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 }

Master Tommy Fish, Boy Cornetist

29 June 2019

Despite the glamor and fun
of being an entertainer,
show business is work.
It's a service with patrons,
a trade with clients,
and an industry
with hundreds of theatrical factories,
countless stage productions,
and continuous concert schedules
to maintain.

And like most businesses in the 19th century
show business benefited
from the great industrial revolution,
particularly by the invention of photography.

In the early years of camera technology
the daguerreotype, the ambrotype,
and the ferrotype or tintype photos
were all one-of-a-kind art forms.
As each type captured light
onto a photo medium
that was individually unique
there could be no duplication of the image.  

That changed with the invention of the carte de visite or cdv,
which used a glass plate in the camera
to preserve the light as a negative
and then allowed the photographer
to make an albumen print of the positive image.

This new inexpensive manufacturing technology
allowed photographers for the first time
to offer the public multiple copies of a photograph.

It didn't take long for show business people
to recognize the cdv's potential
for marketing an entertainer's likeness. 

And photos of a very young phenom on the cornet,
THE virtuoso instrument of the late 1800s,
made terrific advertising. 

This is a story about three photos
of just one artist,
the boy cornet wonder,

Master Tommy Fish.

Readers might remember that I first introduced Master Tommy Fish in 2014 with this cdv photo in a story entitled Two Musical Child Prodigies. Master Tommy, boy cornet, was the first child wonder and little Susie Medbery, the child pianist, was the second. Both were young musical artists of the early vaudeville theatre circuits that flourished in the postwar decades of the 1860s to 1890s. Master Tommy Fish, as he was called in the newspapers, was supposedly 4 years old when he made his debut in his home state of Rhode Island in May 1873. In fact he was small for his age and was actually 5 years 10 months old, just shy of his 6th birthday.

His father was Thomas Fish Sr., born 1826 in Lancashire, England. In the 1851 Census for Accrington, near Manchester, Thomas Fish's occupation was Power Loom, Cotton Weaver. Accrington was one of the large cotton mill towns that developed in the early British industrial revolution. Fish emigrated to America in 1856 with his wife Jane Fish and three children, avoiding the 1861 Lancashire depression that was brought on by the collapse of the cotton market and the American Civil War. They were listed in the 1860 US Census for Warwick, Rhode Island, where his occupation was Weaver. His son Thomas Frederick Fish was born in Rhode Island on July 22,1867.   
_ _ _

Evidently Thomas Fish senior had some skill as a musician as he was reported in 1873 to accompany Master Tommy's cornet playing on the violin. For most of these musical wunderkind, it was the father who nurtured their child's talent, and like Leopold Mozart was to Wolfgang Amadeus, Thomas Fish sr. was the teacher and theatrical agent of Thomas jr. By the 1880 US census, Thomas Fish sr. and his older son James Fish, listed their occupations in Newport, RI as Musician. In the Rhode Island census of 1885, Thomas sr. was a Vocal Musician.

Montgomery AL Advertiser
06 March 1874

From 1873 to 1876, Master Tommy Fish, boy cornetist became a minor sensation on America's theatrical circuit. Newspaper reviews or advertisements about the precocious young  cornet player appeared in Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, New Orleans, Washington D.C., Montgomery AL, and Wilmington NC.  Shortly after his 1873 performance in Newport, RI, Master Tommy joined a traveling variety show that featured a number of different acts that supported a pantomime based on the children's nursery tale Humpty Dumpty. The producers promoted this as a family oriented show that would appeal to children, or that is, parents and grandparents looking for a wholesome entertainment that avoided the unseemly qualities of the adult theater world. Master Tommy was only one of a number of child artists attached to the show. There were acrobats, singers, and dancers too.

_ _ _

Recently I acquired two more cdv photos of Master Tommy that were clearly identified by a printed caption under the image. This next one shows a diminutive boy, feet casually crossed, leaning on a photographer's studio armchair with a piston valve cornet grasped in one small hand. At the bottom is the phrase used on the other photo.
For my Benefit,
Master Tommy Fish.

Unlike the first photo, this one has a photographer's imprint on the back.

Photograph Co.

No. 130 Westminster St.
Providence, R. I..

Special rates for Professionals

The boys thin stature and the Providence photographer
makes me think Tommy Fish in this photo
is closer to age 5-6, about 1873.
Whereas in the other photo
he is perhaps age 7 or 8.
Notice his slippers, the mark of a real theatrical artist.

The third cdv photo is definitely of an older boy. He poses again with the same casually crossed feet, but this time he is wearing a handsome tailcoat with white tie and waistcoat. His cornet is clutched to his chest and there are medals, presumably musical awards, on his lapel. I suspect he is closer to age 9 or 10 in this photo, roughly 1876-77.

Printed into the photo is his name:

Master Tommy Fish

Notice his loafers and the fine quality of his suit.

 The variety show company did not last many seasons.
It's hard to bring in repeat audiences that saw
the same pantomime and the same acts the year before.
The tour dates range from winter to late summer.
It would seem the boy was on the road for weeks if not months at a time.
How much education Tommy received is hard to say.
Assuming his father traveled with him as a chaperone,
he may have been essentially home schooled. 
Round about December 1876,
the newspapers stopped writing about Master Tommy Fish.

From then on he was just Tommy Fish.

Hartford CN Courant
29 December 1876

The reviews Tommy Fish got are barely more than a single sentence of praise. His performance "charmed the ladies," but there is no mention of what music he performed on his cornet. But in order to impress the public, he likely played concert solos that were familiar music played by the adult cornet artists of the day, so I don't think they were simple tunes. His repertoire no doubt had several showcase pieces that he could play from memory. Some pieces may have had accompaniment parts for a theater orchestra. Most theatres advertised two shows a day, probably timed so that entertainers could catch the night train to the next town after their last curtain. By 1878 at age 11, Tommy was still billed in vaudeville theatres as a cornetist, sometimes with his older brother James, but his brief career as a musical phenom was over forever.

However at least a few people
valued the memory
of Master Tommy Fish's performances
enough to save his cute photos.

But what happened to the rest of his life?

 I don't usually find many answers 
to this question.

But reaching the age of puberty
didn't stop Tommy Fish from playing music.

Pittsfield MA Berkshire County Eagle
27 September 1905
In September 1905, Thomas F. Fish, teacher of Violin, Cornet, and Mandolin advertised in the Pittsfield, Massachusetts weekly newspaper. He was:

also Instructor and Leader of Bands and Orchestras—Life Time Experience.
Music furnished for all occasions.
Orchestras of any number of pieces desired.
Solo and Business playing solicited from all Bands and Orchestras.
with 'Reeves' American Band and Orchestra"
of Providence, R. I.
Residence and Studio
580 North St., Pittsfield, Mass
Telephone 138-11.
Musical Instruments Rented.
Practice in Reading and Playing
Orchestra Music Given Free to Pupils.

On the side of the advertisement was his portrait.

Pittsfield MA Berkshire County Eagle
13 March 1906

A few months later in March 1906, the Berkshire County Eagle used the same photo for a short report titled:

City Band Leader Was A Soloist At Five

    Thomas F. Fish, who has assumed the leadership of the City band, is a musician of note. When five years of age he was a noted boy cornetist and gave exhibitions of his skill in all the leading theatres in this country. He has since been with the Reeves band and orchestra of Providence for 20 years and is now the business player and soloist in the Richmond theatre in North Adams. Mr. Fish is also a violinist of note, having led an orchestra in a theatre in Providence for some years.

    The City band has a full set of new instruments and feels that under the leadership of Mr. Fish its future is assured. Mr. Fish had an offer from the North Adams band to become its leader, but chose the local band and has moved his family to this city.

The Reeves' band was one of the top professional music ensembles in the 19th century. It was called the American Band of Providence, Rhode Island and was formed as a military brass band in 1837. In the 1890s its musicians were considered the best and highest paid instrumentalists in the country. Today the American Band is still in operation as a community band in Providence, and recently celebrated its 180th anniversary.

From 1866 to 1900 the American Band was led by David Wallis Reeves (1838 – 1900), also known as D. W. Reeves. He was a noted cornet soloist as well as an influential composer for bands. He is credited with expanding band instrumentation by adding woodwinds and composed 100 pieces for wind band. Reeves was considered by John Philip Sousa to be "The Father of Band Music in America". If Tommy Fish played in Reeves' band, it was a mark of his real talent and musical artistry, and a testimonial to be proud of.
_ _ _

Providence, the capital city of Rhode Island, was Thomas Fish's home town, so it was not unexpected that he would remain there after his early career on the vaudeville stage. In the three decades since his birth its population had nearly tripled in size from 68,904 in 1870 to 175,597 in 1900. In 1903 Providence had 18 bands and orchestras listed in the city directory. Fish's Band & Orchestra was one of them, as was Reeves' American Band and Orchestra under two new leaders, Bowen R. Church and  D. D. Phillips.

Another group, Clarke's Providence Band & Orchestra was led by Herbert L. Clarke (1867 – 1945) one of the most famous cornet soloists of the era, notably as a member of John Philip Sousa's band. Clarke, who was the same age as Fish, originally played the viola, but in 1881 was inspired to switch to cornet after hearing Bowen R. Church on cornet at a performance of Reeves' American Band. After Reeves death in 1900, Clarke was appointed leader of the American Band but after a year was replaced by Church. This prompted Clarke to form his own rival band.

Show business competition was rough in those days.
_ _

1901 Providence RI city directory

By 1900, Master Tommy Fish was now 33 years old and as might be expected, he was married. Surprisingly his wife was a musician too. Her name was Edith Rebecca (Maynard) Fish, born in Connecticut in 1870. She was listed with her husband in the 1901 Providence city directory a teacher of cornet. Edith and Thomas took out a special directory listing to set themselves apart from an astonishing 210 music teachers offering instrumental or vocal instruction in Providence.

_ _

Mr. and Mrs. Thomas F. Fish also paid for a half-page advertisement in Providence's directories from 1901 to 1904. They offered music furnished for all occasions...violin, mandolin, and cornet duets and solos...a special feature for lodges, whists, musicales, receptions, etc.

The advertisement also included portrait vignettes of both Thomas and Edith Fish.

1904 Providence RI city directory

In the 1890s Providence, RI was a progressive place for women musicians. It was the hometown of Helen May Butler, an ambitious bandleader who became known as the "female Sousa". Her first band in Providence was the Talma Ladies Orchestra and Military Band. Helen May Butler surely knew the Fishes, and Edith Fish may well have been a musician in her band/orchestra. By 1904 Butler was on a national tour with a professional female wind ensemble that became the Helen May Butler Ladies Band. I've written several stories about her important influence on American music: Helen May Butler and her All-American Girls and Cornets and Apples

In 1905 Thomas Fish was making a change. Perhaps he felt there was too much competition in Providence. Maybe he was hurt that he had been passed over in some leadership role in the Reeves Band. Maybe the offer to take over the Pittsfield band was too good to turn down. Pittsfield is about 120 northwest of Providence, and closer to Albany, NY. In 1900 its population was 21,766, a fraction of Providence's.

In March of that year, Edith took out her own advertisement in the Pittsfield, MA newspaper. She offered regular lessons on violin, cornet, and mandolin, 1 hour, $1.00;  ¾ hour, 75¢ ; ½ hour, 50¢. Solo and business playing solicited. Music furnished for all occasions. Life time experience.

Pittsfield MA Berkshire County Eagle
08 March 1905

This is where the story gets curiously complicated.

In March 1905, Mrs. Edith R. Fish thought she was unmarried.

1900 US Census Providence, RI

In the 1900 US Census for Providence, Thomas F. and Edith H.(sic) Fish were recorded as Head and Wife, ages 32 and 29 and married 1 year. There were no children as noted in a faint penciled 0, 0 on Edith's line. Thomas listed his occupation as Music Teacher. Edith had none.

Yet on August 1, 1905, as recorded in the Pittsfield, MA town marriage registry, Thomas Frederick Fish married Edith Rebecca (Maynard) Fish in Albany, NY. Both lived at the same address on North Street in Pittsfield and both were employed as a Musician.

August 1905 Pittsfield MA marriage record

They were married in 1900,
but five years later they were married again.
How is that possible?

In my research on the musical people in my photo collection, it is rare to discover personal details. Most times I'm thrilled just to be able to work out a basic timeline of birth to death. I have so many questions about Master Tommy Fish's career as a child entertainer that I will never be able to answer. What music did he play? Did his father and older brother join him on stage to perform as a family band? Where did he get his elementary education? Did he get beyond high school? Who chose his costumes?

So my discovery of his adult musical career in Providence and Pittsfield, complete with pictures, was very exciting because it is unusual to uncover this kind of biographical information based solely on a child's photograph. The bonus of course was the image and musical record of his wife Edith. She clearly was a professional musician working in one of the few communities that was accepting of women in the performing arts. How did they meet? Which instrument's sound was most heard in their home? Violin, mandolin, or cornet?

This kind of mystery opens up a very rare private door into personal details not found in ordinary genealogy research. How was it possible for Thomas and Edith to be married twice?

The answer made the news as far away as Montgomery, Alabama.
It was Edith's third marriage in eight months.

Montgomery AL Times
24 August 1905

From the August 24, 1905 edition of the Montgomery, AL Times.

Queer Matrimonial Mix-up.
Woman Remarries Husband After
Finding Second Marriage Null.


  Pittsfield, Mass., Aug. 24–Mrs. Edith R. Fish, recently divorced from Thomas Fish and married in May to Walter Briggs Johnson, has remarried her first husband.
  Lat year Mrs. Fish applied for a divorce from Thomas Fish, of Rhode Island. A decree nisi was granted and Mrs. Fish married Johnson in Chatham, N.Y., in the belief that the divorce had become effective.
   Recently Mrs. Fish-Johnson learned that the final divorce decree had not been obtained in Rhode Island. She sent for Mr. Fish, explained her unfortunate position, and asked him to forgive and forget, and to nullify divorce proceedings and her marriage to Johnson by re-marriage. Mr. Fish was agreeable, and the second wedding was performed in Albany, N.Y., by the Rev. Creighton R. Story, pastor of the First Baptist Church of that city. 
   The New York courts will be asked to set aside the marriage of Mrs. Fish to Johnson.

The papers in Pittsfield, North Adams, and Providence ran similar reports. It was a kind of weird nuptial contract / love story popularized in dime romance novels. A married couple seek permanent separation; the wife finds another love and marries him; the state intervenes and says the first marriage is still valid; the couple reunite and repair their differences; love is rekindled as they retie the matrimonial knot. It's a plot worthy of operatic treatment, but it can't have been such an easy experience to resolve. 

The report answered my question to a degree, yet brought up even more intimate questions that may never be revealed. What was Mr. Johnson's reaction to the news? Who played music at the second wedding? Did Edith have to return gifts from the first?

Pittsfield MA Berkshire County Eagle
27 June 1906

The following year, Thomas Fish gave a number of concerts with the Pittsfield band. One program featured him on a cornet solo and finished with a D.W. Reeves' march. The editor inserted an ironic epigram below.

Life in Pittsfield did not last for the Mr. and Mrs. Fish, as by 1910 they were far removed to Denver, Colorado. To make things even more confusing there was now a daughter, Mildred M. Fish, age 16.

1910 US Census - Denver CO
The 1910 US Census listed three persons in the household, Thomas F. Fish, age 42; Edith R. Fish, age 39; and Mildred M. Fish, age 16. Where was she hiding all these years?!  And Thomas and Edith were married, but for 20 years! And an M1 denoted that it was the first marriage for each, instead of the truthful M2 / M3.  At least Mildred was single.

As time moved on, Denver was but a brief stop of a westward migration for Thomas and Edith. By 1912 they were living in Los Angeles, California which at the time had just three musical ensembles in its city directory: The Peoples Orchestra, Rykerts Military Band, and interestingly, the Womans Orchestra. Thomas still worked as a teacher of violin, Edith's occupation not recorded, and daughter Mildred was a bookkeeper.

1916 Los Angeles CA city directory

In the 1920 census for Pasaden, CA, Thomas F. Fish was age 52 and his occupation was Musician, Orchestra Philharmonic. The Los Angeles Philharmonic was founded in 1919. Did he play violin or cornet?  Edith was unemployed, but their daughter was now married, though alone, Mildred M. Sevier, age 26, occupation, Bookkeeper.

On November 4, 1928, Thomas Frederick Fish, cornetist, violinist, and music teacher, died. His wife Edith lived on in Pasadena until her death in May 1, 1942. Daughter Mildred M. Sevier, now divorced, resided with her mother through the 1940 census, along with her daughter Alice M. Sevier.

Edith and Thomas were buried together in a cemetery in Altadena in Los Angeles County, CA, continuing a duet that may have had some challenging measure but seems to have had a long run.

And one last detail to add.
Remember Walter B. Johnson?
Edith's second husband for a couple of months?
He was a musician too, a teacher of violin.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where you can either fish, cut bait, or see if they're bitin'.


La Nightingail said...

Ah, those wild musicians and their merry wives and marriages and divorces and remarriages and whatever else! At least they were together in the very end. :)

Barbara Rogers said...

I immediately wondered about what Johnson thought of this whole shebang. The daughter that suddenly appeared at 16 might have been adopted. Who knows. But it's great to have a musician that was a prodigy end up in a big orchestra after leading all those others.

La Nightingail said...

I forgot to mention your clever take on the prompt picture. With a name like Thomas FISH, he fit right in! Nice going. :)

Molly of Molly’s Canopy said...

What an interesting tale...and all from the initial child photographs. It’s easy to think that unusual happenings in marriage and lifestyle are modern phenomena. Your story here, and the saga of my Blakeslee ancestors’ separation and divorce, are probably the tip of the iceberg of what actually went on back in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Nicely done!

smkelly8 said...

I love how he poses with such élan.


  © Blogger template Shush by 2009

Back to TOP