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 }

Mademoiselle Fifi

28 July 2017

All she wore were
flowers, balloons, and a smile.
That's all you need to know.
The rest is best left
to the imagination.

 Her smile greets us
on a large 8"x10" glossy.
The standard publicity passport
of the theater world.
Being a clever girl,
she signed it too.

“Just for remembrance”
Jan 4th  1923
Scranton, Pa

Sincerely Yours
To Violet

The back of the photo also
has an address:


Perm address
817 N 25th St.
Phila. Pa.

Poplar 677W -

Summer address
Clementon N.J.
La Fifi Villa

And one more name:

Ned Ruddy
716 Monroe Ave
Scranton Pa

I bought Fifi's photo with a small lot of other vaudeville promotional photos that came from an estate sale in Scranton, Pennsylvania. It's a fun flirtations image, but it's not really musical so it's outside my usual acquisitions. I just liked her smile.

But there are a lot of good clues with this photo. A date, a place, and names.

Let's start with the date – January 1923,
the place – Scranton,
and a name – Fifi.

Scranton PA Republican
06 January 1923

On January 6, 1923, Scranton offered all kinds of amusements for the first Saturday of the year. The Strand theatre showed a children's matinee of a Harold Lloyd comedy "Grandma's Boy", plus Man vs Beast, Views of the Jungle. The State had Mabel Normand in "Molly O", a  Mack Sennett production. The Regent feature was Tom Mix in "Arabia" with Will Rodgers in "The Ropin' Fool". Josef Rosenblatt, the greatest Cantor Tenor would be singing the following Wednesday at the Y.M.H.A auditorium. The Capitol, Scranton's Vaudeville Palace, listed a variety of acts beginning with "Eight Perfect Fools", a Whirlwind of Merriment, and the famous Curzon Sisters, sensational and novelty aerialists. Frank Van Hoven, the Mad Magician, headlined Poli's theatre, along with Charles Ray in "Gas, Oil, and Water", a Thrill and a Laugh a Minute. Over at the Liederkranz Casino there was music and dancing every Saturday. And at the Majestic, Scranton's Fun Center, "Real Burlesque" with Harry Fields and his Hello Jako Girls - and held over another week "Fifi".  

Scranton PA Republican
03 January 1923

A couple days before, Scranton's newspaper ran a review of the Majestic theater's show. It attracted big crowds over the New Year weekend. The versatile Harry Fields was backed by a capable ensemble, "The Hello Jake Girls".  The Majestic's manager, Louis Epstein, also retained for a second week, the striking sensational dancer, "Fifi". The latter a card worth while and has made so good an impression that patrons of the house will be delighted to know she continues at the house.

* * *

Mr. Epstein must have been impressed with her star quality because 12 months later, Fifi, "The One and Only" returned as the headline for the December 1923 New Years Eve show – "Flirts and Skirts". The girl in the advertisement's illustration wears a headband similar to the one in  Fifi photo.

Scranton PA Republican
31 December 1923

The name "Fifi" was surely a stage name, but show business names have always been like trademarks, valued as brands that sell tickets. So when did "Fifi" first appear in burlesque? In May 1917 she was the Dance Sensation of the Season at the Trocadero theater in Philadelphia. The advertisement in the Philadelphia Inquirer displayed her picture. Mlle. Fifi in the big hit, Danse de l'Opium.

Philadelphia Inquirer
27 May 1917

The abbreviation Mlle. for Mademoiselle added an exotic French quality to her name. Her style of dance may have been inspired by the popularity of the American dancer, Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), who was then a major influence on changing classic ballet into modern interpretive dance. That was how Mlle. Fifi was billed in January 1927 when she headlined Omaha's Gayety Burlesk Show. "Nite Life in Paris", positively a good snappy show. See Mlle. Fifi, America's foremost interpretive dancer.

Omaha NE World Herald
20 January 1927

In this era, Burlesque Theatres, or Burlesk Theaters in Americanese, operated just like the vaudeville circuits had done for decades. Entertainers traveled from city to city, following the rail lines, playing theaters for a week or two and then moving on to the next booking. Agents handled acts from classy artistes to crass comedians putting on the latest musical comedy. And there always had to be chorus girls. American Burlesque was an art form that took away any pretense of artistic refinement and catered to the baser instincts of the American audience. Get them in the door, then show them what they want to see. As much as possible anyway.

In 1928 at the height of Prohibition, Fifi was the headline at the Embassy theatre in Altoona, PA.

Internationally Known Star
Midnight Show
tonight at 11:30

You may have seen dancers but you must
see Mll. Fifi if you want to see how they
dance in the orient.

Altoona PA Mirror
31 December 1928

So it would seem Mlle. Fifi's stage career lasted at least 11-15 years. I found notices of her appearance in New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Omaha, Portland. But newspapers wouldn't reveal her real identity. The obvious clues could only lead to a dead end.

Until I looked for her address in Clementon, NJ.

Cincinnati Enquirer
09 July 1950

In the 1950s, newspapers around the country regularly printed syndicated Hollywood and Broadway news. A short filler ran during the summer of 1950.

Mlle. Fifi is perhaps the best known name in burlesk. She's retired to her La Fifi Villa at Clementon, N. J. She manages her daughter's bubble-dancing career now. Daughter is Dolores Dawson, who just wound up 60 consecutive weeks in Greenwich Village.

Evidently the daughter, like her mother, worked the burlesk stage too. That seems like a familiar story.

* * *

Camden NJ Courier-Post
13 November 1973

The house in Clementon even showed up in a 1973 real estate classified as a 2 bdrm bungalow in a unique wooded setting high on a hill. Former home of Show Business personality & known as "La Fifi Villa".  Priced at only $7000.

* * *

Now I had to find out who she really was.
With the names Dawson and Fifi it didn't take long.

Her stage persona was Mademoiselle Fifi, but her full name was Mary Elizabeth Dawson.  A native of Philadelphia, Mary Dawson was born in 1890, so she was age 33 in her balloon photo. Bearing in mind that having a Wikipedia page is not the same as being listed in the Dictionary of National Biography, truth is sometimes open to interpretation, but at least there were a few collaborating references. One was at the University of Maine Library, which incredibly has a Mary Dawson Collection.

Source: University of Maine Archives

There I found a postcard with an image of Mary Dawson nearly identical to the one shown in the 1917 Trocadero Theatre advert. The printed caption reads:

M'lle Fifi
"The Dancing Venus"

Extra Added Attraction with
Moore & Scanlon's
"Garden of Girls Company"

A handwritten note on the edge reads:

1910 –
Real Snakes

They do indeed look like snakes around her wrists, and on closer examination, in the image on the Trocadero's advert, she is wearing them!

And though I'm no herpetologist, I don't think they are garter snakes as described in her Wikipedia entry. 

* * *

Another postcard shows Mlle. Fifi hiding behind a Japanese parasol.
The printed caption reads:

Just arrived for the Summer

Fifi from Paris
The One Only & Original
Now Playing
Savoy Theatre
Atlantic City
, N.J.

Source: University of Maine Archives

Written on the card is:
Season 1928-29

Source: University of Maine Archives

The use of the phrase "The One Only & Original" which was similarly used on the 1923 advertisement may indicate that Mlle. Fifi had a dancing competitor who also went by Fifi or some name that was vaguely French. Here is another image from the University of Maine collection, an undated photo of Mary Dawson, aka Fifi, standing in front of a poster advertising Jack Lamont and his Pretty Babies with The Original Fifi from Paris, International Shimmy Dancer.

* * *

In 1960, LIFE magazine ran a "story" on the history of the Minsky Brothers Burlesque Shows. It included this image of Mademoiselle Fifi, a celebrated soubrette of their productions doing "The Dance of September Morn."  She is barefoot and adorned with flowers and lace but no snakes.

LIFE Magazine
02 May 1960

The reason that exotic oriental dancer, Mary Dawson, aka Mademoiselle Fifi, is remembered today is because of a 1968 musical comedy entitled The Night They Raided Minsky's, which starred Jason Robards and Britt Ekland. It was based on a book of the same name by Rowland Barber which was published in 1960. Supposedly the storyline is based in part on how Mary Dawson, aka Mademoiselle Fifi, got her big break in a Minsky Brothers burlesque show, by having, let's say, a wardrobe malfunction on stage during her performance. A crazy ruckus ensues that leads to her arrest for public indecency. But as every show business agent knows, even bad publicity is good publicity.

According to the Wikipedia entries on Mary Dawson, the movie, and the Minsky's Brothers, as well as several books on the history of the burlesque theater, this legendary showbiz event takes place on April 20, 1925. Yet it's strange that by 1925, Mlle. Fifi was a veteran trouper with over 15 years of dancing experience on the burlesque circuit. And I could not find her name connected to any of the Minsky Brothers shows for 1925 or any other year. It's a puzzle.

But let's Mary tell us the real story herself.

Elmira NY Star-Gazette
30 December 1975
In December 1975 newspapers around the country ran a photo and a heart-warming story of Mary Dawson, now age 85, recounting her dancing life in burlesque. "I never did anything risque, although I worked with a lot of strippers," she remembered. The episode of the raid on Minsky's Theatre was a myth, a showbiz legend begun by a writer who "just put all in that book to make it better." Now a grandmother, she tried to teach her 12-year-old granddaughter some of her old routines. "I can still move every part of my body," the former Mademoiselle Fifi boasts as she twirls a green snake around her neck and shoulders.

Mary Dawson, aka Mlle. Fifi, died in 1982 at age 92.

* * *

It's unusual for me to find so many useful references on a subject in my photograph collection. Usually the few records I can find make only a sketch of a person's life, so it's a thrill to be able to make a proper profile. Mary Dawson clearly became a successful entertainer in her chosen field, dancing in burlesque, the toughest stage of show biz. Yet there is a lot about her life that is left to our imagination. What was it like to be a woman traveling on the burlesque theater circuit? What kind of treatment did she receive from rough audiences, crooked agents, and licentious managers? Why did she let her daughter go into the same tawdry business? Perhaps it wasn't so vulgar as we might think.

On April 20, 1925, when supposedly Mlle. Fifi revealed a little too much at a Minsky Brothers Show, Mary Dawson claims she was somewhere else, working a convention she says. During the winter and spring of 1925, Mlle. Fifi, was associated with a national tour of show called The Greenwich Village Follies, headlined by Gallager and Shean, two vaudeville comedians. The show had over 20 skits with songs and dances, and of course, lots of chorus girls. It started on the east coast and headed west. By April 1925 the company was in California. The San Bernardino  newspaper promoted the upcoming show on April 26. The two comic stars were assisted by Mlle. Fifi, a celebrated French music hall artiste who was especially engaged for this number as well as prima donna in support of these artistes.

San Bernardino CA Daily Sun
26 April 1925

It's possible that this Mlle. Fifi was Mary Dawson's unoriginal competitor. Maybe in April 1925 Mary was playing a show for the Acme Novelty Company convention in New Jersey. But because she was a well-known name in burlesque, I think it's likely she was part of this show, at least in a few cities. In any case, she was not part of that indecent Minsky show.

Moreover for the entire year of 1925, much less April, the newspapers of America made no mention of any scandal at a Minsky Brothers Show. No nip slip, no torn skirt, no nothing. The authors of books on burlesque say Mary Dawson was there, even though they note a lack of evidence for which they have no explanation.

At the time, the Minsky Burlesque theater was called the National Winter Garden theater on Houston Street in New York City. It was advertised as "Burlesque As You Like It – Not a Family Show." The producers knew their audience and put together shows that imitated the Parisian Folies Bergère and Moulin Rouge by having girls strut their stuff on a runway built out from the stage. The show had loud music, rude jokes, and risque skin. It was naughty, even bawdy humor. But the Minsky Brothers knew how to toe the line on New York's codes on indecency in a theater.

The notorious raid at Minsky's Theater
did not happen on April 20, 1925,
and Mlle. Fifi was not part of the show.
It was actually seven months earlier on Sept 15, 1924,
and the dancer's name was Mme. Cleo Vivian.

Pittsburgh Post Gazette
16 September 1924
Court Draws No Line
on 'Girlie" Shows

Frees Burlesque Dancer
Act no more indecent than at
'High-priced Performances.'

NEW YORK, Sept 15 — "The standard of morals is no higher on the East Side than at Broadway and Forty-second street. Conceding this, I hold this dancer blameless and dismiss the complaint." With these words Magistrate Louis D. Brodsky freed Mme. Leo Vivian, 19-year-old Oriental dancer of the National Winter Garden Burlesque Company, of a charge of "doing an immoral dance while scantily clad."

Acquitted with Mme. Cleo were Nick Elliot, manager, and Walter Brown, comedian at the National Winter Garden, who were arraigned on charges of permitting the dance.

Weighing in his hand the seized costume, consisting of a pair of silk trunks, a narrow beaded girdle, belted at the waist, and two sheet-metal breastplates, the Magistrate said:

"For the official records I want to say that this dance is not indecent or immoral, as alleged.

"The audience at any of the high priced Broadway shows or cabarets would be disappointed if the star should appear in any more costume than that submitted here today."

* * *

Other reports offered more details. Oriental dancer Mme. Cleo spoke no English. Her "trunks" were tiny silk panties. She had made four encores in her costume and was about to return for another bow when a police detective,  two patrol officers, one of which was a policewoman, arrested her, along with the manager and the proprietor of the cabaret. It was reported that "Cleo wiggled so freely as to seriously endanger that little costume she had."

Don't you think
Mary Dawson laughed out loud
when she read this story?

* * *

To conclude
I can't resist offering this clip
of the 1968 musical comedy
The Night They Raided Minsky's.

It may be just a cinematic fiction,
but it gives us glimpse
of the glitzy and tacky
world of burlesque theatre
that Mademoiselle Fifi knew well.

* * *

* * *


One last thing. I don't know who Violet is, but Ned Ruddy whose Scranton address was written on the back of Fifi's photo, was Edward J. Ruddy, nickname Ned. He was then a 20 year-old young man, unmarried, and living at home while he worked in the advertising department of the Scranton newspaper. Want to bet he knew a thing or two about exotic dancers?


This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where it's all water under the bridge.

Going Home

21 July 2017

It was spring.
If the weather remained fair
the voyage would take 10 days.
Normally the ship
provided accommodation
for about 900 sailors,
but now its crew shared
their limited quarters
with nearly 1,300 soldiers.
Improvised bunks, cots, and hammocks
filled every available space aboard ship,
competing with countless bags,
boxes of supplies, military gear, 
and the coal that fueled the ship's boilers.

Officers did their best
to alleviate the monotony of the crossing.
At night they showed movies, silent ones of course.
The decks were built for battle
so there was no room for athletic games,
but boxing matches helped settle
the inevitable rivalry
between landsmen and seamen.
And today the ship's band
teamed up with the army band
to give a concert on the bow of the ship,
upwind from the steamship's smoke.

The USS Seattle was taking them home.

The ship was the Tennessee-class Armored Cruiser No. 11, the USS Seattle. Its keel was laid down in September 1903 at the Camden, NJ shipyard, and in August 1906 it was commissioned as the USS Washington. Armed with 4 x 10 inch rifled guns, 16 x 6 inch guns, and 22 x 3 inch rapid-fire guns, the cruiser was built for speed and could make 22 knots from its two engines and 16 boilers. After initial service in the Caribbean, the Washington joined the Pacific fleet until 1910 when it transferred to the Atlantic. In 1916 it was renamed the USS Seattle when the navy decided it would use the name Washington for a new Colorado-class battleship. However construction of that ship was not started until 1919 and it was never completed. In 1924 the unfinished hull was towed out to sea for gunnery practice and sunk.

Armored Cruiser No. 11

The US Navy took up photography in a big way before the turn of the 19th century, perhaps because ship-spotting was an important part of its mission when at sea. The archive provides dozens of photos of the USS Washington-Seattle. This one was captioned Roll Call and it shows a group of sailors standing with the ship's band in formation at the bow. 

Roll Call, evening dress

Of course an ocean is not always calm and placid. This image of the USS Seattle's bow in a heavy sea demonstrates the perils of life aboard a battleship. Sailors knew that a call to "Batten down the hatches!" was an order requiring immediate attention.

Bow view while in heavy seas

At the beginning of World War 1, the US tried to remain neutral and let the European powers fight it out amongst themselves. But Britain's blockade of the North Sea ports and Germany's unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic tested President Woodrow Wilson's commitment to that policy. Eventually German arrogance over its secret meddling with American-Mexican relations forced the question, and the United States joined the conflict in April 1917 on the side of Britain and France. By this time the USS Seattle was no longer a cutting edge modern battleship, so it was used mainly to guard merchant ship convoys supplying Britain and France. Initially the US military was unprepared to mobilize a large force and by June 1917 the American Expeditionary Force had only managed to send 14,000 soldiers to France. Yet by the following summer, American troops were arriving to the Western Front at a rate of 10,000 a day. And everyone of them traveled there by ship.

The war may have officially ended with the Armistice of November 11, 1918, but there was still much work to be done by the millions of American soldiers serving in France. There was the German occupation, the disarmament of enemy forces, the exchange of prisoners and civilian refugees, and thousands of other unforeseen assignments for the A.E.F.  It took some time before the troops could return from "over there."

Wilmar MN Tribune
26 February 1919

Beginning in January 1919, the USS Seattle became one of hundreds of vessels entrusted with bringing America's boys back home. Over the next six months the Seattle made a voyage every month from the port of Brest to New York City returning, on average, 1561 soldiers and officers with each trip. This was similar to what other Navy ships handled, but the US government also procured several German ocean liners which carried upwards of 3,000 to 4,000 men.

Families around the country followed the schedule of ship arrivals with keen interest since the soldiers had no idea when, or on what ship, they would return to America. Newspapers large and small, from every state in the union, published detailed lists of every transport ship and each military unit returning to the United States.

In February 1919 a soldier from Wilmar, Minnesota wrote an account of his wartime experience for his hometown paper. His unit came back on the cruiser Seattle, and he described the onboard conditions. There were all kinds of magazines and newspapers available, very good meals, and a band that played concerts every day for the benefit of the troops. When they reached the Hoboken pier, the ship's band played "The Yanks All Here!"

What he glossed over was that the crossing was made in January, and it was the first made by the Seattle working as a troop transport. In another newspaper's account, the crossing was described as very rough because of a severe storm that hit the ship with 45 ft swells and hurricane force winds. Consequently the soldiers were not permitted much access above decks.

* *

The ships varied in size and speed, and the Seattle was one of the fastest, but generally the troop transports made the Atlantic crossing in convoys, even though there was no longer a risk of submarine attack. Each week several ships would arrive at the docks on the same day, releasing a great multitude of excited soldiers onto New York City's streets. On one day it was 8,500 men, on another 12,000. And on May 19, 1919, when the Seattle was one of eight ships that arrived together, 27,000 men disembarked. 

On its four previous voyages, the units reported to be on the USS Seattle were a mix of telegraph battalions, machine gun companies, medical detachments, areo squadrons, engineer sections, and various casuals or miscellaneous military units. But on the May voyage the Seattle carried a larger single group, the 324th Field Artillery, with 38 officers and 1,253 soldiers. Most of the men were from Ohio, including its commander, Col. Thomas Q. Ashburn (1874-1941), a career officer from Batavia, Ohio. Ashburn, a West Point graduate, served in both infantry, coastal artillery, and field artillery, and in 1927 was promoted to the rank of major general.

Lancaster OH Eagle-Gazette
23 May 1919

The men of the 324th Field Artillery had been away for nearly a year, having reached France in June 1918.  Eventually after weeks of reorganizing, retraining, assembling the heavy guns, loading ammunition, and moving equipment closer to the front lines, the 324th joined with other American forces in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. This extended battle lasted from 27 September to 11 November 1918 and was the critical contribution of the American Expeditionary Force towards defeating the German army. General Pershing committed 1,200,000 American soldiers to the offensive which saw 26,277 men killed and 95,786 wounded. The 324th was proud to have fired 160,000 rounds during the campaign. It sustained 18 casualties, three killed and 15 wounded.

* *

After his return Col. Ashburn wrote a short book entitled The History of the 324th Field Artillery, United States Army which is a chronicle of the unit's experience in World War One. In precise military terms it outlines the 324th's movements, duties, and operations beginning from its soldiers' initial muster to their postwar discharge. It contains numerous rosters of officers and enlisted men, with details on their hometown and military assignments. It also expands on the official casualty number for the regiment of 18 men.  Two of the wounded were members of the band, 1st Cl. Mus. Carl A Wintzer and 2nd Cl. Mus. Charles B. Dickinson. Even Col. Ashburn was slightly wounded in action on November 6. 

But the 324th Field Artillery also lost 21 men who died from illness, disease, or accidents. On their return to the US, an accident at Camp Mills on Long Island, NY claimed the life of Assistant Band Leader Homer McClean,. He was a clarinettist, "whose playing had been a source of much amusement to all. He was a master of its vagaries, and, while an expert musician, manipulated his instrument in such a fashion, when desired, as to convulse his audience."

Col. Ashburn's history is typical of similar wartime annals. The Internet Archive has 89 histories of other Field Artillery regiments. They were produced mainly as souvenir yearbooks for veterans to share their experiences and maybe to get all the facts and stories correct. There are several topics that stood out when I read the History of the 324th Field Artillery. 

The first topic was reading how brief the American military experience actually was during the Great War. Congress and President Wilson may have declared war on Germany in April 1917, but our soldiers did not really join the fighting on the Western Front until late September 1918. For the 324th it was a very intense but coordinated effort with the AEF. Certainly it was dangerous, furious fighting. It was also miserably cold, wet, and muddy. But it was only for about 7 weeks. This is in stark contrast with the incredible ordeal that soldiers of France, Britain, Russia, Germany, and Austria endured from July 1914 to November 1918.

The second topic that interested me was learning of the great number of horses that one artillery regiment needed to operate. Motorized artillery was not common in 1918, and even then not very powerful or reliable. The 324th was a horse-drawn artillery force, and moving heavy guns took real horsepower. At the Armistice the regiment had only 517 horses remaining from the 957 issued when they started. If those horses did not get daily care and feeding, an artillery unit became totally ineffective. Securing fodder, repairing harnesses, and tending to the stock was a constant task for artillery units that other units like infantry or signal corps did not have to do. I don't believe any of the horses and mules ever returned to America.

The third point was reading the accounts for the number of gun firings made by the 324th Field Artillery. A barrage required careful aiming directed by range finders far up on the line of battle or flying over enemy lines. A single gun battery might fire 40 rounds per hour. On one day in October several batteries supported an attack by firing 5308 rounds on machine gun nests, road crossing ravines, dugouts, and observatories. The next day brought 2323 rounds of preparation, interdiction, and harassing fire on cross roads, observation points, enemy trenches, dumps and machine gun nests. Thousands upon thousands of munitions had to be hauled up from behind the lines, kept in secure and protected places, and then carried to each gun. Presumably by men with horses. And this was done while under fire from German heavy guns.

Even on the very last day, November 11th, 1918, when officially the ceasefire went into effect at 11:00 AM, the 324th Field Artillery let loose over 267 rounds from 6:30 AM to 10:25 AM. They believed that these were the last shots of the war delivered by any unit in the 32nd Division.

* * *

On May 20, 1919, just before their arrival at New York harbor, before they fired a salute to the Statue of Liberty, Col. Thomas Q. Ashburn wrote a final letter of farewell to the Officers and Men of the 324th Field Artillery. It is a model of military conciseness, yet honors his regiment's bravery and achievements. Col. Ashburn was very proud of his men, a regiment "without fear and without reproach."

From The History of the 324th Field Artillery
by Col. Thomas Q. Ashburn

From The History of the 324th Field Artillery
by Col. Thomas Q. Ashburn

I can't be certain that the men pictured on my postcard of the USS Seattle are soldiers of the 324th Field Artillery. It's quite possible that they are a different regimental band from another trip made during the first months of 1919. But I believe there are good reasons this postcard was made on the May 1919 crossing by the USS Seattle when the 324th Filed Artillery was onboard. Field Artillery regiments had a long tradition of assigning a band to the headquarter's company. And Col. Asburn's history of the 324th includes a generous number of photos, including one of the unit's band playing on the bow with the ship's band. The perspective is almost 180° opposite the postcard's viewpoint. The caption says it was taken on May 18th, 1919. The lifeboat is missing in the postcard image but I think it still makes for a very good match.

The USS Seattle made one more trip back to Brest to pick up American troops. It returned on July 4, 1919 with 1468 men from many small detachments taken from transportation corps, signal corps, remount squadrons, areo squadrons, depot service companies, sanitary squadrons, pack train units, commissary units, and camp hospitals. There was also a Casual Company of 75 prisoners, US soldiers convicted of a crime. The group included four men, "yellow quitters", who were charged with cowardice in the face of the enemy and sentenced to 20 years in prison. 

It was the fastest crossing made by the Seattle, arriving in New York after just 8 days 20 hours and 12 minutes. During the voyage the ship even offered a timely assist to the Huguenot, a small Glasgow bark out of Hong Kong, that had run out of food and water after being 159 days at sea. 

On July 5th, the captain of the USS Seattle was notified that his ship was reassigned to the Pacific fleet based in Puget Sound. It was placed in and out of commission during the 1920s. By the 1930s it was back on the Atlantic coast and served as a Receiving Ship, a floating barracks for navy personnel, in New York during WW2. She was sold for scrap in 1946.


In 1917 John Philip Sousa composed the U.S. Field Artillery March at the request of Lieutenant George Friedlander of the 306th Field Artillery. It was based on a marching song called The Caisson Song by Edmund L. Gruber. But Sousa mistakenly believed the melody was an old tune from the Civil War era, when in fact Gruber had written it in 1908. It became a big hit by Sousa march standards, and eventually Sousa granted Gruber royalties for his contribution. In 1956 the song's familiar refrain  "The Caissons Go Rolling Along" was changed to "The Army Goes Rolling Along" and adopted as the official song of the U.S. Army. A caisson is a two wheeled wagon for an ammunition box that is attached to an artillery piece and pulled by horses.

Cover of  U.S. Field Artillery March
by John Philip Sousa
Source: Wikipedia

As the son of an army officer. I heard this march many times whenever my father participated in army parade drills. But I don't remember seeing a version like this. It's played by the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force, Eastern Army Band, 1st Division Band and 1st Artillery Unit, conducted by Major SHIGA Tōru, commander of the Eastern Army Band. There are no caissons but the cannons make for a thrilling effect. Did the band leader on the USS Seattle  think about doing the same thing with the Seattle's big guns?

* * *

* * *

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
always on a voyage of discovery.

A Cycling Sports Band

14 July 2017

A brace of bassoons.
A double-reed duo.
Two gents sit with woodwind instruments
that were once regularly found in military bands.
especially those with a tradition
that preferred bassoons over saxophones.

Of course every band
needs two drums and a tuba
to keep the beat steady.

 Euphoniums or tenor horns
cover the middle voices

in a band.

But clarinets add a higher
and more nimble voice
for a proper range of wind instruments.

Of course cornets always cover the melody,
while the little E-flat clarinet
gingerly handles

the high descant obbligato.
That leaved the trombones to manage
the spit and polish.

These 24 musicians were the Cycling Sports Band of 1910.

They are dressed
in their best Sunday suits,

and, with the exception
of the younger lads in flat caps,
they all wear bowler hats.
They stand around heavy wooden music stands
on an simple raised platform
with a crowd of spectators

moving around behind.

There are no bicycles visible
but presumably the band is
the entertainment for an athletic event

at an unidentified location,
but likely somewhere
in the West Midlands of England,

as the photographer left his name printed on the back.

Clarkes Windsor Portrait Galleries Redditch

Redditch is a town in Worcestershire, England
about 15 miles south of Birmingham.

At one time in the 1870s, needlemaking
was Redditch's principal industry
supplying 90% of the world's need for needles.

The band's postcard conveniently has the year 1910 written next to the activity Cycling Sports. But proving their identity is not easy, even though the search term "cycling sports" was fairly common in British newspapers to describe various competitive cycling races. And those events often included a band to provide extra entertainment.

So we will just have to enjoy their array of bowler hats.

However I can submit  a report on a decision made in 1910 by the Judge of the Selby County Court, North Yorkshire on a personal injuries case involving a band musician, cycling sports, and a non-starter pistol.

The Times of London
26 February 1910

Courtesy of British Pathé films on YouTube
we can see and hear a band
that succeeded in combining
cycling with music.
The 1960 title,
French Army Cyclist Band,
is in error.
The band is actually Dutch.



This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everyone always tries to be a good sport!

The Special Swimsuit Edition

07 July 2017

An attractive young woman
wearing a skin tight leotards
sits on a wooden barrel
and smiles for the camera.

Today hardly anyone would take notice
of such an image.
She's just modelling
the latest yoga attire
or thermal pajamas.
But this is a vintage postcard.
A postcard that likely dates from before 1914.

On the back was a stamped mark
of a French theatrical agent.
Raoul Pitau
15, Rue de l'Echiquier. 15
Telephone no. 271 60

The same stamp appeared on the back
of a French postcard
of a Saxophone Quartet
featured in my 2014 story entitled
Send in the Clowns!
It was while searching
for more examples that I found her.

The theatrical impresario was from Paris,
yet the postcard was printed by Hanna Studios, Ltd London.
And the photo was taken by
Los Angeles

Who was this woman?
Her name was

Miss Serene Nord,
The Diving Venus.

Dundee Evening Telegraph
10 May 1910
In May 1910 she made her first appearance in Europe at the Liverpool Empire. She was a native of San Francisco and takes about with her an enormous tank, in which she performs wonderful feats.

The Era
4 May 1910
London's theatrical trade magazine, The Era, reported that:

Serene Nord, one of the most perfectly shaped naiads that ever graced the water, makes what was formerly known as a tank performance into a really pretty show. Under a rustic bridge across the back of the Coliseum stage is fixed a huge mirror. Below is the water, and the performance of this graceful, beautiful girl is reflected for the benefit of the occupants of the stalls. The stagings is perfect, and the performance the prettiest that has been seen for many a year.

“Serene” we are given to understand, is a California girl, born on the coast, and took to the water from her childhood. She knots her luxurious fair hair before commencing her turn, and covers her head with a becoming bathing-cap. Dressed entirely in black, she dives in every conceivable way, and her backward somersault into the water and other even more difficult feats should be the talk of the town.

The fetching natural photo of Miss Nord was taken  by Los Angeles photographer A. Louis Mojonier (1869 - 1944). Born in Highland, IL, he kept a studio in Los Angeles from 1896 to 1929.  Recently I found on the internet another photo of Serene Nord, which has a romantic haze more typical of French photographers. She leans siren-like on a flowered pedestal, her long hair, luxurious indeed, flowing onto the faux rock. As she models the same black union suit, it's interesting to compare how two different photographers framed the beauty of the female form.


By July 1910, Serene Nord had moved onto the British theatrical circuit, leaving London for other cities in England. In the review published by the Nottingham Evening Post, she was described as "a gracefully-proportioned artiste, who has acquired unusual skill at fancy diving and other aquatic accomplishments. Her dives are very gracefully performed, and include sitting, standing, backward somersault, hand-spring, and neck dives, concluding with a high dive. The turn is an interesting one."

Her act attracted enough attention around Britain
to inspire an article in the July-December 1910 edition
of  The Strand Magazine entitled:

Fancy Diving for Ladies
by Serene Nord
(Champion Lady Diver of the World).

The Strand Magazine
July-Dec 1910

A photo not unlike the one on my postcard, graces the first page of the article. The introduction described her as born in England but raised in Sweden, where she spent most of her early life taking daily dips in the sea. She attributed her good health, shapely figure, and glowing complexion to her mastery of swimming and especially diving.

After advocating for the healthful benefits of diving, Miss Nord continues on with a description of her many fancy dives, including the Hand-Spring, the Australian Splash, the German Dive, and the Swan Dive. You may read all about them in these excerpted pages, or just admire the photos.

The Strand Magazine
July-Dec 1910

The Strand Magazine
July-Dec 1910

The Strand Magazine
July-Dec 1910

The Strand Magazine
July-Dec 1910

The Strand Magazine
July-Dec 1910

The Strand Magazine
July-Dec 1910

The last photo to conclude Serene Nord's article shows her midway in a dive off a tower platform 65 feet high, her body stretched out almost horizontal as if in flight. The tank appears to be no more than 5-6 feet deep. But Serene had leapt from much higher. A list of Sports Records in the 1910 edition of Every Woman's Encyclopaedia has her name holding the women's record dive of 97 feet. The men's corresponding record, held by J. Well, was 151 feet.

Every Woman's Encyclopaedia
1910 Vol. 1, p 144

In this era, swimming was considered a sport, though not as competitive as in our modern times. Diving however, was more an exhibition, an aquatic circus act put on by expert athletes at amusement parks and summer fairs, not unlike trapeze artists, wire walkers, and acrobats. The high dive show was probably accompanied by music. Begin rising scale on clarinets. Grand pause. Drum roll, please! Cut off! Cue trumpet fanfare!

Greta Johansson (1895 – 1978)
1912 Olympic gold medalist
in 10m platform diving
Source: Wikipedia

Women did not compete in diving in the modern Olympic era until the 1912 Games in Stockholm when they had only the 10 meter platform. It was won by Greta Johansson (1895 – 1978), a Swedish diver and swimmer. She learned to swim and dive at Stockholm's municipal baths as both swimming and diving were required fitness skills in the Swedish school system.

After the 1912 Games she immigrated to the United States, where she married a fellow Swedish diver, Ernst Brandsten who also competed at the 1912 Stockholm Games. From 1915 to 1948 the couple worked at Stanford University establishing a swimming program in diving.

The reason I add this woman's background to my story is because of the parallels to what I was able to discover about Serene Nord's life.

* * *

The article in The Strand Magazine was quoted numerous times by American newspapers in the late summer of 1910. But references to Serene Nord's fancy diving theatrical act were found only in British newspapers and magazines. With one exception. The Vestkuste, a Swedish language newspaper published in San Francisco ran a report in September 1910 on Swedish-Americans in the news. One notable person was Miss Serene Nord.

San Francisco Vestkuste
01 September 1910

The diving Venus, aka Mrs. Siri Norin, is a Swedish high diver, who made a name for herself in America and is now on a visit to her native town Stokholm. In eight years, our beautiful compatriot traveled about in America and England and reaped gold and glory under the assumed name of Miss Serene Nord. A few months ago, she performed here in San Francisco. In 1902, the former Miss Steigler, then 14-year-old, was invited by Swedish swimmer Oscar Norin, who, during his visit to Stockholm, in the sports park jumped from a position of about 70 feet high, to accompany him to America to become a professional high diver. Miss Steigler, who began to jump at Köhler at 7 years of age, and at 13 years old became Sweden's youngest tower diver. In a month, Mrs. Norin leaves Stockholm again to go to Edinburgh and London, as well as Berlin, a Swedish newspaper announced.

* * *

One would expect the Swedish-American press to know the details on one of its own, a Swedish-American girls from California. If my Google assisted translation is correct, in 1910 Miss Serene Nord, was actually Mrs. Oscar Norin, the former Siri Steigler. Yet despite my best efforts I could not verify this relationship. I found only a few people with the surname Steigler living in California, and none were connected to a Siri Steigler. As far as I know, there is no record in the US, nor anywhere else in the vast archives of, of someone named Siri Norin either. Likewise the name Serene Nord does not exist in the usual databases.

Undoubtedly Serene Nord was a stage name. Was she English or Swedish or American? The few newspaper references with brief biographical information are contradictory and vague at best. This may be a rare example of fake Swedish-American news.

So who was this Oscar Norin?

He was the
Champion High Diver of the World!
Record 120 ft. into
4 ft. of Water

Source: Stockholmskällan Archive

The Stockholm City Library provides a colorful poster of Oscar Norin performing his sensational fire dive for the Stockholm cycle club on Sunday 8 June at Stockholm's Idrottsparken. This was either in 1890 or 1902, but I believe it was likely 1902 which corresponds to the Vestkuste newspaper account. In the top corner are vignettes of Oscar and a woman, presumably his assistant, maybe his wife. She does look a bit like Serene but if I'm correct that this dates to 1902  Serene would only be age 14, surely too young to be a high diving star's wife, and the image looks like a much older woman.

In 1896 Oscar made his American tour, jumping off high platforms at various amusement parks and state fairs. His most thrilling stunt was a 100 ft. dive into a shallow tank of water after wrapping himself with tissue paper saturated with gasoline and setting it afire. If that wasn't death defying enough he then created a spectacular feat he called the Human Meteor. It began with him ascending in a tethered balloon high above a lake or river. Attached to his waist were a number of Roman candles which he ignited and then dove into the water below.

He seems to have left the US, or curtailed his performances, from 1897 to 1901, but in the 1900s his act was a popular sensation that toured the summer park circuit. On Sunday July 10, 1910 he appeared at the Riverside Bathing Beach in Indianapolis, “A Real Beach --- Does not have to be scrubbed”,  as a duo with his wife Helma. On that same week, Serene Nord was doing fancy dives in Nottingham, England.

Indianapolis Star
10 July 1910

In the following year 1911, Oscar and his two daughters, Olga and Agnes, and his brother, Hjalmay, formed a high diving act called the Four Diving Norins. The Pittsburgh Press ran a photo of them in October 1911 when they appeared at the Grand Theater. Besides their black union-suit costumes, they traveled with special scenery and a glass-sided water tank 12 ft. long, 5 ft. wide, and 8 ft. deep in which they displayed their aquatic feats.

Pittsburgh Press
15 October 1911

In 1912 the Four Diving Norins toured Britain. On June 24th, 1912 they were the headline act at the Glasgow Coliseum, flying into the tank for shows at 6:55 and 9:00..

The most Sensational Divers the World has ever Seen
The Four Diving Norins


Portsmouth Evening News
16 July 1912

That same British summer, Serene Nord, the Diving Venus was plunging into the water at on the south coast. The Portsmouth Evening News reported on 16th of July, 1912 that

Miss Nord possesses a faultlessly modeled figure, which adds to the grace of her pose in her series of dives, made with such ease and expertness. They are difficult of performance, including as they do, hand springs, back flips, and double twists, but it is in the grace of pose, whether in mid-air or in preparing for a plunge that the diving Venus attains the greatest perfection. Most of the dives are mere frolics, but Miss Nord concludes her performance with a dive from high over the proscenium into 4ft 3in. of water.


Sheffield Evening Telegraph
22 July 1912

The following week July 22nd, 1912, the Four Diving Norins made a splash at the Empire Theatre, Sheffield. The Evening Telegraph ran a photo of Olga Norin, cropped from the quartet photo used in Pittsburgh. Oscar's daughter was described as

 The Sensation of the Century.

“The Perfect Woman.”
A combination of
beauty, grace, and daring.
The Champion Diver and
Fancy Swimmer
of the World.

* * *

Preston Herald
18 January 1913

As the new year began in January 1913, Serene Nord, the diving Venus, featured as the star attraction at another Empire Theatre in Preston, Lancashire. Her act now included two other diving girls. The Preston Herald review reported
An immense glass tank is fixed on the stage in a pretty and appropriate scene, representing a pool in the hills. By mirrors and strongly reflected lights, the surface of this tank is seen as plainly from the stalls as from the balcony, and owing to the transparent wall of glass, every evolution of the diving girls, whilst in the water, is plainly seen. They go through some pretty and sensational work, culminating in a high dive from the level of the fly rail. In addition, the girls are in themselves most attractive, Serene Nord being claimed to be “the perfect woman.”

Which woman exhibited the most perfect diving form? Who looked better in black woolen union suits? Who could hold their breath the longest underwater/? The rivalry between these Swedish diving divas must have fierce behind the scenes.

Oscar Norin had considerable experience as a circus thrill performer. Yet Serene Nord had performed not only in Britain but also in Berlin and presumably Paris and other European cities. No doubt both artistes had Swedish fan clubs too. By June of 1913, Serene Nord had left the frigid waters of Preston and taken her glass tank to Durban, South Africa. The climate must have agreed with her, as the diving Venus never returned to the British theatrical circuit again. Regrettably her real name and true family heritage must remain a mystery. For now anyway.

Oscar Norin and his troupe continued on through the first part of the Great War, performing their high dive act in British variety shows. It seems the war department did not ration water. After 1916 they disappear from the amusement listings in British and American newspapers. Probably the cost of transporting their equipment became too high to sustain the act.

Perhaps they retired to a quiet and dry life in Sweden.

* * *

The Era
21 June 1913

High dive aquatic acts require
nerves of steel and exceptional athletic fitness.
Today we acknowledge the accomplishments
of both men and women
in swimming and diving.
But once upon a time, there were female pioneers like
Serene Nord, and Olga and Agnes Norin,
who demonstrated night after night
that women could possess
courage and physical strength
at high dives 
the equal of any man.

And look pretty good while doing it too.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
Remember – Always look before you leap!


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