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.




Robbing Brooklyn Blind[s]

From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper of July 26, 1856 we learn of a fantastic little swindle. It seems that the residents at 73 Hicks Street, Brooklyn rented the house from Mr. John Taylor. Around noon, a man drove up in an express wagon, told the residents that Mr. Taylor had sent him over pick up the window blinds, so that they could be repainted. Much pleased with the generosity of their landlord, the tenants helped load up the wagon with every set of blinds in the house. Neither the blinds nor the wagon driver were seen again.

America’s first same sex marriage?

From the Syracuse Standard of May, 1856 we get the story of Albert Guelph, formerly of England. Aged 30, Guelph rented a room from a local Syracuse family named Lewis. When Guelph arrived at the Lewis’ house, he was attired in a dress, but a few days after renting the room changed clothes into blue coat, blue shirt, dark vest and buff colored pantaloons. According to the Standard, the probability is that the family supposed…the’ dress was a disguise, and that [Guelph] was resuming the proper habiliments of her sex.”

Guelph and the Lewis daughter fell in love, engaged in a brief courtship, and were married in the town’s Episcopal Church by the family minister, Rev. Mr. Gregor. It was not until after the marriage that the bride’s father began to suspect that his new son-in-law was really a daughter-in-law; the dress having not quite have done the trick. Mr. Lewis, pere, complained to the police and Guelph was arrested, upon what charge it is not known. As the Standard tells us,  “the bride still clings to her woman husband, and claims that the arrest is a conspiracy against them. They were allowed to meet in one of the ante-rooms of the police office, and embraced each other with the greatest marks of affection.

One wonders what happened to couple.

Machine Guns in the Financial District

New Yorkers had a troublesome habit of rioting every so often.  They rioted over the price of flour in 1837, over upper class snobbery in 1849, and the draft in 1863.  Just to keep in practice, the police rioted amongst themselves in 1857, in the great New York City Police Riot.  All these riots made the U.S. Government a bit nervous; after all, there were all sorts of money stored in the New York Sub-Treasury building at 26 Wall Street.  So what did Uncle Sam do? He put turrets on the roof, threw a couple of Gatling Guns inside.  To make doubly sure no pesky rioters got close to all that gold, iron shutters were installed, complete with loop holes, through which loyal troops could pick off the masses.

By the way, the Subtreasury building is still there. It is now Federal Hall, with the big statue of Washington out front. Next time you’re there, ask ‘em to let you have a try with the Gatling Guns.

Images from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, April 08, 1881


[SOLVED by Allison Meier] A Greenwood Cemetery Hunt – Garrison’s Monument, Ocean Avenue, Greenwood Cemetery

Who was Garrison? Why did he want he want his grave to be in the form of what looks to be a mosque, couple with a Russian onion dome? Anybody got a modern picture?

Here’s what Frank Leslie’s of August 17, 1867, tells us: “Our attention was presently attracted by one of the most curious mausoleums. It is Oriental in style, and very ugly. Ere we moved on a carriage drove up, and from the conversation of its charming occupants we learned that this mosque in miniature cost fifty thousand dollars, and that the gentleman whose bones are destined to repose in it resides at present in Fifth avenue.”

***UPDATE*** Allison Meier (@allezallie) solved this one 10 minutes after I put it up on twitter. Thanks Allison.

Here’s the scoop. Commodore C.K. Garrison was a steamboat mogul, and a former mayor of San Francisco. He didn’t die until May of 1885, so this tomb sat empty for years before he found a use for it. I guess it was better to be prepared.  Anyway, our good friend C.K. (the initials stand for Cornelius Kingsland) is from upstate New York. He left home at age 13, studies architecture and engineering, then finds himself in St. Louis, where he builds, owns and operates steamboats on the Mississippi, and makes a fortune. By the 1850’s he’s in Panama, where he works for a trans-Nicaraguan shipping company (there being no Canal route) along with his partner Charles Morgan, called the Accessory Transit Company. Cornelius Vanderbilt was the main backer of the venture, which had an exclusive franchise from the Nicaraguan government.  When Commodore Vanderbilt goes off to Europe on vacation, Garrison, Morgan, and William Walker, a famous filibuster, decide it may be fun and profitable  to take over Nicaragua.

They succeeded, at least initially, and after Walker takes over the government of Nicaragua, he revokes the charter of the Accessory Transit Company, and gives it the charter to Morgan and Garrison. Vanderbilt was not pleased, and wrote Morgan and Garrison, “Gentlemen: You have undertaken to cheat me. I won’t sue you, for the law is too slow. I’ll ruin you. Yours truly, Cornelius Vanderbilt.” Vanderbilt hires two mercenaries to raise a Costa Rican army, and all sorts of other fun things, eventually driving Walker from the government of Nicaragua.

Our hero finds himself in San Francisco, where he serves as Mayor, donating his salary to an orphanage. By the time of the Civil War, Garrison is back in New York City, where he lets the government use his boats. He also becomes the President of the Missouri Pacific Railroad, before selling his interest in the line to Jay Gould at an exorbitant amount.

Oh, and the tomb is “Moorish Revival”.

Now that you’ve read through quite a bit of history (or even if you haven’t) here’s a modern picture of the tomb provided by the inestimable Allison:

Garrison's tomb, modern picture

%d bloggers like this: