Examining Chicago’s First Indie Film: Cousin Jim (1916)

Depending on how you look at things, Cousin Jim might be the first “indie” movie ever filmed in Chicago. There were plenty of Chicago filmmakers doing experiments in the early days, but by 1916, films were big business, and nearly all were made by studios. Cousin Jim stands out in film history because it was not by pros buy by bunch of members of the Casino Club – a very early example of friends getting together and making a movie. Because these friends were high society types, their venture made a lot of news, and the premiere at The Strand Theatre, at 7th and Wabash, was a big event. The film even played out of town for a while – it was a Chaplinesque comedy, but ads for the movie in other cities show that exhibitors thought it would mainly be interesting to the audience because it showed how Chicago society people lived.

Though the two-reel movie itself is almost certainly lost, The Newberry Library has two copies of the script – one typed, and one handwritten by Kenneth Sawyer Goodman, namesake of the Goodman theatre. Goodman was attracting fame for himself as a playwright at the time, a leading light of the “Chicago Renaissance,” but Cousin Jim was not one of his major works. From the script, we can see that if it survived, the film would be a fascinating document of Chicago history and the history of cinema – but “fascinating” and “good” aren’t necessarily the same thing.

The first page of Goodman’s handwritten script

 The son of a lumber baron, Goodman’s diary mostly shows him as a society type, dutifully recording which club he went to, who he dined with, and what yacht he was on on a given day. From what I read of it, you’d never guess he was considered a major, even edgy, writer at the time – in a way, it’s like reading Bruce Wayne’s diary and seeing nothing about fighting crime other than a meeting or two with Commissioner Gordon. Notably, it doesn’t say much about going to movies, and it’s likely that Goodman wasn’t really up to date on how the medium was evolving.  The script (apparently from a scenario by John McCutcheon, an Essanay studios vet) doesn’t show a lot of creativity in terms of how the story will be presented; as a playwright, Goodman seems particularly at a loss in how to work with far less dialogue. Hence, this is the way the film opens: simply showing close-ups of the characters and their names:

Cousin Jim, reel 1

The “Count” is a waiter who knows that one of the society-men was caught cheating at cards in 1910, and blackmails him to be introduced around the clubs as a foreign big-shot, all part of his plans to marry one of the heiresses. But he’s thrown for a loop when Cousin Jim, alias Unlucky Jim, shows up in town.

William Fuller, left as Cousin Jim

Cousin Jim is a shameless Chaplin clone, alternately a victim of endless bad luck and daring adventurer (the script can’t seem to decide whether he’s a great hero or a comical loser). The Count proceeds to try to keep Jim away from society functions, eventually robbing a matron and planting Jim’s stolen fraternity pin at the scene, framing him for the crime.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the movie is that it was proudly a Chicago film. I’ve seen most of the Chicago silent films that survive, and can’t think of any that make a real show of being in Chicago – most movies at the time tried to seem as they could be taking place in any old city. Cousin Jim wears the fact that it’s depicting Chicago and its socialites on its sleeve – indeed, though they generally lacked originality, the crew could have been among the first to say things like “the city itself is character in the film.”

It’s curious to note, then, that right from the start, Chicago movies seemed to have a strange sense of geography. In the 1980s, The Blues Brothers could get to Calumet City in 15 minutes, and Ferris Bueller’s dad somehow made his commute home to Highland Park by 5:30, a feat so impressive that I’d often joked about writing a movie called Ferris Bueller’s Dad’s Commute. Whatever wormhole they were using in the 80s obviously existed in 1916, a well – Cousin Jim leaves the Blackstone Hotel at 4:30, messes around outside the Art Institute (offering the lion statue a cigar), then has an adventure around the zoo and lagoon in Lincoln Park before making it back to the Casino Club, which was near the Magnificent Mile, at 5.
This adventure contained the films most famous scene: a sequence in which Jim throws two police officers off of the high bridge in Lincoln Park that was known as “suicide bridge.” News articles at the time noted that the stunt man brought in for the scene said the leap couldn’t be done, so the two actors simply did it themselves, somehow surviving a jump that most people didn’t (they called it “suicide bridge” for a reason).  It’s curious to note that Goodman’s script called for special effects here, not  a stunt:

Cousin Jim attempts to evade officers Bolivar and Tolivar before throwing them off the bridge, a shot captured by a Tribune photographer

A Tribune article notes that the movie was submitted to Major MLC Funkhouser, the city’s film censor – in those days, every movie had to be submitted to him, and the papers would detail which scenes he removed from any given movie (he was eventually caught charging admission to private showings of the cut bits). Though no cuts were noted from Cousin Jim, at least one scene in the script probably never would have made it past him:  while Jim is in the shower, the Count steals his clothes. Jim (presumably in a towel, though the script doesn’t say) has to run to the next house and knock on the door. A maid holding a banana answers, and eats the banana as she tells him that no trousers are available. She eventually gets him a dress to wear, leading him to spend the night disguised at the society ball as “Mrs. Pick” while the Count ransacks a wealthy woman’s house, even putting the goldfish in a top hat (a title card jokes that he can’t resist anything gold).  Scenes of robbery tended to be cut, and scenes of cross-dressing certainly did. If this scene got past Funkhouser, either he was feeling generous because the film was supposed to be for charity, or they bribed him.

It’s also in this scene that we get perhaps the biggest surprise: though it might not have been AS apparent to 1916 viewers, modern viewers would surely assume that someone was going to slip on the banana peel. Even 1916 viewers would have had to guess that “unlucky Jim” was about to take a fall on it – but it was the maid who took a spill.

a scene from the Onwentsia club

From here the film descends into the inevitable chase scene, after which the Count is brought to justice and Jim is revealed to have been a member of the secret service all along (a twist that makes no particular sense), and everyone pairs off to get married (Goodman’s script calls for “rice and old shows”).
Though Goodman’s diary doesn’t mention the film too much – he wasn’t involved in the filming and missed the premiere – we can see from it that it was written very quickly; after several days yachting around Florida, he first heard of the project in March. Filming began only weeks later, and the movie premiered on June 2. He mentions going over the scenes with McCutcheon once, but that’s about it.  He does note, though, that after he finally saw it, a few days after the premiere, he asked for a couple of revisions and alterations to be made before the show went on the road.

The final film may differs quite a bit from the script – during the filming the Saddle and Cycle Club (at which Goodman was also a regular) objected to the Casino Club’s hunger for publicity and refused to let them film scenes there. The newspapers also describe a scene in which Jim goes fishing in the Fountain of the Great Lakes at the Art Institute, which may have just been improvised while they were filming the “giving the lion a cigar” scene (and making it even less likely that he could go up to Lincoln Park, have an adventure, and be back to the club at 5). And, again, it’s hard to imagine how they would have gotten the “eating a banana while she tells a near-nude Jim that there are no pants available” and cross-dressing scenes past Major Funkhouser.

The Newberry Library’s summary of the Goodman papers makes particular note of the Cousin Jim script, which I’m guessing would have shocked Goodman himself. A serious playwright, the papers feature manuscripts to a number of plays, including several collaborations with Ben Hecht. Though he collected a handful of clippings about the movie, the folder of clippings don’t include any of the large features about it that appeared in the Tribune during the filming, and it’s likely that he didn’t consider it to be a work of any major importance, particularly when his plays were being produced all over the country. Perhaps he still thought that movies would be a passing fad. In any case, he lived only two more years after Cousin Jim before succumbing to the Spanish Flu in November, 1918.

Was Rosehill Supposed to be Roe’s Hill?

The proper name of Rosehill Cemetery is up to some debate. Though most official paperwork gives it as a single word, Rosehill, it’s not uncommon to see it written as Rose Hill. And several popular stories claim that the name was supposed to be Roe’s Hill, and only a clerical error resulted in the name we know today. People ask me about it on tours all the time.

The oft-given story is that the land, seven miles north of downtown Chicago,  was once a farm (or tavern) owned by a stubborn old pioneer named Hiram Roe. When someone wanted to buy the land from the old man for a cemetery in 1859, stubborn old Mr. Roe only agreed when the buyer promised to name the cemetery after him – but a clerical error resulted in it being named Rosehill instead. I love to imagine Old Man Roe sitting there on opening day, gnashing his teeth and sipping his homemade whiskey from a brown bag while wealthy Chicagoans sat through the speeches and picked out their plots.

But, while there’s reason to believe Roe was a real person, the story of him wanting to have the cemetery named after him is certainly fiction. The land wasn’t bought from him, and wasn’t intended to be a cemetery when it was first purchased.

Lawsuit records recorded in The Northeastern Reporter in 1895, when a suit over payments was going on, elucidates the whole story of how the land changed hands: In 1857, Francis H. Benson bought the land where the cemetery now sits, then in the surburban town of Chittenden, for about $25,000 from the Illinois and Wisconsin Land Company. He intended to parcel it out into lots for houses, but the Panic of 1857 hit the economy hard, causing the land to lose about half its value and decimating the market for suburban real estate. The only money Benson made from the land in the first year came from selling off a bit of gravel he found on it.

But the dryness of the soil (it was a high elevation) made Benson think some of the land would make a good cemetery, so he partnered with James V.Z. Blaney, first president of Rosehill, to form the Rosehill Cemetery corporation.  The company was incorporated in February, 1859, and the cemetery opened for business that summer. Benson and Blaney’s names are both carved onto the gate. When the cemetery published a promotional book in 1913, they said that the name came from wild white roses that grew on the hill.

But the story that the name of the cemetery may have grown from a hill named for Mr. Roe may not be entirely fanciful; while the “stubborn farmer who owned the land” tales are of decidedly modern vintage (probably just the last couple of decades), stories that the land was once called Roe’s Hill appear in several 19th century sources.

The first mention  that I can find comes from just over 20 years after the cemetery was chartered, when the Chicago Tribune ran an article about onion farming on September 6, 1880. In the article, it said that in the early days of Chicago history, teamsters traveling in the woods seven miles north of town would often stop at the “Jug Tavern” owned by “old Man Roe,” who made a sort of whiskey that was popular enough for its fame to make them start referring to the area as Roe’s Hill.

A few years later, A.T. Andreas’ authoritative History of Cook County  mentioned this as well, stating that the area of Bowmanville was once known as Roe’s Hill for Hiram Roe, whose cabin and tavern were near the current residence of one J.A. Budlong.

The Tribune mentioned Roe again in 1900, when an article on the origins of the names of various suburbs said that Bowmanville was originaly known as Roe’s Hill after Hiram Roe, “the pioneer settler (who) sold whiskey there of no uncertain proof.”

However, census records say nothing about a Hiram Roe in the area. There was a farmer named Hiram Rowe up near McHenry in those days, but I couldn’t find any evidence that he ever lived closer to the city.  Furthermore, these mentions that the area was called “Roe’s Hill” in the old days (1830s-1850s) are all from a few decades later; no instance of anyone calling it Roe’s Hill in the actual “old days” has yet been found (though I’ve heard rumors about it being in some early Rosehill documents). Andreas and the Tribune may have just been repeating neighborhood gossip and urban legends.

Perhaps the tale that Rosehill was Roe’s Hill may have all been a misunderstanding; In 1856, Robert Ferguson wrote a book on Danish and Norse names in Scotland, and said that a Rose Hill in the U.K. was, he believed properly Roe’s Hill, from the Old Norse word for “King.”  Perhaps someone heard that bit and thought it applied to the Rosehill in Chicago.

Still, the fact that sources knew the full name and even the location of the tavern make it look as though there was a kernel of truth in the story someplace. So, Old Man Hiram Roe remains a bit of a mystery; I spoke to Larry, a fellow tour guide who works at Rose Hill, and he said he’d pored through all of the oldest books looking for any mention of Hiram Roe without finding a thing.  “He’s certainly not here now,” he told me.

But was he ever there? The world may never know…

 

The Lulu Fellows Statue at Rosehill – new info

When I run Rosehill tours, I mostly stick with the eastern sections. But at least one detour is always in order: you can’t leave out Lulu Fellows, the glass-encased statue of a young girl who died in 1883 at the age of 16. Her epitaph, “Many Hopes Lie Buried Here,” is not unique; it shows up on other 1880s graves in the cemetery as well, and, really, could be added to almost any tombstone. But next to the statue (carved by AE Gage, who also created the “Inez” statue at Graceland), it really brings home the fact that we’re looking at a young woman whose life was cut tragically short.

For the longest time, little was known about Lulu beyond what one could piece together from census forms and her death certificate, but the digitization of newspapers and books has made a few more tidbits available, shedding some light on the sort of “hopes and dreams” that died with Lulu.

Lulu was a rising elocutionist – a theatrical profession that doesn’t really exist anymore, and is largely erased from cultural memory. Though people still give dramatic readings of great literature, famous speeches, and comic bits at things like public speaking competitions, the practice of going to a theater and buying a ticket to see a famous elocutionist was regarded as old fashioned even a century ago. It was common in the 19th century, though, Lulu was noted for her talents. Notes from a magazine published by her professor indicate that she performed for Robert Todd Lincoln, and the magazine further published a January, 1882 letter by Mayor Carter H. Harrison, stating that he’d had the pleasure of hearing her “read” in 1880. “She will,” he wrote, “from all I caln learn, teake a high position as a reader in public. I take great pleasure in commending her to all who admire and enjoy elocution.”

A student at the Park Institute, at Ashland and Ogden at Union Park, Lulu studied under Professor Dickson, himself a noted elocutionist, and was a member of the C.E.G. society – which presumably was somehting to do with elocution, though I can’t for the life of me find out what it stood for! Sometimes listed as the “C.E.C. Society,” it seems to have existed at no other school. But the society gave performances at churches and homes around the city (particularly those near the school), and the press often mentioned the performances.

Lulu’s monument by AE Gage

Most of the time, the reviews only noted that Lulu performed a “recitation,” though a January, 1882 write-up of a performance at Third Presbyterian Church specifically mentions that she performed “The Brakeman at Church,” a comic piece in which a railroad man compares various religions to railroad lines. Like most Victorian comic pieces, it doesn’t seem very funny by modern standards (you can read it here), but the Tribune noted that she performed it “very acceptably and responded to a hearty encore.” The perfomance closed with the society (presumably including Lulu), giving a “tableux of statuary,” enacting poses of such scenes as “Columbia Mourning Over Garfield” (another style of performance that died out in the 20th century, remembered now almost entirely because of a satire in The Music Man).

Reading “The Brakeman at Church” today may not be thrilling, but to look on the statue of Lulu over her grave and imagine her reading it can be a moving experience, add a bit of life to the stone. Some reviews of the CEG Society performances note that crowds tossed things like bouqets at the stage; who knew that the people slipping money into the glass case around her statue were just carrying on the tradition?

Professor Dickson published a magazine, published in book form, called The Elocutionist, which gives an excellent idea of the course of study Lulu would have followed, what other pieces she might have performed in class or in recitals. It can now be read on Google Books.

The “Widow in Green” Blackmail Mystery

“Does anybody know the woman in green?” asked the Tribune in  November of 1908. “Can anybody tell the name of the mysterious woman motorist who for the last month has been an unfailing topic of conversation for those who have time to observe humanity as seen in Chicago’s streets? Who is she?”

For a month, Chicagoans had been observing a woman, roughly 30 years old, driving around the loop in a rented green touring car, dressed from head to foot in green, including a green hat and veil (except for a couple of days when she tried red or white outfits, each time with a matching car). Each day, she’d drive a circuit through the loop, occasionally stopping for some sort of meeting in the Marquette building. Once in a while she’d have a chauffeur, and once she nearly drove off the road, having been agitated by the sight of a certain man with a black mustache, but she was otherwise said to be perfectly capable of handing the car herself – the paper noted that she “handles her machine in a manner which shows her mastery over the art of chauffeuring”

In the Tribune’s 1908 feature, one gets the impression that they could have solved the mystery easily enough – she went to the same garages and drove the same route daily – but preferred to revel in the wild, romantic backstories people were inventing for her. It might seem odd today, more than a century on, to imagine that someone driving around could create such excitement, but we have to remember that this was 1908. Cars weren’t quite the novelty they’d been a few years before, but they were still in their infancy. Female drivers might have been a bit of a shock to some, as well. The veil, the tendency to match her outfit to her car, and her taking the same route daily were about all it took to attract attention.

It may be, though, that the real story was wilder than the Tribune dared to hope.

In January, the Inter-Ocean began telling stories of a “Widow in Green” who’d been blackmailing wealthy hotel guests. The Inter-Ocean certainly thought it was the same woman; stating that there was a small gang of blackmailers operating “under the leadership of the ‘woman in green,’ who created a furore among residents of the Michigan Avenue hotels by appearing each day dressed entirely in green. A large green touring car was constantly at her beck and call.”

The “Widow in Green,” it was said, was “a beautiful brunette, very attractive and a good conversationalist (who) speaks with a slight French accent.” She would scan the registers of Michigan Avenue hotels, find wealthy men who were in from out of town, and then seduce them in the dining rooms with her brilliant powers of conversation (though the “seduction” may have amounted only to go to their hotel rooms to discuss an investment plan for the money she claimed to have inherited, with her simply signing into the hotel as the man’s wife). Later, the wealthy men would receive letters demanding money, always signed with the single name “Gladys.”

Stories of Gladys the Green’s life of crime spread quickly – there were tales of her having a fist fight with the woman who owned one of the hotels, of her forging a check at another hotel. Though saying she was part of a “gang” might have been overstating it, she did employ a couple of “attorneys” who dealt with unruly victims, and who helped her draw up bogus mortgages to sell. To one victim, she sent a valentine showing a man being beaten with a rolling pin; the back read “I hope the new year will bring you as much happiness as you have brought me unhappiness – Gladys.”

The man who received the card told the press (through his attorney) that he’d remained silent and paid a fortune up until now “because his wife and children had been heretofore unaware of his escapapde with the dashing ‘widow in green,'” whom he’d met at the Lexington Hotel.  But his attempts to find her seem to have been in vain.

The flair for the dramatic may have been her undoing – though most papers in town barely mentioned the story (to my surprise – it seemed like the kind of story the American would have been all over), the Inter-Ocean covered it in several articles over a week or so in January, 1909, and several out of town papers picked up their coverage as well. With her newfound fame, the Widow in Green’s cover was blown, and operating in town likely became too risky. She presumably took off for parts unknown, and her story disappeared from the papers. So far as I know, she was forgotten by the end of the winter.

The Pinkerton Detectives at Graceland Cemetery

Today, I’ve launched a new podcast, Cemetery Mixtape, which will feature cool stories about interesting graves, with original songs by musical guests. Check it out! It’s been a lot of fun doing research on stories that take me outside of Chicago a bit; upcoming episodes revolve around graves in places like Nashville, Washington DC, and New York.

But I just had to have an episode about Joseph Wicher, who is in the section of Graceland Cemetery put aside for employees of Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency. Wicher, in a story I can’t believe isn’t better known, was murdered by the Jesse James gang in 1874.  (Much of the info here is also on the episode’s page at cemeterymixtape.com)

Allan Pinkerton was an abolitionist who started the first national detective agency – the first real private eyes. Nearby his own family plot, the Pinkerton Employee section essentially functioned as advertising for the detective agency (in addition to being a nice gesture for his employees). The trouble, from a tour guide’s perspective, is that the majority of the graves are too worn to be read:

 

Among the two more legible graves at the front is Kate Warn (alias Angie Warren, according to cemetery paperwork), who has become very popular lately. A few books have been written about her in just the last few years, though most are novels just imagining the kind of work she might do, as we don’t really know much of what she did. . Pinkerton used her as a character in a couple of novels he wrote that were said to be true stories, though enough names and dates are clearly changed that they can’t really be fact-checked; when I tried to verify stuff about a story Pinkerton wrote of her impersonating a fortune teller, nothing held up. They do give us some idea of what sort of work Kate probably did, though, and we do know for sure that she assumed the role of a sick man’s brother to help Lincoln sneak past assassins and into Washington D.C. in 1861.

Another female detective, Kate Bracket, is also in the plot in an unmarked grave, but I think even less is known for sure of her; most of what I’ve seen written about her and Kate Warn basically amounts to fanfic, as most of the records of their Chicago work was lost in the Great Fire.    (If you want to look up a better documented early Chicago woman detective, check out our posts on Mary E. Holland).

The only other really legible stone is for Timothy Webster, whose monument calls him “The Harvey Birch of the Rebellion” (a reference to James Fenimore Cooper’s The Spy). Webster also helped with sneaking Lincoln into DC, then was eventually hanged by confederate soldiers who caught him spying behind enemy lines. He’s not buried in the plot, though, and never was! He was initially buried in Virginia, then moved to his family plot in a small town. The marker is just a monument.

Among the largely illegible graves around them, only Wicher seems to be well-documented; in 1874 he was sent to Liberty, MO, to look into the activities of the James gang. The sheriff there might have tipped the gang off, and they might have simply been able to tell he wasn’t a farmhand looking for work, as he claimed when he went to the James family farm – there’s no way to tell for sure at this point. Not long after he left for the farm, his murdered body was found by a farm, shot three times, and, in some versions (though I’m not sure any are reliable), with a note attached to his clothes reading something like “Let all detectives beware of Jesse James.”

Of the others, I could only find a tiny bit about Botella Olson, whom a newspaper once described as a “Norwegian spy.” Many of the stones look as though they may have once contained epitaphs with more data, like the larger stones for Warn and Webster, but the combination of age, limestone, and acid rain has made them impossible to read.

However, I do have this map that I made for Cemetery Mixtape:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’re still working on this, of course. In the meantime, hear more about Joseph on the new podcast, and come along on a Graceland tour some time!

The Strange Case of Baron von Biedenfeld

While doing research for the new Architecture of Mysterious Chicago tour, I ran into some fascinating data about Baron Cut von Biedenfeld, one of the late 19th century Chicago’s more colorful characters, who is all but forgotten today.  Look him up online, and you’ll mostly find references to his father writing letters back and forth with composer Richard Wagner.

Born in Germany in the early 1860s, Baron von Biedenfeld managed to blow through all his money as a young man, and moved to the States nearly penniless, earning his first money by shoveling snow in New York during the Great Blizzard of 1888. Thereafter, he moved to Chicago, where he married his way back into high society, and became known as a man about town, occasionally making the society columns in the papers and living in a mansion at 20th and Indiana, near the famous Prairie Avenue district. He occasionally made the police blotter as well; an 1892 account in the Inter-Ocean speaks of the Baron (then still known as Count von Biedenfeld) getting into a scuffle at a bar on 22nd and Michigan – when a man insisted that the Count pay for the drinks, things got rough, and ended with Von Biedenfeld hitting the man in the head with his cane six times.

the Baron shows off a horse and carriage

This was all a precursor to a day six years later, when the baron was drinking at Redpath’s Saloon on Jackson, and was heard to remark “All Turks are cowards.” Police Officer Charles McDonald, who knew the Baron pretty well and thought he was using “Turk” as a slang term for an Irishman, said “I’m a Turk, and I’m not a coward.”  Baron von Biedenfeld drew a piston and shot McDonald to death.

In court, a number of witnesses from red light districts affirmed that McDonald had a reputation as a rough character, and lawyers claimed that he’d been out to get the Baron for three years. The Baron himself insisted that the “unfortunate” shooting was self defense on his part, as McDonald was reaching for his own gun. The jury agreed, and he was acquitted. He gathered his things from the county jail (pausing to joke with prisoners who asked him to come back and visit), then moved right back to Germany.

A year later, he published a book about America. Only excerpts in English seem to be available, but some of them are rather interesting: “Immigrants who do not possess a certain sum of money, or who have no relatives in the States,” he wrote, “are promptly sent back…. Americans only have use for a man who has something of which they can rob him.” He went on to say “There is one weakness peculiar to the entire American people: the respect for success without regard for the means by which it was achieved.”

Redpath’s Saloon stood where the Steger Building is now, adjacent to the Pickwick Place, the courtyard where Architecture of Mysterious Chicago tours begin.

 

The Unmarked Grave of a Revolutionary War Widow

As a cemetery tour guide, on my favorite things is finding great stories that have escaped the history books – it’s often just a matter of finding an interesting headstone and looking up the name. But which stones to choose? The most obvious are the big and impressive ones, but sometimes it can also simply be a person with a strange name, or an interesting symbol.

One of these was Elizabeth Ely Gridley Butler, whose stone includes a “Real Daughter” plaque, signifying that her father was a Revolutionary War soldier. These are very rare in Chicago, where no verifiable Revolutionary War veterans are buried (we’ve covered the two supposed ones, William DuVol and David Kennison, a time or two before). But what struck me about Elizabeth was her birth date – 1826. I figured there had to be a story there, as the youngest Revolutionary Veterans in 1826 would have been comfortably past middle age.

As it turns out, her father, Theodore Gridley, of Clinton, NJ, served for seven months in the New York state militia during the war; family legend a century later said that he fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill (the war service is backed by records, though they indicate that the Bunker Hill part was probably not true). It wasn’t until around 1816 that he married Amy Ely, who was already 40 years of age – very old to be getting married in those days.  In 1825, according to an 1875 Tribune article, the two of them rode in a carriage to Boston to see the cornerstone laid for the Battle of Bunker Hill memoriale, and heard Daniel Webster speak.

Amy was nearly 50 years old when Elizabeth, her only child was born; Thomas died the next year, and Amy moved to Chicago in 1854, when her daughter married G.S. Butler there, and lived there for a rest of her life. The family hid in a cabbage patch outside of the city limits during the Great Chicago Fire, by which time Amy was close to 95 years old.

She survived the fire, though was a bit worse for wear. Her hearing began to suffer, and she stopped taking daily walks. By 1875, the Tribune said that her chief form of amusing was “rumpling handkerchiefs, from which she seems to derive considerable amusement.” It also noted that “unlike the conventional old lady, she does not smoke a pipe or require much attention.”

Amy Ely-Gridley died in her daughter’s home in 1876, and, at 99, was thought to be the oldest woman in Chicago. According to Graceland Cemetery records, she is buried in the unmarked spot directly next to her daughter’s. I’ve exchanged a few emails with the D.A.R. in hopes of getting a marker placed there, but nothing has come of it yet (possibly because Amy was Theodore’s third wife). Here’s hoping! Amy is a part of history who deserves a memorial of her own.

Kathryn Evans: Witness to History at Rosehill Cemetery

On a recent walk through Rosehill Cemetery, looking for new stories to tell on tours, I came upon the gravestone of Albert H. Dainty, whose epitaph read “Until the day breaks and the shadows flee.” This was a line from The Song of Solomon in the Bible. Translations vary, but the full line is something like “Until the day breaks and the shadows flee, turn to me, my beloved, and be like a wild elk among the rugged hills.” Go, Albert H. Dainty, go!

Some research showed that this epitaph would have certainly been chosen by his second wife; his first, Laura, left him to go on the stage, ignoring his pleas to come home for a decade before he finally obtained a divorce. She was a fairly well-known elocutionist in her day, and turned out to have connections to any number of other people in Rosehill (though she herself is in Forest Home). Later in life, she was very active in the Hull House theater, where she directed a performance of a play called Hazel Kirk in 1917 as benefit to raise money to get a retired actress named Kathryn Evans into the Episcopalian Home.

Kathryn M. Evans

I was delighted to find the connection to Evans, whose nondescript gravestone on the north side of the cemetery is one of Rosehill’s many little-known treasures.

Evans was an actress, and a fairly popular one in her day, though what earned her a place in history was her role as Mrs. Sharpe, a housekeeper, who had the first line in a comedy she later said “Wouldn’t be considered very funny today.” That comedy was Our American Cousin, and Ms. Evans appeared in it at Ford’s Theater the night Lincoln was assassinated there in 1865.

The details in the story she told of that night – over and over for the rest of her life – seem to change a bit in the telling, but she gave a particularly vivid description to a Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean reporter in 1914. “I was in the green room,’ she recalled, “chatting with Maggie Gourlay, the ‘Skillet’ of the play, and waiting for my cue, when I heard the shot ring out…. I knew when I heard the shot that it couldn’t be a part of the play…. A moment before young Booth had leaped to the stage. I heard someone shout ‘Stop that man!'”… I looked up and saw Lincoln unconscious, his head drooping on his breast, his eyes closed, but with a smile still on his face.

“After the tragedy I ran upstairs to the dressing-room. The stage was filled with secret service men, who seemed to have gone crazy. They had arrested ‘Peanut Johnnie’ (the peanut vendor who held Booth’s horse) as an accomplice – poor ‘Peanut,’ who did nothing more than hold Booth’s horse. They were looking for Ned Spangler, our stage carpenter, who had innocently held the door open for the assassin. My husband was also under suspicion, as he had had a drink with Booth in George Harry’s cafe next door before the play began.”

Evans went to a dressing room, where she wiped the makeup off her face, certain that any second a detective would knock on the door to arrest her, too. Eventually the property manager assured her that she was safe, and she walked into the empty theatre, which wouldn’t see another audience in her lifetime. Her husband was arrested, but released. The property manager was held in the federal jail in the capitol building for a time, and his frantic wife lived with Evans for a bit. In the heady hours after the assassination and Booth’s seemingly easy escape, everyone in the theater was under suspicion.

She had worked with Booth a little bit before, and thought him the perfect gentleman. She had even seen him that day, and said that he betrayed no nervousness regarding what he was about to do. “My last glimpse of him,” she said, “was as he stood with his arms outstretched at the entrance to the theater, facing the stage. We all liked him.”

“It was an unhappy season for us,” she recalled. “The theater was closed, and we, who had been favorites a week before, were out of work. We were all more or less under suspicion because Booth was an actor… my husband died shortly after. It was a sad year for me.”

Years later, visiting Washington for the first time since 1865, she visited the federal prison and was appalled to see a guard prodding an elderly prisoner with a bayonet. She loudly protested, until the guard said the prisoner, was “Still a rebel at heart; he told me he was glad the blankety-blank old rail splitter had been killed. “Give him an extra prod for me, then,” Evans said.

Evans remained an actress for years, eventually retiring in Chicago. In 1920, a play about Lincoln was performed at the Blackstone Theatre (now the Merle Norman), and Evans viewed the play from a box, where she sat alongside Sgt. A.W. Boggs, who’d been in the audience at Ford’s Theatre that night, and W.J. Ferguson, who’d been in the cast with her that night. They hadn’t seen each other since, though Ferguson was still a working actor; he was currently appearing in the The Little Whopper at the Studebaker, and had recently played Lincoln in a silent film.

 

I’m indebted to Dave Taylor and Kate Ramirez, Booth family scholars who told me about Evans; we located her grave at Rosehill over the summer when they came through town on their “Boothie Road Trip.” Check out his site boothiebarn.com!