During much of the 19th century, “infant” or “juvenile” troupes of stage performers were a popular form of entertainment. Traveling from town to town, the children in these troupes sang and danced and recited and acted. Most were children, although managers were not above prolonging the pretended childhoods of their players as long as was feasible – or beyond (Dickens satirizes this in Nicholas Nickleby with a character called “the Infant Phenomenon” who, as I recall, was probably in her twenties but still affecting a high-pitched voice and wearing overgrown baby clothes.)
Among the most popular American troupes of juvenile performers were “the Marsh Children,” who were extremely successful throughout the 1850s. They traveled from coast to coast, and even spent a few years touring Hong Kong, New Zealand, and Australia, before returning to North America for further success. Their particular schtick was to perform well-known plays usually acted by adult companies – apparently it was uproariously funny to see a 9- or 10-year-old speaking the words and aping the gestures of famous adult actors who had recently performed in the same plays.
The Marsh Children were genuinely children, generally from 6 to 15 years old, mostly girls (in 1860, the ratio was 20 girls to four or five boys) – according to my sources, girls were always more popular than boys in such troupes, and the girls assumed male roles as readily as they played female roles. The players were, however, not from a single family, nor were they really Marshes. Their manager was R.G. Marsh, who picked them up in various places where he discovered talent. The children traveled with a small number of adult women chaperones and teachers.
(a widely published 1857 engraving)
You really have to wonder what their lives were like, and what their parents were thinking ($$$) to surrender their children to such a life. One late 19th-century theatrical performer and historian wrote that “The entire company was composed of children. As they died – and the mortality among them was remarkable – or as they grew too large for the troupe, their places were filled by other precocious infants engaged by their clever manager in his strollings from town to town.” He gives one example of the “mortality of the children,” in the death of Mary Marsh (in reality, Mary McLaughlin), one of the most popular of the troupe: “Her memory is still kept green in the hearts of many practical men of to-day, who unblushingly confess to a filling of their boyish eyes and a quivering of their boyish lips when the sad story of her untimely and dreadful death was told here. While playing in one of the Southern cities, her dress took fire from th footlights and she was fatally burned, living but an hour or two after the accident occurred.”
But this post really isn’t about the Marsh Children. It’s about a report I read recently in the Buffalo (New York) Courier from the summer of 1858. The narrator was a traveling salesman (a “commercial traveler”).
While stopping a short time since at a hotel in Cleveland, Ohio, it happened that the Marsh Children, a troop of juvenile comedians familiar to us all, numbering 28 or 30, arrived and put up at the same house. Their first appearance in the dining room naturally attracted great attention, and many were the inquiries made in reference to them, who and what they were, where from and whither going, &c. &c.
They occupied an entire table – all under 12 years of age, dressed alike and nearly all girls, with five or six middle aged females – their teachers – sprinkled among them. At the head of the table sat Mr. Marsh himself.
The unnamed narrator, a friend of the Courier’s editor, happened to be sitting at a table with “two or three gentlemen somewhat rural in aspect,” whom he judged to be gullible enough for a prank since they didn’t recognize the young performers. He told them that
The grave personage at the head of the table was a delegate from Brigham Young, a prominent and noted Mormon, on his way to Washington to settle with the President the difficulties in Utah [the just-concluded Utah War], and the elderly ladies present were his six wives, and the thirty children were a portion of his progeny.
According to the teller, the joke worked. The “rural gentlemen” believed him, and after taking another good look at Mr. Marsh and his charges, they went to spread the news among friends. Soon the hotel’s dining room was in commotion, with people crowding in “to look upon a true prophet and his harem.”
And what did they see, according to our storyteller? Aye, that’s the real topic of this post: They saw exactly what they expected to see. Instead of seeing a successful theatrical manager, with his large group of attractive and highly popular performers, whose autographs they would have been seeking and whose photographs they would have been snapping had they lived in our generation, this is what the gawpers saw, according to our storyteller:
”Amazing smart children for the kind,” says one.
“What disgusting women,” exclaims Miss Prim.
“What an old wretch,” responds a whole troop of Cleveland ladies, as they would gaze and stare at the Utah saint with all their eyes.
The children, and finally their guardians, became aware of and frightened by the attention. It was not at all the same as they had become used to as a sign of their popularity. But Marsh, a true businessman, took advantage of the attention to rise and introduce himself, and put in a plug for the Children’s upcoming performance.
With that, the joke was exposed.
There was a general scattering, with a giggling accompaniment by the ladies, and hearty guffaws on the part of the men who were sold.
I can’t swear that the incident actually happened, although the editor in Buffalo told it as true. He certainly told it as a comic event. At the very least, we can guess this about his evaluation of human nature: As a narrative, polygamy was funny as well as abhorrent, and part of the humor came from showing people their own hypocrisy in being so fully capable of projecting their expectations (that the crimes of polygamists would show on their very countenances) onto completely innocent persons.