave with white faces, and I had so improved my opportunities that I was now able to appear as the Scotch girl in plaid petticoats, who executes the inevitable Highland fling in such exhibitions. By practicing in my room through many tedious days, I learned to knock and spin and toss about the tambourine on the end of my forefinger; and, having rehearsed a budget of stale jokes, I was promoted to be one of the “end men” in the first-part of the Negro performances. Lynch, who could do anything, from a solo on the penny trumpet to an obligato on the double bass, was at the same time advanced to play the second violin, as this made more music and helped to fill up the stage. In addition to my jig, I now appeared in all sorts of pas de deux, took the principal lady part in Negro ballads, and danced “Lucy Long.” I am told that I looked the wench admirably.
The Booker Troupe wandered all over the Western country, traveling at all hours of night and day and in all manner of conveyances, from the best to the worst. The life was so exciting and I was so young that I was probably as happy as an itinerant mortal can be in this world of belated railway trains, steamboat explosions and collisions, and runaway stage-horses.
We were on our way East from Chicago, exhibiting at the towns along the line of the Michigan Central Railroad, when Ephraim came to us. Ephraim was one of the most comical specimens of the Negro species. We were playing at Marshall, Michigan, when he introduced himself to our notice by bringing water into the dressing-room, blacking our boots, and in other ways making himself useful. He had the blackest face, largest mouth and whitest teeth imaginable. He said there was nothing in the world which he would like so well as to travel with a show. What could he do? Why, he could fetch water, black our boots and take care of our baggage. We assured him that we could not afford to have a servant travel with us. Ephraim rejoined that he did not want any pay; he just wanted to go with the show. We told him it was simply impossible; and Ephraim went away, as we thought, discouraged.
The next morning, as we were getting into the railway car, whom should we discover there before us but Ephraim, with his baggage under his arm---a glazed traveling bag of so attenuated an appearance that it could not possibly have had anything in it but its lining. To the question as to whither he was bound he replied:
“Why, bless you, I’s goin’ wid de show.”
Again he was told that it could not be and made to get out of the car. This occurrence gave Mr. Lynch the theme for a long series of stories about people he had met, who were what he called “show-struck”; and with these narratives our time was beguiled till we reached the town at which we were to perform that night. As we walked out towards the baggage car, what was our surprise to see Ephraim there picking out and piling up our trunks and bestowing sundry loud and expressive epithets upon the baggage-master, who had let a property box fall upon the platform. I think we laughed louder now than we had at any of Mr. Lynch’s stories. Ephraim deigned not to notice us or our mirth but, having picked out the baggage that went to the hall where we were to exhibit, he called a dray and rode away with it. He made himself of great use during our stay in that place, in return for which his slight hotel expenses were paid; but he was told positively that he could go no farther. We knew that he had no money, yet did not dare to give him any, lest he should be enabled to follow us to the next town. So, when we came to go away, we expressed our regrets to the ingenuous darkie, and once more bade him good-bye. He disappeared in the crowd and the train moved off. When we arrived at the next town, however, there again was Ephraim, at the baggage car, giving his stentorian commands about our trunks and properties and taking not the least notice of the surprise depicted on our faces.
The discharge and mysterious reappearance of Ephraim occurred in about the same manner at every town along the road, until we reached Detroit. We never could find out how he got from place to place on the cars; but where our baggage was, there was Ephraim also. We had to succumb. His persistency and faithfulness and perfect good nature carried the point; and he became a regular attaché of the Booker Troupe. The story of the fights and beatings that poor Ephraim sustained in his jealous care of our luggage would alone make a long chapter. He was always in fisticuffs with the Irish porters of the hotels. On one occasion, when remonstrated with for his excessive pugnacity, Ephraim explained himself in this way:
“For one slam of a trunk I gen’lly speaks to a man; for two slams I calls him a thief; and when it comes to three slams, den dere’s gwine to be somebody knocked down. Now, you heared me!”
On our arrival at the hotel in Detroit, we observed that the porter was an Irishman, and were really surprised that he and Ephraim did not quarrel in handling the baggage---an anomaly which was satisfactorily explained to us afterwards by the fact that the porter had lately come to this country and was, moreover, only about half-witted. Now, Ephraim was in the habit of taking his meals in the kitchens and of sleeping in whatever attic was assigned him. On our first night in Detroit he had been sent into the servants’ chamber, somewhere in the topmost part of the hotel. Ephraim ascended, disrobed himself, and with his usual recklessness got into the first of the many beds he saw in the large room. At twelve o’clock, when his watch was over, the Irish porter also proceeded to the same apartment with the purpose of retiring. Opening the door, he discovered by the dim gaslight something dark on the pillow of his own bed. This brought all his Old World superstition into play in a moment. Going as much nearer as he dared, he saw that it was a black head, and believing firmly that the devil was black, he was sure that the devil was in his bed. The affrighted porter gave an unearthly yelp, at which Ephraim started up in terror. Whereupon the Irishman seized one of the Negroes boots from the floor by the foot of the bed and fell to beating the supposed devil over the head with all his might. The attack was so sudden that Ephraim never thought of defense, but, springing to his feet, fled precipitately down the six flights of stairs, out into the middle of the street, crying “Watch, watch!” at the top of his voice. Here a policeman came along and took poor Ephraim off to the station-house just as he was and in spite of all his protestations of innocence. The next morning Mr. Booker carried his clothes to the unfortunate Negro, and brought him back to the hotel.
In the course of time the Booker Troupe was disbanded and Ephraim, as well as ourselves, was, in green-room parlance, out of an engagement. I never saw him or Lynch afterwards. I found myself, after some minor adventures, at Cincinnati, where the once notorious Mike Mitchell left the Campbell’s Minstrels and took me with him into a company which he organized in that city, under the title of “The Mitchells.”’ We played for some time at the largest hall in Cincinnati, and traveled afterwards through a few of the neighboring states. This troupe, too, having gone to pieces, I was one of the volunteers at the grand complimentary benefit given to Mitchell at Cincinnati, with the proceeds of which he was sent out to California to join his friends Birch and Backus.
Mitchell, poor fellow, like Lynch and Sliter and so many of my old associates in the cork opera, has passed away, let us hope to a quieter stage, beyond the double-dealing of managers and the contumely of publicans. An old showman is, in truth, a being sui generis. You rarely meet one who will not tell you he has been twenty-two years in the show business. He always talks in hyperbole, uses adjectives for adverbs, and arranges all the minor incidents of his life, as well as his conversation, in the most dramatic forms. He is often a better friend to others than to himself; he is not naturally worse than the majority of men, but has more temptation. A good negro minstrel would in any other profession be an Admirable Crichton in respect to morals. While acknowledging with pride that I met in this calling some who deserve even such praise, it is due to the truth to state also that I have known many and many a poor fellow who was, in the language of Addison: “Reduced, like Hannibal, to seek relief from court to court, and wander up and down, a vagabond in Afric.”
The day after the farewell benefit of Mitchell, I was engaged by Dr. Spalding, the veteran manager, whose old quarrel with Dan Rice has made him famous to the lovers of the circus. He was then fitting out The Floating Palace for its voyage on the Western and Southern rivers. The Floating Palace was a great boat, built expressly for show purposes. It was towed from place to place by a steamer called the James Raymond. The Palace contained a museum, with all the usual concomitants of Invisible Ladies, stuffed giraffes, puppet-dancing, etc. The Raymond contained, besides the dining hall and state rooms of the employees, a concert saloon fitted up with great elegance and convenience and called “The Ridotto.” In this latter I was engaged, in conjunction with “a full band of minstrels,” to do my jig and wench dances. The two boats left Cincinnati with nearly a hundred souls on board, that being the necessary complement of the vast establishment. We were bound for Pittsburgh, where we were to give our first exhibition; purposing to stop afterwards, on our way down, at all the towns and landings along the Ohio. Everything went well on our way up the river till we came within about twenty miles of Wheeling, Va., when the Raymond stuck fast on a sand bar. It was thought best for the people to be transferred to the Palace so as to lighten the steamer and let her work off. When, accordingly, we had all huddled into the museum, our lines were cast off and our anchor let go; but we were carried half a mile down stream before the anchor caught. Here, all day, from the decks of the Palace, we could watch the futile efforts of the Raymond to get off the bar. The only provision for the inner man on board of our craft was a drinking saloon, which was of very little comfort to the numerous ladies of the party, to say the least. Towards night we became exceedingly hungry but no relief was sent us from the steamer. One Riesse, an obese bass singer, who was a terrible gourmand, and who had been for the last five hours raving about the decks in a pitiable manner, rushed suddenly out upon the guard, about eight o’clock, declaring that he saw a boatload of provisions coming from the Raymond. A shout of joy now went up from the famished people that shook the stuffed giraffes and wax-works in their glass cases. It was a boat, indeed; but it contained simply the captain, mate and pilot, who had come all that way after their evening bitters at the drinking saloon.
They expressed themselves very sorry for us and were confident that they could now get the steamer off the bar. This liquid stimulus was all that had been needed from the first. With this mild assurance for a foundation to our hopes of relief, they took their departure and we waited on and on through the long night. Riesse, the bass singer, never slept a wink or allowed many others to sleep, his hungry voice, like a loon’s on some solitary lake, breaking in upon the stillness where and when it was least expected. Wrapped in the veritable cloak of the great Pacha Mohammed Ali, I drowsed through the latter part of the night, crouched down between the glass apartments of the waxen Tam O’Shanter and the Twelve Apostles. In the morning there were several more steamers on ground in the neighborhood, but no better prospect of the Raymond’s getting off. We were finally taken off to her in small boats and allowed to break our long fast. Instead of rising, the river fell, and we were left almost a week on dry land. Our provisions giving out, it was thought best for the performers to be taken up to Wheeling by a little sternwheeler that happened to come along. At that city we gave several exhibitions at Washington Hall. Proceeding thence down the river, on the stern-wheeler, to play in the towns along till we should be overtaken by the Palace and the Raymond, we passed those unfortunate boats, still laboring to free themselves, and were greeted with hearty cheers by the people on board. One night the river rose suddenly, and in a day or so we were overtaken by the whole establishment, at Marietta, Ohio. The proposed trip to Pittsburgh was abandoned. We commenced our voyage down the river, exhibiting in the afternoon and evening, and sometimes in the morning, at two, and often three, towns or landings in a day.
It needed not this excess of its labors to tire me with the showman’s life. Several months before I had begun to doubt whether a great negro minstrel was a more enviable man than a great senator or author. As these doubts grew on me, I purchased some school books and betook myself to study every day, devouring, in the intervals of arithmetic and grammar, the contents of every work of biography and poetry that I could lay hands on. The novelty and excitement of this odd life, indeed, were wearing away. All audiences at last looked alike to me, as all lecture-goers do to Dr. Holmes. They laughed at the same places at the performance, applauded at the same place, and looked inane or interested at the same place, day after day, week after week, and month after month. I became gradually indifferent to their applause, or only noticed when it failed at the usual step or pantomime. Then succeeded a sort of contempt for audiences, and at last a positive hatred of them and myself. I noticed, or thought I noticed, that their faces wore the same vacant expression whether their eyes were staring at me or the stuffed giraffes or the dancing puppets of the museum.
I obtained my first view of the great Mississippi and of the practical working of Lynch law at the same time. The night of our advent at Cairo was lit up by the fires of an execution. A Negro, it seems, was the owner or lessee of an old wharf-boat, which had been moored to the levee of that town and which he had turned to the uses of a gambling-saloon. People who had been enticed into it had never been seen or heard of afterwards. The vigilance committee then governing Cairo had frequently endeavored to lay hold of the Negro and bring him to trial, but he had secret passages from one part of the wharf-boat to the other by which he always eluded his pursuers. Having no doubt that he was guilty of several murders, the vigilantes on the night of our arrival had come down to the levee two or three hundred strong, armed, equipped, and determined to make the wretch surrender. In answer to the summons, they received nothing but insults from the Negro, still out of sight and secure in one of his hiding places. At a given signal, the wharf-boat was set afire and cut adrift, and, as it floated out into the current, the vigilantes surrounded it in small boats, with their rifles ready and pointed to prevent the escape of their victim. When the wharf-boat was well into the stream the Negro appeared boldly at the place which, in the middle of all river craft of that kind, is left open for the reception and discharge of freight. And now a scene occurred, so sensationally dramatic, so easily adaptable to the stage of these latter days, that I would not dare to relate it for truth if I had not witnessed it with my own eyes. The Negro was not discovered till he had rolled a large keg of powder into the middle of the open space just mentioned. As he stood in the light of his burning craft, it could be seen by the people in the small boats in the river that he had a cocked musket with the muzzle plunged into the keg of powder. The Negro dared them to come on and take him, pouring upon them at the same time such horrible oaths and curses as have rarely come from the lips of man. The small boats kept at a proper distance now, their occupants caring only to prevent his escape into the water. As the flames grew thicker around him, there the Negro stood, floating down into the darkness that enveloped the majestic river, with his cocked musket still in the keg of powder and cursing and defying his executioners. He was game to the last. We heard the explosion down the stream and saw the wharf-boat sink. The next day I spoke with the leader of the band in the small boats---a short, wiry little man, with a piercing eye. He said that he had not the heart to shoot the “nigger” because he showed such pluck. He even confessed that, for the same reason, he felt almost sorry for the victim after the explosion had blown him into eternity.
We saw, indeed, a great deal of wild life in the country which we visited, for we steamed thousands of miles on the Western and Southern rivers. We went, for instance, the entire navigable lengths of the Cumberland and Tennessee. Our advertising agent had a little boat of his own, in which he preceded us. The Palace and Raymond would sometimes run their noses upon the banks of some of these rivers where there was not a habitation in view, and by the hour of exhibition the boats and shore would be thronged with people. In some places on the Mississippi, especially in Arkansas, men would come in with pistols sticking out of their coat pockets or with long Bowie knives protruding from the legs of their boots. The manager had provided for these savage people, for every member of the company was armed and, at a given signal, stood on the defensive. We had a giant for a doorkeeper, who was known in one evening to kick down stairs as many as five of these bushwhackers with drawn knives in their hands. There were two other persons, employed ostensibly as ushers, but really to fight the wild men of the rivers. These two gentlemen were members of the New York prize ring, one of whom, I believe, went to Englaad with Heenan at the time of the international “mill,” and whose name I saw in a New York paper the other day as the trainer of a pugilistic celebrity of the present time. The honest fellows scorned to use anything but their fists in preserving order; and it is strange, considering the number of deadly weapons drawn on them, that they never received anything worse than a few scratches. Nor did they, indeed, ever leave their antagonists with anything worse than a broken head; except in a solitary case, which befell at a backwoods landing on the Upper Mississippi, where a person who had made an unprovoked attack on the boats was left for dead on the bank as we pushed out in the stream. We never heard whether he lived or died.
Besides these pugilists, we had in our company other celebrities---for instance, the amiable and gentlemanly David Reed, whose character song of “Sally, Come Up,” made such a furor not long ago in New York and, I believe, throughout the country. His picture is to be seen at all the music stores. One other of our company has since had his name and exploits telegraphed to the remotest ends of the earth. I remember to have read of him myself in a little German newspaper on the banks of the Danube. This was Professor Lowe, the balloonist, late of the Army of the Potomac. I doubt very much whether the Professor had dipped very deeply into aeronautics at that time. He was an ingenious, odd sort of Yankee, with his long hair braided and hanging in two tails down his back. His wife, formerly a Paris danseuse, was my instructor in the Terpsichorean art. By the aid of a little whip, which she insisted was essential to success, she taught me to go through all the posturings and pirouettes of the operatic ballet girls. I was forced often to remonstrate against the ardor with which she applied her whip to a toe or finger of mine which would get perversely out of the line of beauty.
Professor Lowe and Madame, his wife, conducted the performance of “The Invisible Lady,” a contrivance that may not be familiar to all my readers. A hollow brass ball, with four trumpets protruding from it, is suspended inside a hollow railing. Questions put by the bystanders are answered through a tube by a person in the apartment beneath. The imaginations of the spectators make the sounds seem to issue from the brass ball. It used to be amusing to stand by and listen to the answers of “The Invisible Lady,” alias Madame Lowe, whose English was drolly mixed up with her own vernacular. But if the responses were sometimes unintelligible, this only added to the mystery and success of the brazen oracle.
The Professor was passionately fond of game. He was struck with the abundance of turkeys in one of the Southern states where we chanced to be and, throwing his gun across his shoulder, sallied forth to bring some of them down. He returned shortly with two large black birds, which he exhibited about the decks amid the grins and suppressed laughter of the crew. It was not till the Professor took his game into the kitchen to have it dressed for dinner that he was informed not only that his birds were not turkeys at all, but that he had been breaking one of the statutes of the state, which prohibits, under pecuniary penalty, the killing of turkey buzzards.
In his social relations, a performer, like many another great man or woman, is liable to mistakes of head and heart. The ladies of the profession are sometimes given to gossip and backbiting in as great a degree at least as are the gentlemen. Jealousy may be as rife on a Mississippi show-boat as in the ante-chamber of any court in Europe. I have known a danseuse to furnish boys with clandestine bouquets to throw on the stage when she appeared; not that she cared at all for the praise or blame of the audience, but that she did care to crush a cleverer rival. I have known men, whose names have made some noise in the world, to measure with straws the comparative size of the letters in which they were announced on a poster. In our company on board the Palace and the Raymond, we had strange contrasts in human nature. It would happen, for instance, that the man who could not sleep without snoring would be placed in the same state room with the man who could not sleep within hearing of the most distant snore. The man who could not eat pork was seated at the table just opposite the man who doted on it. We had one gentle- man---the fleshy bass singer already mentioned---who spent all his leisure in catching mockingbirds; and another, who passed his spare hours in contriving new and undiscoverable ways of letting these birds escape from the cages. There were on board ladies who had seen more prosperous days, when they were the chief attractions at the theatres of London, Paris and New York (according to their own stories); other ladies who had never associated with such vulgar people before; other ladies who hoped they would die if they did not leave the company at the very next landing, but never left; and yet other ladies, I am rejoiced to add, who were lovely in nature and deed—kind mothers and faithful wives, whose strength of character and ready cheerfulness tended as far as possible to restore the social equilibrium.
In the course of the long association, grotesque friendships sprang up. The man who played the bass drum was the bosom companion of the man who had charge of the machine for making the gas which supplied the two boats. The pretty man of the establishment, he who played the chimes on the top of the museum and the piano in the concert room—at present a popular composer at St. Louis---this young gentleman who broke all the hearts of the country girls that came into the show, was the inseparable friend of the pilot---a great, gruff, warmhearted fellow, who steered the Raymond from the corners of his eyes and swore terribly at the snags. The man who dusted down Tam O’Shanter and the Twelve Apostles in wax and had especial care of the stuffed birds, giraffes, and alligators, was on most intimate terms with the cook. The youngest of the ladies who hoped to die if they didn’t go ashore at the next landing and never went (or died either, for that matter), well, she was, or pretended to be, desperately in love with the treasurer of the company, a thin, irascible old fellow, with a bald head. On the arrival of another danseuse in the company, the two dancers, who were before deadly enemies, became sworn friends and confidants, united in their jealousy and hatred of the newcomer. The lady who was loudest in proclaiming that she had never before associated with such low people as the performers on board of these boats seemed to enjoy herself most, and indeed spent most of her time, in the society of Bridget, the Irish laundry-woman of the establishment, who on one occasion, after excessive stimulus, came very near hanging herself overboard to dry, instead of a calico dress.
As a general thing, however, the ladies, performers, and crew of our boats were not so quarrelsome as I have seen a set of cabin passengers on a sea voyage between America and Europe, or especially on the three weeks’ passage to or from California. When I consider that there were so many of us together in this narrow compass for nearly a year, it seems to me strange indeed that there was not more bad blood excited. Madame Olinza was, I believe, the name of the Polish lady who walked on a tight-rope from the floor of one end of the museum up to the roof of the farthest gallery. This kind of perilous ascension and suspension was something new in the country then. It was before the time of Blondin, and Madame used to produce a great sensation. Now, it may be interesting to the general reader to learn that this tight-rope walker was one of the most exemplary, domestic little bodies imaginable. She and her husband had a large state room on the upper deck of the Raymond, and she was always there with her child when released from her public duties. One afternoon the nurse happened to bring the child into the museum when Madame Olinza was on the rope; and out of the vast audience, that little face was recognized by the fond mother and her attention so distracted that she lost her balance, dropped pole, and fell. Catching the rope with her hands, however, in time to break her fall, she escaped, fortunately, without the least injury; but ever after that her child was kept out of the audience while she was on the rope.
Going up the Mississippi from Cairo, we passed, one Sunday, the old French town of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and its Roman Catholic college on the river bank. The boys were out on the lawn under the trees and I became as envious of their lot as I ever had been before of a man who worked on a steamboat or who danced “in the minstrels.” I suddenly resolved that I would go to that college. We did not stop at Cape Girardeau till our return down the river some weeks afterwards. Then I went boldly up and sought an interview with the president of the institution. I found him to be a kindly mannered priest, who encouraged me in my ambition. He told me it would be well to save up more money than I then had and that he would do all he could for me.
I returned to the Palace and immediately gave warning that I purposed leaving as soon as someone could be got to fill my place. It struck me as somewhat odd that it was six months from that date before I could get away. It has been explained to me since. The fact is, I received what, as a boy, I thought a good salary, but nothing like what I earned. It took two men afterwards to fill my place. I have been told since, that more than a year before that time, and prior to this last engagement, the late E. P. Christy had written for me from New York, but that the letter had been intercepted by those whose interest it then was that I should not know my own value in the “profession.” I used to see that my name was larger than almost any other on the bills, but was led to believe that it was because I was a boy and not likely to excite the jealousy of the other members of the company. It may not be very soothing to my vanity, but, dwelling upon these things dispassionately, I have my honest doubts now whether I was not always a greater success as an advertisement than as a performer.
I was promised at New Orleans that if I would go over to Galveston, Texas, with the minstrel troupe, I should certainly be allowed to retire from public life. So we left the Palace and the Raymond at the levee of the former city and took passage in the regular steamship crossing the Gulf to Galveston. We performed there two or three weeks with great success. Few minstrels had then wandered that way, and thus it happened that my farewell appearance as a dancer was greeted with a crowded house. Except as a poor lecturer, I have never been on the stage since I left Galveston.
Still resolved to go to college at Cape Girardeau, I returned to New Orleans, and took passage to Cairo on the steamer L. M. Kenett. Barney Williams and his wife were on board during the tedious voyage; but I suppose they have long since forgotten all about the urchin who surprised and bored them with his minute knowledge of the early history of the country through which we passed. The river above Cairo, very much to my sorrow, was frozen over, for it was midwinter. There was no alternative for me but to proceed to Cape Girardeau by land—a long, difficult, and expensive journey in those times. After a great deal of trouble and some danger, I arrived at the gates of the college and proceeded directly to the room of the president. The kindly face that I remembered so well again beamed upon me, as I again stood before him and said that I had come to stay a year, at least, at his school. At his good-natured question as to how much money I had, I emptied my pocket of just thirty-five dollars in gold. That was the sum to which the unforeseen expenses of my long journey had reduced me. The president being aware that the river was frozen—so that I could not get away even if I had had money enough to go with---and having much greater discretionary power than the presidents of our Protestant colleges, told me that I might stay.
At the end of my year the river was again frozen and the good president was again prevailed upon to keep me till the close of that college term, which would be in the middle of the ensuing summer. So I was for sixteen months in all a student in Saint Vincent’s College. Most of the students were the sons of French planters of Louisiana and the institution was more French than English. Things were ordered very much as they are in the religious houses of Europe. We slept in large dormitories, and ate in a refectory, someone reading aloud the while from an English or a French book. The college had its own tailors and shoemakers; and by the favor of the president, who seemed to take a great liking to me, my credit was made good for anything I wanted and I was provided for as well as the richest of them. The instructors were all priests and generally good men. I was never required to change my religion or to conform more than externally to their worship. The president, Father S. V. Ryan, has since met the recognition which his piety and abilities so justly deserved. Within the past year, if I have read the papers aright, he has been made Roman Catholic Bishop of Buffalo. I applied myself so zealously to study, that at the expiration of my sixteen months, I was nearly prepared to enter Kenyon College, in which I spent the next four years.
When I came to leave Saint Vincent’s, I drew out a deposit which I had in a bank in Toledo, and gave it into the hands of the college treasurer, reserving for myself only what I thought would be enough to take me back to Ohio. As good luck would have it, the little steamer Banjo, a showboat belonging to Dr. Spalding, the manager of the Floating Palace, was advertised to be at Cape Girardeau the week in which I proposed to leave there. Seeing the names of some of my old comrades on the bills, I waited to meet them. They generously made me bring my trunk on board, and have a free ride to St. Louis, or, if I chose, to Alton, where I was to take the cars for Chicago. The remembrance of this trip up the river with these jovial, reckless souls has made it my duty always to defend my old associates when I hear the censure heaped on them by inconsiderate ignorance or blind prejudice.
And I can take my final leave of the show business and of show people in no better way, I think, than in relating an incident which occurred on this little steamer. On the afternoon before our arrival at Alton, as I was sitting on the deck by the side of one of the performers—Mr. Edwin Davis, who had been a member of our company on the Floating Palace---he asked me to let him see my money, adding that I might have had imposed upon me some of the “wildcat” bills then afloat. Taking out all I had, I placed it in his hands. He counted it and scrutinized it thoroughly and, folding it up carefully, returned it to me with the remark that my bills were all good. I had no occasion to use my money till I came to pay my railway fare at Alton, when I discovered that my wealth had increased by nearly half. He had, indeed, been a better judge than myself of my necessities; for, with his generous addition, I had barely enough to take me to my destination.
I met Mr. Davis in New York years afterwards and offered him the sum he had added to mine, but could not prevail upon him to take it. And this is the way he stated his reason: “No; it does not belong to me. Keep it till you see some poor fellow as much in need of it as you were then on the Mississippi and give it to him.”
Last modified October 2005.