Night of the Flaming Ballerinas


The Gale Sisters Catch Flame

The Gale Sisters Catch Flame

In late August, 1861, William Wheatley signed the lease for the Continental Theater in Philadelphia. William Wheately was an old theatrical hand given to tried and true classic performances.  For his first production he announced that the theater would be putting on The Tempest in ballet form. From England, Wheatley imported a special effects expert, as well as four ballet dancing sisters, the beautiful Gales – Ruth, Zela, Hannah, and Adeline. Six other chorus dancers rounded out the ballet troupe. On the night of September 14, 1861, the cast only made it through The Tempest’s first act.

For those unfamiliar with the niceties of Shakespearean ballet, while the seas rage at the end of the first act, the entire ballet company must quickly change into gauzy costumes so as to be ready to welcome Alonso and the rest of shipwreck victims onto Prospero’s Island. At the Continental Theater the dressing rooms were above the stage itself, necessitating a fifty foot climb up a rickety flight of stairs. The chorus received their own dressing room, complete with lighting by means of gas jets close to the mirror, where their light could be reflected and doubled – if you look at the picture above, you’ll see the gas jets off to the top left.

Above the mirror, Ruth Gale had hung her dress for the second act. While on the stage Miranda was falling instantly and madly in love with Ferdinand, Ruth hadn’t even begun her costume change, and climbed on the back of the settee to pull down her dress. The hem touched the gas jet, and instantly Ruth’s clothes were ablaze. Screaming, Ruth ran through the room, setting her sisters’ clothes ablaze like a firebrand. Insane with terror, Ruth ran against a plate glass mirror, shattering it and lacerating herself horribly.

Flaming Ballerinas Plunging to their Deaths (From Frank Leslie's Illustrated News, Sept. 28, 1861)

Flaming Ballerinas Plunging to their Deaths (From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News, Sept. 28, 1861)

Panicking, and on fire themselves, Ruth’s sisters plunged out the window and onto the street below, which was filled with pedestrians now under bombardment from flaming, screaming ballerinas who fell to earth with sickening thuds and the crack of broken bones.

The Gale sisters weren’t the only ones ablaze. A Miss McBride, another member of the chorus, came running across the stage with her dress ablaze, with piercing and unholy screams, and fell into the pit where the stage crew simulated the storm that gave its name to the play. Tearing the cloths which represented the waves, they managed to smother the flames. Wheatley ordered the curtain brought down, and asked the audience to leave the theater peacefully. The remaining flaming ballerinas were extinguished.

Over the next four days, the six ballerinas perished of their burns including all the Gale sisters. With no anesthetic or pain killer but brandy, and with physicians having only a rudimentary understanding of burn treatment and infection, their agony must have been severe. Wheatley was exonerated of any wrongdoing, and erected a monument to the perished ballerinas at Mount Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia.  The inscription on the stone is barely legible now, but the New York Clipper preserved it. It reads:



Stranger, who through the city of the dead

With thoughtful soul and feeling heart may tread,

Pause here a moment – those who sleep below

With careless ear ne’er heard a tale of woe:

Four sisters fair and young together rest

In saddest slumber on earth’s kindly breast;

Torn out of life in one disastrous hour,

The rose unfolded and the budding flower:

Life did not part them – Death might not divide

They lived – they loved – they perished, side by side.

O’er doom like theatre let gentle pity shed

The softest tears that mourn the early fled,

For whom – lost children of another land!

This marble raised by weeping friendship’s hand

To us, to future time remains to tell

How even in death they loved each other well.




Honest Abe’s Gold Nugget

Every so often we hear of pieces of toast that look like Jesus, and chicken nuggets that bear a striking resemblance to George Washington. The phenomena of seeing the faces of the famous in objects is not a new one; back in 1864 a miner from Bevin’s Gulch at the Stinkwater diggings near Virginia City, Montana diggings found a gold nugget which bore a striking resemblance to Abraham Lincoln. Valued at $122 in 1864 (about $20,000 today), the unknown miner forwarded on to the President, through Captain James L. Fisk.

Thomas Hanlon Flips…Out

While Jules Leotard may have invented the trapeze act, as well as giving his name to the skin tight outfit its practitioners wore while performing, the six Hanlon brothers were the ones who made the trapeze famous. Thomas Hanlon, and his younger brother William were the stars of the show; each would perform the trickiest part of the routine the brothers called “The Zamperllaerostation.” The act coupled grace and beauty with danger, as the brothers performed their somersaults directly over the crowd, and without a safety net. As they flew through the air, the audience held its collective breath, for if the performer missed the trapeze, he would fall directly in their midst.

Eventually, to cover more of the country, the brothers split up three and three, with Thomas heading one troop and William the other. To complete the required six members, the brothers adopted three teenagers to join them; the faux Hanlon brothers were initiated into the arts of the trapeze, and after a few years were able to take full part in the show.

Falls were rare. William missed a trapeze in New York in 1861. Thomas fell in Cincinnati in 1868 while springing for a rope held by his brothers, which he would use to lower himself to the stage. He lay bleeding profusely on the stage, unconscious. In true trooper fashion, once he’d regained his senses, he insisted on going on with the Hanlon brothers tour through the Midwest. Thomas’ resolve masked deeper problems. He performed the show in Indianapolis, but quit suddenly, informing his brothers he intended to go to New York City. He took the three faux Hanlon brothers with him, but Thomas showed up in Harrisburg without them, delirious and wandering the streets. For his own safety, the town police locked him in jail.

They were wise to do so, for Thomas attempted to hang himself by roping his bed sheet round his neck and tying it to a hook above the door. An officer foiled the attempt, and all linens were removed. Thomas broke his pewter dinner plate (a feat in its own), and attempted to slice his throat with one of the pieces. This attempt too was stymied, Thomas’ wounds were bandaged by a local doctor, and officers removed everything which could be useful to one intent on his own destruction from Hanlon’s cell.

The officers had not counted on Thomas’ acrobatic skill, nor the strength of his resolve. On the floor of the cell there was a bolt, topped with a brass nut, used to hold the jail’s heating system in place. Turning a somersault in the air, Thomas brought his forehead down on the brass nut. Bleeding,  he did it again, and again, some fifteen times in all. By the time the officers reached him, Thomas’ scalp hung in ribbons, flaps of skin hanging down before his eyes.

He still had strength enough to fight, and it took six men to hold him down so that a doctor could apply chloroform. The wounds were dressed, and the doctor managed to staunch the blood flowing from what remained of Thomas’ scalp . Thomas awoke for a few moments, appeared to be rationale, then lapsed once more into unconsciousness. A few hours later he was dead; participant in the most acrobatic suicide on record.

Come Take a Gander at Some Good Ol’ Fashioned Goose Racing

Among the annals of athletics, the sport of Goose Racing is sadly absent. It has no Hall of Fame, it is completely missing from the Olympics, and no trading cards exist trumpeting the statistics of its brightest stars.  Yet, it is a sport, or perhaps we should say “was” for we haven’t had the privilege of seeing a good goose race, or even a bad one for that matter.

Apparently, goose races were quite the thing in the late 1860’s. The goose race above took place in the Lake Basin in Chicago, and as it was adjudged a tie, the two parties split the $200.00 prize. It would probably be more accurate to call it “geese racing” but our forbearers didn’t mind the grammatical faux pas, so we’ll let it slide.

According to the literature, to participate in a race you first need to build yourself  a goose chariot. This can be accomplished by taking a long piece of wood, approximately 6 feet long and 4 feet wide, and carving a large hole in the center. Now, into this hole goes a large washtub, which I’m sure the readership has handy. It is suggested that the wash board be removed from, the wash tub prior to installation. Having secured the tub to the plank, affix a long pole to the front of the tub, long enough to attach six geese. Geese are known to be bad tempered, so the caution is urged in affixing the geese to the poles.

Finally, place the entirety into the water, grab yourself a paddle so that in the event the geese do not propel your chariot with adequate speed, you can make it to shore. Now, climb in, which should wooden plank so that only the tub is above the water, and you’re ready for the race to begin.

We here at Forgotten Stories suggest to the readership a goose race, to be held on the Hudson River, with the challenger to provide the requisite geese. Any challenger may, if they so desire, affix said geese to a tachypodascaphe.

Four Bicycling Firsts from Pierre Lallament

Today we bring you at least four firsts in bicycling history; courtesy of Pierre Lallament, French inventor. But, before we get there, we have to set the stage; and so we’ll start off with a bang. In April of 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted, spewing ash into the upper atmosphere. The climate change stemming from this eruption lasted for the next few years, and 1816 especially was known as “The Year Without a Summer.” Rainy weather kept the Shelly family indoors during a vacation at Lake Geneva, to pass the time ghost stories were composed, including Frankenstein. In New England, snow fell in the middle of July. The cost of foodstuffs skyrocketed in Germany, so much so that Karl Drais couldn’t afford the oats to keep a horse.[1]

But Drais was a handy sort of fellow and so he sat himself down and invented his own horse. Kind of. Known in Germany as the Laufsmachine (“walking machine”). There being no patent law, the English and French copied the design; the only credit the inventor received was that its riders called it the Draisienne. Here’s good old Buster Keaton riding one in Our Hospitality

It proved especially popular amongst the foppish gentlemen of the upper classes, hence the nickname “Dandy Horse”. A few were imported to America; Charles Sumner rode one around Cambridge in a bright yellow overcoat, and was subjected to quite a bit of ridicule. A number of other inventors were also fooling with the idea of personal, wheeled transportation. Most of these were three or four wheeled contraptions, driven by cranks powered by using one’s hands to revolve an endless chain attached to rear wheels, and steered with one’s feet using footpads attached to the front wheel. They didn’t catch on.

Enter French inventor Pierre Lallament.  In 1862, Lallament was struck with a brilliant idea. Why not attach the crank system to a two wheeled system, trusting a foot powered crank to rotate the wheels with sufficient velocity to maintain balance, and steer using the hands? Lallament only made $5 to $10 per week as a baby carriage maker in the French town of Nancy, barely enough to keep body and soul together. But, he saved up, and bought two small wooden wheels. He traded a local mechanic a “bit of money and a good deal of drink” for a serpentine perch upon which to sit. Working on Sundays and borrowing his employers’ anvil, he hammered out the pieces; cranks, forks, pedals and all the rest.

And then, on one Sunday afternoon in 1863, Lallament had before him the first “bicycle,” but damned if he knew how to ride the thing. No one had ever seen one before, let alone hopped on and pedaled around the yard. Over the next few months, he taught himself, riding up and down the long hall at the baby carriage factory. Then he taught his fellow workers to ride it. By July, 1863 Lallament was toodling down Nancy’s Boulevard Saint Martin. The first bike ride had taken place.

Lallament’s invention was rickety, and the wooden frame was uncomfortable. So he disassembled the whole thing, tossing away everything but the expensive wheels, and set sail for America in 1865, where he thought he might find a job where he could earn a few extra dollars to cover the costs of building a new prototype. He set himself up in Ansonia, Connecticut, found a job, and got to work. By the late fall, 1865, the prototype was ready, and Lallement took off for a ride on the back roads of Connecticut, the first American bike ride was underway.

Lallement headed out toward Birmingham, Connecticut (now part of Derby, Connecticut), on a four mile round trip ride. The route was muddy due to a recent rain, but except for a hill as one approached Birmingham Lallement had a fairly basic ride, and he reached the top of the hill with some effort but much triumph. Then he turned around to head back to Ansonia.

This meant gliding down the very hill he’d just climbed, and off he went. A slight problem existed, of which Lallament was not aware until he’d started on his way downhill; he’d neglected to invent brakes. Soon he was going at what was, quite literally, a breakneck pace. Up ahead was a wagon slowly pulled by two horses; Lallement yelled at the driver in French; the horses were whipped into a run, but it was too late for Lallement, he crashed into a culvert, flew over the handlebars into the mud, and cracked his head. He would carry a scar until the end of his days.

Brushing himself off, and in need of a stiff drink, Lallement rode into Ansonia, and stopped off in the local tavern. Inside were the cartmen, describing to the incredulous bartender how they were chased by a dark Devil, with human head and a body which was half snake, half bird, and hovering just above the ground. From the doorway, Lallement shouted “I vas ze debil.” When his explanation, hindered by a lack of English, failed to convince them, he gave them a demonstration.

By the late 1860’s Lallement had sold his American patents for10,000 francs, took a job at the Pop Manufacturing Company, and in the end died penniless in Boston in 1891, aged 47.

So there you have it; four firsts:

1.) First modern bicycle;

2.) First bicycle ride in the world;

3.) First bicycle ride in the U.S.

4.) First header

[1] For more on the Year Without a Summer, and its relation to the invention of the bicycle, check out Brimstone and Bicycles, from the New Scientist in January, 2005. Subscription is required.

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