Showbiz Hooked the Kids of Cairo, Illinois

Seventeenth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for

Posted Thursday, December 14, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

Following the Civil War, the children of Cairo, Ill., experienced an array of heroic models to emulate, including celebrity Americans and Europeans.

The community of 6,000 residents was remote yet strategically located at confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, serving as intersection for a transient multitude from nationwide and abroad. Cairo kids encountered steamboat pilots, locomotive operators, military officers, civil engineers, politicians, doctors, authors, poets, philosophers, teachers, preachers and athletes, among intriguing types.

Figures of “show business” were powerful symbols for a Cairo youth, regardless of the kid’s socio-economic class, race, gender. Stage-struck children were common, given the influence of Cairo’s entertainment choices and glittering performers, ranging from circus to theater. Show organizers, talent scouts and news writers were regulars around town, juicing showbiz atmosphere.

The circus captivated Cairo kids. “No less than eighty-six youngsters white and black, male and female, were, at one time today, in full chase of the circus bandwagon,” The Cairo Bulletin reported on Nov. 18, 1870. “Their object was to hear the musicians in red coats ‘blow.’”

Cairo kids witnessed America’s grandest circuses, including the shows of Spaulding and Rogers, P.T. Barnum, Cooper and Bailey, C.W. Noyes, John Robinson, and Dan Rice. When a circus was due at Cairo, children gathered at the Ohio levee and railroad depot, turning somersaults and handsprings, popping handstands, singing and dancing.

All ages anticipated arrival of Dan Rice’s circus boat on a Saturday morning in September 1869. The steamer’s calliope organ boomed across the flatland, pumping music from miles out, and folks hurried to the Cairo wharf and immediate shorelines of Missouri and Kentucky. “The steamer Will S. Hays, with banners flying, and giving out strains of delicious music, sailed into port this morning with Dan Rice’s… circus on board, under the special management and direction of the irrepressible Dan himself,” The Bulletin reported.

Performers strode off the boat, down the gangplank; horses were led off and caged animals unloaded. Circus workers and levee roustabouts hauled equipment for show setup. “The canvass was soon spread at the corner of Poplar and Tenth streets, an eager crowd eyeing the operation, in delightful anticipation of the sights and sports of the afternoon and evening. While we write [at the newspaper office], the shouts of a delighted multitude reach us from the cover of the canvass.”

The big-top tent seated 5,000 spectators, with more tickets for standing room. Boys with no money plopped down outside, peering underneath tent flaps for “a thrilling glance at the horses’ hoofs as the animals lope around the ring,” the paper described. “Other youngsters find small rents in the canvass, not larger perhaps than a finger would fill… They tell [their] eager companions gathered about that they can almost see the clown; that they did see a man in spangles; that the bass drum stands in full view.”

Circus personnel and exotic animals posed a spectacle by merely shipping through Cairo. “Col. Robert Stickney, the famous bareback rider, arrived here from Memphis with a large circus yesterday, and had his menagerie wagons and other circus paraphernalia strung along [the] Ohio levee, with the intention of have them forwarded by rail to Pana, Ill., where he intends to give a show,” The Bulletin reported.

“Among his curiosities he had a horse—a hump-backed horse—that was about as intelligent as man could make him… At the command of Col. Stickney, he walked backwards, knelt down, sat on his haunches and stood up and walked around on his hind legs. The cages of the wild beasts were standing just below the stone depot on Ohio levee; some of them were open and were surrounded by a large crowd of curious spectators.”

Circuses visited Cairo year-round at the southernmost tip of Illinois, parking massive, domed barges and more showboats at the wharf and on Missouri landings across the Mississippi. Circus trains and special cars often parked along tracks circling this railroad town. Performers wintered in the area while show managers restocked talent and revamped programs. Watercraft and equipment were stored and repaired, new parts shipped in. In springtime circus outfits organized and launched from Cairo while others opened show seasons at the locale.

Cairo anchored northern end of the delta trough, flatland stretching south to the Gulf of Mexico, draining major rivers of the interior. National railroad and wagon routes intersected at Cairo, with Missouri situated across the Mississippi River and Kentucky across the Ohio. Cairo boosters proclaimed their tri-state vicinity as the navigation head for water, rail and trail through the continental heart, “a gateway between the Northeast and Southwest.”

The Barnum circus and accompaniments, arriving by some 150 railcars, attracted enough humanity to cover the little peninsula of Cairo Township. “There were people of all sizes, shapes, sexes and colors, who came from all around us,” the newspaper reported. “The trains were all full, the [railcar] transfer boats ditto, the ferryboat was crowded at each trip, and our streets were full of farmers’ wagons loaded with produce and children. The great Barnum took everything in, and no doubt departed with a snug sum of money.”

Circus was only a facet of amusements in Cairo. Dramatic productions had been popular since the floating theaters of troupes like the Chapman family, and stage venues on land had been established during wartime, when federals strengthened Cairo levees and installed pumps to reduce seep water.

Headliners of American drama, including Kate Claxton and Lawrence Barrett, played Cairo venues in the 1870s. Sol Smith Russell and Katie Putnam, former precocious players locally, were renowned in comedy and song. Russell was a Missouri native, Putnam of Chicago, but Cairo proudly claimed the youthful stars. Russell and Putnam headed major troupes touring under their names, with each boosting Cairo’s theater reputation by appearing regularly.

Variety format led river entertainment, with requisite sex appeal, and audiences loved Putnam, always applauding for encore. In Cairo and throughout the delta, Putnam enjoyed sold-out runs for “her exquisite songs, dances, and her unrivalled banjo solos,” per an advertisement. She adorned herself with diamonds and rubies on stage.

The market embraced performers such as Andy McKee, a comic and “breakdown” dancer. “Andy McKee first appeared professionally in 1865 at Cairo, Illinois,” author Edward Le Roy Rice noted in Monarchs of Minstrelsy. “Mr. McKee’s success was so pronounced with his eccentric dancing that he had little trouble in obtaining other variety engagements in Memphis, New Orleans, Cincinnati and St. Louis.”

Illinois historian Roy Stallings concluded that Cairo competed mightily with Chicago in western theater. “In the post-Civil War period, amidst a general revival of drama in the United States, southern Illinois, and Cairo in particular, were beginning to develop their own brand of drama culture… Cairo was as important a center to southern Illinois and points farther south, as Chicago was to its surrounding territory. Cairo was not only immune to Chicago’s brand of drama, but she developed a drama that was more influential and more widely distributed than that of Chicago.”

“Southern Illinois’ own heritage was blended into the drama of the showboat, giving way to the age of the theatrical halls, and finally reaching the zenith of development in the last twenty years of the century,” Stallings wrote for Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society.

Showboats and fledgling theaters coexisted along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, with the Cairo area long a center of floating entertainment. And that wouldn’t change for generations yet, well into the 20th century, as long as extreme southern Illinois and southeast Missouri remained swampy delta frontier. “The showboats had come into being to serve a region where civilization had been slow to penetrate, especially where… the social niceties of living were retarded by the environment,” wrote historian Philip Graham.

Famed performer Dan Rice remodeled a steamboat in the area, owned by Cairo pilot A.J. Bird, for their partnership’s launch of a show craft in 1880. Rice disavowed circus as passé and wasn’t much enthused about staging dramatic productions on the new showboat, in his speaking with a Kentucky newsman.

Rather, said Rice, native of New York City, his mission was to educate and to elevate “the people along the great Mississippi and its tributaries—to music.” Perhaps Rice was dishing more trademark hyperbole, or was indeed an aging performer, as critics alleged, out of touch with his time and place.

Because fine music already resounded in the delta, from Cairo south to New Orleans, progressing toward greatness.

Children of Cairo sensed achievement ahead for their rural, unique community, and teen Maud Rittenhouse identified entertainment as essential culture. The talented schoolgirl kept a diary of her life in Cairo during the latter 19th century—a vivid narrative to become an American bestseller, titled Maud. In 1881 she wrote excitedly of the new opera house in town.

“Three years ago people said all the hateful things they could about Cairo. Now they’re lavish in their praises…,” Maud crowed, “we are altogether citified.”

Select References

Afloat. (1837, June 6). New Orleans Times-Picayune LA, p. 2.

Amusements This Evening. (1865, Oct. 5). Cairo Evening Times IL, p. 1.

Around Town. (1879, Jan. 14). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 4.

Around Town. (1879, Jan. 18). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 4.

Atheneum! (1873, April 9). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 4.

Barnum Day! (1880, Sept. 16). [Advertisement.] Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 1.

Barnum, P.T. (1927). Barnum’s Own Story. Viking Press: New York NY.

Briggs, H.E. (1954, Autumn). Entertainment and Amusement in Cairo, 1848-1858. Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 47, pp.231-251.

Cairo. (1869, May 12). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 1.

Cairo, Ill., March 4th, ’63. (1863, March 13). Winchester Randolph Journal IN, p. 3.

Cairo, One Day Only. (1874, June 16). [Advertisement.] Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 1.

Chapman. (1839, Aug. 15). New Orleans Times-Picayune LA, p. 2.

City News. (1878, Jan. 6). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 3.

Dan Rice’s Circus. (1869, Sept. 4). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 3.

Dan Rice’s Only Own Circus. (1869, Sept. 3). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 3.

Dan. Rice on the River. (1880, Feb. 29). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 1.

Dramatics on a Flatboat. (1884, Jan. 20). Louisville Courier-Journal, p. 14.

Everything Grand, New, Fresh and Bright. (1875, June 12). [Advertisement.] Cairo Bulletin IL, p.2.

Friday and Saturday. (1880, Oct. 12). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 3.

From the St. Louis Evening Chronicle. (1880, Aug. 7). Ste. Genevieve Fair Play MO, p. 2.

General Items. (1875, March 30). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 3.

General Local Items. (1880, Dec. 17). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 4.

General Local Items. (1881, April 6). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 4.

General Local Items. (1881, April 26). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 4.

General Local News. (1880, Sept. 24). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 4.

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General Local News. (1880, Nov. 16). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 4.

Graham, P. (1951). Showboats: The History of an American Institution. University of Texas Press: Austin TX.

Great Central Emigrant Route. (1868, March 31). Stanford Banner KY, p. 3.

Harrell, M.B. (1865, Sept. 9). The Cairo That Was: Number V. Cairo Evening Times IL, p. 1.

Harrell, M.B. (1865, Sept. 11). The Cairo That Was: Number VI. Cairo Evening Times IL, p. 1.

Harrell, M.B. (1865, Sept. 19). The Cairo That Was: Number X. Cairo Evening Times IL, p. 1.

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Items in Briefs. (1876, Oct. 5). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 3.

Katie Putnam. (1882, Dec. 12). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 1.

Lansden, J.M. (1910). A History of the City of Cairo, Illinois. Southern Illinois University Press: Carbondale IL.

Lawrence Barrett. (1877, April 17). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 3.

Lennox’s Floating Theatre. (1848, Dec. 12). Louisville Daily Courier, p. 1.

Local Brevities. (1870, Nov. 18). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 3.

Local Report. (1879, Jan. 22). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 4.

Mayne, I.M. (1939). Maud. Macmillan & Company: New York NY.

Miss Kate Claxton. (1880, March 30). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 4.

Opera House. (1882, Nov. 26). [Advertisement.] Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 4.

Personal. (1874, Dec. 12). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 3.

Return of the Veterans! (1869, Feb. 8). [Advertisement.] Cairo Bulletin IL, p.4.

Rice, E.L. (1911). Monarchs of Minstrelsy, from “Daddy” Rice to Date. Kenny Publishing Company: New York NY.

River News. (1875, June 29). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 3.

Rothchild’s Great Show. (1876, April 22). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 3.

Sol. Smith Russell. (1882, Nov. 26). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 4.

St. Louis, Cairo and Paducah. (1880, July 30). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 1.

Strang, L.C. (1900). Famous Actors of the Day in America. L.C. Page and Company: Boston MA.

Stallings, R. (1940). The Drama in Southern Illinois (1865-1900). Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 33, pp. 190-202.

Thalia. (1872, March 6). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 4.

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Matt Chaney is a writer and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit Email:

Blacks Electrified Early American Music and Dance

Sixteenth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for

Posted Friday, December 1, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

In pop music of antebellum America, “negro” style was vogue, particularly among the younger set North and South, multi-ethic.

At a white debutante ball in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., females swung alluringly for young males, “like the negro dances of Virginia,” reported an attendee, “and the whole effect is pleasing.” At New Orleans, 1859, the striking dance of a black couple—a slave duo “wholly inimitable” in their movement together, gushed a witness—rendered white “minstrels and caricaturists hopelessly in the shade.”

Black artists jazzed high-society types at a wedding in New Orleans. A writer raved in The Weekly Mississippian, reporting: “The band was composed of sable musicians who poured forth a strain of melody such as I have never heard at a private party, and which would have charmed Calypso and her nymphs. The dancers performed to the admiration of all—in fact nothing could have been more perfect. During the festivities of the evening a negro played on the piano in the most faultless manner to relieve the band of fatigue.”

Slaves and free blacks dominated music jobs of the rural South, well before the Civil War. “In all of the southern [communities] there are music bands, composed of negroes, often of great excellence,” Frederick Law Olmstead reported from Alabama in 1853. “The military parades are usually accompanied by a negro brass band.” Olmstead was on assignment for The New York Times, logging accounts that led to books such as his The Cotton Kingdom: A Traveller’s Observations on Cotton and Slavery in the American Slave States.

At Claiborne town on a bluff, nighttime overlooking the Alabama River, Olmstead met slaves at leisure along the streets. A young black male “commenced to sing, and in a few moments all the others joined in, taking different parts, singing with great skill and taste, much better than I ever heard a group of young men in a northern village sing without previous arrangement,” Olmstead noted. The lyrics were current, “a fashionable song of a sentimental character [that] probably had been learned at a concert or theatre in the village.”

“The love of music which characterizes the negro, the readiness with which he acquires skill in the art, his power of memorizing and of improvising music, is most marked and constant,” Olmstead wrote, adding rebuke of a Louisiana theorist making contemporary headlines. “Dr. [Samuel] Cartwright, arguing that the negro is a race of inferior capabilities, says that the negro does not understand harmony; [that] his songs are mere sounds without sense or meaning. My observations are of but little value upon such a point, but they lead me very strongly to the contrary opinion.”

Slave musicians produced revenue for owners while some drew pay for themselves. At Florence, Ala., slave performer Christopher Brewer pocketed all income from his music, according to future grandson William C. Handy, the iconic blues composer. “Grandpa Brewer… told me that before he got religion he used to play the fiddle for dances,” Handy wrote in autobiography, 1941. “That had been his way of making extra money back in slavery days. His master… allowed him to keep what he earned from playing.”

“In his day, Grandpa Brewer explained, folks knew as well as we do when it was time for the music to get hot.”

Young Brewer was granted freedom by his owner prior to the Civil War, but other slaves purchased emancipation with music earnings, reportedly. “SINGING FOR FREEDOM,” a Maine newspaper headlined of a southern troupe in 1857. “Those deservedly popular performers, the Slave Singers, will give one of their rich and entertaining concerts at Norumbega Hall this evening. They are singing in one hundred cities in the North for the purpose of purchasing their freedom. Wherever they have performed they have been spoken of by the press in the highest terms.”

Frank Johnson, a black elderly freeman, fiddler virtuoso and dancer extraordinaire, reigned over the music of North Carolina in the antebellum era, with his recognition extending nationwide through newspapers. Born a slave around 1774, Johnson used music earnings to purchase his freedom and that of numerous family members by about 1830, according to news evidence and reminisces of friends and acquaintances.

“Frank Johnson has grown into an institution,” saluted The New Bern Times in 1866. “He has brought the science of brass band music to such a high state of perfection that few dare to compete with him, and as to the violin, it’s no use talking. If there is to be a fancy ball anywhere in the length and breadth of the land, Frank is telegraphed immediately.”

The Johnson Band of “Old Frank” appeared regularly for state and private events, ranging from the Roanoke River Valley south to Wilmington. An 1855 report was typically glowing, following a parade in Tarboro, N.C.: “Frank Johnson’s brass band, seated in an Olympian car, headed the column, and as may be reasonably anticipated attracted an innumerable crowd of all ages, sexes, and colors, who gave frequent and indisputable evidences of great enjoyment.”

For stage Johnson donned formal wear in stovetop hat, spike-tail jacket, and brass buttons. “I readily recall some of the pieces he played—Money-Muss, Mississippi Sawyer, Arkansas Traveler, Bill Evans, Forked-Ease, Bill in the Low Grounds, and Old Mollie Hare,” H.C. Herring recalled for The Charlotte Observer in 1906, of erstwhile parties with the black fiddler, half-century previous. “One of the most popular pieces in that section today, he composed… Picnic.”

“The steps of the men were past describing. The ladies would even slightly draw up their skirts and the most elegantly executed back steps, pigeon wings and broad shuffles could be seen… Waltzes? No.”

The band often played until sunup for mirthful fans but Johnson had detractors, particularly local preachers and congregations; never mind, Herring affirmed, Old Frank’s popularity didn’t wane. “To any listener there was a something in his music which defeated all efforts of the Methodist and Baptist churches to suppress dancing.”

Johnson catered to Southern Democrat aristocracy in his business, and the black freeman supported states’ succession and the Confederacy, even providing battle music for Carolina troupes early in the war. Approaching age 90, however, Johnson left the whirring bullets and exploding shells for calmer surroundings. Johnson rued surrender and fall of the Old South in 1865, white friends recalled, events such as Sherman’s march of conqueror Union forces through the Carolinas. The Goldsboro Patriot reported Johnson’s band irked Navy brass years after the war, for playing Rebel rally songs aboard a steamer in Norfolk Harbor, broadcasting Dixie and Farewell To The Star-Spangled Banner.

Old Frank Johnson died in 1872, possibly a centenarian in age, and 2,000 admirers attended his funeral in Wilmington. Ex-slaves had surged ahead in American music, meanwhile, revolutionizing entertainment in society without human bondage.

Many Afro-Americans aspired to make a living in music; many dreamt of stardom and affluence, a few realizing it already. Black talents were eclipsing whites in minstrel entertainment and leading in the upstart variety formats of “vaudeville” and American burlesque. Job opportunities flourished along major river valleys and lakes,  New York to Missouri, with riverboats, saloons, urban theaters and rural halls among the music venues.

Gospel music took national spotlight, on the rising fame of Afro-American singers from Fisk University and Hampton Institute. Most of the college students had been enslaved as children. Sheet music sold by the thousands, prompting Hampton’s release of a volume, Cabin and Plantation Songs. “The slave music of the South presents a field for research and study very extensive and rich,” wrote Thomas P. Fenner, Hampton music director, in the songbook’s preface.

Fenner, a white music composer and arranger, believed free Afro-Americans could elevate the art form in a renewed nation. “It may be that this people which has developed such a wonderful musical sense in its degradation will, in its maturity, produce a composer who could bring a music of the future out of this music of the past,” he wrote from Nashville.

Fenner envisioned a black pioneer of American music, and thus was the prodigy in-waiting, an infant son of former slaves at Handy’s Hill community in northern Alabama. The child was William Christopher Handy, named after his slave grandfathers, William Wise Handy and Christopher Brewer, and destined to be known as Father of The Blues.

W.C. Handy was born in 1873, or Eight Years After Emancipation in the manner his religious parents, Charles and Elizabeth, marked the time.

Select References

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Matt Chaney is a writer and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit Email: