Sunday, April 29, 2012

In a puff of smoke

There is one field of entertainment where women still don't have a major profile, even today, and that is in performance magic. All the great and famous magicians have been men although there is almost always a woman - often exotically named or scantily clad - as their support. 
Finding out about historical female magicians has been quite difficult. Adrienne Herrmann (1854-1932) seems to have been one of the better-known and the subject of a new biography. 
The "Magicpedia" has a listing of several others, but many of them were wives or partners, e.g. Bess Houdini, and some are only listed under one-word names, such as Mystia, Talma, and Zirka. Their biographies are as shady and thin as some of their outfits. No doubt many of them would have been run-aways to the music hall or the circus.
Madame Cora, State Library of Victoria
One woman with hints of a particularly intriguing past was Cora de (du) Lamond, or Madame Cora, the Magicienne 
According to her slim entry in Magicpedia, she was born in America and off-stage she was just Ursula Bush - the name she used when called to account for her actions in Ballarat, Victoria, where it seemed the authorities were suspicious about her motives in giving away all kinds of prizes to her audience from silverplated tea sets to card tables, brooms, lamps, and even pickled vegetables. 
How and when plain Ursula turned into Madame Cora, and where she learnt her amazing skills in mesmerism, levitation and legerdemain is a mystery. 
Although she is supposed to have performed around the world, other than entries in Australian and New Zealand newspapers (see TROVE and PAPERSPAST) the only mention of her in America that I can find is in The Hawaiian Gazette of September, 1871 in which she is called an Illusionist and performed to capacity crowds at Buffum's Hall in Honolulu. 
Her manager in Australia appears to have been Mr T W Bush, possibly her husband.
But the trail goes cold by the 1880s and according to the Magicpedia entry, she killed a female vocalist in her troupe in South Africa in 1877 but her death sentence was commuted and she died in Durban in 1902. 
This type of tantalising snippet is like a red rag to a bull for me but I can find nothing - online at least - about this murder, or what happened to Madame Cora afterwards. 
Just like many other "magiciennes" before and since, she appeared on stage as if by magic and then just as swiftly disappeared in a puff of smoke.

Photo taken at Ballarat c. 1869-75  of Madame Cora wearing the same outfit as in the etching
 State Library of New South Wales

The New Zealand newspaper, The Nelson Evening Mail of August 2, 1873, offers this introduction to her performance at the Odd Fellows' Hall.

Click here for another magic site that has biographies of various past and present woman magicians (but not Cora).  The tendency for tacky stage names and hazy backgrounds hasn't changed. 

[On checking, it seems as of August 2017 the above link has also disappeared in a puff of smoke.]

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Cynthia Stockley - "The dark ages of shackled womanhood"

Cynthia Stockley (1862-1936) was a once popular writer to whom time and changing perceptions have been rather unkind.  She doesn't even rate a Wikipedia entry of her own.

She was prolific and it's interesting to see her name listed as a film writer on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) and that several of her stories were made into films during the 1920s featuring silent super stars like Marion Davies, Norma Talmadge and Bebe Daniels

Cynthia's misfortune was to write largely about white people in Africa and a country destined to go the way of the dodo, being Southern Rhodesia, later to become Zimbabwe. 

Always a depressive character it seems even by the mid-1930s, she said she "felt out of touch with the modern world" just before she gassed herself at her little flat in Bayswater, London.

Jessica Amanda Salmonson details something of Cynthia's life and books on her Violet Books website via this link and discusses the reasons why Cynthia is ignored or forgotten today. 

The Rhodesian writer, Jeannie M. Boggie * chatted to Cynthia Stockley at her home in Gwelo (now Gweru, Zimbabwe)  for her book Experiences of Rhodesia's Women, first published in 1938 which was two years after Cynthia's death, although that fact isn't mentioned in the article. 

There are some tantalising snippets in it about Cynthia that are not covered in the limited biographical details elsewhere, such as how she began her literary career:
"It was while in Natal, after my first stay in Rhodesia, that I began to write. A newspaper proprietor gave me a position on one of his papers as a political reporter. I knew nothing of politics ... but I would go to Parliament each day and listen to the speeches; and then write columns of personal comments on the speakers. This was far from being expert political journalism perhaps, but it was, I may say, extremely popular, as personalities always are - especially to the persons not directly involved.

In those days, when I first began to write, journalism for women was all in the dark ages of shackled womanhood, and as a pioneeer woman journalist, I was looked upon by the women of Natal with suspicion, and with disapproval ..."
She goes on to say that after a year of this she gave it up and went to Europe to try her luck, but it was a hard struggle and it was two years before she found a publisher for her first book. She also says that in America her book was pirated and she never received a penny and ...
"I was indeed so poor that I had to stop writing and go on to the stage. I joined Benson's Shakespeare Company ... also toured in America ... But I prefer to forget that period of my life which was both difficult and unhappy ..."
Her first book (image from
Poppy was her first big success and Hollywood took notice. Cynthia also said that nearly all the events and situations in her books were "founded on fact" and many of the incidents were from her own experience of life in Africa, London, Paris and New York. 

Jeannie Boggie adds a comment that "such facts have been surrounded and embellished with fancies and day dreams, wonderful fancies from Cynthia Stockley's own rich, vivid imagination and her winged pen of inspiration; from her sympathetic insight into human nature ..."

Her two marriages are completely glossed over and also her daughter who was born in the Umtali laager during the Mashonaland Rebellion of 1896 and later became a Mrs Wymer. **
 (People may forget that the Scouts movement had its origin in such African wars. See this story of the Rebellion as written by Colonel Baden Powell)

These images are from The London Times archives. One wonders what Cynthia had to say in the Daily Express Lectures about "The Other Man" - is this a hint as to something she had experienced in her own background? Also another advertisement for one of her novels being serialised in Nash's magazine in 1922 which indicates her popularity at the time.

There is much about Cynthia Stockley's personal life and early years that are unknown, and perhaps some day her books will also be rediscovered.

Images of Cynthia and her books at the website

As to where to find Cynthia's books - the Nabu reprint POD editions (Amazon) of her books seem to be over-priced. Many of her works are available for free reading online via the Internet Archive or Project Gutenberg, also as free Kindle downloads, and even her first editions are available from book dealers at modest sums. 

*  Jeannie Boggie wrote a number of books on Rhodesian women and was an eccentric and larger-than-life figure herself worthy of remembrance.  I can add nothing to this most comprehensive blog on Rhodesian Heritage

**   Dorothy May Joan Stockley, married in London at the age of 21 to British major, Hubert Julian de Crespigny Wymer, and presumably later they lived in South Africa.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

"A personality seldom to be met with"

A visit to the Love & Devotion Exhibition currently on at the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, featuring exquisite illustrations from the history and epic myths of the Persian, Ottoman and Mughal Empires reignited my interest in women who were drawn to inhospitable or dangerous foreign locations that would have been well out of their comfort zones.

I have written about several of them previously, such as Alexine Tinne, and recently added to my collection of books on the topic with Barbara Hodgson's Dreaming of East - Western Women and the Exotic Allure of the Orient, a lavishly illustrated work that features many other adventurous women, some of whose names still resonate today, such as Gertrude Bell, Jane Digby, Isobel Burton and Hester Stanhope, and who have all been much written about.

But it's the other women who are less well-known that also intrigue me. 

The new graduate (Glasgow University)
One whose adventures had a more altruistic and practical basis than some of the romantic notions of earlier travellers, was Elizabeth Ness Macbean Ross, a pioneering woman doctor who had a short but valuable life that is still celebrated today in Kragujevac, Serbia, of all places. She was born in London in 1878 (although her family home was at Tain in the Scottish Highlands) and graduated in medicine in 1901.

Dr Ross in Bakhtiari costume c. 1909 (Tain Museum)
Dr Ross in a ship's surgeon uniform (Tain Museum)
A copy of the book she wrote about her Persian experiences A Lady Doctor in Bahktiariland is available to read online. These ancient nomadic people are said to be descended from the mythical kings of Persia (Iran) and their country remains enigmatic and remote, perhaps even more than it ever was given the current fragile state of affairs in that part of the world. 

More detailed biographical details of Dr Ross can be read both here and here. Also see this news report from 2010.

Brave and unconcerned for her own health, Dr Ross undertook charge of the typhus wards in Serbia in 1915 only to succumb herself to the disease. 

Here is the obituary that appeared in the 13 March, 1915 British Medical Journal.
[The death of] Dr. ELIZABETH NESS MACBEAN ROSS, daughter of the late
Mr. MacBean Ross, manager of the London branch of the
Commercial Bank of Scotland, has just been announced.
In 1901 Dr. Ross took the degrees of M.B. and Ch.B.
Glasg. and in 1914 the diploma of Tropical Medicine.
She was medical officer at Colonsay for some months,
and practised for a year and a half in East Ham;
she then went to Persia, holding appointnments in Ispahan,
Shiraz, and the land of the Bakhtiari, a semi-civilized
tribe inhabiting the mountains and upland valleys
between Ispahan and Khuramahlad. Dr. Ross wrote a
history of the tribe. Her health failing, she went to
Japan as surgeon in a Glasgow Line boat, and returned to
Ispahan in April, 1914. In January she went back to
Europe and procceded to Servia [Serbia] where she worked first
at Nish and then at Kragujevatz. At the latter place she
volunteered to take charge of the typhus wards; after a
week of heavy work she contracted the disease, and died
after an illness of thirteen days. The esteem which she
and her colleagues of the Scottish unit have won was
shown by the remarkable demonstration made at her
funeral, which was attended by many Servian nurses
and officers. The native clergy took part in the funeral
procession, which was headed by the band of the Guards
of the Crown Prince of Servia; a service was read at
the graveside by Colonel Harrison, the British military
attache. Dr. Ross leaves a widowed mother, two
brothers, and five sisters; one brother and one sister are
members of the medical profession.