No. 522
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
May 17, 2021

Burlesque Comes to America.

Thompson's British burlesque troupe opened to a packed house at Wood's Museum and Metropolitan Theatre.
April 17, 2012
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The following tale comes from that classic collection of mostly first-hand accounts of supernatural encounters, "Lord Halifax's Ghost Book."  It was related to Lord Halifax in 1920 by his nephew, Charles Dundas.  Dundas had recently heard the tale from a renowned Royal Air Force pilot named Edward Villiers.  (Later Sir Edward Villiers.)  It is one of the briefest stories in the "Ghost Book," but
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Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 5/11/2021

Born in 1870 and completed 13 years later (at a cost of $15 million and with more than 20 worker deaths), the Brooklyn Bridge is marking its 138th birthday this week. What better way to honor an icon than with a brilliant lithograph produced by a Pearl Street publisher depicting the fireworks, ship parade, and […]
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Ephemeral New York - 5/17/2021
Youth With Executioner by Nuremberg native Albrecht Dürer … although it’s dated to 1493, which was during a period of several years when Dürer worked abroad. November 13 [1617]. Burnt alive here a miller of Manberna, who however was lately engaged as a carrier of wine, because he and his brother, with the help of […]
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The crack of gunfire startled the residents of 88 Merrimack Street, a boarding house in Lowell, Massachusetts, around 10:00, the night of  August 31, 1876. The boarders rushed to Lulu Martin’s room on the third floor, where the shot was fired. The door was locked; they heard a man inside shouting, “Go for the police! She has shot me! I will hold her! Break open the door!”A group of men broke in
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Along with Bertie Whitehead, Abby’s half-sister, May 13th was also the birthday of Helen Craig, famous stage actress best-remembered for Johnny Belinda. Helen Craig, who played Abby in The Legend of Lizzie Borden was born May 13, 1912, a month after Titanic sank. Helen Craig was not a great beauty by Hollywood standards, but a very fine actress. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0185871/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1 Her portrayal of Abby Borden as a mean, greedy glutton, more than any other thing, has affected the way most people think of Abby Borden. Sadly it was not an accurate portrayal. Helen did some television in her later career, most notably The Waltons. She died in New York City in 1986. She was married to stage and film actor John Beal who played Dr. Bowen in Legend of Lizzie Borden. They are seen together in the publicity photo below.
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Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 5/13/2021
[Editor’s note: Guest writer, Peter Dickson, lives in West Sussex, England and has been working with microfilm copies of The Duncan Campbell Papers from the State Library of NSW, Sydney, Australia. The following are some of his analyses of what he has discovered from reading these papers. Dickson has contributed many transcriptions to the Jamaica Family […]
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Early American Crime - 2/7/2019
Allan Pinkerton. | The Two Paths in Life.

Burlesque Comes to America.

Lydia Thompson
New York, New York, September 28, 1868 – Lydia Thompson’s British burlesque troupe opened to a packed house at Wood’s Museum and Metropolitan Theatre. Some critics praised them as “perfect blondes whose flowing golden hair charms all beholders” while others condemned them as “brazen-faced, stained, yellow-haired, padded limbed creatures.” 
 
ixion
The arrival of Lydia Thompson and her troupe—who soon became known as The British Blondes—was preceded by an intensive public relations campaign touting her recent success in Europe and Russia. In Helsinki, her path was strewn with flowers and torches carried by enthusiastic fans illuminated the streets. It became the custom, in homes in Riga, to display Lydia’s portrait alongside that of the Czar. In Lemberg, a captain of the Russian dragoons shot himself in the heart leaving a note saying his love for Lydia had driven him to the act.
PaulineMakham Pauline Markham

Though skeptical at first, most of the critics and the vast majority of theatergoers were won over after the opening of Ixion, the play performed by The Blondes at the 2,200 seat theatre in Wood’s Museum. Ixion, was a lampoon of classical culture in rhyming pentameter, filled with puns and topical references tailored to fit 1868 New York. The show included singing and dancing to familiar songs with parodied lyrics. Lydia played the king of Thessaly (in a stylized thigh-length Greek tunic and flesh-colored tights) who seeks advice from the Greek gods. Jupiter and the other male gods were portrayed by women. Pauline Markham, who was later called “the most beautifully formed woman who had ever appeared on stage,” played Venus. The other goddesses were played by Harry Beckett, the only male member of the troupe.

HarryBeckett Harry Beckett
Thompson’s troupe played to sellout crowds at Wood’s theatre until February 1869 when they moved to the larger and more prestigious Niblio’s Garden, to perform another burlesque, The Forty Thieves; or Striking Oil in Family Jars. Though the crowds still came in droves, by the time they opened at Niblio’s the critics had lost their love of Lydia Thompson and the British Blondes. What had previously been “delightful deviltry” was now called “leg business” and “nude drama.” Though the women’s costumes were no more revealing than could be seen at the ballet, the cut of the clothes was more vulgar, tending to focus the eye on legs and breasts. Not surprisingly, this anti-burlesque campaign was joined by clergymen, legislators, literary figures and suffragettes.

In July 1869 the troupe closed at Niblio’s and took the show on the road for a seven-month tour of the east and Midwest. Starting at Niagara Falls, they traveled southward to Buffalo, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Cincinnati, Louisville, Chicago, St. Louis, and New Orleans, with return trips to Cincinnati and Chicago. In every city played to packed houses and received generally favorable reviews. But in their second visit to Chicago, Lydia and her troupe were met by a series of personal attacks by Wilbur F. Storey, editor of the Chicago Times. In one article he said that Lydia and her troupe…
“have made an unnecessary and lewd exhibition of their persons, such as would not be tolerated by the police in any bawdy house; that they have made use of broad, low and degrading language, such as men of any self respect would repudiate, even in the absence of ladies; that their entertainments have been mere vehicles for the exhibition of course women and the use of disreputable language unrelieved by any wit and humor.”
horsewhipping
The evening of February 24, 1870, Lydia Thompson, Pauline Markham, Alexander Henderson (Lydia's husband), and publicist Archie Gordon were waiting in a carriage outside Wilbur Storey’s home in Wabash Avenue. When Storey and his wife came out, Mr. Storey was grabbed by Henderson and Gordon and held while the women horsewhipped him with buckskin whips. Witnesses said that Henderson held Storey at gunpoint to make sure he got his punishment.

The group was arrested and released on bail, but by then the story had circulated throughout Chicago and a raucous crowd of at least two thousand supporters met them as they left the jail. Lydia and her party were re-arrested for inciting a riot.

In their trial, the defense attorney made no attempt to defend the actions as legal but begged the judge to understand that, since their performance schedule made a libel suit against Storey impractical, the whipping was morally and socially justifiable. The judge fined them one hundred dollars apiece.

The financial success of Lydia Thompson and her British Blondes spawned numerous imitators, and burlesque became a staple of American theatre. But as the genre grew, its critics became more and more vocal, and what had begun as light amusement for middle-class women and men, by the 1890s was low entertainment, specifically aimed at working-class men.
And way down in front by the footlights glow,
The bald-headed men sat in the front row.
They had big glasses to see all the sights
Including the blondes who danced in silk tights.

- Lydia Thompson.

Sources:

  • Allen, Robert Clyde. Horrible prettiness: burlesque and American culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
  • "An Editor Assaulted." Chicago Tribune 25 Feb. 1870: 4.
  • Pullen, Kirsten. Actresses and whores: on stage and in society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.