This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

Two Musical Child Prodigies

25 July 2014








It is the universal dream of every parent – a wish for a smart and clever child. But suppose that wish comes true? How do parents manage a precocious child who displays a musical talent beyond their years? Given such a marvel, some parents might decide to put them up on a stage and let people pay money to hear them. And that was exactly what the father of Tommy Fish did.

This carte de visite or cdv shows a small boy aged 5 or 6 years old leaning casually against a large chair while holding a piston valve cornet. The printed caption in large capitals reads TOMMY FISH For my Benefit. The boy's velvet short pants and fine slipper shoes are not the outfit for a typical family photo. He has the look of a professional performer.   



















Newport RI Daily News - May 1, 1873




In fact his full name was Thomas Frederick Fish Jr. born in Rhode Island in 1869. His father, Thomas Fish Sr., was an immigrant from England and a well known musician of Providence, RI.  In 1873 Thomas brought his 4 year old son, Master Tommy Fish, onto a stage in Centredale, a village near Providence, to play a number of cornet solos with violin accompaniment by his father. The infant cornetist greatly impressed the audience with a pureness of tone, force and time not found in the playing of many older performers. All present were of the opinion that it was the most wonderful musical performence it had ever been their  pleasure to hear.

With that reception dad and Master Tommy headed for America's music hall circuit.






--

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - August 31, 1876

One early review in 1874 listed him as an infantile musical prodigy in a pantomime called "Humpty Dumpty". This was a variety show very loosely arranged around the classic children's rhyme with acrobats, magicians, singers, and a boy cornetist. Evidently it was popular with family audiences who were looking for a wholesome entertainment.


From 1873 to 1878, Tommy made appearances around the country playing towns like Augusta, GA; Janesville, WI; Chicago; New Orleans; Washington, DC. And of course the Big Apple of showbiz – New York City. 

This advertisement from 1876 for the Park Theater listed the acts in a variety produced by Colonel W. R. Sinn. There was a magician - The Great Herman; a strong man - The Berlin Wonder, Little Todd; the ascensionist and wire performer - Miss Jennie Engel; and

America's Infant Wonder, the marvelous Child Cornetist
Tommy Fish
 
The last report of Master Tommy was in 1878 from a Newport, RI newspaper. Retirement sometimes comes early for child stars. Tommy would have been about 9 (or even 10, as his young age, like that of many youthful artists, was often exaggerated) and after so many years on the road, the once bright and shiny child was no longer the box office draw he had been at age 4.

The traveling and relentless performing may have had an effect on his health too. In an 1879 newspaper report about a Hungarian boys band trying to gain permission to play in New York City, Tommy Fish was mentioned as an example of how brass playing could be detrimental to young lungs, because he had been forced to give up performing because of ill health.

In the archives of Ancestry.com, I found his name noted once more a few decades later in the new century. The document came from Pittsfield, MA and records the marriage in Albany, NY on August 1, 1905 of Thomas Frederick Fish, age 38 to Edith Rebecca Maynard, age 35.  It was his second marriage and her third.

Both husband and wife listed their occupation as musician.









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This bright child did not play the cornet. She played the piano. The cdv shows a small girl seated at an early piano with her dark hair set in stylish ringlets and her legs swinging from the stool. She appears even younger than Master Tommy. 

(I should add that in terms of rarity, antique photos of boys holding a cornet are surprisingly common, while a vintage photo of anyone playing the piano are very exceptional.)





The back of the photo reads:

Susie Medbery,
The Little Fairy Musician,

only four years of age,
and plays more than One Hundred
and Fifty Pieces on the Piano,
Melodeon or Organ, with a
correctness and precision
that would do
credit to many
Professional Players.
 ____
Duplicates sent to any address
upon receipt of 25 cents, by
Geo. B. Medbery,
Baltic,
New London Co., CONN.
____
James Lombard
     Photographer
---
Copyright Secured.


Susie Medbery was the wonder child of Susan and George B. Medbery of Baltic, CN. She was born there in 1864 during the Civil War. George listed his occupation in the 1870 census as Overseer, Cotton Mill. She had an older brother twice her age named George. (Genealogy research is never easy when families have name traditions like this.)

As a toddler, Susie demonstrated a remarkable ability to play the piano and sing tunes from memory. Such a gift was worthy of a mention in the newspapers of post-war America like this space filler from the Times Picayune of New Orleans in March 1869.  


New Orleans Times Picayune - March 14, 1869
Though her talent was noted in newspapers from Kansas to New York, she does not seem to have joined a touring music hall show like Tommy Fish. Traveling with a piano is not as easy as with a cornet, and most reports describe her as playing in Connecticut. For the parents of a Wunderkind, arranging a concert tour in this era was a challenging task as well as an expensive investment for a family. Even Mozart's father, Leopold Mozart, complained about the high cost of travel and accommodations in the previous century. While most parents would sign with a music agent to handle their young performers, some parents like George Medbery struggled by themselves to promote their little musician. I imagine George seated at the kitchen table while Susie practices her piano, as he writes countless notices to mail to newspapers.





This second cdv is not marked but we can recognize little Susie Medbery at the same piano. She is older here, perhaps 6, and wears a white dress with a floral band in her hair, so this photograph probably dates from 1870. Her national celebrity was very brief, only running from 1868 to 1870, after which her name disappears from the entertainment and trivia notes of America's newspapers.

Susie and her family were recorded for the 1870 census of Sprague, CN, but by the next decade's census in 1880, her father's name is absent, leaving only Susie, her mother, and brother at home. Her brother, age 24, works at the cotton mill.

Susie Medbery, age 16, listed her occupation as music teacher. 






This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where the signs all point to something different. 



13 comments:

Wendy said...

It's sad when parents exploit their children's unusual gifts. I'm almost happy that Tommy's and Susie's careers didn't last enabling them maybe to have a childhood and normal life.

boundforoz said...

I just hope the children enjoyed what they were doing. We don't seem to have children being exhibited in this way nowadays but YouTube has opened up another venue to show off children who are talented or precocious. Thanks for those interesting photos.

Sharon said...

A very enjoyable and interesting post.

I wonder if Tommy changed instrument after having lung problems?

Nancy said...

I wonder what Lewis Hine would have thought of children performing for money, especially when doing the music hall circuit. I think Hine came after these children finished their childhood performing careers so it's a moot question.

This was a well-written post, Mike, following the children from their early ears to adulthood.

Karen S. said...

Oh at first glance Tommy appears so adorable, but on second look and reading on, it does seem he's rather older for his age, and not the happy bright playful eyes a young lad should have!

Alex Daw said...

As always, completely fascinating, particularly the point about photos of boys holding cornets being more common than girls playing piano. Who knew??? That chair in the first photo looks rather moth eaten. Don't you think they could have found another?

Jo Featherston said...

I always wonder what becomes of child prodigies, ie. do they go on to be successful in the same field as adults or does that notoriety ruin their future lives?
As always, you've done very well to try and find out more about the fates of these two clever little children.

La Nightingail said...

I think I might question little Susie singing complete tunes at 11 months of age, but it does seem she was an amazingly young musical prodigy. I was glad to note ('scuse the pun) she put her talent to good use in later years, teaching music.

Helen Bauch McHargue said...

Fascinating, as your posts always are. I know a few people who peaked in high school and lived forever after as shadows of themselves talking always about the good old days. Hopefully these prodigies went on to satisfying lives as adults. Mike, you have so much great material collected in your posts...are you writing a book perchance?

Postcardy said...

Amazing kids. I wonder how they ended up meeting.

Alan Burnett said...

There is something quite sad about prodigies, that knowledge that most of life is a downward slide from an early peak. Nothing sad about your post though, as high a standard as ever.

Little Nell said...

Poor little prodigies! Did they ever get to have any time to play with toys rather than musical instruments? And "more astonishing than Mozart" is quite a claim isn’t it? I wonder how many operas and symphonies she went on to compose? A very enjoyabe post as ever.

Brett Payne said...

Tommy Fish - that reminds me of the nursery rhyme about Tommy Snooks and Bessy Brooks who went out walking one Sunday.

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