Wednesday, June 6, 2018

‘High-flying, adored’: The nineteenth century ‘Empress of the Air’

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Oh dear. I should stick to my own area. The area where I know who people are, even when they fib. The musical world. But, today, that world led me, by old notes interposed, sideways into the adjacent world of variety and of circus … and, having flaired a story, and started to nose about a little ... well, I had to finish. As well as I could.

The circus world, of course, is even more full of myths and legends and pseudonyms than the musical one, but, over the years, there have been several intelligent attempts to sort out the Monsieurs and Madame, the Signors and Signorinas of the 19th century circus world. One or two of them have been largely successful. But not always successful. Well, how can you be biographically successful when one name can cover (mostly in a row) half a dozen people? How would the public know whether the Madame Saint-Brillant up there on the high wire is the same Madame of the same name they saw last year. Jenny Smith from Liverpool or Mary Crouch from Glasgow? And how would a writer, a hundred years later, know who any of these folk were?

My lady is one of those cases. She was one of the most effective of the female gymnasts and acrobats who raised pulses and eyebrows in the 1860s, when such a thing was quite rare. Mme Stertzenbach, Azella, Zazel, Nat[h]alie, Lulu (well, she was a man in drag) … but, then, there was the bulgingly fit and incredibly strong Madame Senyah. Whose name, every journalist was intent on telling the world, was ‘Haynes’ spelled backwards. Well, her name wasn’t Haynes. It may have been her sometime partner’s name (sometimes the press said ‘brother’ sometimes ‘husband’), but it wasn’t hers.


Her identity is, however, not at all straightforward. We are told she was Phoebe Frost. Although a couple of the most serious circus books (see below) seem to have muddled her up with her partner’s other partners. Was she Ada? Was she Maude? Was she Phoebe? It’s Phoebe I like. Phoebe? Well, Phoebe existed, and she was registered as Phoebe Frost at birth and appears as in the 1851 and 1861 censi, before I officially lose her.

Now, I thought my bit of today research was not fitting dates. But then I stumbled on an article from Phoebe’s dying years in – why!? – a Washington newspaper. She was trying, at 66 years of age, to keep the trained dogs with which she had latterly done an act, and starving herself as a result. So she talked (to good effect! ‘Vesta Victoria’ saved the dogs). And she told her story … well, some of it … to a passing journo.

Phoebe was born in Carlisle, it appears, in 1842. Yes, there she is getting christened ‘Phoebe Frost’, 27 June 1842. Her parents are William Antonio (haha) Frost and his wife Zipporah née Kite, from Bedale, Yorks. Funambulists, equestrians … showbiz folk. A later paper says Frost was ‘Dan Harvey the clown’: but Harvey isn’t visible till 1863. He’d be 50. Second career? Or bunkum? Phoebe relates tales of father tight-roping the Thames with her in his arms … sure, but under what name? Ah! Maybe Signor Antonio?

Because Madame Antonio ‘from America’ turns up at Cremorne in 1850 doing a spectacular tightrope act (‘100 feet above the ground’, ‘150 feet above the ground’, ‘30-50 feet above the ground’), surrounded by fireworks, and I’m certain that that is Zipporah from Bedale. Wonder where she learned that. America? But she does this wonderful ascent (she’d have been 33) and then disappears. Or does she? Strangely enough a ‘Madame Boutelle’ turns up in the late 1850s doing exactly Zipporah’s rope act. Assisted by Mons Antonio (clown). I wonder. Then the Boutelles disappear and Dan Harvey appears. Could it be …? 


We don’t see much of Phoebe as a child, although I spot her with sister Sarah, who married equestrian performer John Wilson, in the 1851 and 1861 censi. Labelled ‘equestrienne’. She was ‘equestrienne’ two years earlier, with Ginnett’s Gigantic Hippodrome Circus, I discover, thanks to a website https://www.shakespeare.org.uk/explore-shakespeare/blogs/ginnetts-circus/which shows the visitor’s book she signed on the company’s visit to Stratford-on-Avon. 


Ginnett’s was a large affair playing Dick Turpin’s Ride to York, Cinderella, Mazeppa and featuring the brothers of the title alongside ‘Miss Ella from the Imperial Cirque Paris, Berlin St Petersburgh and Niblo’s Gardens’. I guess Phoebe was an also-rode, in the advertised company of 60. And alas, although when they got to Hull, the press saw fit to say that a local Miss Wilkinson ‘the daughter of Mr Wilkinson the great somersault thrower’ was a member of the troupe. Carlisle didn’t do the same for Phoebe.

So she appeared in public – as what? Mdlle Antonio? Mlle Phoebe? – young, but I don’t get a handle on her until March 1867, when she theoretically becomes ‘Madame Senyah’ and a gymnast-trapeze performer in collaboration with ‘Mons Senyah’. Samuel Haynes. I presume he’d worked, previously, under another name too. He was a ‘muscle man’ acrobat … ‘The great English and Continental gymnasts’. But hang on … it isn’t she! This Mrs S is Miss Ada Jacobs! So that’s why I found a reference to the ‘daring Jewish trapeze artist’. Ada, who has been starring, since her ‘arrival from America’ (‘what part of America is the lady from, we wonder’ hissed The Spirit of the Times, ‘a timid rider’ judged Ireland) in 1864, as Mazeppa with … oh no! Ginnett’s Circus! Was Monsieur also from the ranks of Ginnett’s, then?


So how long was the putative ‘Miss Jacobs’ ‘Mrs Senyah? I mean by December 1867 she’s back doing Mazeppa with Ginnett’s. She’s still doing it in 1870. So I think Sam had changed 'Madame's fairly soon.

Mr and Mrs Senyah were extremely successful, first in England and then, from 1868, in America, with their unusual (for a woman who really was a woman) flying trapeze act. She was praised for ‘the daring and dexterity of the most agile and adventurous male gymnasts’.

There are loads of reviews of the act, which was clearly the best, or at least one of the best, of its time: ‘In the act she flew by means of suspended rings along a wire, loosing hold of the rings to be caught by her partner who was hanging by his feet from the bar of a fixed trapeze’.


In 1872, they toured to San Francisco. And now it gets even trickier. Phoebe (or whoever the current Mrs S was) is reported in the press to have married ‘the modern Milo’, ‘the man of iron sinews’ muscleman John Conklin (with a date, 4 November 1872!). And Sam is having children by a Madame ‘Maude’ Senyah. The circus books equate Phoebe with Maude. I admit it’s tempting. But it can’t be. Phoebe is back in Britain in 1875, while ‘Sam and Maude’ are still in America! And then there’s a ‘Mademoiselle Geraldine’ and our Ada … Mrs George Holland … who writes to the press with her claims to having been ‘Madame Senyah’ the first. Then there are three children ‘Senyah’ or ‘Sanyeah’: Aurelia (b August b 1873; d 21 March 1874), Thomas Elbridge (b Michigan 1872; d 10 March 1878), Olive Theresa (b 27 December 1877; d 14 February 1878) … whose children were they? A working gymnast’s?. The two daughters are credited to Maude. And Thomas’s death certificate significantly says: father born England. Mother born: Michigan. So, he’s not Phoebe’s. And certainly not ancient Ada’s.

Pregnant trapezists? Ouch!

Anyway, Phoebe had a stunning career after her return to England in 1875 (with seemingly no male impediment). And I spot her 1877 at Paris’s Cirque d’été (‘Madame Sanyeah est une blonde de haute taille rappelant par sa structure les statues de la place de la Concorde(...) Mme Sanyeah termine ses exercices vraiment prodigieux en faisant tournoyer dans l'air un monsieur qu'elle tient entre les dents’)


Charles Reade related in his The Coming Man in the 1870s: ‘I have three times seen Madame Senyah —a grand Anglo-Saxon whose name is Haynes—do the ordinary business of the Trapeze—though she cannot weigh less than thirteen stone—and then come down the rope head-foremost, twist one leg round it, hang down by that leg, put a mouth-piece, with three leathern straps attached, into her mouth, and, in that position, head downward, and hanging by one leg hold three great hulking fellows dangling in the air for ever so long – by her teeth’ . Well, if he says so …

Madame Sanyeah (sic)’s career came to an end at Portsmouth’s Hippodrome 17 April 1879. A wire broke, and she fell. She was not injured but, as she murmured, ‘I am no longer as strong as I used to be’. She changed her act, performing instead as ‘the Marble Gem’ a series of classical (male) poses, the highlight of which was ‘Satan’s Fall from Heaven’ and ‘The Flight of Mercury’ in which she used ‘all her old gymnastic talents’. 


We are told that she became a dog-trainer after her gymnastic career was over, and ‘ended up on streets performing for 2d to 3d a day. She almost froze in winter and …’ before being rescued. A later picture, in the Washington story, tells of her living in a hayloft with her dogs … Well, I spot her appearing with a team of performing dogs and goats in the provinces into the 1890s. But, by 1896, she is destitute, with her animals…

‘She was cared for in her last days by Mrs Lawrence and her daughter (‘Vesta Victoria’) says a long story about ‘Madame Senia’ a few days after her death in the Dundee Advertiser. I guess they picked it up from somewhere … The same story says ‘she was in private life Mrs Hall’. Yes! There she is in the death registers. Lambeth. June 1910 (died 23 June 1910, Lambeth Infirmary). Aged 60. Someone’s misread a 9 as a zero. She was 69.

Well, maybe it isn’t an ‘error’. The 1901 census has just found me Phoebe Hall, born Carlisle, aged 45 (recte 59), in Blackpool. And she’s with Mr Hall! Stewart Hall, born Preston, 40: comedian at the circus. (he was 31 and a married acrobat in 1891, under whatever name …) Well, well. Maybe she picked him up and ‘twirled him around’ as she did with Jean Pasta in music -hall days.

But, hang on, she’s supposed to be destitute and dog-ridden in 1901 ...

Well, as far as I can make out the were three Madame Senyah/Sanyeahs. Ada for a wee while, then Phoebe, then the rather more modest but friendly Maude. They were clearly all three good athletes, but Phoebe seems to have been the one who created the memories …

Poor Mr Haynes stayed in America, got past being a ‘catcher’ in a trapeze act (as one does), didn’t make much of a success of anything else, and finally ended up in an asylum at Kankakee, Ill, where he died, apparently by drowning, 25 August 1900. Aged 65. No idea what became of Maud. I see her performing with Sam as late as 1878. By which time Phoebe had been back in England, working visibly, for three years.

Ah, me. So many loose ends in this story. But that’s circus …

PS I should quote the main books that mention Madame S by any other spelling. They are both rather better than their ‘university thesis’ titles suggest (hehe ‘cultural identity’ … what?!). But they haven’t sorted out Ada from Phoebe from Maud[e]:

Circus Bodies: Cultural Identity in Aerial Performance by P Tate

Women of the American Circus: 1880-1940 by K Adams and M Keene

And that San Francisco marriage? 4 November 1872? Show me the certificate ...

OK, your turn to have a go at Mons and his Madames. I’m leaving the circus, and heading back to my singers!







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