Pioneer American Pop Star: Nelson Kneass

Tenth in A Series

By Matt Chaney, for

Posted Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

With the 19th century concluding in America, as the first musical notes of jazz and “ragtime” rose along the Mississippi River, a pioneer pop artist was remembered again for his great old song.

Nelson Kneass was famous before the Civil War, playing his hit Ben Bolt on piano and banjo, when the sheet music sold thousands in America and abroad. The legend revived during the 1890s, long after Kneass died in rural Missouri. A popular novel and stage drama featured Ben Bolt, the “plaintive melody” sung by comely heroine Trilby O’Ferrall—under hypnosis of the evil Svengali, no less—and suddenly fans worshipped a dead pop star in Kneass.

Kneass was a Pennsylvania native who sang Ben Bolt as early as May 1847, according to advertisements of the Eagle Ice Cream Saloon in Pittsburgh, although initially he might’ve used music of other composers. Various musicians were adapting the song from a poem, in forgettable versions, until Kneass arranged his smash hit. “Kneass was not only an excellent singer but also a very capable pianist, a versatile banjoist, and a talented composer [presenting] first-class entertainment,” observed historian Ernest C. Krohn.

Vocalist Joseph H. McCann said Kneass produced his golden take of Ben Bolt during a riverboat trip they shared from Memphis around 1847, steaming up the Mississippi then eastward on the Ohio. Kneass finished his composition on a landing at Grahamton, Ky., and summoned McCann, according to Will S. Hays of The Louisville Courier-Journal. “If we are not mistaken, Mr. McCann was the first person who ever sang [Ben Bolt by Kneass]… He did so from the manuscript,” reported Hays, a noted lyricist and columnist. McCann toured with the famed Kneass Operatic Troupe and other companies, but ceased in the early 1850s to open a music store in Louisville, among his successful business ventures.

Kneass continued in entertainment but his name faded in the war period. Struggling financially, Kneass complained of receiving paltry royalties for Ben Bolt, a tune beloved in America like Home Sweet Home and the classic Oh Susanna—which Kneass had introduced, incidentally, on stage. A wife died in a riverboat accident while his drinking and declining health caused problems. One story had Kneass arriving at his own funeral, after missing for days, to stun family members and friends gathered round a corpse they’d mistaken for him, fished from a river.

The performer felt illness creeping by September 1869, stomach malaise, while a Kneass troupe toured northern Missouri. His condition worsened on a train ride and he succumbed that night, Sept. 8, at a boarding house in a railroad town named Chillicothe. Nelson Kneass died virtually penniless at about age 46, leaving a young wife and children. His widow could afford $6 for the burial but no gravestone, and the family relied on charity for money to travel home in the East. Surviving troupe players made do from Missouri, largely on their own.

Publicity, praise revived for the showman in his wake. “Nelson Kneass… is dead,” announced a theater critic, unidentified, in The Memphis Appeal. “He was one of those men that worked hard, lived poor and died miserably. He was a genius.”

“He was a fine musician and composed much…,” saluted a newspaper commentary, widely printed. “Ben Bolt was sung in the lordly mansions and in the lowly cottages all over the land. There was a sadness and sweetness that touched all hearts alike.”

“He was the author and originator of very many popular songs,” said Sam S. Sanford, American stage legend, in remembering Kneass. “He and Stephen Foster are the two bards of the minstrels… Kneass belonged to Philadelphia, and as a boy was dressed in petticoats [impersonating girls] on the stage. He was with the Wood’s [minstrels] at Park Theatre in New York, when English opera was first produced. He died poor and unattended by friends… The publishers of Ben Bolt made $50,000 from that one song alone, and its author often needed bread.”

Eventually a modest granite marker was placed on the Kneass grave in Missouri, and the site stood undisturbed a few decades. Then came the “Trilby” sensation, 1890s, the sexy storyline made fashionable through a magazine serial, a best-selling book, and a stage production.

Neo-fandom for Kneass was vogue and visitors to the Chillicothe cemetery cracked into his tombstone, carrying away pieces. “Kneass’s grave was marked until within the last year or so, when curiosity and relic hunters have chipped souvenirs from the slab,” reported The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1899, adding that “scarcely enough of it remains to show that a headstone had ever been there.”

Select References

A Monument To Be Built at Chillicothe, Mo., in Honor of Nelson Kneass, Composer of “Ben Bolt.” (1899, May 21). St. Louis Post-Dispatch MO, p. 34.

Amusements. (1869, Sept. 19). Memphis Daily Appeal TN, p. 4.

Andrews’ Eagle Ice Cream Saloon [advertisement]. (1847, Aug. 12). Pittsburgh Daily Post PA, p. 2.

Ben Bolt. (1869, Oct. 1). Fort Wayne Daily Gazette IN, p. 1.

Ben Bolt. (1894, Oct. 21). Washington Post DC, p. 4.

“Ben Bolt” Author in Missouri Grave. (1913, March 9). St. Louis Star and Times MO, p. 24.

Chillicothe Cullings. (1883, Dec. 11). St. Joseph Gazette-Herald MO, p. 3.

Chillicothe’s 1897 Yesterdays. (1928, June 8). Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune MO, p. 2.

Death of The Author of “Ben Bolt.” (1869, Sept. 25). Clarksville Chronicle TN, p. 1.

Free Concerts Every Evening This Week At The Eagle Saloon [advertisement]. (1847, May 27). Pittsburgh Daily Post PA, p. 2.

From Thursday’s Daily, Sept. 16. (1869, Sept. 18). Weekly Atchison Champion KS, p. 3.

Grise, G.C. (1947, August). Will S. Hays: His Life and Works [master’s thesis]. Department of English, Western Kentucky State Teachers College: Bowling Green KY.

Hays, W.S. (1883, May 26). The Late Joseph McCann. Memphis Public Ledger TN, p. 1.

Krohn, E.C. (1971). Nelson Kneass: Minstrel Singer and Composer. Anuario Interamericano de Investigacion Musical, 7, pp. 17-41. University of Texas Press: Austin.

Missouri Points. (1897, Feb. 18). Kansas City Journal MO, p. 4.

Most Melancholy Accident—Death of Mrs. Kneass, Late Mrs. Sharpe. (1848, Feb. 26). Poughkeepsie Journal NY, p. 2.

Naming Theatre “Ben Bolt” Revives Famous Old Song. (1949, Aug. 16). Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune MO, p. 11.

Nelson Kneass’ Double. (1896, April 12). St. Louis Post-Dispatch, p. 34.

Personal. (1868, July 4). Nashville Tennessean, p. 2.

Songs We Used To Sing. (1890, Sept. 20). Sterling Daily Gazette IL, p. 3.

The Kneass Opera Troupe [advertisement]. (1847, Oct. 16). Cincinnati Enquirer, p. 3.

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