Friday, 24 March 2017

Princess Coretta and the Royal City

The Royal City has played host to a number of royal visitors over the years. For example, the Prince of Wales paid a visit in 1919. However, Princess Coretta was a different kind of royalty. Her status arose not from being born with blue blood but being born of small stature.

Here is a real-photo postcard (that is, a photograph printed onto postcard stock) of "Princess Coretta" taken by the popular Guelph photographer, Lionel O'Keeffe:


Princess Coretta was born Ruby Belle Rickoff in Chancy, Clinton Township, Iowa, on 11 January 1899. She was the only daughter of Arthur and Birdel Rickoff. It must have been clear early in her life that she was different. In 1905, she was exhibited with the T.I. Cash Carnival Co. as a sideshow curiosity. At that point, she was entitled "Coretta, the doll lady" and described as "the cutest, sweetest bit of humanity ever born to live. ... Weighs 16 pounds and only 26 inches in height" (Aberdeen Democrat, 30 June 1905).

Evidently, the exhibition was a success. Her father placed an ad in The Billboard, an entertainment trade magazine, offering her services for the following year (2 December 1905):


It seems that the Cash Carnival Co. made the highest offer, as Ruby, now entitled "Little Coretta", toured with the show again in 1906. For example, she appeared in the Woodmen Carnival in Oakes, North Dakota that year (Oakes Times, 28 June 1906).

The Bismarck Daily Tribune (7 July 1906) described her as nine years old, 16 pounds in weight, and 26 inches high. It also explained that, "She reads, writes, and talks well and will sing like a fairy when asked to," from which it appears that singing was an important part of her act. It also mentions that she had received a letter from President Teddy Roosevelt, who had seen her the previous year out east. Undoubtedly, the association with the President increased her celebrity.

The Woodmen Carnival provides a fairly typical portrait of sideshow "freak" exhibitions of the era. The Carnival took over the main street of Oakes for several days. Shows included dare-devils such as the "Death Cage" in which the Gregg brothers road on "wheels" around the inside of a large tub, presumably narrowly missing crashing into each other.

Performers would imaginatively re-enact tumultuous historical events such as "Ben Hur", the "Destruction of San Fransisco", and, closer to home, the "Northfield Bank Robbery."

A Ferris wheel slung occupants into the air above the rooftops of their small town.

In addition, there was often a menagerie of exotic animals, such as lions and elephants (although the Cash Carnival seems not to have had them). Similarly, there were human oddities, such as the bearded lady, conjoined twins, giants, and dwarfs or midgets. That is where Coretta fit in. For a few cents, townsfolk could meet and examine these unusual people up close and perhaps see them perform.

Another real-photo card of Coretta, also printed in Canada, shows her with "Dave Savage", styled as "the largest in the world." Pictures of very tall and very small people together were a common motif with sideshows. Perhaps "Dave" was in the same sideshow with Coretta.


Snippets of Coretta's career can be found in some American newspapers. For example, the Chicago Daily Tribune (6 April 1908) notes that she celebrated her nineteenth birthday in the Coliseum there. It sounds as though the Ringling Bros.—then her employers—decided to add ten years to her age, perhaps to make her seem less childlike.

The party was celebrated in true, circus sideshow style:

The table was spread in the Coliseum annex on the top floor. Coretta, who wore a green silk frock, sat on the right of Lew Graham, who manages the museum. On his right sat little Lord Robert, another midget, 21 years old. When the guests insisted upon it the two little people walked down the center of the table as graceful as you please and performed a few stunts. Each is twenty-two inches in height.
Just across from George Ade sat Ella Ewing, the Missouri giantess.
There was an original poem by Grace Gilbert, the bearded lady; a speech by J.G. Turner, the Texas giant; and some imitations by Charles Andress.
Hm. It sounds like Coretta also lost four inches in height since 1906!

The next year, the New York Times (28 March 1909) carried the news that Little Coretta and Little Lord Robert were to be married! The story describes how Coretta was affected when she heard news of Lord Robert's diagnosis of appendicitis by the circus doctor:

When Coretta heard that she burst into tears and climbed down from the platform. ”Take me to him,” she cried. “Take me to him at once.”
A.T. Ringling, one of the five circus brothers, was standing near. He would not hear of Coretta leaving just as the matinee was about to begin, and the crowds were entering the Garden. Coretta pleaded.
Upon hearing of the engagement, Mr. Ringling relented and the circus began to plan their wedding.

If this story sounds a little contrived, it is. Staging weddings between members of the freak shows was a common maneuver to gain press coverage and drum up business. Probably, a wedding was staged later that year but only as a stunt.

As it happens, the Times story also describes Coretta as 19 years old and 19 inches tall. So, she had not aged since the year before but had decreased three more inches in height!

It is hard to know just what to make of the life of an Edwardian circus midget. As Rachel Adams points out, exhibiting people with disabilities or other unusual conditions seems exploitive. Today, emphasis is placed on integration of such people into society through accessibility legislation, for example. Putting them on display for a fee, like the animals in the circus menagerie, seems degrading and dehumanizing.

At the same time, Adams argues, it could be viewed as empowering for "freaks" to demand money in exchange for being stared at. Otherwise the subject of public gawking, sideshow performers can, to some extent, turn the tables by assuming the roles of actors and singers, a position that gives them some control over their audience and enhances their agency in their dealings with others.

And then there is the practical matter of earning a living. In a world where many occupations were closed to them, sideshow performers could earn good money. Issac Marcosson ("The Bookman", June 1910) itemizes the earnings of midgets including Coretta:

When you come to midgets you touch some of the sideshow stars. Tom Thumb got $1,000 a week for a long time, and so did his wife. Admiral Dot, who was a famous midget, got $700. Chemalh, the Chinese dwarf, received $250 a week. The interest in these little people is as keen today as ever before. Little Coretta, the midget of the Ringling Show this year, gets $350, and her diminutive contemporary, Weeny, who is with the Barnum and Bailey Circus, gets about the same. The ordinary museum or small show midget gets only from $50 to $75 a week. Such side-show staples as the Ossified man, the Living Skeleton, the Armless Man, the Tattooed Man, the Man With the Rubber Skin, and the Snake Charmer, have declined in price during the past ten years, and their wages range from $30 to $50 a week.
By shopping her out to sideshows, was Coretta's father, Arthur, exploiting her or helping to ensure her welfare? From what little information is currently available, it is difficult to say.

It would be interesting to know what Coretta herself thought of this matter. Unfortunately, she was killed on 23 May 1912 after being thrown from a buggy in Kankakee, Illinois. Evidently, she had left Ringling Bros. for the Mazeppa and Greater United Shows circus and was riding, perhaps in a parade, with manager J.B. Warren when the horse took fright at a hat blown through the air and bolted (New York Clipper, June 1912).

Her remains were returned to Clinton Township, Iowa, where she was buried in the Springdale Cemetery using her proper name, Ruby Belle Rickoff.



The alert reader will have noticed that I have not said when Princess Coretta visited the Royal City. That is because I am not sure. She was with the T.I. Cash Carnival Company in 1905 and 1906. To the best of my knowledge, this company never left the United States. From 1908 through 1911, Coretta was employed by the famous Ringling Bros. However, they did not visit Guelph during this time. (Circus tour routes can be checked at the very helpful CircusHistory.org website.) She was killed in 1912 before the Canadian circus season started, usually in June.

These observations suggest that 1907 might be the time. Guelph was visited by the Hargreaves Railroad Show on 17 July of that year. And, the Show did include "freaks".

A significant problem with this theory is that Lionel O'Keeffe, who took Coretta's portrait, did not set up business in Guelph until 1912. He purchased J.H. Booth's studio that year on Macdonnell Street above the Dominion Bank. I surmise, then, that he took the picture earlier in his career and, perhaps, printed off copies upon hearing of her death after setting out his shingle.

It may be, then, that Princess Coretta never set foot in the Royal City. Yet, why would Guelphites be interested in photo postcards of her if she was not known to them? For the present, like much else about Ruby Belle Rickoff, it remains a mystery.



It is interesting to consider why the citizens of Guelph and other cities were so drawn to sideshows featuring Princess Coretta and others like her. Of course, midgets, giants, conjoined twins, bearded ladies, etc. were unusual, like tigers and elephants. In the context of a sideshow, having paid for the privilege, people could marvel at them without feeling self-conscious.

But, besides being exotic, perhaps these shows confirmed the appropriateness of the normal order. Midgets, giants, etc. walking about the streets, as if to pass as typical people, might seem threatening to others. Encountering them instead in special venue, on the edge of town during a special event, while weird or even shocking, could be filed away as a momentary oddity that threw the normal and proper world order briefly into sharp relief.

I have yet to find any mention of Ruby Belle Rickoff, aka Princess Coretta, in any Canadian newspaper or other record. So, if you can shed any light on her connection with Canada, as suggested by these two postcards, I am sure that readers would appreciate you leaving it in the comments below. Thanks!

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Happy Valentines Day 1906, Maude Powers!

Although Valentine's Day cards date back to the Georgian period, the business of sending love tokens to that special someone really got going in the Victorian era. The establishment of the penny post plus the industrialization of card-making meant nearly anyone could let fly one of cupid's arrows through the mail.

Naturally, some of the earliest picture postcards made in the Edwardian era were also Valentine's Day cards. As such, many lucky young ladies of Guelph and area received these cards from their secret admirers. One such woman was Miss Maude Powers of Speedside. Evidently, she was quite a peach, if the following, anonymous postcard sent 12 February 1906 is any indication:


This card was one of many cards for special occasions printed by the United States Souvenir Post Card Co., New York. On the front is a message attesting to the ardor felt for Miss Powers by the sender:

Just home from Speedside ball. Mind be home next Sunday night. Dear Maudie. These lips are nearly as red as yours the night I kissed them Eh? with love.
In an era long before text messages and emojis, young men could select among such novelty postcards to convey their feelings. Clearly, "Maudie" had made an impression.

Valentines Day, 1906 was not even the first time Maudie's suitor had reached out to her in this way. An earlier postcard addressed to her and written in the same hand was posted on 28 December 1905:


The two pomade-pated, boater-doffing dandies make a likely pair, don't they?

The writer has taken the trouble to add the labels "Billie" and "Bobbie" to the gentlemen on the right-hand side. This postcard was a generic card published by J. Raymond Howe of Chicago. Both cards are unsigned, so it remains unclear who "Billie" and "Bobbie" might be. However, both cards were sent from Guelph, so perhaps they were citizens of the Royal City.

The year 1906 presented Miss Powers with quite a dilemma, for she was the recipient of further amorous postcards from at least two more suitors. Here is one sent to her in Toronto from Eramosa on 10 May 1906:


Written in a different hand from the first two, this racy, unsigned card bears a nearly illegible scrawl in the margin about talking to Maud's Easter hat. What tales those park benches might tell if they could speak!

To complete the triad, here is another card, written in yet another hand, also addressed to Maude Powers in Speedside:


Published by the Illustrated Post Card & Novelty Co., N.Y., this card depicts a young woman reading a brochure on "How to make love" (an expression that then meant something like "to woo" does today) and "How to write a love letter." On the back, her suitor has penned the message:

Now is your chance. Leap Year next week. A.B.G.
A.B.G. has taken the interesting tack of putting himself on a pedestal and inviting Miss Powers to reach for the top. Subtle!

The postcard was cancelled on the "Harrisburg-Southampton RPO", meaning that it was processed in the mail car of a train that went between Harrisburg (near Paris) and Southampton, a route that went through Guelph. The postcard was cancelled on "Jan 2, 0_", with the last digit being illegible. Given that no Leap Year ever occurred in January, A.B.G.—whoever he was—had evidently read a book on writing love letters that specified speaking in riddles. I will assume the year was 1906, since that seems to have been Miss Powers' lucky year.

I do not know much about Miss Maude Powers. She was born the on 6 January 1885 as the eldest daughter of Walker Powers Jr. and Elizabeth Powers, somewhere in the vicinity of Speedside. So, all this attention was paid her around her 21st birthday.

The Historical Atlas of Wellington County (1906) mentions that Walker Powers Sr. was an immigrant from Vermont who settled in Clarke Township, Durham County. Maude's father, Walker Jr., was raised there but moved to Eramosa Township in 1873. There, he courted and married Elizabeth Johnson, from a family of Eramosa pioneers, and raised Percy, Carrett, Maude, and Hetty.

Maude was deliberate in her choice of husband. Two years after this flurry of attention, she set her cap at Alexander Rae and married him on 17 June 1908. He was born on 18 December 1878 in Eramosa Township to Alexander Sr. and Sarah (née McLean)

Alexander may have been bachelor number two, that is, the sender of the postcard "On the benches in the park after dark", since that was posted in Eramosa where he lived. That seems like the best guess at present. Perhaps it could be checked if I ever find an example of his handwriting.

Alexander Jr. was a blacksmith. Around 1912, he and Maude moved to Guelph and set up Rae’s Wagon & Body Works at 39–41 Cork Street, about mid-block on the south side.

With the advent of the automobile, it might seem unfortunate that someone should put out his shingle as a blacksmith. However, Rae's business was a success. Perhaps this was because he took on a variety of work, as suggested by this ad in the 1915 City Directory:


The couple first lived on Surrey Street (West) but soon relocated to 65 Cambridge Street, which I believe is now number 11 (shown below in Google Street View).



By 1930, the business had moved to 43 Yarmouth Street while the family, which included children Margaret, Henry Alex (Jr.), Isabel, Caroline, and Eleanor, had moved to 11 Charles Street (shown below in Google Street View).



Margaret and Isabel worked as bookkeepers in the family business. Eleanor became a corporal in the Canadian Women's Army Corps during World War 2. Alex Jr. upheld family tradition and became a blacksmith.

Alexander Rae was elected a city Alderman in the years 1929 through 1932, inclusive, which were difficult years due to the Depression. He was also a member of the Scottish Rite, the Orange Order, and the Independent Order of Odd-fellows. He died in his home on 30 November 1942 after a prolonged illness (Mercury, 30 November 1942).

Alex Jr. took over the family blacksmith business for a number of years. Maude remained in the residence on Charles Street until she died on 22 July 1956. She and Alexander are buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.



A jolly time could be had in the Royal City on Valentine's Day in 1906. For example, one might attend a "house social" like this one (Mercury, 14 February 1906):
The young ladies of the Disciples of Christ entertained last evening in the home of Mrs. Harris, Yarmouth St. The rooms were beautifully decorated in honor of St. Valentine. Various amusements, interspersed with vocal and and instrumental music lifted up the hours. Not the least interesting feature was the art gallery, containing some thirty old masterpieces. Ice cream and cake were served. Each feature of the programme was made the occasion for levying a tax of two cents per head. Much credit is due to the young ladies for the pleasure afforded by the evening's entertainment.
For those more determined to flirt, there were always the city's skating rinks. Guelphites could skate on cleared areas of the Speed River, in special outdoor facilities such as the streetcar rink (now Howitt Park) or indoor rinks such as the Victoria (now a parking lot behind Knox Church).

Howard Shubert ("Architecture on ice: A history of the hockey arena", 2016, pp. 21–24) explains that skating rinks became prime places for flirtatious encounters. Skating was regarded as a suitable activity for both men and women. Men could display their vigor and bearing whereas women could cut pretty figures in the ice and show a little ankle—dresses had to be shorter to allow for skate boots and striding.

Even in the mid-Victorian era, skating in Canada allowed for more than the usual touching between the sexes. A man could hold his lady's hand, to help prevents falls, of course. Also, helping a girl on with her skates was not merely gallant, as suggested by this passage from "The admiral's niece, a tale of Nova Scotia" (1858):

In two hours more numerous skaters were gliding over the Arm, and soon after luncheon the Governor and Lady D— did make their appearance, accompanied by the General, St. John, and Edward.
They were soon all prepared for the ice.
Kate and Ada, enveloped in their furs, their dresses gracefully looped up (showing a bright scarlet petticoat trimmed with black velvet, made rather short so as not to impede their movements in skating) looked bewitching. St. John gazed at Ada's tiny feet in admiration, and on reaching the ice begged to be allowed to fasten on her skates, an honor she smilingly accorded him.
"Dangerous work that, St. John," said Lord D— coming up to them; "those are the prettiest little trotters in the world, more than enough to steal any man's heart from him. They stole mine the first time I ever saw them; did they not, Ada."
“Come, my Lord, don't be saucy; you are at my mercy on the ice, you know, so I advise you to take care," and with a merry laugh she glided gracefully and swiftly away.
The rosy cheeks a girl acquired during a skate were often thought comely as well.

We may assume, then, that many men and women, perhaps including Maude Powers and Alexander Rae, went for a skate on Valentine's Day, 1906, and enjoyed the experience on several levels.

"Official rules for ice hockey, speed skating, figure skating and curling (1901)". By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, 15 January 2017

James Lee Stratton, somewhere in France, 1917

The postcard below depicts two soldiers leaning on a wall, in perhaps a rare moment off duty, "somewhere in France", January 1917. They seem relaxed though serious, perhaps looking to assure family and friends back home that they are doing well—and remain in one piece.


The maple leaf insignia on their collars assure us that they are Canadians. Their cap badges are Canadian Royal Artillery General Service badges, confirming that they are gunners.

This card is a real-photo postcard, that is, a postcard printed from a photograph, usually in small numbers for sending to relatives back home. (Recall the card that Everett Raymond Dudgeon had made up in Guelph to share with his family back in Iowa five years earlier.) This card is addressed to Miss V.W. Stratton, 22 Baker St., Guelph, Canada. This suggests that the sender, presumably at least one of the soldiers, is a relative of hers.

No message is written on the back, perhaps to appease military censors. However, this surmise is confirmed by the note written lightly on the back in pencil, "43668 corporal". In fact, "43668" is the regimental number of James Lee Stratton, brother of Victoria M. Stratton of Guelph.

Stratton's attestation papers, which record his induction into the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), say that he was born on 29 January 1891 in Straffordville, Ontario. His profession is listed as butter maker, he was unmarried, and had a military background, having served in the 39th Infantry in Simcoe and the 24th Grey's Horse in Ingersoll. He was 5 feet 7.5 inches tall, with fair hair and complexion, and light blue eyes. Looking at the photo above, I would say that this description matches the figure on the right. This attribution also gibes with the note that he is a corporal, since the figure on the right is the only one with a chevron on his sleeve.

Given his military background at a young age, it is not surprising to learn that Stratton was eager to join the CEF. His record shows that he joined the 11th Field Battery, 1st Howitzer Brigade in Guelph on 7 August 1914, only three days after the official entry of Canada, with Britain, into the conflict. He was transferred to the 1st Division Ammunition Column on 29 August and was inducted into the CEF at its camp in Valcartier, Quebec, on 25 September.

Here is a postcard of the encampment, showing the city of tents hastily erected at Valcartier for the initial marshaling of recruits.

Valcartier - Section of the Camp.JPG
By Unknown - This image is available from Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec under the reference number P547S1SS1SSS1D513P019R

At the camp, likely in view of his previous experience, he was promoted from gunner to bombardier. In October, he went with the first contingent of the CEF to England, to the Bramshott Military Camp. After training there, he was sent to France.

His records provide only a sketch of his long career on the Western front. However, it was eventful. For example, in 1917 he survived a mustard gas attack. Since this gas was first used by the German army in July of that year in the Battle of Passchendaele, this suggests that Stratton saw action there. The army doctor recounts Stratton's statement about his symptoms as follows:

In 1917 had mustard gas which burned chest following which was exposed to gas from shell holes for several days. Had loss of voice, sore eyes and cough. Recovered voice in a week. Since that time, has had attacks as described [above] whenever he takes ‘cold’.
He was allowed a week's leave in November, perhaps to aid in his recovery. How long, I wonder, did this breathing problem remain with him?

His medical records describe another minor injury in 1918:

In Feb. 1918, accidental blow from recoil of bolt in Lewis machine gun. Thumb was painful for about two months and stiffened so that flexion at distal joint limited.
It would be interesting to know why he was firing a Lewis machine gun instead of an artillery piece.

"Lewis light machine gun in use in the trenches on the Photo from Western Front during the First World War. An entire section of men was required to keep the Lewis in action, with ammunition carried in bulky panniers." Courtesy of the Canada At War blog.

His service record also reveals that he preferred being a gunner rather than advancing to higher ranks. In 1915, he was returned to the rank of gunner from bombardier at his own request. He was promoted back to bombardier in 1916 and to corporal in February of 1917. This detail helps to explain the single chevron on his sleeve in the postcard, which was (I believe) the uniform insignia appropriate to the rank of bombardier that he held in January. In October, he once more reverted to the rank of gunner, at his own request, where he remained until the end of the war.

The record does not state why he made these requests, so we can only guess that he preferred the job of gunner and was willing to take a pay cut to remain in that role.

Happily, Stratton survived the war and shipped out from England for Canada on the RMS Baltic on 29 April 1919.

RMS Baltic postcard
A postcard of the RMS Baltic/See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

During the conflict, Stratton sent more back to Guelph than a postcard. He also signed over a significant portion of his pay —$25 per month—to his brother, Robert Stratton, who was co-owner of the Guelph Creamery Company, at 22 Baker Street. Robert Stratton was born in 1870 in Straffordville and is recorded in the 1904 Guelph City Directory at the Ontario Agricultural College (OAC) Dairy school. By 1910, he and George Taylor, a lecturer at the OAC, had formed the Guelph Creamery Company, applying knowledge they had acquired at the College to this commercial enterprise. At the same time, Miss Victoria Stratton, born in Straffordville in 1881, is listed as the new company's bookkeeper. The Strattons had arrived in Guelph!

The Guelph Mercury (8 April 1947) gives the following, brief history of the company:

The Guelph Creamery was built in 1910 by R.W. Stratton and G.R. Taylor and the first cream was delivered on New Year's day in 1911. The original staff was composed of the two owners and Miss V.M. Stratton, bookkeeper. ... In January 1921 Messrs. Stratton and Taylor purchased the Galt Creamery with Mr. Taylor going to Galt to be manager. On the 1st of June 1927 the partners Stratton and Taylor sold both their interest to the United Farmers Cooperative Co., Toronto.
Robert Stratton remained as manager of the Guelph creamery until 1942.

I believe that a piece of the back of Guelph Creamery's premises survives today as 30 Baker Street, which can be seen in the Street View image below.



So, James Stratton addressed this postcard to his sister Victoria at the Guelph Creamery location on Baker Street. You might wonder why he did not address it to his brother Robert. Perhaps he was following the custom of addressing correspondence to the senior woman of the destination (as Charles Mogk may have done with his postcard from the front), as letters were sometimes thought of as belonging to the domestic, and thus feminine, sphere.

It is interesting to imagine the joy and foreboding that would have greeted the photo as it was passed around in the building. Thank goodness James and his friend were still alive and intact! Would they remain so? Perhaps it was Victoria who penciled in her brother's regimental number and his new rank of corporal shortly after the postcard arrived in the Royal City.

After the war, Stratton had evidently had his fill of soldiering. Upon his return to Canada, he resumed the trade of butter maker. On 24 July 1922, he married Norma Jean Soper of Staffordville in Toronto. The marriage record lists his occupation simply as "manager". The couple had two children, a son and a daughter. The son, John Thomas, died at the age of three.

James Lee Stratton died on 14 July 1969 and was buried in Straffordville/Sandy Town cemetery.



It would be interesting to know who the second figure in the postcard is. No information about him is recorded on the postcard itself.

Perhaps it is Charles or Robert Hack. The Hack boys were Guelph residents who joined the CEF at the same time as James Stratton and shipped out to England in the same unit, that is, the CEF Divisional Ammunition Column, No. 2 Section. Both are described as having fair complexion and brown eyes and hair. Charles was 5 feet 6 inches tall. Robert was 5 feet 9 inches.

My only evidence for this guess is that the Hack family was well known to Victoria Stratton. Victoria roomed at the Hack family residence at 22 Green Street, and Florence and Lila Hack, sisters of Charles and Robert, both worked as bookkeepers and stenographers at the Guelph Creamery Company. In other words, the Hacks and the Strattons were well known to each other.

So, it could be that Charles Hack and James Stratton found themselves at the same stationary store somewhere in France, saw a sign in the window offering photographic postcards, and realized they had found a classy way to assure the family back in Guelph that they were OK. A two-for-one deal!

It makes for a nice story but it remains just a guess.