Woman in the Arts and Entertainment

Jennie Ward, Circus Performer

Jennie Ward, 1908 Jennie Ward
and Alec Todd, 1912
The Flying Wards, 1914
Ringling Contract, cover , 1911 Ringling Contract, top, 1911
Postcard, Jennie to mother, 1909 Ward Practice Barn on Emerson Street, Bloomington
Drawing of Ward Aerial Act, from letterhead, 1912

Jennie Ward

Text by Steve Gossard, Curator, ISU Circus Collection

In the last quarter of the 19th century, a few talented young men left Bloomington, Illinois to pursue careers peforming aerial acts in the circus ring. At the end of each circus season, they would return to their home town to practice. As artists, they developed their skills and perfected new tricks during these winter months. As businessmen, they sought new talent to expand their acts and offer more sensational performances. In time, Bloomington became the leading community for training performers for trapeze and other aerial acts. This fostered an environment of concern for skill and learning in the circus arts, and many young men and women tried their hands at these dynamic disciplines. Out of this environment of active pursuit came a talented young brother and sister act which would contribute much to establishing a standard for excellence in the profession.

Jennie Ward grew up on the poor side of town in Bloomington, Illinois. According to local legend, she and her brother, Eddie, had taught themselves to perform a daring two-person aerial act by slinging trapeze bars from the limbs of a thorn apple tree in their back yard. They ascended to the top of their profession while Jennie was still in her teens. From that time until her tragic death at the age of twenty-eight, Jennie was acknowledged to be one of the finest and most beautiful aerialists in the business.

Jennie, born December 8, 1889, was three years younger than her brother, Eddie. Their mother and father were divorced when the children were very young, and their mother made a meager living taking in washing. Eddie dropped out of school in the third grade to work as a butcher’s helper. Eddie and Jennie began their performance career in 1904 working parks and fairs.

Eddie and Jennie began performing for the great Ringling Brothers’ Circus in 1906. With the exception of the 1907 season, which they spent with the Van A mburgh Circus, Eddie and Jennie were with the Ringling show through 1912, performing a swinging ladders act as well as their double trapeze. A double trapeze consists of one trapeze hanging above another. From this the aerialists perform a series of contortions, flips, and drops and catches. The act was performed without a net or safety device of any kind. At the height of their career, the Wards’ double trapeze performance consisted of eight or more stunts, and took seven minutes. Two of their stunts, the foot-to-foot catch and the break-away trick, were said to be innovations of the Wards.

On August 19, 1911 the Billboard magazine reported an incident which occurred in Grand Island, Nebraska with the Ringling Brothers’ Circus:

Miss Jennie Ward, one of the Flying Wards, high trapeze artists with Ringling Bros.’ Show fell from the top of the tent with the afternoon performance last Thursday. Since the team worked without a net of any kind, she fell with a great force to the ground, and is said to be probably fatally injured internally.

Jennie had fallen flat against the ring curb (the wooden circle which makes up the circus ring) forty feet below so hard that her neck actually split a two-by-four in half. But the report of the seriousness of her injury was premature. Jennie did recover from the effects of the fall, which her brother, Eddie later said (May, Earl Chapin, Grab It, American Magazine, July 1928) had left her back bowed like a horseshoe. She treated herself with a grueling and painful form of physical therapy, pulling herself up every day on the tent ropes. “It was punishment of the toughest kind,” Eddie said. Within a year Jennie was working in their aerial act again.

In 1912 Eddie married Mayme Fay Harvey, a young woman with the Hines-Kimball troupe of acrobats; and Jennie married Alec Todd, an aerialist with the Herbert Brothers act. These four would make the nucleus of the original Flying Wards flying return act. In a flying return act, one trapeze artist (the flyer) stands on a narrow platform, and swings off on a trapeze bar (the flybar). He is caught by another aerialist (called the catcher) who swings by his hocks from another trapeze (the catchbar). The two complete their swing and the flyer is returned to the pedestal board by way of the flybar.

The Wards left the Ringling show in 1912. They toured Europe with their new act and returned to America, having recruited new people to the act for the 1913 season. In 1913, the Wards built a practice barn at Center Point, Iowa. The Center Point barn was hardly used, for in about 1915 Eddie built another barn on Emerson Street in Bloomington, Illinois. It was here that the Wards established their permanent winter quarters. From 1914 until 1918 the Wards contracted to provide their flying return act for the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. The winter of 1916-1917 they also toured Cuba. Early one morning in June of 1918, the circus train in which the troupe was riding was sitting on a siding at Ivanhoe, Indiana when an empty troop train rammed it from behind at full speed. Eddie, Mayme and Alec survived the wreck, but Jennie and another girl with the act were killed. Eddie had pulled Jennie out of the wreckage, but she was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident. Family members state that Jennie was pregnant at the time of her death. Other fatalities of the wreck, burned beyond recognition, were buried in a mass grave. Jennie was returned to Bloomington and buried at Park Hill Cemetery.

Eddie and Jennie Ward had begun an unparallelled tradition of aerial training in Bloomington, Illinois. In the early years, Jennie helped to establish a standard of excellence which carried over through future generations of trapeze artists. As time went on Eddie trained dozens of the finest aerialists in the country at the practice barn on Emerson Street. The reputation which Jennie and Eddie earned in double trapeze performance has never been surpassed.

Source reference:
Barkin, Herman & Assoc., public relations firm for the Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co.; Mayme Ward-Elephant Couturiere; White Tops; May/Jun. 1965. Billboard magazine issues dating from 1906 through 1940s.
Daily Bulletin and Daily Pantagraph various issues running from 1905 to mid-1970s.
Various issues of the Bloomington/Normal city directories 1890s through 1930s.
Draper, J. D.; Mayme Ward; Bandwagon; Jan./Feb. 1973.
Interviews and correspondence with Mickey King, Daniel Draper, Evelyn Simpson, Arthur Concello, Walter Graybeal, Genevieve Ward Tharp, Millie Nugent, Wanda Ward, Harrold Wilson and Lorraine Valentine. May, Earl Chapin; Grab It!; American Magazine; July 1928.
Various ledgers, letters and contracts on file, Milner Library Special Collections, Illinois State University. Noble, Clyde V; The Man on the Flying Trapeze; White Tops; Sep./Oct. 1950.
Various letters and contracts on file in the archives of Fred D. Pfening, ed., pub. Bandwagon magazine. Reeder, Warren A.; No Performances Today; Hammond, Indiana; 1972.
Taber, Bob; The Famous Flying Wards, White Tops; Jan./Feb. 1965.

Contributing Library:

Milner Library, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois

Lena Doolin Mason (1864-?)

Lena Doolin was born in 1864 in Quincy, Illinois. She attended High School in nearby Hannibal, Missouri, and later attended Professor Knott’s School in Chicago. In 1883, she married George Mason.

About 1887, Lena entered the ministry, being affiliated with the Colored Conference of the Methodist Church. She was a powerful evangelist, travelling throughout the United States, preaching to all white and later to racially mixed congregations..

Lena was also a poet and an artist. Her two surviving poems “The Negro and Education” and “A Negro In It” demonstrate her commitment to the civil rights for African Americans.

“A Negro In It” (reproduced below ) makes several references to important roles filled by African Americans in United States near the turn of the century. Mrs. Mason specifically points out the role African American soldiers played in the battle of San Juan Hill in 1898, during the Spanish-American War, and J. B. Parker’s role in the capture of the assassin of President William McKinley in September 1901.

A Negro In It

By Mrs. Lena MasonIn the last civil war,
The white folks, they began it,
But before it could close,
The Negro had to be in it.

At the battle of San Juan hill,
The rough-riders they began it;
But before victory could be won
The Negro had to be in it.

The Negro shot the Spaniard from the tree,
And never did regret it;
The rough-riders would have been dead to-day
Had the he Negro not been in it.

To Buffalo, McKinley went,
To welcome people in it;
The prayer was prayed, the speech made,
The Negro, he was in it.

September sixth, in Music Hall,
With thousands, thousands in it,
McKinley fell, from the assassin’s ball,
And the Negro, he got in it.

He knocked the murderer to the floor,
He struck his nose, the blood did flow;
He held him fast, all nearby saw,
When for the right, the Negro in it.

J. B. Parker is his name,
He from the state of Georgia came;
He worked in Buffalo, for his bread,
And there he saw McKinley dead.

They bought his clothes for souvenirs,
And may they ever tell it,
That when the President was shot
A brave Negro was in it.

He saved him from the third ball,
That would have taken life with it;
He held the foreigner fast and tight,
The Negro sure was in it.

McKinley now in heaven rests,
Where he will ne’er regret it;
And well he knows, hat in all his joys
There was a Negro in it.

White man, stop lynching and burning
This black race, trying to thin it,
For if you go to heaven or hell
You will find some Negroes in it.

Parker knocked the assassin down,
And to beat him, he began it;
In order to save the President’s life,
Yes, the Negro truly was in it.

You may try to shut the Negro out,
The courts, they have begun it;
But when we meet at the judgment bar
God will tell you the Negro is in it.

Pay them to swear a lie in court,
Both whites and blacks will do it;
Truth will shine, to the end of time,
And you will find the Negro in it.

Bibliography

  1. Culp, Daniel W. (1902, reprinted 1969). Twentieth Century Negro Literature, J. L. Nichols Co., Atlanta; Mnemosyne Publishing Co., Miami.
  2. LaPrade, Candis, (1992) “Lena Doolin Mason” in Notable Black American Women. Smith, Jessie Carney, Ed. Gale Research Inc, Detroit, Michigan., Pp. 734-736.

Julia Lowande, Circus Performer

Julia Lowande, Ringling Brothers poster, 1901
Julia Lowande, Ringling Route Book, 1897

Julia Lowande Shipp

Text by Steve Gossard, Curator, ISU Circus Collection

Ed Shipp described his wife’s early life traveling with circuses throughout Latin America for a Daily Pantagraph reporter December 15, 1898; “As a child she traveled across Cuba in a bull-cart sleeping in cowhide hammocks and being nearly devoured by fleas and mosquitoes. She has ridden on the back of a mule over the mountains of Venezuela from LaGuira to Caracas, a task far different from standing on the back of a galloping horse in the circus ring…” The Lowande family circus toured the Southern Hemisphere of America extensively in the 1860s and 1870s, and Julia Lowande’s career began at birth. She established a reputation for herself as a first-class equestrienne at an early age.

Ed Shipp met Julia Lowande through his half-brother, Harry Lamkin, who was an accomplished acrobat and juggler. Harry had married Julia’s half-sister, Clarinda, in the mid 1870s. Harry and Clarinda had returned to his home town of Petersburg, Illinois for the winter months a number of times in the 1870s, and in 1880 he built a training barn there. Harry taught Ed the art of trick horseback riding, and Ed became acquainted with the great Lowande family of horseback riders, many of whom settled in Petersburg to use Harry’s practice facilities. Petersburg soon became one of the most significant training centers for circus performers in the country.

In 1885, Lamkin entered into a partnership with Frank Gardner, a great horseback rider and leaper from Galesburg, Illinois, and another performer named James Donovan, in a circus which they took to Central and South America. His partnership with these two gentlemen lasted until Harry’s death at Colon, Panama in 1886. At this time, Ed Shipp became the proprietor of the winter quarters at Petersburg, and he began presenting circus performances in the barn, drawing an audience of local residents twice a week throughout the winter months. He and Julia Lowande were married in 1889. Ed quit horseback riding after taking a number of serious falls from the horse, and he assumed the job of equestrian director for the Ringling Brothers Corporation in 1895. He and Julia worked for many years with various Ringling owned circuses. They continued presenting their winter circus in Petersburg until 1907, when Ed formed a circus which he took to Central and South America and the West Indies. Ed and his partner, Roy Feltus, of Bloomington, Indiana, organized the most successful circus to tour the Latin American countries from the early 1900s into the 1930s.

Throughout her life Julia Lowande Shipp was known as one of the finest equestriennes in the business, and her career took her throughout the Western Hemisphere. In the 1870s she was a young star with her father’s circus in the Latin American countries. From the 1880s through the early 1900s she was the principal equestrienne with several of the great Ringling Brothers’ shows. Her family and professional ties helped to make Petersburg, Illinois one of the most important winter practice sites in North America, and from the 1900s into the 1930s she was the featured performer with Gran Circo Shipp and Feltus traveling the entire breadth of the South American continent.

Major sources:
Draper, John Daniel; The Lowande Family of Riders; Bandwagon; Jul.-Aug. 1996
Basso, Louise; The Story of the Ring Barn; unpublished, courtesy of the Menard County Historical Society
Various issues of the New York Clipper, Billboard and the Saulk County Democrat of Baraboo, Wisconsin. 1870s through 1940s
Special thanks to Helen Bourque, granddaughter of Alec G. Lowande, of Petersburg, Illinois

Contributing Library:

Milner Library, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois

Marie Litta, Bloomington Opera Singer

To see a larger image, just click on the image.
Marie Litta Photograph
Marie Litta Biography
Photocopy of Newspaper from Weekly Pantagraph
Drawing of Marie Litta Cemetery Monument

Biography of MARIE LITTA, OPERA SINGER

Her voice was “a beautiful gift of nature”, “fresh and pure”, with “unusual sweetness and evenness of tone”, “clear and true as a flute”. Who was this Westerner, this American, winning the hearts of Parisian opera- goers in 1878?

She was born Marie Eugenia Von Elsner in Bloomington, IL, on June 1 1856. Her father was a native of Germany, from a minor noble family, and her mother was the daughter of William Dimmitt, an early Illinois pioneer and one of the first settlers of Bloomington.

Both parents were musically talented, and Marie’s father began nurturing her vocal qualities at the age of 4. She sang before President Grant when 12 years old, and began her professional instruction at the Cleveland Conservatory of Music at the age of 16, in 1872.

In 1874 she left for London to continue her training, and debuted at the Drury Lane Theatre in 1876. She moved on to Paris for further training under the leading teachers of the day, and scored a triumphant debut as Lucia in “Lucia di Lammermoor”.

This 1878 debut was the occasion for Marie changing her name. Paris in 1878 had not forgotten France’s ignominious defeat in the Franco- Prussian War. It was suggested to Marie that the Parisian opera-going public would be more receptive if she had a less German-sounding name. She selected Litta, the surname of a prominent Italian family.

Marie returned to the U. S. and debuted in Chicago in “Lucia” on December 2, 1878. She was often compared to Jenny Lind because of her personality, amiability and willingness to give concerts for the poor. She was held in deep affection by concert goers. She continued her career with the Strakosch Opera Company, and with the Henry L. Slayton Co. of Chicago, and performed throughout the U. S. and in Canada. She was equally at home with operatic arias as well as old favorites.

Although plagued by seemingly minor ailments throughout her career, she was known for her hard work and determination. After what proved to be her final concert in Escanaba, MI on May 9, 1883, she asked to be returned to Bloomington, which she always considered her home. She died at her home on July 7, 1883 at age 27, possibly of cerebro-spinal meningitis. Bloomington had never seen a funeral with so many mourners. (An example of the cult of mourning at the time: scraps of fabric were cut from Marie’s gowns and distributed to “the faithful” as “relics” of Marie. The McLean County Historical Society has some of these fragments in its collection.)

Until the emergence of Adlai E. Stevenson II, Marie Litta was considered the only citizen of Bloomington who had ever won world-wide fame. An impressive monument was dedicated to her memory in Bloomington’s Evergreen City Cemetery on July 4, 1885, with formal dedication addresses by the Honorable David Davis and Mr. James Ewing. Bloomington still remembers Marie Litta: the Parks & Recreation Department dedicated a small park in her honor in 1991.

Bibliography

  1. Obituary: The Weekly Pantagraph, July 13, 1883 (bound volume; owned by MCHS)
  2. Marie Litta Collection, MCHS. Includes program from dedication of monument, concert program, news clippings, “Litta: an American Singer” by John M. Scott.
  3. “Biographical History of McLean County”, Bloomington: 1887. Owned by MCHS.
  4. Marie Litta Photograph collection. Owned by MCHS.

Contributing Library:

Stevenson – Ives Memorial Library, McLean County Historical Society, Bloomington, Illinois

Linda Jeal, Circus Performer

Linda Jeal, Barnum Circus, 1879

Linda Jeal

The Queen of the Flaming Zone, as Linda Jeal was called at the height of her career in the 1880s, settled in Havana, Illinois late in her career. Born in England in 1852, Linda grew up in Australia, and emigrated to California in the late 1860s, where s he became apprenticed to her sister’s husband, circus owner, George Ryland. Over the years she appeared in some of the most prestigious circuses in the Western Hemisphere, Australia and Europe, including P. T. Barnum’s Circus, the Orrin Brothers’ Circus, The Great London Circus, Cooper & Bailey’s Great Allied Shows, the Barnum & London Circus, Gran Circo Pubillones, Circus Busch, the Carl Hagenbeck Circus, Gran Circo Estrella del Nordis, and Gran Circo Gardner. Linda is acknowledged to have been the mos t spectacular equestrienne of the 19th century, having performed the sensational feat of leaping on horseback through a flaming hoop in performance for several decades.

In 1930, Linda was quoted as stating that while she worked with the Barnum show “my costume was the subject of a controversy which would today be regarded as ridiculous.” She had cut her hair short and worn tights with a jockey costume, but this was don e from necessity. On one occasion when riding through the hoop of fire her pony, Salamander, stumbled, and her hair and costume caught on fire.

Linda was on familiar terms with the extensive circus colony of Petersburg, Illinois by the 1890s, when she moved to Havana. In 1885 she had been married for a brief period to Natalio Lowande, the half-brother of Julia Shipp. Julia’s husband, Ed, owned and maintained the training barn in Petersburg, Illinois, and in 1889 and 1891 Linda had toured South America with a circus owned by Frank Gardner, a former partner of Ed Shipp’s half-brother, Harry Lamkin. Linda had gained experience managing practice quarters in the late 1870s when she and her first husband, William O’Dale Stevens, had run the West End Academy in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Ed Shipp engaged Linda to manage a barn and boarding house for performers at Havana, some 15 or 20 miles from Petersburg. She moved there with her adopted daughter, Dallie Julien, whom she trained to be one of the finest equestriennes of the early 20th century. Linda supervised and trained performers at the winter quarters in Havana until about 1917, when she retired from circus performance. At the time of her death in 1941she was living with Dallie at her home in Springfield, Illinois.

Major sources:
Shettel, James W.; The Queen of the Flaming Zone; The Circus Scrapbook; Oct. 1930
Linda Jeal; The Detroit News; Jan. 29, 1933
Draper, John Daniel; Linda Jeal and Her Equestrian Kin; Bandwagon; May-Jun. 1987
Lano, David; A Wandering Showman, I; Michigan University Press, 1957
Various issues of the New York Clipper and Billboard magazines 1870s-1940s.

Contributing Library:

Milner Library, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois

Sarah Marshall Hayden, Illinois’ First Authoress

Sarah M. Hayden was recognized at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago as Illinois’ first woman authoress. Her first novel, Early Engagements, was written when she was sixteen years old, but not published until 1854.

Sarah was born in Shawneetown in southern Illinois in 1825, the year that Marquis de Lafayette visted her hometown. Sarah’s father was John Marshall, who served in the Illinois Territorial Legislature held in Kaskaskia in 1818. John Marshall also operated a store and made frequent trips to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia for supplies.

Sarah accompanied her father on one of the trips and stayed to attend the Sewickley School, a female “seminary”. The school was to play an important role in her first novel.

In 1843, Sarah married John James Hayden. Her first novel and its sequel Florence were not published until 1854. The Haydens moved to Cincinnati. Sarah continued writing both poetry and prose and the works were published in magazines and newspapers. Some of her works appear under the pen name Mary Frazaer.

Bibliography

  1. Witter, Evelyn and David R. Collins. 1976. Illinois Women: Born to Serve. Illinos Federation of Women’s Clubs.
  2. Lawler, Lucille. 1985. Amazing Shawneetown. Ridgeway, Illinois.

Contributing Library:

John A. Logan College

Bessie Coleman (1896-1926)

Bessie Coleman was born in 1896 in Texas, the daughter of sharecroppers. About 1916, her family moved to Chicago. Her family came during the “Great Migration” of African Americans moving from the South to the North. The migration was primarily the result of economic opportunities in the industrial cities in the North. Those who moved North moved from a primarily rural, agricultural environment to an urban one.

Bessie interest in aviation was sparked during World War I. However, she was denied entry into flight schools in the U. S. because she was an African American and because she was a woman. Two of Chicago’s African American businessmen, Robert Abbott (editor of the Chicago Defender newspaper) and Jesse Binga (a banker and philanthropist), encouraged Bessie and financed her aviation schooling in France. In 1921, Bessie became the first American woman to earn an international pilot’s license.

During the 1920s, Bessie was a barnstormer, parachutist and stunt flyer. She earned international fame. She made appearances throughout the United States lecturing about opportunities in aviation for African Americans and fighting segregation laws.

Bessie died in 1926, at age of thirty, when she was thrown from her plane while performing aerial stunts in Florida. She is buried in Chicago’s Lincoln Cemetery.

Bibliography

  1. Rich, Doris L. (1993) Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.
  2. Freydberg, Elizabeth A. H. (1994) Bessie Coleman: The Brownskin Lady Bird. Garland Publishing, New York

Emma Abbott, Peoria’s Most Famous Singer

Click on an image if you would like to see a larger image.
Emma Abbott, Peoria’s Most Famous Singer

For a larger image of the pictures below, just click on the image.
Emma Abbott, Peoria’s Foster Daughter
Abbott as Violetta in Traviata
Emma Abbott in 1873, 74, 75
Abbott and Castle as Paul and Virginia
Emma Abbott Libretto and Parlor Pianist Mignon
Emma Abbott Libretto and Parlor Pianist Mikado

A. W. Oakford’s History of Peoria contains a lengthy biographical sketch of Emma Abbott. The following excerpts relate details of her life in Peoria.

Seth Abbott, a singing teacher and violinist, brought his family to Peoria from Chicago in 1853. He came to Peoria to direct the choir of the early First Baptist Church. He also taught singing to others in the community. A news item in a Peoria paper of May 2, 1853 read: “Seth Abbott, a successful teacher of music to juveniles, staged a floral concert at Court House square.”

The Abbott family at that time consisted of Seth Abbott, his wife, Almira Palmer Abbott, and three children; two sons and a small daughter. The latter, Emma Abbott, of whom this sketch concerns, was born in Chicago, December 9th, 1850. She was les s than three years of age when the family moved to Peoria.

During their residence of some sixteen years in Peoria the Abbotts moved several times. In the directory of 1859 their address was listed as “Adams St. river side, ninth door above Spring.” A very humble dwelling, now in lamentable condition, occup ies the spot and give mute evidence of the modest surroundings of Emma Abbott.

Seth Abbott, it is true, was not a well-to-do man when he brought his family to Peoria. His means were quite limited, and it was necessary for his family to live frugally. The story, too often told, of their impoverished days in Peoria was greatly exagg erated. To supplement his earnings as a singing teacher, Seth attempted to sell real estate, and later insurance, but with only small success. Business was not his forte. He loved music and it was his life. He taught his daughter Emma, as a child, to play the guitar, and under his early tutelage supplemented by more finished teachers in later years, she developed a beautiful soprano voice.

Her father often played his violin for dances and at other times, with members of his family, staged concerts of various kinds in the vicinity.

An early newspaper states that Emma made her stage debut in 1859, playing her guitar and singing before an audience of coal miners in a small school house at Edwards, Illinois. The little building was crowded, but windows and doors were left open so that many listening from the outside could hear her sweet voice as she sang heart stirring tunes of the day. No admission was charged, but appreciative miners took up a substantial collection. Little did they know that the young girl, then only nine ye ars of age, was destined to become one of America’s outstanding sopranos.

As a child Emma was kind-hearted but impulsive. She had a fervent love for music and seemed to know intuitively that singing was to be her life work. She had the utmost faith in herself, plus the will to succeed.

Emma’s father was quick to perceive certain qualities in his little daughter’s voice. He knew that with proper training that voice had great possibilities. On several occasions when he went to Chicago he took Emma with him. While there his persona l friend, the manager of Sherman Hotel, invited her to sing for his guests in the hotel parlor, and her singing never failed to give pleasure.

About 1862 Seth Abbott’s pupils rendered the cantata “Queen Esther” in Peoria. The composer, William B. Bradbury, noted for his sacred music, drilled the singers personally. Emma was the youngest in the cast. Upon hearing her voice, he said of he r, “She sings as a lark does because she can’t help it.” After the performance he requested that she sing selections of her own choice for him. She sang a few simple songs like “Old Folks at Home”, and then the soprano part of “Hear Me Norma”. Sadie E. Martin, a personal friend of Emma’s, and later her biographer, referred to this occasion and said, “Bradbury himself was silent through her singing and then said to her ‘My dear, fortune and fame are sure to be yours.’ ”

A little later, perhaps when Madam Parepa Rosa made an appearance n Peoria, she also heard Emma sing and assured her family that she had promise of becoming a great artiste.

One of the numerous concerts given by Seth Abbott and his family occurred about 1864 in a country school house at Farmdale, Illinois, between East Peoria and Washington. Emma, who appeared with her father and her brother George, was then only thirte en years of age. The accompanying photograph shows her as she then appeared. Her voice at that time was not strong but had a sweetness about it that appealed to her listeners. Her singing of popular tunes captivated those who heard her, old and young.

Having his confidence in Emma’s voice confirmed by the opinions of William Bradbury, Madam Rosa and others, Mr. Abbott arranged for her to enter a singing class conducted by a capable instructor in Chicago who went by the name of Mozart.

…..and so Emma left Peoria, but returned in later years, as Mr. Oakford goes on to report:

On March 21st, 1868, Frank Lumbard and his troup appeared at Rouse’s Hall in Peoria. Emma was one of the featured singers. It was one of those occasions, the memory of which was dear to those who were present.

The last Peoria directory, in which Seth Abbott’s name appears, was 1867-68. It is quite probably it was in the latter year that Mr. Abbott went with his daughter to New York. There Emma became a pupil of the famous Errani. Her father, Seth Abbott , through his saving and his confidence in her voice had made this possible.

…..several years later, Mr. Oakford recounts:

In 1880 The Abbott Opera Company appeared in Peoria at the historic Rouse’s Hall, where the First National Bank Building now stands. It was most unfortunate that the company at that particular time was confronted with some temporary financial proble m. Emma, for some reason, was unable to appear in person at one matinee, and one of her loyal stand-bys took her place and gave a marvelous performance.

At that time Col. W. T. Dowdall, publisher of the Peoria National Democrat and Evening Review, extended some particular courtesy, which Emma never failed to remember on subsequent visits to Peoria.

On September 7th, 1882, at the dedication of Peoria’s memorable Grand Opera House on Hamilton Street, Emma Abbott was the leading attraction. That historic theatre was destroyed by fire on December 14, 1909.

In Peoria a milling company popularized its flour by using the brand name, “Pride of Peoria”, in compliment to her.

On April 20th, 1884, Emma Abbott, sometime spoken of as “Peoria’s foster daughter”, made perhaps her initial appearance as an opera star, at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. On that occasion, it was reported, she received bouquets represent ing ‘two tons’ of gorgeous flowers sent her by friends and admirers – a tribute to one who had risen from modest surroundings to a recognized place in the world of music.

Contributing Library:

Peoria Public Library, Peoria, Illinois

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