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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The Jenkins Orphanage Band

23 August 2014

Every photograph has a tale to tell, but few photos offer such an abundance of stories as this one does. Family history, social history, music history, and world history are all intertwined together in a souvenir postcard that once sold for a tuppence (2¢). The image shows a boys brass band of 19 young black musicians dressed in white jerseys and caps, and posed with their instruments – cornets, alto and tenor horns, tuba, helicon, clarinets and drums. The caption reads:

 Anglo- American Exposition
The Famous Piccaninny Band

The word piccaninny or pickaninny is derived from a creole word of West Africa and the Caribbean which has its root in a Portuguese word -  pequenino, the diminutive of pequeno for small. It was once used to describe a very small child, but in the 19th and early 20th century it became an affectionate term for children of color, though today it is considered a degrading label. In this photo the front row of very young boys, especially the little band conductor in the center, partly explains its use for the band's name.


The back of the postcard shows that  it was printed in Britain. Though it was never posted, it has an imprint for the Anglo-American Exposition, an event that was presented in the Shepard's Bush section of west London in an exhibition area known as the Great White City, which was an unfortunate coincidence for this particular band.

Another unfortunate coincidence
was that the exposition was held
in the summer of 1914.


This was not a British band but an American boys band from Charleston, South Carolina. They were all inmates of the Jenkins Orphanage which was founded by the Reverend Daniel J. Jenkins (1862-1937), a Baptist preacher and native of South Carolina. One cold winter in 1891 while collecting wood at the train yard in Charleston, he encountered a group of destitute small boys huddled in a boxcar. Hungry and homeless, these orphans inspired Jenkins to take them into his own family. His simple act of charity became his calling in life and brought forth such a boundless compassion for the homeless black children of his community that it led him to create an institution that could provide for their welfare and education.

According to census records, by 1900 there were nearly 70 negro boys and girls in Rev. Jenkins' orphanage. Like many children's homes of this era there was a school band, as music was a standard requirement for a proper education and learning a musical instrument offered a practical trade skill. An orphans' band also proved very helpful in soliciting donations for an institution so very low on Charleston's list of charitable organizations in the 1890s. Rev. Jenkins was a tireless fundraiser, making countless speeches and appeals for funds to support his work. He recognized that patrons outside of Charleston enjoyed hearing his talented charges, so he shrewdly arranged for the band to accompany him on his campaigns around the country, particularly in the North where there were many more sympathetic benefactors for negro charities than in the South.

During the summer months, the boys band would travel to large cities like New York, Washington, and Philadelphia. They appeared at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, NY; the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also known as the St. Louis World's Fair; and marched in President Taft's 1909 inauguration parade. The proceeds from the band concerts became a major source of income for the orphanage, and Jenkins had the band leader add a second band. Eventually there would be as many as four musical groups on tour. They would often stay at the YMCA or Young Men's Christian Association like the one pictured above in St. Petersburg, Florida - The Sunshine City and dating from 1930.

Columbia SC State
April 25, 1914

In early 1914, Rev. Jenkins received an offer to bring his boys band to London to perform at the Anglo-American Exposition. It would not be his first trip to England, as in 1895 he had taken a band to Paris and then London where they ran afoul of a British law that prohibited children younger than 11 from performing music in a hall or on the street as a way to solicit money. They were stranded without funds to get back to the US, so they appeared in court seeking a remedy. The judge was unable to help, though he made a private donation, and the story was printed in many British newspapers. Eventually Jenkins and his boys did return safely but understandably he was now determined that any engagement in a foreign country should have a binding contract with suitable payment and conditions. Since this Anglo-American Exposition promised to be a lengthy and first rate gig, Jenkins secured several older musicians, alumni of his orphanage, to  reinforce the youthful first rank of the band .   

On the 13th of May, the Rev. D. J. Jenkins, his wife, and the orphanage staff and band of 24 arrived in Liverpool from New York . Their passage was a 3rd class fare on the Cunard liner Campania.


London Times
May 14, 1914
The Anglo-American Exposition was promoted as a centenary of peace between Britain and America following the 1814 settlement of the War of 1812. Though it pretended to have elements of high art and science, the exposition was essentially produced as a summertime circus amusement park. There was a 15,000 square foot working model of the Panama Canal (which would officially open in August 1914); a realistic replica, with skyscrapers, of Greater New York that covered 6 acres; a model of the Grand Canyon of Colorado; and the 101 Ranch Wild West Show complete with Indians, Cow Boys, Wild-West Girls, Bucking Bronchos, and the Thrill of Thrillers – Auto Polo.

The Jenkins Orphanage Band was part of the Hordes of other Startling Novelties, which included numerous bands and musicians providing music throughout the park. The boy's first concert started at 11:45 in the morning and continued until their last set finished at 10:45 at night. Their program consisted of the typical waltzes and overtures of traditional brass bands but the music that distinguished them from other bands were the cakewalks, two steps, and ragtime music unique to the new American brand of popular music. The Charleston Piccaninny Band became a small sensation at the fair and sold thousands of postcards.
They even learned to play "God Save the King" after receiving an invitation to play before King George V who was encouraged to hear the band after his mother, Queen Alexandre and Empress Marie of Russia had heard them perform earlier in the summer. Since the tune is also the American patriotic song My Country, "Tis of Thee, it was no doubt an easy piece to arrange.

But in July, 1914, King George had other things on his mind besides grand expositions. On June 28, the crown prince of Austria, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were murdered in Sarajevo, the capital of the Austrian province of Bosnia and Herzegovina. For the next month the assassination seemed to be only a contentious matter between the Austro-Hungarian empire and its neighbor Serbia. However on July 28,  a very complicated chain of alliances and military plans forced one nation after another to take up arms. By August, Europe was at war.  

Charleston SC News and Courier
August 13, 1914

In June, Rev. Jenkins had just agreed to extend the orphan band's stay in London, but he and his wife had planned to return to Charleston in early August. Everything changed when Britain declared war on Germany on August 4th following the German army's violation of Belgium territory as part of the Kaiser's military strategy to invade France. All passenger ships were commandeered for the war effort. Rev. Jenkins and his wife somehow managed to get on board the S.S. Laconia that left for New York on August 8th. but the boys would be held over indefinitely. 


Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Sept. 13, 1914

Despite the British mobilization for war, the Anglo-American Exposition struggled  to continue its daily shows into September, but ticket sales clearly suffered. Performances of the 101 Ranch Wild West Show had been changed when their stadium was turned into a drill ground for the army. There were special promotions and servicemen in uniform were allowed in for free. The war created a myriad of obstacles for travelers. Adding to the problem of crossing the Atlantic, train service across Europe was disrupted, and border crossings that only a month before had been open were now closed.

The Jenkins Orphanage Band finally secured passage on the S.S. St. Louis which carried many Americans escaping the hostilities back to the States, including a number of theater and opera artists. A small group of the Wild West Show Indians which had been on loan to another circus in Germany even managed to get released and rejoin their troupe. The Jenkins Band was worthy of notice because they were well known in New York.

The ship's manifest from the S.S. St. Louis that sailed from Liverpool on Sept. 5th, 1914, and arrived at the port of New York, Sept 12th, 1914 listed the names of each musician in the Jenkins Orphanage Band along with their age and date and place of birth. Their address was 20 Franklin St., Charleston, SC.

  • Brown, Clinton - age 16 - born Aug. 2,  1898 Manning, SC
  • Brown, Edqward - age 18 - born Aug. 3, 1896 Charleston, SC
  • Aiken, Lucins - age 18 - born Feb. 27, 1896 Charleston, SC
  • Mills, Alonzo - age 18 - born Nov. 12, 1895 John Island, SC
  • Patrick, Jacob - age 18 - born Aug. 18, 1896 Charleston, SC
  • Harper, Emerson - age 17 - born Feb. 28, 1897 Columbia, SC
  • Dreher, Clarence - age 21 - born Nov. 27, 1892 Darlington, SC
  • Patrick, Edward - age 20 - born Nov. 25, 1893 Charleston, SC
  • Jenkins, Edmund - age 20 - born Apr. 9, 1894 Charleston, SC
  • Daniels, Paul - age 30 - born Jun. 7, 1884 Bambery, SC
  • Bacon, Sallie L. - age 26 - born Jan 23, 1888 Charleston, SC
  • Garlington, John C. - age 10 - born Nov. 17, 1903 Laurens, SC
  • Thomas, William - age 10 - born Jan. 8, 1903 Charleston, SC
  • Holmes, Hoarce - age 11 - born Dec. 27, 1902 Charleston, SC
  • Brown, Charles - age 11 - born Oct. 14, 1902 Greenville, SC
  • Rennicks, Marion - age 11 - born Jun. 3, 1902 Greenville, SC
  • Thayer, George - age 11 - born Dec. 25, 1902 Charleston, SC
  • Benford, William - age 14 - born Apr. 18, 1900 Charleston, SC
  • Briggans, Eunice - age 16 - born Apr. 9, 1898 Savannah, GA
  • Frasier, Jacob - age 16 - born Dec. 23, 1897 Charleston, SC
  • Gibbes, William - age 16 - born May 5, 1898 Charleston, SC
  • Wright, Stephen - age 17 - born Jun. 27, 1897 Charleston, SC
  • Aiken, Augustus - age 15 - born Jul. 26, 1899 Charleston, SC

Reports from the first months of the war were filled with public anxiety. No one knew what to expect or how best to react. Most people hoped the war would end by Christmas. Few expected that it would drag on for 4 more years. No doubt the Jenkins orphan boys were happy to go home to Charleston.

Rev. Daniel J. Jenkins died in 1937, a much loved and respected elder of Charleston. He had guided his orphanage through a tumultuous era of American history. Over the 46 years that he promoted his orphan boys band, it produced many capable musicians who would help create a new 20th century art form called jazz music. Several former Jenkins Band members became well known musicians in the big bands of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and other band leaders of the 1930s and 40s. 

In 1928 another generation of Charleston waifs were filmed in front of the Jenkins orphanage by Fox Movietone News using a new technology of sound recording. The original newsreel was quite short, but this compilation has over 10 minutes of outtake footage restored by the Moving Image Research Collections at the University of South Carolina. The band plays only one tune, over and over, but there are some closeups of the band members at 3:06 and some little girls dancing at 6:20. Their rough musical style isn't exactly modern jazz, but it has an original voice that comes from youthful energy and learning music from the inside out, that is – playing by ear. It resembles the music of a band from Orangeburg, SC that I heard many years ago and described in my post from 2010, A Picnic Band. It's possible that some of those musicians were once in the Jenkins Orphanage too.

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The summer of 1914 was a momentous turning point for the world that forever changed the direction of nations, culture, science, and art. But out of this enormous cataclysm, there were a few small wonders of hope. One is found in the listing for the Jenkins band on the S.S. St. Louis where one name is struck through with a line from an immigration official's pencil: Jenkins, Edmund - age 20 - born Apr. 9, 1894 Charleston, SC.  It was easy to guess that this might be the son of Rev. Jenkins. But why was the name struck through?

An internet search quickly produced some answers. He was indeed the seventh son of Daniel J. Jenkins, and there was a reason he was not with the other Charleston musicians returning to America. produced the emergency US passport granted by the American embassy in London to Edmund T. Jenkins, who arrived in England in May 1914 for the purpose of musician and stayed behind.

For six years. The date of the application was July 22nd, 1920.

When he took passage the following week on July 31st, 1920 aboard the Cunard liner Imperator,  Edmund Thornton Jenkins traveled 1st class to New York. He listed his UK address as Royal Academy, Marylebone Rd., London, where for six years he had been enrolled as a student at one of London's great music conservatories, the Royal Academy of Music. He was now 26 years old and had became an accomplished clarinetist and proficient composer, winning prizes at the RAM for his compositions, and getting his music performed at the Queen's Hall and even mentioned in the music journals. That kind of achievement would have been impossible for a black man in Charleston, South Carolina in 1914.

Jenkins was also a successful performer on the clarinet, and on his return to London in 1921 he was appointed an instructor at the Royal Academy. The cakewalks and rags of the orphanage band were not on any music conservatory curriculum, but they were good training for a musician who wanted to organize a small combo band to play in a new night club above the Queen's Hall. Jenkins linked up with an English musician named Jack Hylton, a pianist who would later become a successful bandleader in the 1930s and 40s. Together they produced several 78rpm disc recordings of popular dance tunes in 1921 with Edmund Jenkins on saxophone and clarinet. On this YouTube video we can hear Jenkins leading the melody on saxophone for a tune entitled The Love Nest. Is it an alto or soprano sax? I'm not sure, but it does demonstrate a very expert musicianship.

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Edmund Thornton Jenkins tried going back home to Charleston but the freedom of expression and the dignity of equality he found in England were denied him in America. So he returned to London and then moved on to Paris where he joined other African American artists who prospered in France during the postwar years. He had aspirations for a career as a classical musician and composed orchestral pieces and an opera, but he found more profitable work in the dance bands of the French cabarets. The vibrant Parisian night life of the 1920s fostered a new kind of jazz idiom that inspired many European composers like Maurice Ravel and Igor Stravinsky. With his crossover education, Edmund T. Jenkins might have become an important musical figure in France, Britain, and America, but fate takes tragic turns and he died of peritonitis in a Paris hospital on September 12, 1926 at the age of 32. He was buried in Charleston.     

One hundred years ago, a small group of African American boys went on a big adventure in a foreign land unlike anything in their experience. They introduced Britain to a special culture and a new kind of music that despite the sudden disturbance of war, would contribute to bending the course of the musical arts from its old classical traditions to a new popular style. Perhaps more significantly, they left one of their own talents behind to thrive in  an environment free of the bigotry, intolerance and injustice that infused American society in 1914.

This is not to say that there was no racism in Europe, but Edmund Jenkins was able to flourish in England and France because he was not automatically refused opportunities or deemed a second class citizen as he would have been in South Carolina. He clearly had extraordinary gifts as a musician and composer that might have placed his name among the great artists of the postwar years. We can't speculate very far with that idea, but we can imagine the excitement of a young man, now on his own as the summer of 1914 ended, when he waved farewell to his friends from the dockside and then turned away to pursue a dream. 

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I have written about several photographs of orphan bands. The one most like the Jenkins Orphanage Band was the New York Orphan Boys' Band which came from the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York. There are numerous photos and postcards in my collection from World War One, and one of the categories on this blog is for black musicians. But no other photograph can compare to the wealth of stories contained in this simple postcard.

This post is not intended to be a complete history or commentary, but instead I have tried to present the highlights of my research as I discovered whatever information was hidden behind this postcard. As I began to piece it together I soon realized that each story deserves a book, and in fact there are some excellent authors who have done just that, writing comprehensive histories on Rev. Jenkins' Orphanage Band and his son, Edmund T. Jenkins. Their books provided answers to my questions and illuminated the history in ways that I am unable to do on this blog.   

The first can be found on the blog of London historian Jeffrey Green who has documented many fascinating stories of people of African descent in London before the Second World War. He has also written a biography: Edmund Thornton Jenkins: the life and times of an American black composer, 1894-1926 published by Greenwood Press, 1982.

Another superb book, Doin' the Charleston: Black Roots of American Popular Music and the Jenkins Orphanage Legacy by Mark Rowell Jones has some splendid pictures and a very detailed history on the Jenkins Orphanage Band. He makes a very good case for Charleston to be recognized as an important root of American jazz music due to the many jazz musicians who received their musical training in the Jenkins Orphanage.

I should also recommend a terrific illustrated children's book entitled Hey, Charleston!: The True Story of the Jenkins Orphanage Band by Anne Rockwell. She presents their story in a way that captures the imagination of readers, young and old alike.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
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Music in the Field

15 August 2014

It was a warm day. The air smelled of canvas tents, horses, and cut grass. The soldiers had begun their daily drills so there had to be music. Three boys came to hear the army band play.

The exact time and place of this photo postcard are unknown. This army band of about 28 are wearing uniforms appropriate to the decade 1910 to 1920. Standing at attention behind them are the drums and bugles of the field musicians. The photo has faded and I have improved it with digital software but I am still uncertain about the complexion on the faces of the musicians. Are they African American?  If they are, they may be members of the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments – the famed "Buffalo Soldiers" which were two all black units of the U.S. Army. formed in the second half of the 19th century.

The photographer wrote a caption in the corner:

Guard Mount
In The Field

A Guard Mount was when one unit was assembled to exchange duty with another. There was a specific bugle call for this order.

The scene in front of the band might have resembled this image from a postcard of 1918. A band performs for a large company of soldiers arrayed in some kind of drill line. They are near tents and are watched over by officers on horseback.

This birds-eye view is entitled Musical Saber Drill, Fort Riley, Kansas. The soldiers are practicing basic cavalry swordsmanship, but minus the horses. No doubt it is always best to first learn this unmounted. The field is overlooking the Kansas River of Ft. Riley, a military installation once known for a brief connection to the 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment and General George Armstrong Custer.

The postcard has a postmark of SEP 23, 1918 from Junction City, KS Camp Funston. This camp was one of 16 training camps set up around the country in 1917 to prepare new recruits and draftees for military service in the war against Germany. 

It was addressed to Mr. Emil E. Forderhase of Berger, Missouri in Franklin County.

Sept 22 - 1918

Mr Emil Forderhase. Dear Brother
Am going to send you this card for pleasure
Sure would like to see you little fellow
again Guess you will be a big man if
I get back. Cant tell exactly when
that will be. Guess you missed me
every evening as you went to bed
and also during the day Say Emil how
do you like school. Just study hard for
it is good to have a good education
always can make use of it. Am glad to
have a much as I have. Even is good
here where I am Are several boys here that
cant write or Read. Tell Ida that I read a
letter that Amelia sent to Benj Meyer & in
that letter she wrote to all of us.
As ever Harry

Harry's full name was Harry Walter Forderhase and he was 24 years old when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in July 1918.  The American Expeditionary Forces under General John J. Pershing had already seen their first major action in the spring. They would see much more as summer ended during the so-called great Hundred Days Offensive, also known as the Second Battle of the Somme. By September there was still no expectation that the war in Europe would end soon, and America was now sending 10,000 soldiers a day to the battlefields of France.

Harry Forderhase was one of over 4 million American men who were mobilized for America's military contribution to World War One. I do not know if he was ever put on a ship for France, but his veteran record states simply that he was released from army service in January 1919. Perhaps more significantly, Harry survived the Great Influenza epidemic of 1918, as the Kansas army camps were later determined to have been an epicenter for this horrific contagion that killed millions more people than were taken by the war.

Emil Forderhase must have been very pleased to have his brother return to the farm in Berger, as he was only 10 when Harry joined up in 1918. The Forderhase family, though they were a generation or more removed from the old country, lived in a rural farm community where nearly every neighbor was of German descent.

In the postwar years, the family stayed together, as Harry, the oldest boy of 5 children, took over the farm in 1920. They were all still there in the 1940 census, single and unmarried – Ida, Harry, Oscar, Olivia, and Emil. The two youngest worked in a hat factory, where Olivia was a seamstress and Emil was a crown finisher.  They probably did not need to write many postcards or letters to each other.


The days of saber drills and cavalry training are over in today's modern army. But the generals of 1914-1918 considered the horse and saber the preeminent force for war. This British film shows a group of raw recruits getting instruction in how to wield the saber. There are of course no horses. And sadly in this era of silent film, no band music either. I hear a waltz. Maybe the Blue Danube.

This Pathé video should start in the middle at 7m 58s, but the beginning is well worth watching too.



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Prisoner #7280 - A Lifer in Music

08 August 2014

The way that some musicians play music should be a crime, and saxophone players often get accused of some illicit musicianship worthy enough to send them to jail. Yet despite the widespread abuse of their instrument it is surprisingly rare to find a saxophonist who actually served time in prison.

However even more rare is the musician who used the saxophone to get out of prison.


The man in the photo stares directly into the camera lens. He wears a dark suit with a stripped tie, and under one arm he holds an alto saxophone. It seems an ordinary portrait that could date from any decade after 1900. The intrigue comes from the note written on the back of the postcard.

In the Penn. for life
Lincoln Nebr.
July 22 - 1928

His face seemed familiar, so I went back to a photo featured on my August 2012 story of the Nebraska State Penitentiary Band. In this band of 12 musicians, he is standing on the left holding a larger tenor saxophone.

However the man next to him is not a musician. He is the prison warden, William T. Fenton.

When I acquired the postcard of this saxophone player, there was another postcard included in the sale. It is a similar portrait of a man in a dark suit, though he has no instrument. The photographer labeled the photo with one word.


Warden William T. Fenton (1873-1939) was a remarkable administrator of a very difficult institution. Still a young man when he was appointed in 1913 to run the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, NE, he endeavored to reform the prison by removing the old methods of correction based on harsh conditions and punishment and replacing them with new concepts of inmate discipline, education, and training. His basic tenet was that by treating inmates with respect and letting them maintain their dignity, the prison could instill proper behavior that would restore them to society as good citizens.

He raised the wages of guards to eliminate corruption. He made improvements in the prison kitchen so that inmates were served better food. He eliminated the convict lockstep march and rule of silence at meals. He introduced recreational activities which included sport games and a band. He even bought regular civilian suits for all the inmates to wear at Sunday chapel instead of their striped prisoner uniform.

By 1915 Warden Fenton became recognized as part of the progressive movement that was changing America's prison system in the early 20th century. When he retired in 1934, his 21 year service under both Republican and Democrat governors would remain the longest tenure of any Nebraska warden. His fame even got him an offer to take over the Alcatraz federal prison which opened in 1933. He declined the job due to poor health and died in 1939.

But this story is not about Warden Fenton. It's about his boys in the band. 

On the right side of the penitentiary band photo is a man not dressed in white shirt and bow tie like the other musicians. Instead he wears a suit and long tie. With his two toned conductor's baton and youthful charming smile there is no mistake that he is the band leader.

He was also a murderer. 

He was known as "Black Tony" or more properly Antonio or Tony Ciarletta. His photo appeared in a 1924 newspaper article about his impending release from the Nebraska State Penitentiary. The state pardon board  had commuted his life sentence, and Black Tony was scheduled to be let out just two days before Christmas 1924. The caption also included the information that he was the leader of the state prison orchestra.

Lincoln NE Star
December 14, 1924

In 1913 Tony Ciarletta, age 19, and two other men held up a resort in Omaha where Ciarletta worked as a bellhop. As they collected valuables from the resort's guests, one man, a bank teller named Henry E. Nickell, failed to put his hands up and made a threatening move. Ciarletta fired two shots and killed him. The three bandits escaped with the loot, but weeks later they were captured in Colorado, after a woman in Lincoln identified Tony as a man who had pawned some of the stolen jewelry with her.

In reporting on the trial the Nebraska newspapers gave him the nickname - "Black Tony" - a name which he vehemently objected to. At one court appearance he confronted reporters. "If I ever get out I'm going to get you _____ for calling me ‘Black Tony’. Haven't you any families of your own? How would you like to be disgraced with such a name?"  In March 1914 he was sentenced to life imprisonment.    

La Crosse WI Tribune
March 6, 1914

Looking closely at the second photo featured in my story on the N.S.P. Band there is short young man standing in the center holding a cornet. I believe it is none other than Tony Ciarletta. On the right is Warden Fenton. 

According to one report Tony had very little education. In the 1920 census, recorded while he was incarcerated at the Lincoln prison, the entry for citizenship shows Tony immigrated to America in 1901 and that his native language was Italian. (Four names above his was inmate Joe Bird, born in Montana, language – Indian.) 

During that first decade of his imprisonment, Tony Ciarletta applied himself to self improvement and evidently became a model prisoner. In the process he learned to play several musical instruments and moved up from being a member of the prison band to becoming the band leader. On his release from prison he said "I hope to continue my work in music as soon as I get on my feet again financially,". There were even thoughts he might find work in an orchestra in his hometown of Joliet, IL or Chicago.  

Lincoln NE Star
December 23, 1924

In the third photo from my 2012 story on the Nebraska State Penitentiary Band, we can see Tony crouching in front of the band. Again unlike the other musicians he is wearing a suit and in his right hand is a conductor's baton. His instrument appears longer and I think he has exchanged the cornet for a trumpet.

The band is posed in front of the prison greenhouse. Note that in this band of 14 musicians, there are two, possibly four, men of color, something that would not have occurred outside of the prison walls in the 1920s era of strict segregation. Could the man behind Tony be Joe Bird from Montana?

_ _

Standing on the left is Warden Fenton next to the saxophone player who older here, perhaps about the same age as his portrait. His instrument is a tenor saxophone.

The prison band, or orchestra as it was often called, performed daily at lunchtime for the inmates and at the prison chapel for Sunday services. They also played concerts that were open to the public during fairs and other events regularly held at the Nebraska State Penitentiary. Some were benefits for the Salvation Army or regional disaster relief. On one concert the prison orchestra shared the stage with a chorus of Lincoln school children. At these shows the prison inmates appeared only on the stage and were not allowed to be in the audience. They got the previews. The warden had suffered enough with his share of prison breaks.

Warden Fenton was very proud of his musicians and used the band to promote the reforms he was advocating. One of his first innovations was to expand the prison facilities with a new auditorium. It could seat 1,300 people and had a stage over 30 feet wide and 26 feet deep with electric lighting and enough room for scenery and sets. In this theater space, inmates produced minstrel shows with comic skits, songs, and variety acts that used their own original material that they wrote and performed themselves. 

The prison's annual Thanksgiving show was a favorite entertainment in Lincoln and was promoted in the newspapers. In 1928 there was a full description of the inmates' show called "The Shutin's Frolic" with program titles, instruments, and names.  Midway down was A Bit of Saxaphone Melody – L. Chobar and later Rhythm Plus with L. Chobar, director, saxaphone (sic).

Could inmate L. Chobar be the same saxophone player as in the photos?

Lincoln NE Star
November 30, 1928

Lincoln NE Evening Journal
December 26, 1924

In December 1924, Tony Ciarletta learned he would receive the best Christmas present ever – his freedom. Yet who would take over the baton and lead the prison orchestra for the inmates annual Christmas show?  A convict  named Louis Chobar.

He was a murderer too.

_ _

In 1917, Louis W. Chobar was working on a large farm in Benedict, Nebraska where his wife was also employed as a housekeeper by the owner, Albert A. Blender. At the time Chobar was only 21 years old and his wife just 17. Not long after starting on the farm, Chobar began to suspect that Blender, a wealthy bachelor, was taking improper advantage of his young wife. In November 1917 he became convinced that Blender had assaulted his wife. In a fit of rage he confronted the man and shot him with Blender's own gun. Chobar then bound and gagged his wife, left a note to explain his crime, and fled in the victim's car. Supposedly he also took money from Blender which prosecutors used as the motive for his crime, but this was later proven false.

A $700 reward for Chobar's capture was offered by Blender's mother, and in late December 1917, he was apprehended by a sheriff's posse of 150 men. Chobar was charged with committing a felony murder for the purpose of robbery. In court his wife took the stand to corroborate Chobar's assertion that Blender had abused her, though this contradicted her earlier statements. It was not enough and the jury found him guilty of first degree murder. When the judge considered his sentence, prosecutors recommended leniency, but Louis Chobar was given life in prison.

Only two years later the state of Nebraska would install an electric chair at the Lincoln penitentiary. It would get a lot of use.

El Paso TX Herald
November 30, 1917

_ _ _

This photo is clearly marked as the N.S.P. Orchestra. There are 20 musicians including six violin players on the left and five saxophones in the front row. Standing at the back center is Warden Fenton and on the right is Louis Chobar holding a conductor's baton instead of a saxophone.

On the far right is the only musician who is wearing a suit jacket. He holds a trumpet and with that broad grin, I believe it may be Tony Ciarletta. With so many sax players and only one trumpet, it would make sense for Louis to conduct while Tony played.

 _ _

Lincoln NE Evening Journal
November 27, 1929

There were so many prison show programs published in the Lincoln newspapers that the penitentiary seemed almost like a high school music academy promoting its spring musical. This next photo postcard is labeled N.S.P. Show Troupe and shows the prison orchestra behind a line of men dressed in typical minstrel show costumes. Nine men are wearing powered wigs and 18th century style pantaloons. Four men on opposite sides of the stage have painted themselves in blackface. But one black trombonist at the back has no need for makeup.

In the center, next to the man sitting on a throne, is a blurred face that I believe is Louis Chobar, the bandleader.  

Chobar is also surely the bandleader in this photo of the N.S.P. Orch., though again the lighting has blurred his features. The stage has an elaborate backdrop with painted columns and ornamental lions. With 12 musicians that include three saxophones and two banjos, the band looks like a typical dance band from the 1920s. Notice that the trombonist in the back row is the same man as in the previous photo and that another black man is on drums. It's also possible that the trumpet on the far right may be Tony Ciarletta.

The internet continues to be an amazing resource for forgotten history. On the website for the Nebraska State Historical Society there was another reference to Louis Chobar.

Not as a saxophone player but as a songwriter. 

Source: Nebraska State Historical Society

The song was A Prisoner's Plea, published by the Nebraska State Penitentiary with words by Prisoner #7280 and music by Prisoner #8940.

If you like this this song it may be obtained by sending 50¢ or
money order, which will assist us in publishing other songs, which
are beautiful fox trots, of our own composition. Also, friends, you
are helping two prisoners who desire to "Make Good" and return
to society as honest, law-abiding citizens.
Thanking you for an order, we are,
Very respectfully yours
Prisoner #7280 and Prisoner #8940
Nebraska State Prison
Lancaster, Nebr.

Who was Prisoner #7280?  None other than Louis W. Chobar.

Source: Nebraska State Historical Society

Chobar entered the Nebraska State Peniteniary in March 1918, with no expectation other than he would never leave. Not surprisingly, his wife got a divorce. His eyes stare at the camera and seem to look far beyond the lens.

He was given work in the prison furniture shop though he had no prior experience in wood craft. He wove wicker chairs, daybeds, lamp shades, and bird cages. Soon he became good enough to be made an instructor. Convicts earned a small wage in the shops and as a lifer Chobar was able to keep all his earnings of about $17 a month. After 6 years at this, he caught the attention of Warden Fenton who offered him the position of prison librarian. Even though Chobar protested he was unqualified, Fenton insisted and Chobar was given charge of choosing and distributing books for the entire prison population. His duties also included running the prison mail room. Life in prison now had a purpose.

Before his incarceration, music been a minor interest for Chobar who enjoyed singing in choirs and had taught himself to pick simple tunes out on the mandolin and violin. In prison he made an unsuccessful try at the cornet after hearing the band, but it was the saxophone that really caught his ear. He invested $168, nearly his full year's income, and bought himself a saxophone, devoting all his free time to the instrument and learning the fundamentals of music. The warden permitted him an hour a day of practice in the prison chapel in addition to two hours of band rehearsal. At night he taught himself the instrument fingerings silently in his cell. Before long, his talent was recognized and he was made a soloist in the band. 

Lincoln NE Star
August 7, 1931
After 12 years in prison, in 1930 Chobar made application to the state parole board for a commutation of his sentence. Unlike Tony Ciarletta's hearing, where no one spoke against him, the family of Chobar's victim were very vocal in their opposition to Chobar's possible release or a reduction of his life sentence. Nebraska newspapers gave regular reports on parole board actions, and quickly picked up on Chobar's case as a contest between two mothers. On the one side Chobar's mother made a plea for clemency, and on the other side his victim's mother, Mrs. Blender, demanded that justice be served. Yet even with the support of prison officials praising his exemplary conduct, Chobar's application was denied.

The following year, when Chobar's mother became critically ill, Warden Fenton took the unusual step of securing Louis a 7-day pass from the governor to leave prison and visit her in Chillicothe, Illinois. Unsupervised. Across the state line. "I have never lost a prisoner under these circumstances when such a privilege has been granted," said Fenton. When it was clear she was near death, Chobar was allowed an extra 5 days.

Lincoln NE Evening Journal
April 20, 1932

At his next parole hearing in 1932, Chobar's petition prevailed and the board commuted his life sentence to a term of 25 years. This made him eligible for release in 1935.

Louis continued as prison librarian and director of the prison's shows. The 1934 Thanksgiving production was a musical comedy entitled "Spooky Hours". Chobar auditioned over 40 inmates and chose 25 for the six act show. The two lead actors were both black men, one with 16 years experience in Negro stage work. There were three dance routines; short comic skits; a "high class" tap dance act; several popular and classical songs; a one act play; and a big finale depicting jungle life in South Africa. Accompanying all this from the stage pit was an orchestra of 12 musicians led by Louis Chobar. He was even featured as a saxophone soloist.

Each year, owing to the nature of the place, actors come and actors go, but this year Mr. Chobar is quite satisfied with the talent available, and so, says their director, "On with the Show."

The following year Louis Chobar became a free man again. He moved to Peoria, IL; worked as a salesman for a paper product company; remarried and became the father of a daughter.

Did he take his saxophone with him when he left prison? Did he continue to write songs or direct musicals? His name is attached to two songs listed in a 1949 catalog of music copyright titles. "Huckleberry Sweetheart" and "Illinoi' I Love You" for voice and piano, by Myrle Davis and Louis Merle (pseud.) i.e. Louis William Chobar. So perhaps he did keep a dream of pursuing music. But the internet does not have all the answers. After 17 years in the Pen, Louis was probably intent on making a new life on his on terms that was quiet and drew no attention. 

Besides "The Prisoner's Plea", Louis Chobar as Prisoner #7280 co-wrote another song with Prisoner #8940 entitled "Omaha, I Love You." a fox trot ballad. It is curious that Chobar is credited with the lyrics and not the music. Who was the composer?   

That was Prisoner #8940. His name was Art Boyd.

Source: Nebraska State Historical Society

Convicted in 1924 of breaking into and robbing a Missouri Pacific railway depot, Art Boyd was sentenced to serve 3 to 10 years in the penitentiary. Like Chobar and Ciarletta, he repeatedly applied to the parole board for a reduced sentence. By 1930 he was still inside after 6 years. To look at his prison mugshot with his shaved head, scars and missing eye, we could easily believe that he was capable of murder. The internet does not say if he ever killed anyone.

But he did play the saxophone.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everyone pleads "Not Guilty!"


Here are some more photos of Louis Chobar
which I've acquired since I wrote this story in 2014.
The first is a duplicate of the postcard
at the top of this story but it has the signature
of Louis W. Chobar himself.

This second postcard has Chobar
holding a clarinet instead of his saxophone.
His name is printed onto the photo
in the same neat handwriting.

Louis W. Chobar
Orch. Dir.

And here is another photo postcard
of the Nebraska State Penitentiary Band
posed in front of a small garden plot
outside one of the prison buildings.

Tony Ciarletta, wearing a dinner jacket and bowtie,
holds a conductor's baton and stands on the left.
Just to the right is Louis Chobar with a tenor saxophone.
The large man on the left is not the warden
but is not a prisoner I think.
Perhaps he is the deputy warden.

On the right is Warden William T. Fenton
wearing a straw boater hat.
Kneeling just in front of the warden,
is Art Boyd with his unmistakable one-eyed squint
and a tenor saxophone.


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