aliceberry-f

LET’S GO DOWNTOWN AND SEE SOMETHING WEIRD

On any given Saturday around 1914, chances were you could pay a dime and watch performers do things on stage which demonstrated more self-delusion than discernible talent. To locals, Santa Rosa was a quiet little farmtown; to some vaudeville players it was another step towards a fantasy of theatrical glory.

That was the peak year for vaudeville in Santa Rosa with two stages downtown: The 700-seat Columbia at Third and B streets and the much smaller Rose Theater. With their big electrical marquees (lightbulbs, not neon) they were the brightest spots downtown after dark and the Rose drew particular attention with its animated lights, something never seen in town before.

Both presented shows with three or four vaudeville acts capped off with about a half hour of movies, such as a Bronco Billy western or a chapter from that wildly-popular new series with cliffhanger endings, “The Perils of Pauline.” Their playbills were also generally the same; someone sang popular songs, an acrobat or animal act performed stunts and a comedian barked out corny (and not infrequently, racist or ethnic) jokes. But there the similarity ended.

Whenever possible, the Columbia’s newspaper ad touted a performer’s popularity or that (s)he had just appeared at a San Francisco theater. All well and good until one looked closely; the acts who headlined here were usually near the bottom of a long bill when they played in the City, and “popular” was a tipoff that the act might be a Golden Oldie such as Harry Green, “the old man singer with the boy’s voice,” who had been trodding the boards for about forty years.

When they had no particular act to promote the Columbia ad would sometimes sniff, “No Amateurs Every Artist a Professional” which was a not-so-subtle dig at the Rose Theater, where nearly every evening was like an episode from The Gong Show. Mostly these were likely young people who were big hits at hometown parties where their friends told them, “oh, you should be on stage.” Well, sir, this was their shot at stardom.

One such act is seen at right: Alice Berry and Harry Wilhelm, “the doll comedienne and the Protean artist.” What the act consisted of is unclear; Alice was either a child or a little person, standing four feet tall. She sang while the tailcoatted Harry did…something. Every Friday the Press Democrat offered a little blurb about similar performers appearing at the theaters that week, and one can imagine the poor staff writer straining a muscle trying to say something nice about acts such as these:

*
Gilbert Girard, “The World’s Greatest Animal and Instrumental Mimic”, will be heard in fifteen minutes of barnyard humor.
*
The “Three Cycling Newmans”, featuring a boxing match on unicycles, will head the show.
*
Biele & Girad, “The Englishman and the Swede,” have a great comedy act. There is nothing more comical than an ignorant Swede, and when they are ignorant, like the one in this case, it causes many comical situations, making the most solemn laugh.
*
Madelyn Faye, violiniste, charmed everyone with her playing, which was much better than ordinary.
*
This afternoon at one o’clock Dixon & Elliott’s hardware store on Fourth street will become the center of attraction when a subject will be hypnotized and started out riding a bicycle. He will continue riding until eight o’clock this evening, at which time he will be removed to the stage of the Columbia Theater, after having pedaled over five hundred miles.
*
The Zimmerman Brothers, novelty whistlers, have an act that gives good variety to the bill and one that pleases the most critical.

The list of peculiarities goes on: Birdcallers, “rubber girl” contortionists, midget boxers and blackface “shouters,” plus a couple of acts which were apparently just young women doing calisthenics. A female comedy/musical sketch act called “the Seven Whitesides” made the front page of the Press Democrat not for its quality of entertainment but for the women soundly beating up their manager. Some performers had actual talent but were too unconventional for mainstream vaudeville; John C. Payne, “the double voiced man” was an African-American performing in an evening gown (“Mr. Payne’s natural voice is baritone, but he sings a beautiful soprano also and is considered a wonderful singer”).

Mainstays at the Rose were the animal acts. The theater hosted Miss Livingstone’s skating bear, Captain Webb’s seals, a steady procession of dog and bird acts plus two “goat circuses” – Ogle’s Goat Circus in January, 1913 and Sander’s Goat Circus at the end of the same year. Now, Gentle Reader is probably pondering deep questions such as, “how many damn goat circuses were there?” And, “who would pay to see a goat circus?” And, “what did the little theater smell like afterward?” Notable in the publicity photo for Ogle’s is that the name “Prof. Kershner” was inartfully scratched out – thus Ogle bought a used goat act (and of course, that’s probably not Mr. Ogle in the picture). My guess is that Sanders in turn purchased the act after Ogle had enough of traveling with a herd of stinky goats. As for why audiences would attend, the PD noted, “Before the matinee this afternoon, it is announced, Mr. Sanders will throw away ten dollars to the children in front of the theatre.” Sad!

And then there was Roy Crone and his grizzly bear. Roy is high on the list of people from those days I would have liked to meet (he was introduced here earlier) because he went to Hollywood and eventually worked with Fred Astaire and Orson Welles on their most classic films. Back in 1913, however, he was manager of the Columbia Theater and taking a few weeks off to roam the low-rent vaudeville circuit with his 780-pound pet. Trouble was, he and his bear kept getting arrested.

Crone drove between gigs with the uncaged bear sitting in the backseat of his (presumably, large and sturdy) car. At least twice he was pulled over by cops for speeding and totally not because he was driving around with a seven-foot bear. Stopped outside of Merced, Deputy Sheriff Nicewonger was walking around to the passenger side of the car to write the ticket when the bear reached out and whacked him with a paw, knocking the officer down. “Rising to his feet. Nicewonger was about to commit bloody murder when Crone quieted the angry beast and pulled the deputy out of the danger zone,” reported The Stockton Mall. “The bear actually stood on his hind feet a few moments later and roared at the deputy sheriff.” A few weeks later the pair were in trouble again, this time in Chico both for speeding and “occupying an automobile in a street exhibition,” which probably meant the sight of a bear sitting in a car was stopping traffic.

The vaudeville scene in Santa Rosa slowly faded away after 1914. The Columbia mostly dropped it the following year and by 1916 the Rose was offering vaudeville only every other week. What happened to the performers?

A search of the old newspapers finds that most of the amateur wanna-be’s who played the Rose only lasted that season. Some of the has-been professionals who were at the Columbia continued drifting around small Bay Area theaters for awhile and a few can be spotted trying to reinvent themselves far away in the frontiers of Australia or British Columbia. Otherwise, if you weren’t good enough to be booked on a traveling circuit, what probably awaited you beyond Santa Rosa was Old West music halls in backwater towns, mining and logging camps without electricity and saloons with a small raised stage. Resorts like Fetter’s Hot Springs sometimes advertised they had vaudeville without naming any acts.

What killed vaudeville was the explosive growth of celebrity motion pictures. Now all that was needed to pack a theater was showing the latest movie by Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Ethel Barrymore and other stars; miss seeing the picture and miss out on part of the shared social experience – and not only with family and friends here, but with people you knew in distant towns.

As awful as it sometimes was, vaudeville was still live theater and it’s a shame it’s completely gone; lost was the tolerance for everyday people to entertain each other for an evening without expecting perfection. After all, if the novelty whistlers weren’t to your taste all you had to do and wait a few minutes until their act was over, and then out would come the violinist whose playing was much better than ordinary. Maybe you’d like that better.

Ogle’s Goat Circus

The Seven Whitesides present an office scene play, which leads into some good singing and dancing. All of the 875 people who attended last night’s entertainment were well pleased with the high class show.

– Press Democrat, November 22 1912
CHORUS GIRLS DO UP THE MANAGER
Lively Fracas When Soubrettes Think Their Cash is Likely to Go Aglooming

The fair members of a theatrical troupe, appearing In “vodvlll” in a local theatre Saturday night, were fearful, so they said, that their manager, a man, was not going to make a cash settlement with them and suspicious that possibly he might take an earlier train from town than they, made up their minds that they would have nothing of it. In consequence they demanded their pay. When their requests were met with refusal they started to take the law into their own hands, and goodness knows what they would have done to that manager had not the commotion in a down town apartment house, and a hasty call for a policeman, sent Police Officer I. N. Lindley hurrying to the scene. And “Ike” made some dash, too. At the time the officer came upon the scene, one of the girls was making a punching bag out of the manager, where another girl had left off. The girls of the troupe took all the money he had, fourteen dollars. He should have had much more, as the girls say they had a salary roll of eighteen dollars apiece coming to them. The manager was allowed to retire to his room for the night, and at an early hour Sunday morning the chorus girls were wondering how to divide up the fourteen dollars.

– Press Democrat, November 24 1912

 

SKATING BEAR IN ROSE VAUDEVILLE TONIGHT

Miss Livingstone and her trained bear will appear in tonight’s vaudeville at the Rose. This animal act, as previous ones, will win the favor of the Santa Rosa public. This performing bear waltzed, when seen by the management, which brought many rounds of applause.

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 3, 1913

 

STRONG VAUDEVILLE BILL AT THE ROSE THEATER TONIGHT

A strong vaudeville bill of high class acts will be presented to the public at the Rose theater tonight, headed by Ogle’s Goat Circus. These goats are very highly valued, partly because there are very few performing goats in the state and through the long time patient training which has made them the greatest of all goat acts. The management announces this one of the highest salaried acts that they have ever secured. The children will be invited on the stage after the matinee tomorrow, to learn something of the training of goats and have a chance to pet their favorites.

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 24, 1913
SANTA ROSAN IS ON VAUDEVILLE
Ray Crone Making Tour of Circuit With Tame Bear Act Which Has Taken Well

Ray Crone, the well known manager of the Columbia Amusement Co.’s local interests, is taking a few weeks off duty and touring the vaudeville circuit with an animal act of his own. Reports from points he has visited speak of the success of his work.

Mr. Crone is one of the best known young men of Santa Rosa owing to his work in connection with the Nickelodeon moving picture show house first, and afterwards with the Columbia theater and Theaterette, which were added one after the other to the activities of the firm, of which he is a part.

The success of the young man will be pleasing to his many friends here and in the bay cities. He has a trained bear, known as “John L. Sullivan,” which does a number of remarkable feature tricks which Mr. Crone has trained him to do. Animal feature in vaudeville always proves attractive to young and old and are in great demand by the booking agents. Frank Weston is here from San Francisco looking after the Amusement Company’s interest in the absence of Mr. Crone.

– Press Democrat, April 27 1913
CRONE AND BEAR CAUSE TROUBLE
Well Known Santa Rosan and His Trained Animal Arouse Much Interest at Stockton

Roy Crone, the well known Santa Rosan who Is making a tour of the vaudeville circuit with a large trained bear, is receiving some very flattering press notices. The Stockton Mail In speaking of his first performance In that city, says:

Bear Is Almost Human

Five bright new acts greeted the large Sunday crowds at the Garrick yesterday, and the show from start to finish was excellent in every respect. A remarkable exhibition of animal intelligence was displayed by John L. Sullivan, the world-famous educated bear. This is the largest bear ever seen on the stage and one of the largest in captivity. It stands over seven feet tall and weighs 780 pounds. The bear is well trained, and his trainer has complete control over him at all times. He performs a number of clever and amusing antics, the climax coming when some small boys attempt to ride him. One little chap succeeded in riding him, but the others were politely unseated by Mr. Bruin.

In an issue several days before he opened in Stockton the papers published a good story relative to Crone and his bear. The story in the Mall was as follows:

Bear Defends Master

To be knocked down by a blow from the paw of a big black bear which was sitting in the rear seat of an automobile, is the curious accident which happened to Deputy Sheriff Nicewonger yesterday afternoon. And, as a result of the collision with the hoof of Bruin, Deputy Nicewonger narrowly escaped serious injury. The blow, which was a glancing one, caught him on the right side of the neck, and was delivered with so much force that it unceremoniously floored the county official.

J. R. Crone, who is the owner of the bear, was en route from Merced with his hairy passenger in an automobile. Crone left Merced yesterday morning. As he was speeding along the highway between Rippon and Calla, Deputy Nicewonger happened to discover that Crone was exceeding the speed limit. He immediately hailed the man and his curious cargo. Crone stopped at once. Deputy Nicewonger read the ruling of the county ordinance and informed Crone that he was under arrest. Crone was about to give his name and address when Nicewonger, in order to secure the data, chased around to the right side of the machine. Just as the county highway guard was passing the rear seat the bear, with one vicious swoop, let fly with his paw. Deputy Nicewonger heeled over instantly. Rising to his feet. Nicewonger was about to commit bloody murder when Crone quieted the angry beast and pulled the deputy out of the danger zone. The bear actually stood on his hind feet a few moments later and roared at the deputy sheriff. This morning the deputy appeared before Justice Parker and secured a warrant for the arrest of Crone for encroaching upon the speed ordinance of the county. The bear, says Crone, is tame.

– Press Democrat, May 16 1913

 

CRONE AND HIS BEAR ARRESTED ONCE MORE

Friends of Ray Crone, former manager of the Columbia Theater will read the following with much amusement. Although the dispatch does not give Crone’s name he is known to be on the circuit through Chico and his bear was dubbed “John L.” The dispatch follows:

CHICO, July 13.–John L. Sullivan, a big grizzly bear used in a local theatre, was arrested last night by Policeman Field and booked with its owner on a charge of violating the city’s traffic ordinance. In police court the owner put up $20 bail to appear with the bear tomorrow. They were occupying an automobile in a street exhibition and the machine went too fast to suit the police. When the arrest was made the grizzly tried to escape, but was induced by the owner to go along to the police judge’s court.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 15, 1913

 

Read More

bessieblitz

THE WARS OF THE PAXTONS

Imagine asking someone in the Bay Area anytime around the turn of the last century to “Name someone who lives in Santa Rosa.” There’s little doubt that first pick would be that guy named Burbank. But depending upon the year, a surprising number of people might have thought of Blitz W. Paxton. Unlike Burbank, he wasn’t famous because of personal achievements; he was well known because he was often mentioned in the newspapers on account of being sued – and he was sued a lot.

The saga of Blitz (and yes, that was his real name) is a pretty good story in its own right, but it’s really all background to the article which will follow, describing the magnificent house Blitz and his family built in Santa Rosa. Whether that second chapter in his life redeems him or not is up to Dear Reader to decide – or maybe you’ll read this and come away feeling he did nothing amiss and was treated unfairly. Either way you’re likely to have strong feelings about him, just as your Bay Area great-grandparents probably had.

When Blitz was born in 1858 his father was already on his way to a fortune; by the time he reached adulthood, theirs had to be the richest family in the north end of Sonoma county. John A. Paxton was a banker and investor who was among the founders of the Santa Rosa Bank and president of the town’s gas company, among other investments. He built the family a 17 room manse in 1880-1881 west of Healdsburg in the fashionable Second Empire style which is still around; you probably know it as the elegant Madrona Manor B&B.

In those years John spent the workweek at his San Francisco bank office, returning on the Friday train where he was met by a servant. “If the weather was a bit nasty, the coach and footman arrived in a closed carriage – some class!” Wrote Dr. William C. Shipley, the Boswell of old Healdsburg. Shipley described the Paxtons living like gentry. “There was a footman, groom and several maids. They had quite an entourage in keeping with their position and wealth, yet with it all they were perfectly likable human people…the whole town gloried in their dignity, majesty and power, but none were envious.” It was a grand life.

According to the biographical sketch of Blitz in the 1911 county history (always self-serving because the sketchee paid to be included) young Blitz had a series of office jobs for a silver mine, a bank owned by his father and a dried fuit distributor. But unspecified “failure of his eyesight” caused him to stop working,

Blitz married Elizabeth “Bessie” Emerson in Healdsburg in 1882. She was from Rochester, New York and they likely met because her sister, Luta, had married into a prominent Healdsburg family and was living there. Bessie was the seventh of eleven children (no twins, either) all of whom lived to adulthood. Her father was an entrepreneur who ran many businesses; her mother was likely exhausted from running after so many children before dying at age 42.

The marriage of Bessie and Blitz quickly soured. A son, John, was born after their first anniversary but while the boy was still an infant, he and his mother were living back in Rochester with her father. It’s unknown whether Bessie or Blitz knew she was again pregnant at the time they separated.

Soon after they split in mid-1884, Blitz left the country for 6+ years traveling in Latin America, then Europe. What he did in those years is a mystery; the hagiography in the county history notes only that “a number of years were pleasantly and profitably passed.” (The history does not mention Bessie and their kids, by the way.)

While he was abroad, his father John disinherited Blitz not once, but twice; the first codicil in 1885 dropped his quarter-share in the $750,000 estate, and the next change took away his one-eighth interest in the farm. Just a few months later, John died in 1888 aboard a ship en route to London, where he was expected to meet – and presumably, reconcile – with Blitz.

Three months after John died, his mother, Blitz was joined in London by his mother, Hannah, and her niece. The three of them toured Europe together, so presumably the only one in the family that had a beef with Blitz was his dad.

Blitz returned to California in late 1890, moving into the grand house at Madrona Knoll Ranch with his mother and aunt. The year before he died John built a two-story winery with an impressive 200,000 gallon capacity; Blitz assumed control of this and other family business. Little happened for the next few years – until Hurricane Bessie landed in 1894.

Overnight the Paxtons found themselves cast as villains in a titillating scandal covered by the yellow press on both coasts.

Bessie and Blitz Paxton illustration from San Francisco Chronicle, May 11, 1894

Bessie sued for divorce, charging Blitz had deserted her ten years earlier and had refused to provide child support – and for good measure Bessie also sued his mom for $100,000, claiming she caused “alienation of her husband’s affections.” The divorce was granted but Bessie and Blitz would battle over support for the next eighteen years, making it surely the longest dustup in the history of Sonoma county courts.

Over the years, charges flew. In a later suit she claimed that she went to live with her father because “drugs he compelled her to take wrecked her health and caused her great suffering.” She said he had provided almost no child support, but when they corresponded a year after the separation, Blitz allegedly offered half his fortune ($25,000) – although according to Blitz, she instead unsuccessfully tried to shake down his father for twice as much. (Blitz later said his first disinheritance was because his father didn’t want her to benefit in any way from his estate.)

The core of Bessie’s demand for money was always her children being helpless dependents. Son John had been completely blinded a few years before the divorce in some sort of accident, and his sister, Roma – born after her parent’s separation – was portrayed as an invalid, although nothing specific was ever claimed except that she was “delicate” for once having hit her head. (Roma married in 1908, had four kids and lived to the great old age of 85.)

As the years passed and new lawsuits were filed, Bessie’s pleas became more strident and dramatic. She sobbed in court testimony, claimed that her children were about to go hungry as she was months overdue on all bills. She blasted her wealthy ex-husband as every kind of monster – although in a 1906 appearance she turned her ire towards Blitz’ attorney (and seemingly his best friend) James Wyatt Oates: “I know that if he were left alone Mr. Paxton would provide for me and my blind son, John, and my invalid daughter, Roma,” she complained in 1906, “but Attorney J. W. Oates of Sonoma, who represents Mr. Paxton, will not let him settle the case, because the longer it goes on the larger will be his fee. This is common talk at our old home and is a fact.”

Even as Bessie kept escalating her claims of pauperism, Blitz likewise kept deflating the size of his bankbook. He claimed at various times he was “practically bankrupt,” his investments had flopped, he was “in such bad shape that I cannot tell at this time what I will be able to do,” had no income because he could not work due to gout and heart disease (yet somehow managed a week-long fishing trip with Oates), had “no coin, and no property on which he can raise any” or was nearly penniless from paying lawyers to fight Bessie. In 1905 he filed an affidavit claiming he was flat broke – yet three months later, hosted a party for 300 at his grand Santa Rosa home.

From the beginning of their courtroom conflicts, the San Francisco press framed the story as the cold-hearted millionaire fighting the impoverished mother of his children and his pitiful children. During the 1894 divorce case the Chronicle was unusually honest in suggesting this spin was selling lots of papers: “The article published in the Chronicle lately concerning the suit…caused a sensation here and in Sonoma county, where the wealthy Paxton family is well known. The narrative of Mr. Paxton’s treatment of his young wife and their two children was interesting reading in the clubs and swell places which he frequents.”

Flash forward a few years later and the San Francisco Call offered a headline, “PAXTON HUNTS DUCKS AND CHILDREN STARVE.” Scattered among the selection of articles transcribed below are a few other examples of the anti-Blitz spin (and there are certainly more) but this snark from the 1906 Call is my favorite:

Every parent in the animal kingdom, by studied proximity and conscious sacrifice, feeds and shelters its offspring. Then why does Blitz W. Paxton stand alone? There are some animals that devour their young. Then there is the canis tribe – a class by themselves of carnivorous mammals, such as the dog, the fox, the wolf and the jackal, but these all outclass Blitz W. Paxton in the support and shelter they universally supply to their offspring.

Was Blitz really that rich and was Bessie really that poor? More on Blitz is below and in the following article, but he was never close to being the Daddy Warbucks who Bessie portrayed. And it’s very doubtful she or the children ever faced real financial hardship.

Bessie apparently returned to California in 1892, not long after Blitz came back from Europe. She and the children settled in San Francisco where her brother-in-law (General Richard H. Warfield, the husband of her sister Lute) leased and ran the California Hotel in the city’s fashionable French Quarter centered around the intersection of Bush and Kearny. She remained a “permanent guest” there at least through 1899 – as a side lawsuit in the divorce proceedings, Warfield demanded Blitz pay $315 for two years of food, clothing and boarding.

While the press was telling readers that poor Bessie was counting nickels, she was actually hobnobbing with elites on Nob Hill, particularly multimillionaire James Graham Fair (he’s the “Fair” in the name of San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel). A notorious philanderer whose wife had divorced him for “”habitual adultery,” Fair died the year after the Paxton divorce. Women came forward claiming he had promised to leave them a generous bequest and rumors were that Bessie had a final will which named her a major beneficiary; it wasn’t true, but it suggests the newspapers presumed she and Fair had a very close relationship.

The Paxton divorce was settled in the autumn of 1894: Bessie would get $7,500 in cash and $100 a month until the children were of age. Blitz also took out a life insurance policy naming her and the kids as beneficiaries. It wasn’t a grand sum, but $100/mo in 1894 works out to about $40,000 a year in today’s money – and remember, she was apparently paying little for living expenses at her family’s nice hotel.

Following the divorce settlement and the flurry of excitement over the Fair affair, all was quiet concerning the former Mr. and Mrs. Paxton until the turn of the century. Then: Vaudeville!

(RIGHT: Bessie Blitz Paxton vaudeville publicity photo)

Bessie had long fancied herself a singer, and as far back as the original divorce suit she claimed of being “forced to sing in church choirs” to support herself and the children. It comes as news to me that was ever considered a well-paying gig, but she later expanded her claim to “singing in oratorio” and opera, although never were any specifics provided. (Full disclosure: I myself was in two productions of the New York Metropolitan Opera and can likewise say I have made operatic appearances. In one I marched onstage with other spear carriers and in another I waved a flagon in a tavern scene.)

In 1900 she made her first appearances in San Francisco and Los Angeles to polite reviews. Her voice was low but carried well and said to be “velvety in quality.” Her stage name was “Mrs. Bessie Blitz Paxton” to milk the divorce infamy and per usual, she worked in a dig at Blitz when interviewed: “[T]here are bills to be paid,” she told the San Francisco Call, “doctor’s bills the result of my little daughter’s recent illness. Her father won’t pay them so I must, and I am going on the stage to earn the money.” Ever sympathetic, the Call’s headline was, “SINGS IN PUBLIC FOR HER CHILDREN.”

The following year she did an East Coast tour which did not go so well. She began with a troupe playing Midwestern cities. (Lincoln, Nebraska review: a “California society woman with charming vocal powers and a most peculiar manner.”) Bessie was fired a few weeks later for punching the leader of the company after he chided her for a lack of professionalism. According to the Los Angeles Herald, “She wheeled him around and out into the [train] aisle and planted a No. 5 [boxing lingo for an uppercut punch] where it was the most forceful.” She ended 1901 on stage alongside bottom-of-the-barrel acts such as the Carmen Sisters (“banjoists”) and “Fritz the monkey, who turns wonderful somersaults.” For a few weeks she apparently tried to relaunch herself as a novelty act: “Alice Blitz Paxton, The Female Baritone.”

Back home the legal battle with Blitz resumed, this time over a $918 medical bill for daughter Roma. Blitz argued he should not have to pay for it as he did not authorize the treatment and the state Supreme Court agreed. It was another example where he easily could be viewed as heartless – but that was a hefty bill (about $29,000 today) and we have no information about Roma’s ailment or medical treatment. All we have to judge its merits is that the physician was Dr. Grant Selfridge, a homeopath who specialized in hay fever and allergies.

This brings us to 1902, probably the most eventful year of Blitz’ life. He was now president of the Santa Rosa Bank, of which his father was a founder; he had a new wife and a new son and the family had moved into their fine new house in Santa Rosa. That year his mother also died, which seemed to make him the rich man Bessie had always falsely presumed him to be. Soon she was back demanding he double the alimony payments. This round of their epic fight would continue from 1903 to 1908.

Rehashed once again were the accusations from their old separation, with some new details added: Bessie now accused him of stashing away their $500 wedding silverware. It was probably Bessie’s stage experience which brought tearful and wrathful drama to her court appearances, including a moment where she attacked Blitz in the courtroom like a bulldog prosecutor:

Springing to her feet, bitterness marking every gesture, Mrs. Paxton walked toward the man whose abandonment of her has cost her years of suffering, and said:

“And who, if it please you, took care of your children when you took $40,000 from the bank and went to Europe for a good time? You say, you should support these children. You had an opportunity before any suit was filed, but you turned your blind son away from your home when he went to ask for aid.”

Paxton winced and reddened, but tried to smile unconcernedly.

“Oh, you may well laugh,” said Mrs. Paxton, “when you are living in luxury and we are starving.”

At first Bessie’s new legal campaign against Blitz might seem like the action of someone foolish or desperate. He was no longer required to pay child support as John and Roma were no longer minors, being 22 and 20 (respectively) in 1905, the key year for their court decisions. But requesting more alimony was merely a clever gambit by her lawyers; under California’s Civil Code §206 there was an obligation for parents to support children who could not provide for themselves because of infirmities – regardless of age. Now his children were individually suing him as well.

Blitz was ordered to pay Roma and John $50 a month each. He refused and his children’s lawyer asked for him to be imprisoned on contempt. As reported in the Call, their attorney told the court that Blitz was such a monster that he even refused to see his kids after they trekked all the way to Santa Rosa on their own:

Last week, alleges Attorney Hanlon, John, the blind son, and Roma, the invalid daughter, went to Santa Rosa to ask their father for aid, as the court had decided that not only morally but legally he was bound to support them. Leading her sightless brother by the hand, says Hanlon, Roma trudged from the station along the country road to the splendid home of their father. Up the drive they had once hoped would lead them to their own doorway they walked, two children intent upon executing their own judgment, but they were to be disappointed…when these children turned into the driveway leading to their father’s home he was sitting at his ease at that home. But as the children approached the blinds were drawn and a servant was dispatched to meet John and Roma. ‘Your father is not at home,’ said the servant. ‘He has gone to San Francisco. I do not know when he will return.’ Thus repulsed, these children turned back to the station, penniless.”

I tell you, the reporting on the Paxton court hearings was the best entertainment available during the autumn of 1905. Forget sports, forget politics; you can bet everyone in Northern California was eagerly flipping through their morning papers to see if there was a fresh salvo from Bessie and the kids or whether Blitz had finally sprouted horns and a tail.

While Blitz was being threatened with the court seizing his share of Madrona Knoll and/or throwing him in the clink for contempt, Bessie’s society friends organized a gala concert on her behalf at the Tivoli Opera House. “When the total receipts were figured up if was found that a fund of fully $2000 was ready to relieve the temporary embarrassment of the brave Mrs. Paxton and her family,” the Call reported.

Years were passing and like a soap opera storyline, details changed while the plot remained fundamentally the same. Court decisions kept falling in favor of the children, with one point being appealed to the state Supreme Court. John bitterly demanded judges to punish his father. Blitz said he had no property to sell, which was true – he had transfered the Santa Rosa house to wife Jane on New Year’s Eve 1904. The only thing he truly owned was roughly one-third of the Healdsburg property which he had inherited from his mother. Bessie’s lawyers had estimated his share at over $100,000, but much of its value was in the productive winery. That building collapsed in the 1906 earthquake and was not rebuilt, so when Madrona Knoll was sold at the end of the same year Blitz cleared only about seventeen thousand.

And lo, it finally came to pass, eighteen years and four U.S. presidents later: In 1912 there was a settlement for all claims. Blitz paid $5,000 to each of his kids.

Blitz always claimed (at least, when he could find a reporter willing to listen to his side) that he didn’t object to supporting his children, but rather objected to any money reaching the ex-wife he and his family loathed. From a 1905 affidavit:

The affiant admits that he deserted and abandoned his former wife, Mrs. Bessie E. Paxton, but asserts that he was compelled to do so, owing to her meanness of temper and bitterness of tongue; which made the life of this affiant unbearable. Mrs. Paxton further alienated the affection of the parents of this affiant for him and when this affiant returned from his trip abroad, it was only to learn that his father, John A. Paxton, had absolutely disinherited him, as he did not wish Mrs. Paxton to benefit in any way from his estate, owing to the meanness of her conduct.

This contempt for Bessie was also seen in his mother’s will, where Hannah Paxton only left a token $10 each to her grandchildren Roma and John Jr. And it is true that any contribution to John would have been a benefit to Bessie; he apparently lived with his mother until she died in 1937. (He passed away two years later.)

And even before the settlement, Blitz did aid his son. In 1907 he paid for the 24 year-old John to run a cigar stand on Sutter street, but his blindness left him open to theft. Blitz started another at California and Divisadero streets but again was robbed of everything. While today it might seem a setup for failure – or even cruel – to encourage a sightless person to operate a street business like that, magazine and tobacco stands were a common business for the blind in that era, and John did it for the rest of his life.

Personally, I feel Blitz and Bessie were equally despicable for turning John and Roma into pawns. It might look like a zero-sum game but wasn’t; both parents considered they won a moral victory every time he ignored a court order to pay up. Money was only a phony excuse to go to war over their mutual hatred. I very much doubt either of the children ever suffered cold or hunger, but am certain both must have been scarred emotionally by being pushed to the battlefield frontlines in the roles of the pathetic invalid girl and blind boy.

Finally, if l’affaires Blitz haven’t left you totally exhausted, you can open the Paxton matryoshka doll and find another collection of sensationalistic lawsuits, and still more court battles nested inside that one.

Blitz had a younger brother Charles, who was not mentioned here before because he has no real Sonoma county connection. He was a San Francisco stock broker and after their mother died in 1902 the brothers were named co-executors of the estate. Within the year Charles was accusing Blitz of embezzlement while Blitz was trying to force Charles out, charging he threatened “to destroy his reputation and to drive him out of Sonoma county.” Meanwhile, the Santa Rosa Bank – where Blitz was still president – sued the pair of them as executors for not paying back the loans mom took out for Blitz’ allowance in the 1890s. Then when Charles died and Blitz was executor of his estate there were still more lawsuits. At one point I think I read Blitz was suing himself, but am probably wrong about that. Still, as crazy as that seems, you couldn’t blame the poor fellow for getting mixed up over such a little detail.

Roma and John A. Paxton illustration from San Francisco Chronicle, May 11, 1894
MRS. B. W. PAXTON SUES FOR DIVORCE
She Says Her Millionaire Husband Treated Her Cruelly and Deserted Her.

SAN FRANCISCO, March 10.–A complaint was filed to-day in a suit for divorce by Mrs. Bessie E. Paxton against Blitz W. Paxton, who is reported to be worth two millions of dollars. Paxton comes from a rich family in Santa Rosa, Sonoma county, and his fortune is largely in land and mining property.

The plaintiff, who is a young and handsome woman, says they were married in 1882 and lived happily until 1884. She had one son and was expecting another child when Paxton deserted her. She gave birth to a daughter, Roma, on Jan. 3, 1885, and her health was seriously affected by her husband’s cruelty.

His action she ascribes to his parents, who desired him to separate from her. He induced her to return to her father and mother in Rochester, N.Y., promising to meet her there after paying a business visit to Texas. She fulfilled her part of the compact, but her husband returned here, and then went to Guatemala. She learned nothing of his whereabouts until the following year, when he wrote that he should never come back to her.

For eight years, the plaintiff declares, she has supported herself and her two children aided by her parents, receiving no more than $125 last year from Paxton. He refused any further aid, although his little son is totally blind and requires the mother’s constant care. Mrs. Paxton alleges that her husband is living in luxury and that he spends large amounts at costly restaurants on periodical visits to San Francisco, while she is forced to sing in church choirs and give music lessons to get the simplest necessaries for herself and children.

The plaintiff has also secured an injunction restraining her husband from disposing of any of his property, and she demands money for support and counsel fees during this action. The complaint, when it is published tomorrow, will create a social sensation, as Paxton is a well-known club man and a member of San Francisco’s four hundred.

– New York Sun, March 11 1894
Paxton Repudiates Doctor’s Bill.

The action instituted by Dr. Grant Selfridge against Blitz W. Paxton and his former
wife, Bessie E. Paxton, who recently abandoned the society drawing-room for the vaudeville stage, to recover $918 for treating the son of the defendants, was tried and submitted for decision by Judge Seawell yesterday. Dr. Selfridge and Dr. J. S. Brooks testified as to the reasonableness of the plaintiff’s claim. Mr. Paxton was placed on the stand in his own defense and repudiated the claim saying that he did not authorize the treatment of his son by Dr. Selfrldge. The case was then argued and submitted.

– San Francisco Call, March 20, 1901

 

MISHAP TO HARRY CORSON CLARKE
Bessie Blitz Paxton Chastises tha Actor

DENVER, Col., April 25.–Harry Corson Clarke undertook to reprimand Bessie Blitz Paxton, the plump land who sang “Twickenham Ferry” with the Clarke company, with results disastrous to himself.

While the company was en route to Cheyenne, Mr. Clarke undertook to tell Mrs. Paxton how little she knew about the show business, and how much she could learn from hum. He also referred to her failure to attend rehearsals, and ended by an expression which aroused the actress to more real anger, she says, than she has felt since he was married.

Bessie Blitz Paxton thereupon arose in her wrath and her car seat and swatted Mr. Clarke on the ear. She reached over with the other hand and jolted the comedian under the chin. Then she took a firm hold at the nape of his neck, and another and firmer hold farther down, and threw him up against the window sash. She seemed to be trying to let go of him, but could not. She wheeled him around and out into the aisle and planted a No. 5 where it was the most forceful, and Mr. Clarke dived into the stove box.

The rest of the company interfered and held Mrs. Paxton until Cheyenne was reached. Here Mr. Clarke paid her two weeks’ salary, and the actress returned to Denver, arriving this morning.

– Los Angeles Herald, April 26, 1901

 

FILED FOR PROBATE
THE LATE MRS. H. H. PAXTON LEFT PROPERTY VALUED AT OVER $200,000
Will and Codicil Dispose of the Estate the Bulk of Which is Bequeathed to the Deceased Lady’s Two Sons

Blitz W. Paxton has petitioned the Superior Court for probate of the will of the late Mrs. Hannah H. Paxton of Madrone Knoll, Healdsburg,

Among other things the deceased’s property consists of an undivided five-eighths interest in 208 acres of land known as the “Madrone Knoll” place, the interest being valued at $62,500; furniture, furnishings, etc., valued at $5,000; jewelry, etc., $1,000; 200 shares of stock of Santa Rosa Bank valued at $28,125; cash in bank, $889; 60 first mortgage bonds valued at about $60,000; shares of Puget Sound Iron Co., worth about $28,000; an undivided interest in personal property worth about $2,500; Interest in wine 1 bond worth $2,600. T

The value of the property is about $200,000. Mrs. Paxton left a will bearing date October 11, 1894. with a codicil thereto dated January 24,1899, in the possession of Colonel James W. Oates, who is the attorney for the estate. Blitz W. Paxton. Charles E. Paxton and Mary M. McClellan are named in the will as executors.

In the will the deceased’s bequests Include $5.000 to her sister, Miss Mary McClellan; her sister, Ruth McClellan, $6.000; John A, Paxton and Roma W. Paxton, her grandchildren. $10 each.

To her son, Blitz W. Paxton, Mrs. Paxton leaves a legacy of $40,000.

All the residue and remainder of the estate is left to Blitz W. Paxton and his brother, Charles E. Paxton, in equal proportion, share and share alike. The reason for the additional legacy to the former son is explained by the testator for the reason that he did not share his father’s property at the time his brother did, the latter being left about $40,000.

In the codicil to the will, made January 24, 1899, Mrs. Paxton absolutely Revokes the bequest of $5,000 to her sister, Miss Ruth McClellan. The executors will serve as such without bonds and they are given power to buy. sell, convey, compromise, manage and control the estate.

– Press Democrat, September 9 1902

 

She Wants More Money

Mrs. Bessie Paxton has petitioned the Superior Court of San Francisco for an order to compel her former husband, Blitz W. Paxton, to allow her $200 a month. At present she receives an allowance of $100, but she declares that this is insufficient for the support of herself and her two minor children.

Mrs. Paxton obtained a divorce in 1894, and at that time was awarded the custody of her two children, John A. Paxton,now aged 20, and Roma Warren Paxton, now 18. When the divorce was granted Mr. Paxton offered his wife half of $25,000, his fortune at that time. She refused this and went to his father for $50,000. He would not listen to her, and finally when the divorce was granted, she accepted $7,500 in cash and $100 a month to be paid until the children were of age.

Mr. Paxton believes that the children will soon be legally out of her custody, and according to the stipulation she will no longer get the $100 a month. “That is not in any sense alimony,” said Mr. Paxton. “The $7,500 was in lieu of that. I carry a $10,000 insurance policy made out for her benefit and that of the children. 1 will make different arrangements for them when they are out of the legal custody of their mother.” Mrs. Paxton’s petition will be heard on August 21.

– Press Democrat, July 9 1903
LAW IS WITH BLITZ PAXTON.
Banker Defeats His Former Wife in Her Efforts to Get Increase in Alimony.

A petition to modify a decree of divorce, the means taken by Bessie E. Paxton, the singer, the former wife of Blitz w. Paxton, the Sonoma County banker and capitalist, to secure more alimony, is not the proper proceeding, hence Judge Murasky found against her yesterday, and ordered the entry of an order denying her petition. She must file a suit in equity to set aside the agreement she made at the time she secured her divorce, in which she waived all claims against Paxton for the sum of $13,200 to be paid in monthly installments of $100, which agreement, she claims, was obtained from her by misrepresentation.

The matrimonial history of the Paxtons is a stormy one. They were married in 1882, and have two children, a boy and a girl. The boy, who is now almost 19 years of age, is blind. The troubles of the Paxtons commenced a short time after their marriage. In 1894 she sued him for divorce and obtained a decree on the ground of cruelty. She agreed that she would waive all claims upon Paxton provided that for a period of 132 months he would. pay her $100 a month. When the children grew up and the boy lost his sight and the girl became sickly, Mrs. Paxton found it hard to make both ends meet on $100 a month, and she went upon the stage. For a period of two weeks she sang at the Orpheum. Then Paxton fell heir to a fortune estimated to be worth $500,000, and Mrs. Paxton thought it about time that he should do a little more for her than give her $100 a month. She accordingly filed the suit to amend her decree of divorce, basing her claim on the ground that Paxton, to obtain her signature to the agreement concerning alimony, had willfully and fraudulently concealed the true state of his finances.

– San Francisco Call, March 26, 1904
 
 
DEMANDS AID FROM FATHER
Daughter of Blitz Paxton, Banker, Files Suit to Compel Him to Support Her
GIRL PLEADS POVERTY
Says She Is an Invalid and in Need of Necessaries. Marriage Bonds Severed

The litigation growing out of the matrimonial infelicities of Blitz W. Paxton, the Santa Rosa banker, and Bessie Paxton the singer, which began in 1893, when Mrs. Paxton sued for maintenance, and which was further complicated in 1894, when she dismissed the maintenance proceedings and instituted a suit for divorce, became still more involved yesterday, when Roma Paxton, the 19-year-old daughter of the couple, filed a suit against her father to compel him to support her. She says she is an invalid, unable to work to provide either the necessaries of life or medical attention for herself, and she asks the court to order her father to provide for her out of the fortune of more than $100,000 she says he possesses. She asks for $100 a month.

– San Francisco Call, May 27, 1904

 

Sues for Maintenance.

John A. Paxton, the blind son of Blitz W. Paxton, the wine grower and backer,
brought suit yesterday to compel his father to provide for his support. The young man’s parents were divorced in 1894 and since that time the son has been living with his mother. He came of age on August 10 and It is now alleged that owing to his infirmity and need of constant medical attendance his mother is unable to provide for him.

– San Francisco Call, September 11, 1904

 

The Paxton Case.
Divorced wife tells her story in San Francisco Court.
Divorced in 1894.

“Since my husband, without cause or explanation to me, his bride of two years, abandoned me at the behest of his family twenty-one years ago (1884), I have struggled alone, while he has disported himself in luxury,” said Mrs. Blitz Paxton (Bessie Emerson Paxton), wife of the Sonoma Banker, when the suit of her two children against their father for maintenance came up before Judge Graham Friday in San Francisco.

“I simply worshipped my husband; when the blow fell on me I was nursing my little baby boy (John Alexander); my little girl (Roma) was born afterwards. Then misfortune seemed to pursue us; accidents happened to both children, a hard fall in each case rendered them helpless for life, my son having been blind from babyhood. An operation, the doctors said, would save his eyes, but my appeal to his father was in vain. Then it became too late to do anything for his sight. My daughter is delicate from a fall which caused concussion of the brain.

“I tried for awhile to turn my musical training to account, and the songs of happier days, when I entertained guests at my luxurious home, were heard on the Orpheum Circuit. But the children needed my care, and the work was too hard. This suit seems our last hope for relief.

The case was argued and taken under advisement by the court.

– Healdsburg Tribune, June 1, 1905

 

PAXTON WINCES UNDER CHARGES.
Former Wife Verbally Flays Santa Rosa Banker for His Acts Toward Children.
COURT SCENE DRAMATIC.
Mother of Plaintiff Rises and Replies to Defendant’s Statements on the Stand

Blitz W. Paxton, Santa Rosa banker and capitalist, winced under the verbal lash, wielded by Bessie W. Paxton, who was once his wife, in Judge Graham’s department of the Superior Court yesterday. He was in court to fight against the petitions of his blind son and invalid daughter for maintenance. Well-groomed and showing in his dress every evidence of the possession of the wealth the mother of his children says he enjoys to their exclusion, he glanced at the sightless eyes of his son and at the frail form of his daughter without the faintest display of emotion.

With the eyes of the spectators upon him and the accusation of his former wife ringing in his ears he was less at ease, however.

Paxton first presented an answer to his children’s petition in which he denies that he is possessed of the hundreds of thousands of dollars with which they credit him and says that he is worth no more than $30,000. He also presented an affidavit signed by his physicians in which it is stated that rheumatic gout and heart disease compelled him to relinquish his position with the Santa Rosa Bank, which left him without salary or income other than that derived from his small estate, which, he says, he needs for the support of his present wife arid child.

PAXTON MAKES ADMISSION.

Upon taking the stand the capitalist admitted, in answer to questions put by Judge Graham, that he believed he should support his children, but, he said, “I will contribute nothing to them that might be used by their mother for her support.”

Springing to her feet, bitterness marking every gesture, Mrs. Paxton walked toward the man whose abandonment of her has cost her years of suffering, and said:

“And who, if it please you, took care of your children when you took $40,000 from the bank and went to Europe for a good time? You say, you should support these children. You had an opportunity before any suit was filed, but you turned your blind son away from your home when he went to ask for aid.”

Paxton winced and reddened, but tried to smile unconcernedly.

“Oh, you may well laugh,” said Mrs. Paxton, “when you are living in luxury and we are starving.”

Paxton was silent under the stinging accusation.

In an affidavit Mrs. Paxton said that since the expiration in August of an agreement entered into between herself and Paxton at the time she divorced him in 1894, under which he paid $100 a month for the support of his children, Paxton has only sent them $40, and that was to his blind son John. To his daughter Roma he sent nothing.

NO FOOD IN HOME.

“Why, even now,” said Attorney. Hanlon, interpolating, “there is no food in the home of these people that are in sore need.”

Again Paxton smiled; he found grim humor in the lawyer’s statement.

Continuing in her affidavit Mrs. Paxton recited the facts of the abandonment of herself
and her children by her husband, who had become angered, she said under oath, at her through her refusal to submit to criminal means to stay the advent of her baby girl into the world. She said he sent medicines and got a doctor. In his effort to compel her to submit to his demand, but she refused, and although her daughter had been sorely tried through illness her gentleness of spirit has brought much comfort into a stricken home.
At the conclusion of the reading of Mrs. Paxton’s affidavit, in concluding which she reiterates her statement that her former husband is a wealthy man and that his statement to the contrary is made solely to defeat the effort of her children to secure a judgment for maintenance, the case was continued until next Friday to enable Paxton to file counter statements, signed under oath.

– San Francisco Call, October 14, 1905

 

Pretty Hard Up.

An affidavit by Blitz W. Paxton, of Santa Rosa, as to his lack of money was filed in Judge Graham’s court Friday in response to the application of John A. Paxton and Miss Roma Paxton, his two children by his first wife, for an order to compel him to pay their counsel fees and costs in their suits against him for maintenance. Paxton declares on oath that he has no coin, and no property on which he can raise any. His stock in the Sonoma Consolidated Quicksilver company has no market value, he says, and his stock in the Santa Rosa bank and the Puget Sound Iron company is pledged to the Wickersham Banking company for more than it is worth.

– Healdsburg Tribune, February 15 1906

 

BESSIE PAXTON PLEADS FOR AID
Asks Judge Graham to Intercede for Her With Former Husband, Who Is Rich.
SAYS RENT IS UNPAID.
Explains That Her Credit With Tradesmen Is Exhausted and Hunger Nears

“For God’s sake, Judge Graham,” said Mrs. Bessie Paxton on the stand yesterday, “Intercede for me and my children with Mr. Paxton! You have stilled resentment in many hearts and have brought contentment to many unhappy mothers, and why cannot you do this for me?” Here the unfortunate woman, once the wife of Blitz W. Paxton, capitalist of Sonoma, broke down and sobbed bitterly. For several minutes there was silence in the court until Mrs. Paxton partly composed herself. Then she continued:

“I do not know what we will do, Judge. My rent has not been paid for three months; my credit at the butcher’s, the baker’s and the grocer’s, is exhausted and my gas bill is overdue two months. We have nothing but a gas stove in the house, and if the gas is shut off we will have no way to cook our daily meal. We have now but one meal a day, and as the weeks pass we find that we must further economize, even in the amount of food that we can have at this one meal. It is dreadful, and I fear that my mind is breaking under the terrible strain.”

“I know that if he were left alone Mr. Paxton would provide for me and my blind son, John, and my invalid daughter, Roma, but Attorney J. W. Oates of Sonoma, who represents Mr. Paxton, will not let him settle the case, because the longer it goes on the larger will be his fee. This is common talk at our old home and is a fact. Cannot you intercede for me?”

“Well,” said Judge Graham, visibly affected by the, unhappy woman’s appeal, “l have done and am doing all I can for you. The last time Mr. Paxton appeared in court I asked him why he did not conduct himself like a man and see that you and your children were kept from want, but my criticism had no effect upon him.”

Still in tears, Mrs. Paxton left the stand to listen to the argument of counsel on the motion of her children for an allowance pending the hearing of their father’s appeal from Judge Graham’s order directing him to pay them $50 a month each for their permanent maintenance. At the conclusion of the argument Judge Graham allowed the two children $350, but when they can collect that, sum is a matter for conjecture.

The case thus decided, Attorney John M. Burnett, who represents Paxton in this city, requested Attorney Charles F. Hanlon, who represents the children, to consent to the printing of the transcript on appeal in but one of the two cases involved. “This will save us great expense,” said Burnett.

“If you will agree to give these children 75 per cent of the cost of the second I will release you,” answered Hanlon.

Burnett would not consent to such a proposition, Attorney Hanlon settled the dialogue by saying:

“Mr. Burnett, you have chosen to live by the sword, and you can die by it. Prepare both transcripts and turn into useless print the gold that would buy these children food. You have given none, and hence you can expect no quarter, from us.”

– San Francisco Call, February 22, 1906

 

PAXTON BENEFIT A BIG SUCCESS

Success, artistic at every point, and in a financial way far beyond expectation, marked the testimonial concert given to Mrs. Bessie Paxton, former wife of Blitz W. Paxton, and her two children, at the Tivoli In 19 House, in San Francisco, last Tuesday afternoon. Members of society flocked to hear the delightful program that had been prepared for them by Mrs. Camille d’Arviile Crellln, to whom most of the credit for the tremendous success of the affair must be given. When the total receipts were figured up it was found that a fund of fully $2,000 had been realized to relieve the temporary embarrassment of Mrs, Paxton and her children.

– Healdsburg Enterprise, March 17 1906
 
“MADRONA KNOLL” GOES TO HIGHEST BIDDER

About one mile west of this city is located beautiful “Madrona Knoll.” It is one of the most picturesque and artistic homes of this county. Many years ago John A. Paxton, a wealthy mining man purchased the site, cleared it of an undergrowth of brush and built on the knoll a mansion for his home and that of his family. It is an ideal spot from which one may overlook the Dry Creek and Russian River valleys.

After the death of Mr. Paxton and his wife, several years ago, the home was occupied by Blitz W. Paxton, a son. Later he removed to Santa Rosa and engaged in the banking business. The famous madrone home then stood in the name of the heirs as an estate. In the last few year it was decided to dispose of five eights of the estate. Accordingly it was advertised for sale at auction to the highest bidder, Including the entire tract of land, the home and all personal property.

On Tuesday last the sale took place as advertised under the auctioneer’s hammer. Five eights of the estate and all the belongings went to the highest bidder, the Santa Rosa Bank. The five eights of the reality was sold for $25,000.

The five eights of the personal property was knocked down to the bank for $6000. The furniture in the home which belonged to Mrs. Paxton went to the same purchaser for $3800.

The other three eights of the property is owned by Chas E. Paxton of San Francisco.

The auctioneer was John Hansen of Sebastopol. Attorney J. Rollo Loppo of Santa Rosa represented the bank. Colonel Oates looked after the Blitz Paxton interests and Attorney W. H. Rex of San Francisco appeared for Chas E. Paxton. There was a fairly good attendance at the sale.

– Healdsburg Enterprise, December 22 1906

 

THE PAXTON CASE
Offer Made By Father to Contribute to Support of Blind Son

The long standing dispute as to whether Blitz W. Paxton should be compelled to support his two minor children John A. and Roma W. Paxton came to an end Thursday in Judge Graham’s court, San Frandisco, when the judge accepted Paxton’s offer that his interest in his mother’s estate should be turned over to the Judge as an individual to be used for the benefit of his blind son. The estate of Hannah Paxton was left to her two sons and is said to have been worth $100,000. John A. Paxton, who has been running a cigar stand on lower Sacramento street, is anxious to open a new stand up town, and his attorney. Charles F. Hanlon, said that $200 cash was necessary for immediate use. Judge Graham will use his good offices with Judge Seawell, in whose court the estate of Hannah Paxton now is. to obtain the cash, says a San Francisco paper. The order to show cause against Blitz Paxton was dismissed without prejudice pending the court’s investigation of his offer.

– Healdsburg Tribune, July 2 1908
PAXTON PAYS CHILDREN

By the payment of $5OOO to his two children by his first marriage in settlement of all claims, Blitz W. Paxton of Santa Rosa Friday brought to a close the litigation the children have waged against him for the last six years. The chief beneficiary is John Paxton, the blind son. He has been assisted by his sister, Roma, in the legal battle. Mr. Paxton, it is stated, has never been averse to paying for the support of his children, but made the long contest in an effort to prevent any of his money going to the support of his former wife.

– Healdsburg Tribune, September 26 1912

 

Read More

SEEKING MISS EXCELSA

She is the symbol of the mysteries and misinformation surrounding the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake. Her name is at the top of the memorial stone at the Rural Cemetery, but it is not her real name. She is buried with a child who was supposedly hers, but more likely was a girl she never saw. The only person who knew her fled without telling anyone how to contact her loved ones, leaving her remains unclaimed in a mass grave.

All we know about her with complete certainty is that she died during the April 18, 1906 earthquake in Santa Rosa, California. On the death certificate she is named Mrs. Cecile Heath. On the newspapers death lists she appeared usually as “Miss Excelsa,” which was a misspelling of her vaudeville stage name; the earthquake came the morning after her second performance at the town’s tiny theater.

I’ve been seeking more information about Miss Excelsa for over five years, off and on, combing old newspaper microfilm, theatrical playbills and official documents, always drawn back by the pathos in her story and because it is the last major untold tale of the disaster. I was also intrigued because unexpected secrets and mysteries kept coming to the surface as I dug deeper.

There are three people involved: Miss Excelsa, her husband, and her stage partner. The life of one of them (Excelsa) has an end but no origins that can be traced; we know when her husband was born but have no record of what happened to him; for her partner’s story we have a middle but no beginning nor end. Never have I encountered a personal history with so many different loose and mismatched threads.

Some time ago I promised myself I would wrap up the search and write a piece once I found pictures. Well, I’ve found pictures.

With the caveat that there are still more caveats in this tale than make me completely comfortable, here is the executive summary: On the day of the earthquake her name was Mrs. Excelia George (“Cecile Heath” was provided to the coroner by W. A. Douglas, the stage manager at the Oakland theater where she had performed a few weeks earlier). The whereabouts of her husband, and whether they were still married or he was indeed living, is still unknown. Her stage partner – who left Santa Rosa quickly after the quake, leaving Excelia’s identity a mystery – was her husband’s ex-wife, having obtained a divorce several years earlier after he abandoned her for Excelia.

“FRED HEATH” is at the core of our story, having married both women and introduced them to his unusual performing act. He was born Frederick P. George in 1866 or 1867 in Pittsburgh, the son of a day laborer. His appearance as a three year-old in the 1870 census is the only official document that can be found for any of them – aside for Excelia’s death certificate with the wrong name.

Years later, Fred told a magazine he began performing when he was only about twelve. In the theatrical trade papers the team called Heath and Latta can be spotted performing “gun spinning” and “drill exercises” in the early 1880s. It was essentially the same act that Fred would later perform with his two wives.

(RIGHT: “Fred Heath,” National Police Gazette, September 2, 1899)

Gun spinning was simply a kind of baton twirling using a rifle, and the gun was probably always loaded with blanks for a bang-up finish. It was called an “Arabian” or “Turkish” act because it was introduced to America by acrobatic troupes from the Middle East (usually Morocco, Syria, Algeria or Lebanon) performing in circuses, amusement parks and vaudeville programs – you can see it on YouTube in the 1899 “Arabian Gun Twirler” short film. The performance also usually included a sword fight.

Besides gun spinning, the act performed by Fred and his wives likewise included mock combat with swords and rifles with bayonets. While their performance evolved over time to include comedy, it remained identified as an “Arabian” novelty act; the Oakland Tribune used the shorthand of “Arabians” to describe Excelia and her partner just a month before the 1906 earthquake. It’s also possible they routinely darkened their skin or used makeup to appear more “Middle Eastern” in sync with American racial presumptions.

The Heath et. al. act also included a Zouave drill, which continued their military-Arabian theme. Many kinds of 19th century infantry regiments were called “Zouave,” but in the popular imagination of Fred’s day it specifically meant the Algerian Arabs who wore elaborate colorful uniforms. The Zouave drill was a high speed, high precision rifle drill – there’s a period film of Zouaves in Buffalo BIll’s Wild West Show also available on YouTube. For Fred and his partners it provided an excuse to have a great costume as they did more stunts with their firearms.

The partnership of Heath and Latta broke up in 1884, when Fred was about eighteen (nothing at all can be found about Latta’s gender or age). The new team of Lynch and Latta called themselves “Champion Zouave Drill Artists of the World” with the male-female partnership of De Rossett and Heath continuing the drill and bayonet combat routine. All four worked together for a couple of years in the touring stage spectacular “Michael Strogoff,” which was a popular adaption of a Jules Verne potboiler. A biographical sketch claimed Fred married in 1885, which is about the time he was first mentioned in the trade press along with Marie de Rossett.

MARIE DE ROSSETT was Fred’s wife and longest stage partner, but nothing can be found about her before they teamed up to twirl. If this was her introduction to showbiz, it must have seemed an appealing way of life; for the next five years they had steady work with established touring companies. After the Michael Strogoff troupe they performed with an opera company; in 1889 they even ventured to form the “Humpty Dumpty Specialty Company.”1

(RIGHT: “Marie De Rossett” Boston Sunday Post, October 27, 1907)

The next major sighting of the pair appears in “Old Slack’s” theatrical memoir, where he mentioned Heath and DeRossett were part of The Sam T. Jack Creole Company, a famously all-black burlesque show.2 Their involvement with the group seemed to be evidence one or both of them were African-American – and most likely Caribbean, because Sam T. Jack had prominent Cuban connections. But newspaper reviews mentioned there was an “Egyptian pastimes” portion of the show, where Marie and Fred were presumably wearing “Arabian” makeup on stage. (The memoir also includes a fun description of the couple using their rifles to guard the entrances to the owner’s private railway car while a hot poker game was underway.)

But the easy life was coming to an end. They were hired for a few weeks to be part of “Pain’s Last Days of Pompeii,” an outdoor pyrodrama with fireworks in Harrisburg, PA (more about the spectacle here) followed by a few months as part of the Night Owls Beauty Show. That was a true burlesque show, which in that era was a cross between the American minstrel show and Parisian follies, featuring women who flashed a bit of petticoat or stocking and performed some form of can-can dance. It also included women dressing up as men – particularly as soldiers – which was popular in 1890s burlesque because it provided a reason for them to wear tights on stage; there’s a poster of a Night Owls performer in a military costume much like the kind worn by Marie and Excelia.

Thus far it was easy to chase the pair at their various engagements because they were frequently mentioned in the press, at least in passing. But in the spring of 1892 a year-long gap began. Did Marie have a baby? Was someone ill? No, a large ad the following year announced they had experienced a “grand success” in Europe. (Most vaudeville performers didn’t bother with actual continental tours and only lied about appearing before kings and queens – which if all were true, the poor royal dears would not have had time for a wink of sleep.)

The billing for 1893 was reversed: Marie was now the “first and only female soldier in the world,” and assisted by Fred. They apparently expected to make quite a splash; they were quite wrong. They appeared in New York but were listed far down on the vaudeville bills, and then toured smaller cities such as Milwaukee and Buffalo. For the next two years they disappeared again from mention in the trade press – possibly they resorted to working the Humpty Dumpty shows, or other productions that required soldiering. Then in 1895, a small classified ad appeared in the top vaudeville newspaper: “WANTED An Expert Gun Driller for Partner.” The ad was placed by Fred Heath. He never performed with his wife again.

Marie De Rossett returned to vaudeville as a solo act. From the reviews we find her doing the same stuff – Zouave drill, gun spinning and bayonet work – only now she was doing them alone. She was a member of at least two burlesque companies and may have done some chorus dancing and singing (she was called a “Soubrette” by the reporter covering the divorce). But mainly she was a two-bit performer in two-bit theaters. She had fourth billing of ten novelty acts at the Tuxedo Club in Newark. At another place she had fifth billing, below “Prof. Kreisel’s Dogs, Monkeys and Cats.” On some bills she was not featured at all, just another nobody listed down at the bottom of the ad in tiny print.

Then in 1897 a theatrical bill appeared with a name not seen before: “Excelia, gun juggler.”

EXCELIA was an unusual woman’s name, found mainly in the late 19th century with women who were French or French Canadian. We can’t be positive that was really her name because no records at all can be found, but it was the name she consistently used onstage until just a year before her death. She was supposedly born in Paris (see the Police Gazette bio) in 1876 (death cert.) but without knowing her full maiden name there’s no way to find her immigration documents; most likely the clerk didn’t know what to do with a name like hers and either shortened it to “E.” or badly misspelled it.

(RIGHT: “Mlle. Excelia,” National Police Gazette, December 23, 1899)

And like Fred and Marie, she also can’t be found in the 1900 U.S. census. Knowing the stage manager thought she was called “Cecile,” I looked under all the rocks for that name and stumbled over an assortment of nearly matching Heaths and Georges named Cecelia, Cecilie, Cealea and other variations. Considering the search was not for a John Smith-type name, there were a remarkable number of close calls – there’s even an Excelia married to a Fred at about the right time, but he was a Massachusetts leather cutter and she lived to a ripe old age.

According to the newspaper story about Marie’s divorce, Fred and Excelia began living together in 1897, the same year she appeared on stage as a gun juggler. “Mrs. George charged that he had conducted himself improperly with another young actress at a Third avenue theatrical boardinghouse. He won this gay soubrette for his own, and made her his stage partner.” No mention was made of when Marie and Fred separated, but he began performing with Excelia just a few months after her juggling debut.

Fred and Excelia’s act was more than Zouave drill and twirling; now they were promoting themselves as comics and sharpshooters. Reviews can be found praising their “transformation scenes” and her marksmanship, but the comedy aspect was not described. Given vaudeville’s fondness for slapstick, it’s easy to imagine the scenario might have involved him portraying a gruff drill sergeant while she was the insouciant private, similar to the opening of Charlie Chaplin’s 1918 comedy, Shoulder Arms.

Marie’s divorce was granted, and later in 1899 the Police Gazette – sort of the National Enquirer of its day – ran the photos of Fred and Excelia shown here, along with a thumbnail bio of them. Due either to the reporter’s incompetence or Fred’s guile, all mention of Marie was replaced by Excelia. It has them marrying in 1885 (when Excelia would have been nine) and Excelia performing with him in all the touring companies mentioned above. The newspaper article on Marie’s divorce is equally flawed; it’s claimed she was then 21, which would have meant she was only six years old when she and Fred first teamed up to spin guns.

By 1903 the team of Excelia and Heath had been together for a half-dozen years. There’s no question they were more successful than Fred’s partnership with Marie, but that may be due to the steadily increasing popularity of vaudeville. But then in the autumn, they disappear from all mention. Like the situation with Marie exactly a decade earlier, we don’t know if they anonymously joined a touring company, decided to quit, or someone fell sick – or maybe died. The trail of Frederick P. George, AKA Fred Heath, abruptly ends after an appearance that October.

It was an odd couple that first appeared on stage during July, 1905 in a little theater in Connecticut. “DeRossett” was Fred’s first wife, her name slightly altered; her partner was “Excella,” his second.3 Fred was nowhere to be found; perhaps he had moved on to wife number three and quietly retired. Like with the women in this story, research turned up many Fred Heaths and Fred Georges who almost-but-not-quite fit his shoes.

(RIGHT: Novelty Theatre ad, Santa Rosa Republican, April 17, 1907)

DeRossett & Excella apparently reverted back to the old act Marie did with Fred. The few small reviews that exist describe gun spinning, juggling and mock combat – no more mention of comedy and shooting. They called themselves the “Girls Behind the Guns” which adds to the confusion because there was another act, “Clinton & Beatrice lady sharpshooters” which also used that nickname.

Through the theatrical calendar in Billboard magazine we can follow their travels west, ever drawing closer to Santa Rosa: Cleveland before Thanksgiving, South Bend before Christmas, Minneapolis at New Years’. They reached the West Coast two months before the earthquake.

In California they joined the Novelty Circuit, the smallest of all vaudeville chains in the state, with just six theaters. As discussed here earlier, the acts who appeared at Santa Rosa’s Novelty Theatre were usually has-beens or wanna-be’s, those whom were somewhat popular entertainers long ago and those whom were popular entertainers last summer at parties back home. With Marie at the top of the bill and them apparently performing an act that was considered stale a dozen years earlier, they were definitely in the classic-oldies category.

And then this happened: April 18, 1906.

Excelia was instantly killed in the earthquake, a man named Eugene West wrote to one of the vaudeville papers, and Marie was severely injured. Who Mr. West was, and how he came to know these details, is unknown – he was not one of the performers here at the time.

No mention of Marie appeared in the post-quake Santa Rosa papers, so her injuries were apparently not serious enough to delay her from escaping town as fast as possible, leaving others to deal with Excelia’s body and puzzle out her identity. (Even in the chaotic days following the earthquake, some remains were shipped out of Santa Rosa.)

Like the rest of the press, the theatrical newspapers were hungry for any details about the great disaster on the West Coast and as performers fled eastward, they published every scrap of information available. Almost all of the news came from people who experienced the quake in San Francisco. Santa Rosa was ignored except for a letter from Fred Gottlob – another player on the bill with Marie and Excelia – who told his tale of being trapped under fallen beams in the Grand Hotel for several hours.

But while these trade papers churned out lists of every player of every company that was in San Francisco at the time, Excelia’s death merited only a couple of lines in a couple of papers. Her real name was not given; probably no one at the papers knew anything about her, and likely anyone who did know her didn’t see the itty-bitty notices. This may be the greatest surprise in the whole story; the theatrical world was exceptionally clannish, with every sneeze and hangnail reported. (Literally so – while Fred and Marie were in Europe, one of these papers had an item about her tearing off a nail during a performance.) For a member of their fraternity to violently die while on tour and not be memorialized in some way is a shocking oversight.

Our story doesn’t quite end with Excelia’s unmourned death. Most important of what is still left unresolved is the matter of the little girl who came to be associated with her. Was Excelia her mother?

(RIGHT: “Mlle. Excelia,” National Police Gazette, September 2, 1899)

“Miss Excelsa” appeared on the April 19 casualty list, so it was immediately known she had died – but it was never mentioned where it happened. Then on April 21 this item appeared: “The remains of Miss Excelsa, the Novelty actress, and a little girl, identity unknown, were found this morning and taken to the morgue. The body of the latter was taken from the ruins of the Ramona lodging house” (south side of Fourth st. between Exchange avenue and B street).  As discussed in a previous article:

In the casualty list that appeared in the same edition, there were separate entries for “Excelia, Miss, Novelty actress,” and “Little girl (unknown), Ramona Lodging House.” But the following lists counted the child twice – both as “Little girl” and as part of “Excelsa, Miss, Novelty actress and child.” Apparently everyone forgot that the only connection between the two was that they were found on the same day.

The only possible way to tie them together would be to demonstrate Excelia was also staying at the Ramona, and would have been very unlikely. Vaudeville players and other traveling entertainers religiously followed “route books,” which were pocket-sized references that guided them from town to town. They listed important details about the theaters such as size of the stage and what electricity was available (they were divided between AC and DC back then). They told you where to get your clothes washed and where to get your handbills printed. They told you where to stay – and that was almost always a hotel and not a boardinghouse. The 1906 theatrical guide lists the Occidental and Grand hotels, both of which collapsed in the disaster and together caused the majority of fatalities. When fellow performer Fred Gottlob and his wife were trapped under timbers, they were staying at the Grand. Excelia was probably there, too.

Comment is also needed regarding the strange circumstances that came to bring Excelia and Marie together here that fateful morning. For Excelia to form a partnership with her husband’s ex-wife (or maybe, her ex-husband’s ex-wife) seems as if it might have been a mite awkward, particularly since she was named as “the other woman” in bitter divorce hearings. And don’t forget, we’re not talking about two people running a bakery – the partnership in question involved high precision, high speed handling of real guns and real swords. It was a situation where you would not want to have the most fleeting concern the other person might harbor unresolved anger issues.

What they shared – besides a history with Fred – must have been their certainty that this was their best available option. They were mature women, Excelia about thirty and Marie probably a little beyond forty. It was 1906 America, when employment opportunities available to women were hard, menial (usually, both) and certain not to pay very much. But they had mastered this weird skill and already had the props, the costumes, the scenery. So, what the hell. But by the time they reached Santa Rosa, the tour had a depressing familiarity. Fred and Marie were ultimately a flop; on her own Marie was an even greater failure. And here they were on the other side of the continent, playing the smallest hall in the smallest theatrical circuit in the state. Next stop: Mining camps?

Excelia’s death ended their failing partnership, but Marie still did not retire. In 1907 Marie de Rossett, the “Military Maid” and “the Girl Behind the Gun” was again spinning rifles. Her last known booking was September, 1908, at a regional fair in Canada. Then she finally stepped offstage into deeper shadows, which we cannot follow.

1 Shortly after the Civil War, producers discovered it was much easier to sell out all the seats in theaters by offering vaudeville-like shows aimed at children. “Humpty Dumpty” was the first and most famous of these productions, with Mother Goose characters singing, dancing and pantomiming a story loosely based on nursery rhymes. Featured were spectacular stage effects and crowd-pleasing novelty acts (trick roller skating! dancing monkeys!) plus lots of broad slapstick humor with sly topical jokes slipped in to amuse the parents. The show was an immense money-maker that was revived every few years through the turn of the century, followed by spinoffs such as Humpty Dumpty Abroad, Humpty Dumpty’s Dream and so on. The original play included a Zouave drill and bayonet combat and presumably Fred and Marie were offering a slick drop-in for that segment of the show to theater companies planning to stage Humpty Dumpty.

2 The Sam T. Jack Creole Co. was particularly famous for popularizing the cakewalk and being the first company to present African-American performers not wearing burnt cork on their faces. Multiple references state the company was all black, which was not true; besides occasional white performers such as Heath and De Rossett, the troupe sometimes included Egyptian women who performed “Scenes of Oriental Splendor.” But curiously, the Creole Co. was unable to perform in Louisiana because the troupe contained no actual creoles. One Louisiana paper called for them to stay away because the show’s “‘creole beauties’ is in reality composed of mulatto women and negroes.”

3 We can only guess Excelia tweaked her unusual Christian name to Americanize it for easier pronunciation (was it ExSEElia or Exehluh?) and spelling. If so, it was a mistake; “Excella” was spelled with one L about half the time and then became “Excelsa” in the newspapers casualty lists. Not a single misspelling of “Excelia” could be found during the years she used that as her stage name. It should also be noted that she was identified as Excelia on the April 21 casualty list in the Democrat-Republican. Perhaps this shows there was someone in Santa Rosa who knew her correct name; but as it was so badly misspelled otherwise, it could be a “broken clock is right twice a day” coincidence.

1906 EARTHQUAKE
At the Novelty This Week

The program at the Novelty theatre this week proved its popularity Monday evening by the repeated encores given the various participants. The overture by M. R. Samuel was a medley of popular song successes, Colonial Intermezzo, “Prescilla.” This was followed by the moving pictures showing the latest mystery of the “Missing Jewel Casket.” L. Blanche Gilman in the monologue act, “An April Fool,” is a former Santa Rosa girl. She was encored. Dave Yoder was recalled twice to repeat the chorus of “Goodbye Sweet Marie,” as an illustrated song. De Rosette and Excella, the girls behind the guns, gave some sensational work as gun jugglers and fencers. Dainty little Pearl Hickman, in her singing and dancing act as a soubrette, was given a hearty encore. Mr. and Mrs. Gottlob & Co., present their rural comedy sketch, “Government Bonds,” which is a real New England home scene, in a manner to delight all. The closing feature is another set of moving pictures, showing “The Critic at a Vaudeville Show,” which are very entertaining.

– Press Democrat, April 17, 1906

Mr. and Mrs. Gottlob, who were playing at the Novelty theatre the week of the disaster, are safe at Denver. Joe Cowen has received a letter from them written from that place.

– Santa Rosa Democrat-Republican, May 2, 1906

Mr. and Mrs. Fred Gottlob, who were playing in Santa Rosa, state: “We were buried for nearly three hours beneath timber and plastering. The suffering of my wife and myself while waiting for someone to dig us out was indescribable. We were pinned down so that we could not move hand or foot. We were in the Grand Hotel, a three story brick structure, and had been asleep several hours when the shock came. My wife was thrown out of bed into the middle of the floor, but I managed to keep in. The roof and whole building fell in, burying everyone. The timbers and beams were within an inch of my face, and I nearly smothered. My wife, a few feet away, spoke to me, and asked if I was hurt. All about, people were groaning and calling for someone to dig them out. After a time men began digging over us, telling me to keep up courage and that we would soon be safe. The earthquake occurred about 5 o’clock, and it was 8:15 before we were finally taken out. We were not injured except for several bruises, but I never want to go through such an experience again as long as I live. My wife was in a very nervous state, and we had to leave town in avery short time. Before leaving someone took us to a Mr. Carrington, a real estate man of that city and he gave us clothes (for we had on only our night robes) and gave us something to eat. Several hours after the ‘quake, a newspaper was issued in the middle of the street, from one of those little presses. The papers sold like hot cakes. I procured one and will have it framed.”

– New York Clipper, May 5, 1906

Eugene West, of West and Henry, writes: …Miss Excela, of De Rossett and Excela (gun spinners), who were playing the Novelty Theatre at Santa Rosa, was instantly killed, while her partner and Pear Hickman (Soubrette) were severely injured at Santa Rosa.

– New York Clipper, May 12, 1906

DEATHS IN THE PROFESSION

MISS EXCELA, of the team of De Rossett and Excela, female gun spinners, was killed at Santa Rosa Cal. on the morning of the earthquake, April 18. The team was playing the Novelty Theatre in that city.

– New York Clipper, May 12, 1906

Santa Rosa suffered very much by the earthquake and fully two hundred and fifty people were killed or injured. Miss Excella, a performer playing at the Novelty Theatre, was among the unfortunate ones. She was on the team of DeRossett and Excella, and did a gun-spinning act.

– Billboard, May 12, 1906

Pearl Hickman, Santa Rosa–Safe. 855 Grove

– Watertown Daily Times, May 3, 1906
HEATH AND LATTA

…Heath and Latta in drill exercises…

– NY Dramatic Mirror, 1881

…Heath and Latta…

– New York Clipper, January 5, 1884

…Lynch and Latta, in their well-executed zouave drill…

– New York Clipper, January 12, 1884

…Heath and Latta…

– New York Clipper, April 26, 1884

LATTA and LYNCH, The Champion Zouave Drill Artists of the World. Past two season, Andrews’ “Michael Strogoff” Co., assisted by DE ROSSETT and HEATH, Engaged last season as special attraction C. D. HESS ENGLISH-OPERA CO., in Musket and Bayonet Drills, Bayonet Contests, etc., etc. The equal to which haa never yet been placed before the American public.

– New York Clipper, March 12, 1887
HEATH AND DE ROSSETT

Heath and De Rossett and T. G. Scott have organized a new “Humpty Dumpty” Specialty Co., which with twelve people and a uniformed brass band, will take the road Jan. 20 opening in New York or New Jersey. The principals will be Heath and De Rossett and the Scotts (Tom and Lillie).

– New York Clipper, December 28, 1889

The Sam Jack Creole Co., out of Boston in 1890 had the following people: Heath and DeRossett…Old Slack happened to drop into Sam T. Jack’s Creole Car while enroute to Chicago not long since. I had a hard time effecting an en- terance as Heath and DeRossett, with gun and fixed bayonet, guarded both doors, but as they thought I was the subject that was to be sacrificed for the Sun God, at the next stand they let me in.

– Old Slack’s Reminiscence and Pocket History of the Colored Profession from 1865 to 1891

Heath and De Rossett are in their seventh week with Pain’s fireworks at Harrisburg, Pa.

– New York Clipper, July 18, 1890

…a novel military spectacle, entitled “Blue and Gray,” which, besides parading the charms of the hand-some girls of the company, Introduced a number of good specialties. In the olio that followed there were some new features. Fred Heath and Madame De Rosett gave a really remarkable bayonet, drill and combat

– The Times from Philadelphia, November 24, 1891

[Night Owls Beauty Show] Heath and De Passette, besides appearing in “The Blue and the Gray,” gave an exhibition of bayonet and drill exercises which was remarkable.

– Brooklyn Standard-Union March 22, 1892

Miss De Rossett, of Heath and De Rossett, the rifle drill experts who have been making a successful appearance at the Middlesex, England during the past fortnight, met with a painful accident while performing at that establishment, Aug. 31. In the mimic combat with her partner, Miss De Rossett had the nail of one of her fingers torn off. A physician bound up the injured finger but the pain was so excessive that Miss De Rossett fainted twice.

– New York Clipper, September 24, 1892

…Rossett and Heath In combats….

– NY World July 9, 1893

…De Rossett and Heath, who provide a European novelty, consisting of a sensational military drill…

– NY Press July 9, 1893

…Miss De Rossett, the first and only female soldier in the world, assisted by Fred Heath, will present a very original and entertaining military novelty, with muskets, broadswords, and bayonettes…

– The Milwaukee Journal, Aug 5, 1893

Of the vaudeville artists appearing in the theater the most notable are Heath and De Rossett in their realistic military assault-at-arms, with broadswords and bayonetted muskets. Miss De Rossett’s performance is the first of its kind ever attempted by a woman. They come straight from Europe.

– Buffalo Courier, September 25, 1893
EXCELIA AND HEATH

WANTED
An Expert Gun Driller for Partner
Address Fred Heath, 128 Berriman St., Brooklyn, N.Y.

– New York Clipper, September 28, 1895

(at Proctor’s 23d St.) Excelia, gun juggler…

– NY Dramatic Mirror Aug 7, 1897

…Excelia and Heath, comedy entertainers…

– Buffalo Courier, February. 6, 1898

(Comedy Company) Excelia and Heath are wonders in their transformation scenes; and the shooting by Miss Excelia is well worth seeing

– Yonkers Statesman Jan 17, 1899

EXCELIA AND HEATH.

“Fred” Heath was born in Pittsburg, Pa., and made his professional debut in the same city in 1879 as a gun spinner and juggler under the team name of Heath and Latta. In 1885 he was married and he and his wife, Excelia, who was born in Paris, France, have worked together ever since, having played a part in the “Michael Strogoff” company, Robert Manchester’s Night Owls company, “Sam” T. Jack’s company and many others, as well as the principal theatres in America and Europe. In 1893 they conceived the idea of introducing comedy into their act and it proved to be a grand success. They are at present filling summer engagements at the parks in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey.

– National Police Gazette, September 2, 1899

…Frederick and Excelia Heath…

– NY Tribune February 4, 1900

…Fred and Excelia Heath, comedy duo…

– NY Dramatic Mirror February 10, 1900

…Excelia and Heath, the sensational gun spinners with electrical rifles…

– Chicago Tribune, February 10, 1901

…Excelia and Heath, gun spinners…

– NY Dramatic Mirror January 19 1901

Heath and Excelia have a wonderful reputation for their work with firearms and during the week wil perform many seemingly impossible feats in the line of sharpshooting; also some very difficult juggling with the different weapons used in their act.

– Lockport NY Journal August 23, 1902

…Heath and Excelia…

– NY Dramatic Mirror Oct 3 1903
DE ROSSETT AND EXCELLA

DeRessette and Excella, two Arabians who also carry their own special scenery for a new novelty act, will make their first Pacific Coast appearance at the Novelty and they will no doubt be the talk of the town after their opening Monday.

– Oakland Tribune March 3, 1906

The bill opens with a great novelty act, De Rossette and Excella, “The Girls Behind the Guns,” who do some wonderful gun spinning and juggling that for women is the best seen here in many moons.

– Oakland Tribune March 6, 1906
MARIE DE ROSSETT

…Marie De Rossett gave an idea of her skill in a Zouave drill and bayonet exercise…

– Boston Daily Globe November 3 1896

…Marie De Rossett named as part of Fay Foster Company

– Trenton Evening Times November 20, 1896

…Marie De Rossett named as part of Fay Foster Extravaganza Company as part of “Grand Olio” group

– Boston Sunday Post January 10, 1897

…Marie De Rossett, the champion female gun manipulator in the world…

– Bridgeport Herald February 20, 1898

MARIE GEORGE GETS A DIVORCE
Her Husband Preferred Another Soubrette to His Pretty Wife.
NOT THE CASINO FAVORITE
George Is Now Playing in the West Under the Name of Frederick Heath.

Marie George, not the Casino favorite, but one of the “Gay Masqueraders,” now playing in Brooklyn, tripped into the Supreme Court yesterday in company with a bunch of a dozen or more lively soubrettes, and after relating a touching tale of domestic unhappiness to Justice Nash, she walked out with an absolute decree of divorce tucked away in the bosom of her sealskin cloak.

The former Mrs. George’s stage name is Marie de Rossett. She is a handsome dark-haired young woman of less than 22 years, who has made a name for herself on the variety stage through her beauty and ability to perform difficult “stunts.”

Her former husband’s name is Frederick P. George, who is professionally known as Fred. Heath. Mrs. George charged that he had conducted himself improperly with another young actress at a Third avenue theatrical boardinghouse. He won this gay soubrette for his own, and made her his stage partner.

Mr. George was not in court when the case against him was called. It was explained that he was out in Kansas City, following his profession in company with the young woman whom he seemed to prefer to his pretty young wife.

Mrs. George was the first witness examined. When her counsel asked, “Who are you?” her hat almost jumped from its fastenings as she suddenly threw back her head. Several of the soubrettes in the room began to laugh, and one of them went so far as to volunteer to tell the justice who she was.

Finally the young woman replied: “I am Mrs. Marie George. Do you think anybody else would be suing my husband for a divorce?”

“I hope not,” replied her counsel, and then Mrs. George resumed the history of her life. Again her counsel interrupted: “Who are you? What do you do for a living?”

“Well, I declare,” she smiled, “isn’t it foolish of me? Why I am a–well–I am at present a burlesquer in the ‘Gay Masqueraders.’ I was married to my husband on February 27, 1895, and he left me about two years afterward.”

Mrs. A. Fielding, who maintains a professional boarding-house at No. 363 Third avenue, testified that George had lived in her house with another woman for two years.

Mrs. George’s counsel said she did not want alimony, but the justice allowed her $20 a month, any way, and signed a decree in her favor.

Some of the young soubrettes became so deeply infatuated with the spicy proceedings in the divorce court that they remained for the rest of the afternoon.

– New York Morning Telegraph, January 19, 1899

Judge Nash, of the New York Supreme Court, granted a decree of divorce to Marie De Rosett from her husband, Fred. P. Heath, on statutory grounds. She was represented at the trial by Attorney M. Strassman.

– NY Dramatic Mirror January 28, 1899

De Rossett is introduced and she shows what a woman is capable of doing with a gun.

– Boston Post January 31, 1899

…Marie DeRossett… (4th billing of 10 novelty acts in Tuxedo Club burlesque show “the burlesque is new and not of a  trashy order”)

– Newark Daily Advocate October 21, 1899

…Marie DeRossett… (5th billing, below Prof Kreisel’s Dogs, Monkeys and Cats)

– Boston Daily Globe August 10, 1902

…Marie de Rossett the Military Maid

– Boston Post, Oct. 27 1907

…Marie de Rossett, “the Girl Behind the Gun,” went through the manual like a true soldier…

– Boston Post, Oct. 29 1907

…Marie de Rossett Is certainly the champion gun spinner and her act went with great applause…

– The Billboard June 6, 1908

Marie DeRossett (Provincial Fair) Quebec

– The Billboard September 1908

Read More