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:

 

IN MEMORIAM

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.

 

 

“Seeking the Bubble Reputation”

Today Forgotten Stories makes but the briefest of stops at a fashionable party in 1879.  On the menu for entertainment, soap bubbles. According to a reporter at Frank Leslie’s, “the rosebuds of the bouquet of Society have, under the nod, beck and wreathed smile of Fashion, turn soap bubbles to account, and have placed them amongst the glittering nothings that constitute the amusement of the blasé upper ten.” Translation: All the cool rich kids were having soap bubble parties.  

The concept was simple. Take a large bowl filled with soapy water. Hand out eighteen clay pipes, similar to those used to smoke opium, and see who could blow the biggest bubble. If your bubble burst the contestant got to try again, until all three tries were used up. The largest bubble won a prize. Apparently the ladies were at a disadvantage, for men were used to smoking pipes. As our reporter described it “[s]ome of the young ladies looked uncommonly piquant as they adjust the pipes in their saucy lips, while others, in the exertion of blowing, caused their features to assume proportions comical to the last degree.”

Ed. Note: A brief comment on the picture above. First, the gentleman’s mustache on the left is particularly neat. Secondly, look at the young lady on the right, holding the fan. I’ve heard of wasp waisted women, and the effects of corsets, but her waist must be all of 22 inches.

American Dispatch Telegraph Boys

If there was one item with which New York City was oversupplied in the decades following the Civil War, it was with children. Thousands of young Gavroches left their homes in the teeming tenements, either willingly or kicked out due to lack of food. Some of them turned to robbery and pillage, forming youth gangs to loot ships in the harbor. Many young girls turned to prostitution, and those that didn’t often made a few pennies street sweeping, clearing paths through the dust and manure covered roads with small brooms so that gentlemen and ladies could walk through without soiling their clothes. Even those children who tried to get an education found the schoolhouse doors closed due to lack of room.

Where some saw crisis, the American District Telegraph Company saw opportunity. It began recruiting young boys to company headquarters at Broadway and Fourth Street, where it occupied eighty rooms on the second and third floors. The largest of these rooms was the Instruction Room, and here boys found their names replaced by numbers, and learned not reading, writing, and arithmetic, but instead were drilled by Mr. Teaguer, the Superintendent of the Instruction Room, in the District Telegraph catechism.

“Number 948, what is the greatest principle which must guide you in all your messages?”

“To find the right person in the right place”

“How would you find the right person in the right place in the business portion of the City, Number 913?”

“I would consult the nearest directory”

“How would you find the right person in a hotel?”

“By going to the office and asking the clerk on duty.”

“How in a store?

“By asking the bookkeeper or floor-walker, or some clerk who was on duty”

“How in a tenement-house?”
“By inquiring of a janitor, if there was one on the first floor; if not, I would look for the party on all the floors.”

“Number 922, what would you do in case you had to deliver stock certificates or certified checks to a certain broker or banker with whose precise business address you were unacquainted.”

“I would run as fast as I could to one of the two regular boys on the street, and ask him where to go and then as soon as he told me, I would go where I was told.”

“Where are these regular boys on the street stationed?”

“One boy is stationed at the corner of Broad Street and Exchange Place, and the other at the corner of Wall Street and Broad.”

“What is the duty of these regular boys on the street?”

“They know by being down there all the time where every banker and broker does business, and so they are able to tell all the other messengers who want to know.”

Having survived the catechism, the boys were thrust into the hurly-burly world of the District Telegraph Company’s sub-offices throughout the City, serving as two legged express agents and making $3 to $7 per week. They delivered stock certificates, checks, cash, and ran theater and opera tickets to patrons unable to make it to the box office. On afternoons where inclement weather threatened, District Telegraph boys could be seen rushing about the street delivering messages for customers unwilling to brave the cold. They delivered carpet bags to travelers at the Grand Central Depot. Thanksgiving proved  to be particularly busy, and boys ran newly butchered turkeys all over town. Often, patrons hired out boys and put them in charge of more precious cargo; several of them found themselves escorting young women home from school, or watching over baby carriages while mothers shopped. Wives even sent them after inebriated husbands, and the boys walked the missing men home, for which they received a delivery receipt for “One Drunken Man.”

The Company expanded throughout the country, and every major city had an office. As the telephone caught on, however, the need for the American District Telegraph boys declined, and by the turn of the century the Company turned its efforts towards security services, providing guards and night watchmen for the City’s warehouses. Many of these warehouses were connected to Company headquarters via telephone and telegraph, so that in the event of burglary or fire the police or fire department could be sent to the rescue. By the 1920’s, the American District Telegraph Company started going by its initials, A.D.T., by which name it is still known today.

Check out our other great stories at forgottenstories.net.

Two of our all time favorites:

Goose Races in the Chicago River: https://forgottenstories.net/2012/08/09/come-take-a-gander-at-some-good-ol-fashioned-goose-racing/

Smash a Masher, Pt.2: https://forgottenstories.net/2012/06/12/smash-a-masher-pt-2/

 

Congressmen Behaving Badly

Philemon T. Herbert was a crooked lawyer, a card shark, frequented brothels, and stood accused of attacking a political rival with a knife. In other words, he fit right in with the rough and tumble environment of California in the early 1850’s, so much so that the good voters of that state sent him to Congress as a Representative from the vast Mariposa district south of Sacramento. A native Alabaman, Herbert kept up his carousing with his fellow Southrons once he’d arrived in Washington, and it was with vicious hangovers that he and his friend William Gardiner stumbled into the dining room of Willard’s Hotel at 11 a.m. on the morning of May 8, 1856. Willard’s Hotel (in the background below) was the best hotel that D.C. had to offer.

The dining room was virtually empty. The Dutch Ambassador, Monsieur Devois sat quietly finishing his breakfast, and waiters Jerry Riordin, Thomas Keating, Jerry Quinn, and his brother Charles were polishing glassware and setting the room for dinner.  Herbert growled out an order for breakfast, requesting that Riordin bring him something “damn quick.” One month as a waiter had already given Riordin the ability to size up a difficult customer, and he brought Herbert what he could, telling the Congressman that as per Willard Hotel rules, breakfast was not served after 10:30 a.m., absent special permission from the temperamental French chef, Monsieur Devionese.

Herbert wanted a full breakfast, and he wanted it now. “Clear out you damned Irish son of a bitch,” he told Riordin, who scampered to the kitchen to talk to Devionese and find out if the gentleman from California could be accommodated. Herbert brooked no delay, and ordered Thomas Keating to get him some breakfast.

“I shan’t do it.” Thomas responded, “you already have one boy waiting on you.”

“Go get us some breakfast or go away from here, you damned Irish son of a bitch.” This was more than Keating was willing to stomach. He muttered something under his breath, and now things became truly heated; Herbert stood up and threw his plate at Thomas. Never one to back down from a fight, the 200 pound Irishman responded by throwing a chair in Herbert’s general direction, both of them missed. They charged each other, and grappled in the center of the room.

The waiters stood silently by, watching the fight. Patrick Keating, Thomas’ brother was startled by the sound of breaking crockery, and came charging into the room. He attempted to brain Herbert with a  chair, but instead hit his brother. Gardiner joined the fight, pulling Patrick off and knocking him down with a blow to the jaw, and then freed Herbert by knocking Thomas in the back of the head with a chair. Thomas stumbled, but kept his balance. With his hands finally free, Herbert drew his derringer with his right hand, and grabbed Thomas’ collar with his left.

Placing the gun against Thomas’ chest, the Honorable Congressman Philemon T. Herbert looked into the Irishman’s eyes for a moment, then he pulled the trigger.  The lead shot went straight through Thomas’ lungs, and embedded itself underneath his shoulder blade. A few minutes later, Thomas Keating was dead, having devoted his last breath to call for a member of the clergy.

Herbert voluntarily turned himself in a few hours later. The United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, Philip Barton Key II, requested $10,000 bail, which two friends of Herbert promptly raised. That evening, Herbert, Key and the two friends had dinner together. Even in that day and age, it was unusually for an attorney to have dinner with the man he would be prosecuting for murder, but Key’s moral scruples were only slightly less strident than Herbert’s. The son of Francis Scott Key, and the nephew of Chief Justice Roger Taney, it was political influence which won Key his position as a United States Attorney. Reputedly the handsomest man in Washington, Key was in the throes of a passionate affair with 18-year-old, Teresa Sickles, the wife of Daniel E. Sickles, Representative from New York State.

Out on bail, Herbert returned to Congress, where Ebenezer Knowlton put forward a motion to censure and expel him. Congress that year had been particularly violent. Representative Granger of New York had engaged in fisticuffs with Representative McMullen of Virginia. Horace Greeley, editor of The New York Tribune had been hit  twice over the head with a cane by Representative Rust of Arkansas, but suffered no injuries; the rival New York Herald quipped “Greeley’s head [is] harder than it looks to be.” Most famous of all was the attack on the floor of Congress itself by Preston Brooks on Charles Sumner, which was so severe that it left Sumner crippled. For the expulsion vote, Herbert could count on support from the Know-Nothings, who were anti-Irish, and from Southern Democrats, who wanted Hebert around in case the Presidential election of 1856 devolved upon the House and his vote was needed. The motion was defeated by a majority of nine.

“There is a volume of instruction in that vote,” wrote the Herald, “the men who are in favor of Freedom respect the rights of all, no matter how humble; the men who support Slavery draw a broad line between what are called the upper and lower classes, treading upon those who serve as the would upon dogs.”

Southern papers could not have agreed more. The editor of the Montgomery Mail opined “Mr. Herbert…was attacked by a mob of waiters at his hotel in Washington. He promptly put a bullet through the head waiter, and then surrendered to the authorities. There is no doubt he acted in self defense. It is getting time that hotel waiters a little farther north were convinced that they ARE servants, and not gentlemen in disguise. We hope that this affair will teach them prudence.”

Herbert continued to serve in Congress, and after some diplomatic wrangling resulting from the Dutch Ambassador’s refusal to testify, the trial got belatedly got underway in July. Aided by a sympathetic judge and the less than zealous prosecution led by Key, the first jury couldn’t reach a verdict, and was dismissed. “The influences at work to defeat justice during the first trial of Herbert were so strong and palpable,” stated The Ripley Bee, “and the evidence of the partiality of the Judge toward the prisoner was so positive as to rouse a strong feeling of indignation in Washington.” The Judge and Key ignored popular opinion and a second jury, handpicked by Key to ensure an acquittal, found that the homicide was justified.

He returned to California to seek reelection, but while he’d been away a tide of reform had swept the state. The San Francisco Bulletin reported “the homicide was the observed of all observers yesterday as he went about the streets. People looked at him as they would look at a loathsome monster, out of mere curiosity, and not from any respect or desire to make his acquaintance. He was in company with a lot of well known gamblers all day, from whom he probably meets a warm reception.” The gamblers may have been pleased to see him, but not the citizenry. Thousands of Californians signed a petition requesting that he leave the state; which members of the Vigilance Committee presented to him along with a veiled threat that if he didn’t quit the state, he could be expect to be greeted with a hempen cord by a lynch mob.

Herbert fled south to El Paso, and opened a law practice. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he recruited a cavalry brigade, which he grandly named Herbert’s Battalion of Arizona Calvary. Decimated by two years of war, the battalion was broken up, and Herbert found himself elected to the Confederate Congress in 1863. He resigned in 1864, took up his old rank as Lieutenant Colonel and joined the Seventh Texas Calvary. Wounded during the Battle of Sabine Crossroads, he died in June, 1864.

Be sure to check out the homepage (https://forgottenstories.net/) and our archives for some other great forgotten stories. Some of our favorites:

The Great New York Shoe Conspiracy of 1909: https://forgottenstories.net/2012/05/05/the-vast-new-york-shoe-conspiracy/

Fear Ye the Ducking Stool: https://forgottenstories.net/2012/07/09/fear-ye-the-ducking-stool-ye-common-scolds/

Baby Fever!!!: https://forgottenstories.net/2012/05/20/baby-fever/

Smash a Masher: https://forgottenstories.net/2012/06/09/smash-a-masher/

Adolph Weber, Boy Murderer: https://forgottenstories.net/2012/06/26/adolph-weber-boy-murderer-of-placerville-california/

Meet Rudolph H. Bell, Head Chef of the Bronx Zoo

Chefs are, as a general rule, an exceedingly temperamental bunch. Rudolph H. Bell, head Chef of the Bronx Zoo was an exception, and he met his daily task of feeding the Zoo’s animals with good humor. He’d been with the Zoo at the time it was founded in 1899, have taken the job after working in the circus. The animals under his care had ballooned from 4 to 3,262, and many of them were finicky eaters. Bridget, the reigning queen of the chimpanzees, refused to perform her signature trick of posing like an actress unless her rice contained raisins. The two baboons, Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth, would often throw their meals at observers rather than eat it; Chef Bell only served them food which would do little damage in case it ended up as a projectile rather than dinner. At 300-years-old, Buster the tortoise demanded the privileges of age, and received a daily slice of watermelon.

What the other animals lacked in picky eating they made up for in volume. Judging by his name Peter Murphy was a hippopotamus of Irish extraction; he devoured 6 heads of cabbage, 9 bunches of carrots, 18 loaves of bread, and 36 bananas at a single sitting. Each of the bears received 20 loaves of bread per day, and 5 pounds of beef and 3 pounds of fish per week, and the seals went through barrels of butterfish.

Bell’s efforts weren’t confined to the kitchen, after years of working with animals the Zoo considered him an expert of sorts, to be consulted in unusual situations. Sometime in the 1910s, one of the buffalos gave birth to a rambunctious youngster. In a moment of absent mindedness, Mother Buffalo let Junior wander into a miry spot, and in an effort to extract himself Junior broke his leg. Realizing his predicament, several keepers went inside the pen to render assistance. Doubting the sincerity of their motives, Mother charged the group and the keepers scattered.

They sought the advice of Chef Bell, who concocted a scheme with his assistant, Loring. A former cowboy, Loring entered the pen mounted on a pony, and by fast riding around mother and yelling at the top of his lungs, sought to distract Mother while Bell scrambled to pick up the calf and run to safety. Everything went according to plan until Junior let out a plaintive bleat. When Mother heard it, she charged Bell with her head down. Loring tried to ride between them, but the pony would have none of it, and threw him.  Bell was on his own.

“I looked behind me,” he said, “and saw her coming. Dropping the calf, I made for the fence. But the next thing I knew, I didn’t know anything! Afterward, when I woke up in the hospital, and was strong enough to receive company, they told me how it happened. She picked me up on her horns and tossed me into the air. They say I flew through some tree branches like a bird and landed outside the corral. I had to have an operation then for my injuries; and two years after that I had to have another operation.” Meanwhile, back at the Zoo, the keepers found a solution to the Junior problem. They covered a two-wheeled cart with a box about the size of a piano crate, closed at the top and on the sides, and open at the bottom. Two men got inside and rolled the contraption inside the pen. Mother charged it repeatedly, but could make no impression upon it. The cart was placed over Junior, he was hauled inside, and ten minutes later found himself in the Zoo’s hospital.

Bell eventually returned to his kitchen. In a single day, the Zoo’s denizens consumed 175 loaves of bread, 250 pounds of beef, 15 heads of cabbage, 36 bunches of carrots, 2 barrels of potatoes, 450 bananas, 150 apples, 4 dozen oranges, 15 pounds of boiled rice, 25 quarts of milk, and 500 pounds of hay, not to mention the assorted birdseed, extra seasonal vegetables, the various rodents and insects consumed at the Reptile House, and of course, Buster’s watermelon. To prepare it all, Chef Bell had a gigantic combination kitchen and butcher shop at his disposal, complete with two huge refrigerators, a sink so large one could bath in it, and three big tables at which he and his assistants doled out the animal’s meals. Chef Bell retired in 1935, much beloved by his fellow Zoo employees, and most of the animals; Mother Buffalo was suspected of still bearing a grudge.

No Honor Among Thieves

The night of February 7, 1921 found Al Jennings, whose booking photo is shown below,  in a nostalgic mood as he wandered 25th Street towards Park Avenue. “I had gone down there because I’d been thinking all evening of Bill, and my mind was filled with reveries about him, most of them sad. I was walking along almost feeling that Bill’s spirit would come out and speak to me…”

Jennings’ path to 25th Street was a long one. He and his brothers opened a law practice in Woodward, Oklahoma, a cattle town filled with saloons, brothels, and gambling dens. Attorney Temple Lea Houston (Sam Houston’s son), ignored  the old joke that “a small town cannot afford one lawyer, but any size town can afford two,” and resented the imposition. Houston and the Jennings boys got in a shootout, which left Al’s brother Ed Jennings dead, and wounded John Jennings.

After the Woodward County Court freed Houston on a plea of self defense, Al Jennings fled to the Creek Indian Reservation, where he worked as a cattle hand, but he and his brother Frank quickly became suspected of a number of train robberies. Perception became reality when they joined a band of outlaws in the Arbuckle Mountains in South Central Oklahoma. Al maintained that they’d joined the band of outlaws simply for protection from the law but regardless, Al Jennings was a member of the “Long Riders” who stopped a Rock Island train between Minco and Chickahsa in October, 1897. Their target was $100,000 in U.S. Army payroll, but the nitroglycerine with which they’d intended to blow the safe failed to go off. Taking what they could from the passengers, they fled. A friend betrayed his hideout, and a posse captured him at the Spike S ranch. The court sentenced him to life imprisonment, which he served at the Ohio State Penitentiary.

Here he met Bill, the man he’d been thinking of on that winter’s evening in 1921. Bill was serving a five year sentence for embezzlement from an Austin, Texas bank, and the two became fast friends, always ready to share a laugh at the expense of the guard assigned to the hospital wing where they worked, Orrin Henry. Bill was released in 1901 for good behavior, and Al Jennings followed him in 1903, released on a technicality after strident legal efforts by his brother Ed. In 1907, Theodore Roosevelt himself issued Al a full pardon, wiping his slate clean.

Bill and Al met up in New York City, trading drinks at Pete’s Tavern in Gramercy Park, and generally having a good time. Perhaps they lived it up a bit too much. Bill was an alcoholic; his wife left him in 1909 after he failed to give up the bottle, and he died in 1910 of cirrhosis of the liver and an enlarged heart. Al went back to Oklahoma, served as an advisor on a silent film detailing robberies in the Old West, and unsuccessfully ran for sheriff and governor, and wrote his autobiography, and became pretty famous. In 1921, he returned to New York City to revisit some of his old haunts.

It was during this trip down Memory Lane and 25th Street that Al was held up. “He was a big guy, kind of foreign-looking, with an accent of some sort” Al later unhelpfully described him to police. With a gun in his ribs, Al dutifully raised his arms and remonstrated, “Listen, pal,” Al said, “You don’t want to hold me up.”

“Shut yer trap and come across with what you’ve got.”

“But I’m Al Jennings.” The name meant nothing to the bandit.

“Yeh, I’m Bill Bryan.” The now duly introduced stick up man proceeded to loot Jennings of wallet, diamond stick pin, and $82.00.

“I felt positively afraid for my life, like a rabbit coming out of the mesquite. I was sure my lights were going to be put out, and I thought of my Airedale dog and the rest of the family out home. I even saw myself lying cold and stiff in the morgue.” He made one last attempt to reason with the bandit.

“Wait a minute old timer. All I’ve got left is a dime. You wouldn’t leave a pal stranded with only a dime, would you? I’ve got to have carfare home.” Playing on sympathy didn’t help.

“Aw, shut up. So’ve I, and this only gives me enough to get where I’m going. You can have the dime though.” The bandit took off, leaving Al with his dime and his thoughts. His opinion of New York’s criminal element was none too kindly “The man who robbed me was coarse and uncouth. When we used to rob out in Oklahoma we used to make ‘em feel comfortable, but this man made me feel ill at ease. He was not only rough, but insulting.”

“I’m not kicking about his taking my money – $82 and my pin, but I would like to have back the pardon which President Roosevelt gave me. You know, I think a lot of that. The old Colonel isn’t here anymore to sign his name. If that guy has the principle of a cootie he’ll send that back to me.”

Al knew at least one man would have gotten a laugh out of the great train robber being held up and left with a thin dime, his old friend Bill, full name William Preston. Bill had written short stories under a pen name, taken either from their guard at the hospital wing, Orrin Henry, or from the various letters of Ohio State Penitentiary.

“O. Henry would have thought this a good joke on me” Jennings chuckled when interviewed by the New York World, “Maybe it is, but I’m not going out nights alone after this.”

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.

Looking for a Red Ear

We have no doubt the readership has husked corn before, six ears or so preparatory to having corn on the cob for dinner, and found it an easy task. When you have an entire corn harvest, which must be husked before it can be ground into corn meal, the task must have seemed particularly daunting to your average farmer, but he had a ready-made solution steeped in American tradition. After the corn had been harvested sometime between the middle of August and early September, depending on the rains, he piled the whole of it into his barn, and sent invitations around to the young men and women of the neighborhood, inviting them to a corn-husking frolic.

Now, merely attaching the word “frolic” to a particularly mundane task smacks of Tom Sawyer and his whitewash, and so the farmer and his family provided some inducements. There was an elaborate feast; often a whole roast pig, fresh bread, venison, chicken and a whole host of pies for desert. The corn husking frolic provided the chance to mingle with the opposite sex, which was no doubt relished by farmer’s son’s who’d just spent the entire spring and summer on a plow looking at nothing more attractive than the rear end of a mule. The suntanned women of the plains no doubt appreciated the chance to get out of the kitchen, and the opportunity to mingle and show off a new dress.

There was one final inducement. As they husked, and as the piles of yellow corn grew larger, the young men kept a lookout for a mutation, a red ear of corn. Not quite as hard as searching for a needle in a haystack, but only one or two of the ears out of the gigantic pile would be red. It was however the true prize, because the man who found a red ear of corn got to kiss a girl of his choosing. The caption accompanying our picture states:

What laughing and talking and romping, as the dry leaves were plucked from the ear! What expectations in female bosoms, as the false alarm of “Red Husk” would be cried when some knight, not an Apollo, lucked an ear that was a little tinged. What sly jokes went about as to which of the girls the lucky finder would kiss, that being his free full right and privilege; and when at length the talisman was found, what a shout of triumph from the discovery, and what a trepidation and giggling amongst the girls! Our illustration represents a husking party at the moment when the red husk has been unearthed. The gentleman is about to not only claim, but to enforce, his privilege, and, from the expression in the lady’s face, it is not improbable that she fully expected this mark of esteem should the husk be found by this particular cavalier.

The Mysterious Disappearance of the Cleveland Diamond

David Dessau was the type of father who allowed his son Simon to make his own errors, even if that error was as egregious as supporting James G. Blaine in the Presidential Election of 1884. Yet, when Simon suggested naming their newest purchase, a 100 carat diamond from South Africa via London, after the candidate Blaine, his father put his foot down; the gem would be named after Grover Cleveland. For weeks father and son debated the issue, before reaching an agreement; if Cleveland won, they would name the largest diamond in North America after him, if Blaine, then it would be known henceforth as the Blaine diamond. Until the nation decided the issue in November, father and son called the diamond by their preferred candidate’s name, and they discussed the diamond quite a bit.

David Dessau had been a moderately successful lawyer, but as with many lawyers throughout history, getting a client to pay once their case was concluded proved problematic, and often payment would be had in the form of chickens, whisky, and the like. One client even went so far as to pay Dessau in what looked to be fairly valueless diamonds, for they were uncut, murky, and yellow tinged. When Dessau rubbed one on a window, and realized it could cut glass, he had an epiphany; diamonds useless as jewelry could be used in manufacturing. Dessau abandoned the law practice for a career in manufacturing of diamond tipped industrial tools, and in the process made himself a fortune.

Part of this fortune was used to bring over the large diamond from London, it would be the biggest stone ever cut in America, and it proved to cost than the Dessau family wanted to pay; they brought on a third partner, John Rogers, a theatrical booking agent. Rogers, known as “Yours Merrily Rogers” after his habit of signing even his most vitriolic correspondence with a Yours Merrily, was an eccentric who refused to drink water, crossed the Atlantic 111 times, would sneeze convulsively, and had a penchant for showgirls, over whom he would fly into jealous rages.

While Rogers was off hunting up showgirls, either as clients or conquests, the Dessaus had what was now known as the Cleveland Diamond cut down to 42 carats (as shown above) and polished; they displayed the Diamond at the New Orleans World Cotton Centennial. Following the Exhibition, a group of wealthy New Yorkers desired to present the diamond to President Cleveland as a token of their esteem, but they were politely rebuffed; Cleveland had vowed not to accept any gifts, and remained true to his word. He did however announced that he was “highly delighted” to have the diamond named after himself.

With no other takers on the horizon, the Dessaus sold their share to Yours Merrily Rogers, who promptly bestowed it on Minnie Palmer (shown at the bottom of the post). Palmer was more than a passing fancy for Rogers, he was very much in love, and designed for her a contraption to be worn about the waist. Resting in a framework of gold, the contraption could be wound up and rotate for twelve hours, throwing glittering reflections of gaslight from the diamond to the walls of any room Palmer graced with her presence. She even wore the diamond on stage; critics were unsure whether the crowds came to see Palmer or the diamond, but as long as patrons filled the house, Palmer was happy.

A 42 carat diamond could raise the matrimonial interest of all but the most level headed of women, and Palmer loved jewels, which Rogers kept providing. Their marriage was low on wedded bliss, a series of jealous accusations of infidelity culminated one evening with Rogers sitting on the side of Palmer’s bed, calling her endearing names before suddenly pressing a foot long kitchen knife to her throat.  She escaped, and filed for divorce, agreeing to split the jewelry collection with her husband. Rogers kept the Cleveland Diamond, and Palmer fled across the Atlantic.

Without Pamer to draw in box office crowds, Rogers’ finances began to sink, and soon he approached the Actors’ Guild with an offer to raffle off the Cleveland Diamond at a fair being held at Madison Square Garden. Rogers drove a hard bargain only agreeing to put the Diamond up for the raffle if the Actors’ Guild paid off loans secured by the gem, and agreed to split the raffle’s proceeds. The gentlemen in charge of the raffle assented.

His debts paid off, Rogers headed to Europe to reconcile with Palmer. Meanwhile, the raffle went on, but when the Actors’ Guild drew the winning ticket, it was discovered that no one purchased the it. The contract with Rogers called for only one draw, so keeping his half of the raffle proceeds, Rogers agreed with the Actors’ Guild to auction off the diamond, leaving it in their hands as he worked on getting Palmer to call off the divorce. She agreed to reconcile, but a few months later the mercurial Rogers filed for divorce against her, citing an alleged affair.

Never one to keep to close an eye on his business affairs, Rogers realized that he’d never been paid for his half of the proceeds the diamond received at Actors’ Guild auction. When the Guild failed to provide the funds, Rogers filed suit; the Actors Guild’s lawyer claimed that the auction had been held and Rogers paid; but their testimony on the stand was curious. No one could remember who served as auctioneer, how much the diamond had fetched, who bought it, or when Rogers had been paid. With no evidence, the New York Supreme Court dismissed the case.

The Cleveland Diamond was never heard from again after the Madison Square Garden Fair raffle in 1892. The Actors’ Guild did nothing to search for it out of a concern for their own complicity in its disappearance. Rogers, still infatuated with Palmer attempted to reconcile with her once more, an attempt she wisely rebuffed. Nevertheless he went to his grave at the age of 92 in 1936, still claiming to all who would listen that Palmer was his wife. She followed him a few years later.

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.

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