No. 500
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
December 05, 2020

Burlesque Comes to America.

Thompson's British burlesque troupe opened to a packed house at Wood's Museum and Metropolitan Theatre.
April 17, 2012
...
...

 "The Witches' Cove," Follower of Jan MandijnIt's time for this week's Link Dump!Call your friends!What the hell caused a mass tree fall in Washington state?What the hell was the Grafton Monster?What the hell happened to William Hare?What the hell happened to Alfred Beilhartz?What the hell happened to Ann Bonny?A recently-discovered site may be the oldest known temple.A curious courier.The first
More...
Strange Company - 12/4/2020

`
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 […]
More...
Executed Today - 11/13/2020

News photographer George Bain spent much of his career taking photos of New Yorkers going about everyday life—and that included prepping for and celebrating Christmas. In the captions of these 1910s photos, he didn’t explain where these trees started out before they were apparently dumped at Chambers Street, most likely, where the Erie Railroad had […]
More...
Ephemeral New York - 11/30/2020
Colorization can sometimes add another whole dimension to vintage black and white photos. We’ve done this one of the crime …

Continue reading

More...
Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 8/31/2020
 The prosecution claimed that Adolph Luetgert, "Sausage King of Chicago," dissolved his wife Louisa in a vat of lye, but without a body, how could they prove she was dead?Read the full story here: The Sausage Vat Murder.
More...
Murder By Gaslight - 12/5/2020

Thomas Marshall WordNov 7, 1857 - Feb 5, 1929(Click image to enlarge)    OAPY SMITH RELATED TO ONE OF THE VIGILANTES THAT HELPED END HIS REIGN! December 2009: Fred Wood contacted me as a descendant of Tom Marshall Word, one of the vigilantes that helped end the reign of Soapy Smith in Skagway, Alaska. That alone was very interesting, and I was very happy to hear from him, but at that time he
More...
Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 11/27/2020
[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 […]
More...
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.