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
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Master Eddie Derville - Cornet Soloist

09 September 2016

This kid's a real professional.
His confident gaze,
his relaxed demeanor
exhibit all the traits
of a musician
who's got chops.
Who knows
that he can play,
and play well.

His instrument?
The premier
musical instrument
of the 19th century,
the cornet.

It can't be more than an hour
since he got off a barber's chair.
  Hair neatly oiled and combed,
we can almost smell the
rose water and witch hazel.
His velvet jacket is trimmed
with the folded ribbons
and toggle buttons
characteristic of
a British bandsman's uniform.
His silver B-flat cornet gleams
in the photographer's studio light.

This is boy with a very high class portrait.


The photographer was Charles Eisenmann of 229 Bowery, N. Y. whose wonderful trademark design is printed on the back. A gallant photographer leaps across a globe faintly labeled Instantaneous Photographs.  Camera in his arms, the figure pulls the lens cap off to take the world's picture. (Snap shutters on cameras were a late development.)

This cabinet card photograph was made at Eisenmann's branch gallery at 18 West 14th Str. in New York. Eisenmann made a specialty of photographing people of the theater and circus world who passed through New York's Bowery theater district.

Last week I featured another young musician's publicity photo from this studio in my story, Musical Children at Work. That drummer boy/tuba player/cellist posed for a smaller cdv photo in the 1870s and was unidentified. This boy cornetist is on a larger format made about 10 years later and has a priceless penciled name in the top corner.

Edie Derville

Boston Herald
27 January 1883
In January 1883, Eddie Derville, the Great Musical Wonder, made his first reappearance in Boston at the Howard Athenæum theater. The newspaper advertisement called it a reappearance because earlier that week the police commissioner had forbidden the theater manager from letting an eight year old child perform on stage. After some negotiation (and undoubtedly some exchange of money,) Boston officials permitted Eddie to play as a special feature rather than as part of the regular show. With suitable hyperbole the advert claimed Eddie Derville was The Youngest Cornet Soloist In The World.  

Child labor laws were a new kind of progressive regulation that started with the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Founded in 1875 by Henry Bergh, ironically the same man who in 1866 founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the NYSPCC was organized as a child protective agency for the many abused and overworked children living in  New York City. Three years later in 1878, Bergh, set up the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children with the same worthy goals of protecting children and advocating for child labor laws.

Most working children in the mid-19th century toiled at low wage jobs in sweatshops, mines, and factories, but the era also saw a proliferation of theaters which engaged thousands of acts that included children. Theaters, music halls, and dime museums were never considered reputable establishments for respectable women and children. Child entertainers were subject to rough hours, poor pay, and often abusive working conditions, and a child's life on the stage was also contrary to any idea of a proper education. By the 1880s many big city politicians recognized that restricting child performers from playing in the bawdy environments of the music halls and taverns made good political theater too, so the prohibition against young Eddie's cornet playing was not unusual. In fact it may have been "arranged" just for the publicity.  

Boston Globe
23 January 1883

Two Irish entrepreneurs, Wheatly and Traynor,  presented the variety show program at the Howard Athenæum. There was Ned Lang and Viola Rose in their Dutch sketches with songs and dances. Messrs. Fox and Ward followed with clog dancing. Fannie Beane and Charles Gilday offered a not very good sketch called "The Servants' Holiday." But little Eddie Derville, the boy wonder, in his cornet solos is simply "immense" and deserves more than a passing notice. His rendition of the "Ah! che la morte" (from Verdi's Il Trovatore) was specially fine.

The show continued with Harry Kennedy, a ventriloquist; McIntire and Heath with plantation pastimes (i.e. blackface minstrels); Miss Malvina Renner with her Swiss warbling songs; the O'Brian Brothers doing gymnastics exercises; Charles F. Hoey in his eccentricities; and Frank Bush, the inimitable Hebrew impersonator.  The evening concluded with a comic farce, entitled "Forty Winks."

Even if he didn't participate in the last number, little Eddie probably wasn't tucked into bed for his 40 winks until well after 11 PM.


Eddie was the son of Frank Derville, an English musician/actor who with his wife Lucy immigrated to Canada in the 1870s, where Eddie was born in Toronto. Around 1880, Frank moved his family to Ashburnham, MA, northwest of Boston where he was employed as the local band leader. Typical of many bandmaster's children, his son learned to play the cornet at a very early age and soon became accomplished enough to appear on band concerts with his father in 1882. Newspaper reports said Master Teddy was 12 years old but he was actually age 9. Years later, when Eddie reported to his local draft board, he gave his date of birth as August 14, 1873.

By December 1882, Frank quit his band job and with his wife and three children embarked on a family career in show business. Eddie was the oldest, but his younger sister Katie had some talent, and the baby Lottie could at least add a cuteness value.

Boston Sunday Globe
12 August 1883

Clipped to his jacket is a heavy watch chain  with a wildcat fob. I suspect this has some symbolism for a fraternal society which I've not been able to identify. Eddie's B-flat cornet has the right sepia tone for a silver instrument, and Eisenmann's camera almost picks up the splendid engraved decoration and letters on the bell. It is likely that this instrument is the one he received on August 11, 1883 as a birthday gift from an admirer, Mr. William J. Regan. It was a handsomely engraved silver cornet, gold mounted. with pearl-topped valves, valued at $150.

Cornet players were by far the most photographed musicians of the 19th century. In this age before recorded sound, every village, town, and city in America boasted of its local cornet soloist. The most celebrated cornet artists toured the country with their own bands performing to great acclaim. For youthful musical talents like Master Eddie, the challenge was to make it big while they were still young, and in the 1880s boy cornetists were a pretty competitive field. Besides Eddie Derville, newspapers in the 1880s heralded concerts by several young cornet players like Will A. Cushing, Master Johnny Skelton, and Clarence Worrall. All were boys between age 8 and 18 who traveled along the ever expanding vaudeville circuit. 


Boston Globe
19 June 1885

Frank Derville played cornet too, and likely found other musical employment in the Boston area. In the years 1883-84, his son Eddie was a regular feature on Boston's theater stages.

In 1885, Frank and Eddie joined the ranks of a Boston gospel temperance evangelist to perform at public meetings. The Dervilles probably considered it good publicity to be connected with a well-known preacher, but unfortunately, as we will see, Frank's pledge to the temperance cause was less than sincere.


Philadelphia Times
24 January 1886

Frank and his wife Lucy, (sometime called Lou,) also fancied themselves as comedic actors. Many family bands developed skits suitable for displaying both their musical and acting talents. The Dervilles called their bit "The Family Rehearsal." These early vaudeville revues were a flamboyant mix of music and stunts, interspersed with short melodramas and comic sketches. Anything that attracted a paying audience was good.

Beginning around June/July 1885, the Derville Family began touring as a troupe of five, joining a traveling show that played Leadville, Colorado.  By January 1886 Frank, Lou, Eddie, Katie, and Lottie appeared at the lecture hall of Forepaugh's Theatre and Museum in Philadelphia. They opened for an Irish melodrama in five acts entitled "Collen  Bawn." The Derville act included Masterly Instrumental Musicians, Vocalists, Dnacers, Comedians, and Mimics


St Paul MN Globe
23 May 1886

If his birthday of August 14, 1873 was truthful, Eddie would be 12 going on 13 in 1886. This is when I think the Dervilles stopped in New York to have Eddie pose for Mr. Eisenmann's camera. A good publicity photo was just the thing to send to theater managers or sell to adoring fans. That year they played in Washington, DC; Petersburg, VA; Chicago; St. Paul, MN; Trenton, NJ; Buffalo, NY.

In St. Paul the Derville Family was listed on the playbill for Sackett & Wiggins' Mammoth Amusement Palace. People could see novelties like the Turtle Boy from the Florida Keys or the perfect incubator hatching eggs by artificial means. There was the Mysterious Cabinet magic act; the Swiss bell ringers; the Langan Drum Corps. The Derville Family were the famous English Vaudeville Artists. Admission was a dime, opera chairs cost an extra nickel.


San Francisco Chronicle
01 May, 1887

The beginning of 1887 saw them on the West Coast in San Fransisco and Seattle. The Derville family were now six in number with the addition of another son, Jack F. Derville, the comical Baby Derville. Eddie was promoted as "The Boy LEVY" alluding to the celebrated English cornet soloist of the time, Jules Levy (1838-1903).

It was about this time that the Dervilles decided to settle down in a small village called Steilacoom just down the coast from Tacoma, Washington. They continued with tours to Idaho, Montana, Iowa, Colorado, and California but it was clear that the novelty of travel was wearing off. In the Washinton state census of 1892, the Dervilles were now seven, with another child, a daughter age 3. Eddie was 18, Katie 15, and Frank Derville listed his occupation as musician. Eddie began appearing as a cornet soloist on the programs of band concerts in Seattle and Tacoma.


Riverside CA News
15 January 1895

The price of celebrity often brings with it fame and infamy in equal measure. Theatrical families were an easy source of fillers for the dense pages of America's newspapers. The stranger the news, the better.

In January 1895 the Riverside, California News reported that on the street of Steilacoom, WA (the population was only 290)  Mrs. Frank Derville took a horsewhip to a young man she deemed was making improper advances on her daughter Katie.  Mrs. Derville was noted as the mother of the famous Derville Family which toured the country as a musical organization. Katie was 17 years old, and played the coronet and violin.  

The next year in 1886, the newspaper of Anaconda, Montana reported that Frank Derville had purchased a steam yacht. Montanans probably didn't appreciate the coastline of Washington with its tangled maze of islands, bays, and sounds. A steam powered boat would actually make a very practical craft to quickly get around the Seattle area by water rather than traveling by road. The yacht could accommodate a dozen people and Engineer Russ was instructing Eddie Derville in its management. It could make eight knots. The Dervilles were scheduled for a performance in Anaconda that October.

Barely a year later, Frank placed a For Sale notice in the Seattle newspaper offering his steam pleasure launch as a bargain of a lifetime. He was heading for the Klondike. The price was for nearly half the cost of the engine.

Seattle Daily Times
26 September 1897


  A pause for intermission  

At this point the story of Eddie Derville, the boy wonder of the cornet, and his musical family is only an outline of a life. Using the vast internet archives I can construct the framework of a family; fill in dates and names; and with a liberal allowance of speculation, even recreate a bit of Eddie's historical context. But I know that it's only the briefest sketch of a person. As much as I admire Eddie's handsome photograph and try to understand what he was, I really can't write his full biography. The ephemera of his family's private life is just not available for us to ever know the real person.  

So I write this as a preface
to the last news clippings of the Dervilles
when their family story takes a very grim turn.

Tacoma WA Daily News
30 May 1898

On a Saturday evening, the 28th of May 1898, Frank Derville returned to his home in Steilacoom drunk and in a foul mood. He and his wife Lucy began to argue and Frank became violent, kicked over a table, smashed dishes, and attempted to beat her.

The town constable was called and he managed to take Frank away to cool down. With a promise to behave, he was released, but when he went back inside the house he began swearing vengeance at his wife. At that moment the youngest boy, Jack Derville, came into the kitchen just as his father was about to strike his mother with a chair. The boy rushed to another room where his father kept a revolver and returned to shoot his father in the back, killing him almost instantly.

Frank Derville was 61. His wife Lucy was 42. Their son Jack Derville was 13 years old.


San Francisco Chronicle
30 May 1898

This tragic story ran in newspapers across the country. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Frank threatened to kill his wife with a knife. Derville was known to go on an occasional drunken spree, which aroused his combative tendencies...Too drunk to know what he was about, he seized an ordinary table knife, brandished it and threatened to kill his wife. She did not realize that he was perfectly harmless and began screaming.

Other newspapers condensed the dramatic action into a single paragraph. The facts began to change. Frank drew a big knife and rushed his wife. Jack Derville was 12 years old. The boy was arrested. The boy was not arrested.  The boy fired a shotgun. The people of the town consider the killing justifiable.

I believe the Tacoma Daily News likely got most of the facts straight. I certainly hope that I've managed to avoid making any mistakes retelling the account of this family's terrible misfortune.   

There was no mention of Eddie or the other Derville siblings. Frank is described as a kind father when sober, of good disposition who treated his family wellexcept when under the influence of liquor when he became hard to get along with.

There are many things we can never know or understand. But we can see that the comical Baby Derville of 1887 was sadly destined to become the pitiful son Jack of 1898.



A month later at the end of June 1898, Frank Derville's estate was taken to probate court. His last will and testament (which is available in,) brought the Dervilles to the attention of America's newspapers one last time. Frank left everything to his wife, but he blocked his oldest daughter Catherine "Katie" Derville from ever receiving any inheritance. Her sin? Running off to Montana to marry that horsewhipped young man deemed unacceptable. 

The year 1898 ended on a happier note when on December 1, the other sister, Lottie Derville, married a man from Tacoma. The wedding notice said the bride possessed an unusually fine contralto voice and delighted the guests at the reception by performing an impromptu concert of opera selections.

The unfortunate widow Lucy Derville married a second time in 1904, and from the few records I found seems to have lived to great age of nearly 100. Her youngest children also survived into the post-WW1 years.

Eddie's talent on the cornet kept him in a career in music. In the 1900s he moved to Butte, MT where he got married and worked as a music teacher. By the war years he was in Idaho, leading a small theater band that accompanied silent movies. In the 1930s he lived in California still working as a musician.

Eddie's brother, Jack F. Derville, moved to Butte, Montana. In a strange twist of irony, he became a champion marksman, winning a position on a rifle team that represented Montana at a national shooting competition in 1919. And if that wasn't ironic enough, in 1931 a Frank Derville was arrested at Bear Creek, MT for making moonshine. He had a 50-gallon still, some mash, 40 gallons of whisky, and 140 gallons of wine.

This is my contribution to September's Sepia Saturday
where life is work, no matter the age or year.


La Nightingail said...

I wonder whatever happened to poor Lucy, the wife and mother amidst all that mess?

Lorraine Phelan said...

Well. I wasn't expecting that! What a story.

ScotSue said...

What a tragic ending to a fascinating story that you unfurled from that one striking photograph.

Helen Killeen Bauch McHargue said...

You did it again...unravelled a fascinating story. Not only are the facts interesting but I so admire your
restraint in reporting and leaving speculation to the readers. You told the story so well!! Thanks for
maintaining such a high standard of excellence for the rest of us.

Barbara Rogers said...

That is a family story which certainly became more interesting than just where they performed! Thanks for giving so much information, though of course the characters themselves still remain just silhouettes.

Jo Featherston said...

Fantastic! What an amazing family story, with celebrity ending in tragedy and notoriety. Wonderful research Mike, as always.


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