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 }

Hi Henry's Minstrels and the Big Dog

31 March 2018

There are little dogs, big dogs,
and lots of in-between dogs.
But this monstrous piebald dog
is in a category all his own!

He belongs to the tall man in the top hat.
That is, the man in the black top hat,
not the other men around him
wearing top hats of a lighter hue.

There are a great number of them too,
all wearing matching
double-breasted overcoats with tall satiny hats.
Two musicians have bass and contra-bass helicons
slung over their shoulders.

Most of the men are holding a musical instrument,
like the man on the right
with an unusual double bell bass/baritone euphonium.
On the left, one step back, a fellow bandsman
has a smaller variation, a rare double-bell tenor/alto horn.

The men also wear full knee-length spats
that gives their uniform
an oddly theatrical quality.
Yet the reason they present such a serious confident air
of musicians who know what they are about,
is because they are all in fact wearing
the traditional costume
of a Minstrel Show Band.

They are:

Hi Henry's Co.
Oakland Cal.  Feb. 24. 1899

Not counting that great dog
(I'll get back to him later,)
there are 32 minstrel men standing
on the stone steps of an imposing building
with a columned portico entrance.
They have either just finished or are about to start
a parade through Oakland's city streets
to announce their appearance at the Macdonough Theatre.

However the steps are not at the theatre
but instead lead up to the front entrance
of Oakland's Alameda County Hall of Records,
 where the county's recorder, clerk, and treasurer
conduct the public's business.

Oakland CA, Hall of Records, circa 1900

Hi Henry was the bandleader and solo cornet player of this minstrel troupe. His company included even more artists, advertising 50 star performers. They traveled together in two specially equipped  luxury rail coaches and were about midway on a long tour of the West Coast between Seattle to Los Angeles. In January 1899 they played Morosco's Grand Opera House in San Francisco across the bay from Oakland. Then in early February they were down in San Bernadino for a few days before returning to the Bay Area. 

Hi Henry's show followed a conventional minstrel format but this year it also incorporated the latest mania of flag-waving patriotism sweeping America. This jingoistic nationalism was the outcome of the Spanish-American War which recently from April to August 1898, after just 3 months, 3 weeks and 2 days of warfare, had awarded the United States with a global colonial empire.

Entertainers recognized an opportunity.
It was time for some kind of triumphant celebration.
Something loud and noisy, something big and flashy.

Like a battleship.

San Bernadino County Sun
05 February 1899

Hi Henry's band usually started their parades at 12 noon.  It was free music and made good publicity for their evening performance.

It was a program in which old minstrelsy disappears, and the new is given on board the warship Brooklyn, with the jackies in a bright merry making, and you will see the big guns, the revolving trurrets, the big search lights, the harbor of Santiago and the feat of Hobson and the Merrimac. 

Don't miss this because it is everywhere pronounced the greatest production of the day, either in or out of minstrelsy; you will see a correct makeup of Admiral Schley and Uncle Sam. And you will see and hear how the navy passes its hours away.

The show had clever songs, sprightly dancers, acrobats, comic skits, and lots of music from the band. Hi Henry was the chief feature playing popular tunes on his cornet and even imitating the sound of a "Scotch bagpipe" in a rendition of "The Campbells Are Coming" by using a special device of his own making.  According to reviews only the comedians in the troupe were 'blacked up".

 * * *

Hi Henry's Minstrel Co. was one of the most successful entertainment shows that showbiz could offer Americans at the turn of the 19th century. By 1899 the musical variety programs presented by traveling minstrel shows like Hi Henry's had become an accepted artform of American culture. It was popular not only in San Francisco but in London, Paris, and Berlin as well. It epitomized the brash energy of 19th century American with a cheeky mixture of ostentatious stagecraft and outrageous humor.

It was also very racist.

Oakland CA Tribune
18 February 1899

The first era of "burnt cork men" began before the Civil War in the 1830s when the Minstrel Show was developed by traveling companies of entertainers who mimicked the Southern plantation songs and dances of slaves by dressing up in blackface, i.e. "burnt.   cork" makeup. Before the war this minstrelsy, written and produced by white entertainers of course, portrayed enslaved black people as simple and cheerful folk, accepting their position in life. It introduced white Americans to the banjo and tambourine but it was not authentic African music in any way. By the 1850s this false and wildly distorted narrative was used partly to counter a growing sentiment in America for the abolition of slavery.

During the Civil War and after Lincoln's emancipation of the slaves, the fashion for minstrel shows declined. But in the 1870s-80s, during the turbulent reconstruction era, a new version of minstrel shows returned with a grand spectacle of musical theater using racist humor to lampoon African-American culture with grotesque stereotypes and crude slapstick jokes. These larger companies combined a more refined (i.e. louder) popular music style, mostly with brass bands, with black-faced comedians, singers, and dancers into a farcical parody of black life. All told with burlesque buffoonery in a mocking "negro" dialect. 

History is not kind to bad jokes, especially those told by prejudiced and intolerant people. What seemed funny to our ancestors can't be fully explained to our modern sensibility. This denigration by demeaning humor was likewise used against the Jewish, Dutch, Irish, and Italian immigrants too. To our 21st century hindsight it all seems very ugly and vicious.

Nonetheless minstrel shows occupy an important place in American culture and we must try to understand the context that made this music so popular. My feeble attempts to condense this difficult history are only so my readers can get the backstory to this photograph.

It really is a story about a dog.

Oakland CA Tribune
21 February 1899

Hi Henry's full name was Hiram F. Henry.  He was born in Buffalo, NY in 1844, the son of a merchant. In later years he sometimes used the honorific "Colonel" to acknowledge his Civil War service, which consisted of joining the regimental band of the 64th New York Volunteers at the age of 17. This service lasted just 12 months until 1862 when in the interest of economy his band like many others was mustered out of the Union army. After the war he worked as a cornet soloist with several of the new minstrel shows, before striking off with his own troupe in 1879.

By 1899, he was a very recognized musician due in part to his flamboyant self-promotion. His "golden cornet", diamond studded waistcoat, as well as his gigantic dog was all part of his celebrity image. It was a showbiz fashion imitated much later by many trumpet bandleaders like Doc Severinsen, Al Hirt, and Louis Armstrong. On February 25, 1899 the Oakland Tribune printed a very large portrait of Hi Henry in its amusement section.

Oakland CA Tribune
25 February 1899

It looks very like this next undated photo
that I recently acquired
that is captioned:

Souvenir of

Hi Henry's Minstrels.

With an irony that can't have escaped
the notice of the editors of the Oakland Tribune,
on that same page just below Hi Henry's portrait
was a fine engraving of another man in a top hat,
the African-American entertainer, Ernest Hogan.
He was the principal comedian and ballad singer of
the Black Patti Troubadours.

Oakland CA Tribune
25 February 1899

Ernest Hogan (1865 – 1909) was then a successful black comic who later in 1907 became the first African-American to produce and star in a Broadway show, The Oyster Man. He is also credited as the first composer/songwriter of ragtime music. In another twist on how complicated the history of minstrelsy is, Ernest Hogan performed in black face makeup using the same gross parody styles as the white minstrels, in so-called "coon songs" which he is credited for inventing!

Hogan's show in Oakland's Macdonough Theatre played the week after Hi Henry's Minstrel Co. performances and included more comedians, acrobats, champion cake-walkers, "coon songs", and a chorus of twenty voices. However unlike Hi Henry's minstrel show, the Black Patti Troubadours also included some some serious "operatic masterpieces."

Hogan belonged to a company that was not advertised as a minstrel show, but in most respects was  one, only the performers were African-Americans or so-called "ebony entertainers." But the opera came from its star, Mme. Sissieretta Jones, the Black Patti. Her full name was Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones, (1868 – 1933) and she was an operatic soprano whose repertoire included grand opera, light opera, and popular music. Her sobriquet was coined by a music critic of the New York Clipper who compared her to the great Italian-French opera diva, Adelina Patti (1843 – 1919). Jones  was born in Portsmouth, VA but grew up in Providence, RI and trained at Boston's New England Conservatory of Music. In 1892 she sang at the White House for President Benjamin Harrison, and eventually performed for the next three presidents: Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt, as well as the British royal family.

Indianapolis Journal
21 September 1893
By 1895 Sissieretta Jones had sung for audiences in Europe, Australia, South America, South Africa, India, and the Caribbean, who had all marveled at her beautiful voice. Yet despite becoming the highest paid negro entertainer in the world, in the United States the barriers of racial division prevented her from performing at American opera houses as an equal of white performers. So in 1896, Sissieretta Jones formed her own company called The Black Patti Troubadours. For much of the 1898-99 season, her troupe followed Hi Henry's Minstrel Co. up and down the West Coast.

Sacramento CA Record-Union
10 February 1899

Both Hi Henry's Minstrel Co. and Sissieretta Jones' Troubadours found great success in performing this strange artform based on black racial stereotypes. As far as I know they were represented by different agencies but their theater circuits frequently followed the same route. Here in my home of Asheville, North Carolina both companies appeared in 1902, which is not unexpected of Hi Henry's troupe, but is remarkable for Black Patti's company. She got rave reviews, but needless to say her group found traveling America's segregated Southland more comfortable when using their own private  rail coaches.

Tyrone PA Daily Herald
02 March 1907

In March 1907, Hi Henry's Minstrels played Tyrone, PA.
The local newspaper printed large advertisements for their
"Entirely New Colossal Company of 50 All White Performers"

One notice featured an august portrait of Hi Henry,
in elegant white tie and tailcoat, minus top hat,
but this time with cornet.

The second notice displayed a circus style illustration
showing two chorus lines of men in costume,
the front row in blackface, top hats, and garish spotted trousers.

Tyrone PA Daily Herald
04 March 1907

Laughter and music are ephemeral things. In show business nothing stays fresh forever and the popularity of the blackface gags and sentimental cornet melodies of Hi Henry's Minstrel Show began to wane in the 1900s. With health concerns Henry cut back on performing though his company still toured. After he recovered from a serious illness in September 1908, Hi Henry even had the dubious pleasure of reading about his death in newspapers which prematurely reported on his demise. Real fake news. He managed to live another 12 years until January 31, 1920 when he died at his home in New York City on West 72th Street.  He was 75 years old.

Greenville PA Evening Record
02 February 1920

The Greenville, PA Evening Record recalled how Hi Henry always appeared at the head of his troupe in the parade, first on foot, later on a gorgeous "safety" bicycle, later on in a horseless carriage. It didn't mention the dog.


But I can hear readers ask,
"What's the story on Hi Henry's mammoth dog?"

His name was General Shafter.
He was a Siberian Bloodhound.
And shortly after his photo was taken
in front of Hi Henry's Minstrel Co.
on February 24, 1899,
General Shafter tragically drowned
in the Menominee River
at Marinette, Wisconsin.

Cincinnati OH Post
23 May 1899

When I first looked at the photograph, I thought the dog was an early version of a Great Dane. But this pooch was more densely muscled than a Dane, almost like a Mastiff, yet taller like a small pony. It turns out that this breed is no longer a standard dog we might see at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. The Siberian Bloodhound does not even show up in a YouTube search except as the name of a Russian rock band.

And yet it was once the dog of nightmares. 

Poster for Uncle Tom's Cabin
Source: Wikimedia

Perhaps the most influential book in America history, was Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly written by Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1852. It was a gripping novel about the evils of slavery and became a sensation for its abolitionist viewpoint. It was a monumental bestseller that by 1857 had been translated into 20 languages. Even after the war it remained popular when touring theater companies presented a dramatization of the novel. It was very controversial in its time and long afterward too, in part because its portrayal of slaves used the same demeaning stereotypes and ugly racial conventions that were used in minstrel shows. But in the decade before the war it helped change public opinion and build a political will to end slavery in America.

But my focus is really on the dog. In the stage productions the big scene has Eliza and her child attempting to escape the slave catchers by crossing an ice bound river. Though the novel does not describe the dogs much, if at all, the theater producers wanted to show the biggest, meanest dogs they could find. What they got were these so-called Siberian Bloodhounds, also known sometimes as Cuban Bloodhounds. These dogs were not the droopy eyed, flop eared Bloodhound that the AKC recognizes today. They were powerful running dogs bred for one thing, chasing people. For centuries in the new world they protected soldiers, guarded prisons, and chased runaway slaves. And in 1899, Hi Henry's dog had a special significance that we do not immediately see 119 years later.

Racine WI Journal Times
23 May 1899

On May 23, 1899 the Racine WI Journal Times reported on the tragedy.

A Siberian bloodhound, valued at $5,000, belonging to Hi. Henry, the minstrel man, drowned at Marinette yesterday. The dog apparently mistook a bank of foam, which had collected on a log jam, for snow and jumped into it and disappeared. C. F. Converse, treasurer of the Henry company, jumped in after the animal, and nearly lost his life in the attempt to save the dog. Hi. Henry has offered $100 reward for the recovery of the carcass and men and boys have been dragging the river for it. The dog had taken many prizes at bench shows.

* * *

The dog, General Shafter, was named after William Rufus Shafter, a Union officer of the 7th Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He was wounded at the battle of Fair Oaks in 1862, yet concealed his wounds so as to continue to fight the next day. For this he was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism. Later in 1864, he was promoted to colonel of the 17th United States Colored Infantry leading that regiment at the Battle of Nashville. After the war Shafter remained in regular army service, commanding the negro soldiers of the 24th Infantry, the so-called Buffalo Soldiers, in campaigns against the Cheyenne, Comanche, Kickapoo and Kiowa Indians in Texas. It earned him the nickname "Pecos Bill."

Major General William Rufus Shafter (1835 – 1906)

In 1898 at the start of the war with Spain, General Shafter, despite being 63 years old, weighing over 300 lbs, and suffering from gout, was given command of the American expedition to Cuba. Though illness prevented him from going to the front, he directed several important engagements forcing a major confrontation at the city of Santiago. Due to heavy losses and limited resources Shafter was inclined to retreat but instead reestablished a siege of Santiago which proved successful. With the assistance of the US Naval Squadron, General Shafter convinced the Spanish to surrender the city on July 16, 1898. The fighting in Cuba quickly came to an end and earned General "Pecos Bill" Shafter a new honor.

And what better way to ride the excitement of a victorious war than to name a minstrel company's mascot dog after a celebrated General officer. We can only wonder if dog and general ever met.

Today we read about the savagery of Pit Bulls. But in the 19th century, the demon dogs were these menacing Siberian Bloodhounds. In this 1898 advertisement for Dr. Pierce's Golden Medical Discovery, (which perhaps the real General Shafter had sampled) it's easy to recognize the ferocious bloodhound in pursuit of the afflicted man. Notice also the dark rider and dogs in the upper right corner.

St. Joseph MO Gazette-Herald
02 October 1898

When I started writing this dog's story, I had no idea I would encounter so many dimensions to this photograph. We may never understand 19th century America's attraction to minstrel shows but I think its important to know the context of what people once enjoyed as entertainment. Vaudeville shows, early cinema, Broadway revues, radio variety shows, television sitcoms, all have deep roots in the traditions of the minstrel show genre. Similarly the tunes Hi Henry played on his cornet and the folk songs Sissieretta Jones sang are connected to the evolution of ragtime, jazz, and modern pop music. It's a complicated story but we shouldn't ignore history. It might bite back one day.

And I like to think General Shafter, the Siberian bloodhound
who went running into a river chasing foam,
was a lovable goofy dog
with no more sense
than a Pomeranian.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where it's always some dog's life.


Molly's Canopy said...

Hard to imagine former Union Army band members, who were engaged the fight to end slavery, ending up touting an "all white band" and having as their mascot a dog of the breed used to recapture courageous African-Americans who were making a break for freedom. A multi-layered post -- yet difficult to read without being repeatedly appalled at the blatant racism in the news clips.

Helen Killeen Bauch McHargue said...

A wonderful read. I so enjoyed being led from one revelation to the next. Great research and writing. I wonder what kind of device Hi invented to make his cornet sound like a bagpipe. Even with all of today’s travel conveniences I cannot imagine the logistics of moving so many musicians around as quickly as they did.

Little Nell said...

Not only is that a monstrously large dog but you took on a monstrously huge subject and condensed it well - not a feeble attempt at all.

Kathy said...

Well, wow! I thought I was chasing rabbit trails this week for my post - and I gave up. You chased them, found them, reported them, interpreted them and led us on quite the interesting journey.

La Nightingail said...

The things people did back then without any real thought about it confound us now and it's not just limited to people mocking people although that's pretty awful. But they cut apart 1200 year old trees to promote shows, dug tunnels through much older trees than that and so many other things no one would dream of doing today. We have become so much more aware of the things we do now - for the most part, anyway. Sometimes we may go a little overboard with it, but better that than the way things were!

Barbara Rogers said...

I'm glad I set aside some time to read this through in one sitting...about 25 minutes worth, well, with a few distractions. It's so involved and satisfying to get to the last paragraph. I did love the songs that minstrels came out with, and the stories, and of course the humor which was simply awful in cutting another kind of human down. But so many of us now do the same thing with some kind of person not like us...just because we have to watch the politically correctness, the urge is to see an "other" as inferior to our kind. I'm thinking politics actually, but go to any sporting event and it's still rampant.


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