No. 653
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
May 27, 2024

Duel of the Divas.

The question of who was more beautiful, Lillian Russel or Lola Montez was settled by two cowpokes in the Nevada desert in the 1890s.
May 30, 2011
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The archives of the Humble Oil & Refining Company are about the last place where you’d expect to run across a first-rate poltergeist account, but it just goes to show that we live in a funny old world.  In 1948, a folklorist and historian was browsing through the company’s papers when he came across a letter that had absolutely nothing to do with oil.  It read:Jan [illegible] '
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Strange Company - 5/27/2024
Included in yesterday’s trip to Fall River was a stop at Miss Lizzie’s Coffee shop and a visit to the cellar to see the scene of the tragic demise of the second Mrs. Lawdwick Borden and two of the three little children in 1848. I have been writing about this sad tale since 2010 and had made a previous trip to the cellar some years ago but was unable to get to the spot where the incident occured to get a clear photograph.  The tale of Eliza Borden is a very sad, but not uncommon story of post partum depression with a heartrending end. You feel this as you stand in the dark space behind the chimney where Eliza ended her life with a straight razor after dropping 6 month old Holder and his 3 year old sister Eliza Ann into the cellar cistern. Over the years I have found other similar cases, often involving wells and cisterns, and drownings of children followed by suicides of the mothers. These photos show the chimney, cistern pipe, back wall, dirt and brick floor, original floorboards forming the cellar ceiling and what appears to be an original door. To be in the place where this happened is a sobering experience. My thanks to Joe Pereira for allowing us to see and record the place where this sad occurrence unfolded in 1848. R.I.P. Holder, Eliza and Eliza Ann Borden. Visit our Articles section above for more on this story. The coffee shop has won its suit to retain its name and has plans to expand into the shop next door and extend its menu in the near future.
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Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 2/12/2024
When these photos from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York were taken at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery at the end of May in 1899, Memorial Day didn’t exist. “Decoration Day,” however, was an established holiday celebrated every May 30. The idea was to visit the final resting places of thousands of […]
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Ephemeral New York - 5/27/2024
An article I recently wrote for the British online magazine, New Politic, is now available online. The article, “The Criminal Origins of the United States of America,” is about British convict transportation to America, which took place between the years 1718 and 1775, and is the subject of my book, Bound with an Iron Chain: […]
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Early American Crime - 12/17/2021
John Wesley Elkins.11-year-old John Wesley Elkins was slight of stature—four feet eight inches tall, weighing 73 pounds. He was intelligent and well-spoken, and he had never caused trouble until the day he murdered his parents. At 2:00 am, on July 24, 1889, while his parents were sleeping in their Iowa farmhouse, he shot his father in the head and then beat his mother to death with a club.
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Murder By Gaslight - 5/25/2024
CHIEF OF CONSThe Morning Times(Cripple Creek, Colorado)February 15, 1896Courtesy of Mitch Morrissey ig Ed Burns robs a dying man?      Mitch Morrissey, a Facebook friend and historian for the Denver District Attorney’s Office, found and published an interesting newspaper piece on "Big Ed" Burns, one of the most notorious characters in the West. Burns was a confidence man and
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Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 4/2/2024
Youth With Executioner by Nuremberg native Albrecht Dürer … although it’s dated to 1493, which was during a period of several years when Dürer worked abroad. November 13 [1617]. Burnt alive here a miller of Manberna, who however was lately … Continue reading
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Executed Today - 11/13/2020
Belles of the Bowling Alley. | Post 5

Duel of the Divas.

Nevada, 1890s -In an age when the closest thing to mass media was a cigar box label both Lillian Russell and Lola Montez were international superstars. Both were stage actresses and performers and both were known for their beauty. The question of which was more beautiful was settled by two cowpokes in the Nevada desert in the 1890s.

300px-Lillian_Russell-young

Lillian Russell

Born Helen Louise Leonard in Clinton Iowa, in 1861, Lillian Russell traveled to New York in 1878 hoping for a career in the opera. She found herself, instead in the chorus of H.M.S. Pinafore. By 1880 she was starring on Broadway and traveling between New York and London for singing engagements. In 1891 she was the star of the Lillian Russell Opera Company.

Though she preferred oysters and champagne at Delmonico’s in New York with her long-time companion Diamond Jim Brady - he stuck with her when four husbands did not - Lillian Russell did perform in the old west and it is known that she sang in the opera house in Virginia City, Nevada.

lola_montez

Lola Montez

Lola Montez, like all great pop stars, invented herself. She was born Elizabeth Rosanna Gilbert in Limerick, Ireland in 1820 and traveled as a child to Calcutta, India. Fearing she was growing up wild in India, her mother and stepfather send her to live with relatives in Scotland where she became known as the “The queer, wayward Indian girl.”

After a failed marriage and a torrid affair with an English soldier, Eliza Gilbert went to Spain to learn flamenco dancing. When she returned to England Eliza was now Maria Dolores de Porris y Montez - better known as Lola. She was not a great dancer, but her signature move, the “spider dance” shocked audiences around the world. After three marriages and some scandalous affairs with European royalty, she came to California. Like Lillian Russell, Lola Montez performed for prospectors in the old west, but she did it a generation earlier.

While it is possible that cowboys Dave Colfax and Jose Madero had actually seen their idols, Lillian Russell and Lola Montez perform on stage, it is more likely they knew them only from cigar box portraits. Dave carried a picture of Lillian Russell in his bedroll and often displayed it in saloons. He would turn ugly when anyone disagreed that Miss Russell was the most beautiful woman in the world. Madero, who believed Lola Montez was Spanish, declared that she deserved that title. He went to his saddlebag and returned with a tattered picture of his beloved Lola.

The argument became heated and Madero drew his revolver and shot a hole through Lillian Russell’s nose. An enraged Dave Colfax pulled out his own revolver and shot Jose Madero dead. Dave Colfax was tried for murder. The jury was shown the pictures and after seeing the damage done to Lillian Russell they returned a verdict of justifiable homicide.

Resolved in a court of law: Lillian Russell was the most beautiful woman in the world.


Sources:

  • Burke, John. Duet in diamonds; the flamboyant saga of Lillian Russell and Diamond Jim Brady in America's gilded age,. New York: Putnam, 1972.
  • Mahon, Elizabeth Kerri. Scandalous women: the lives and loves of history's most notorious women. New York: Penguin Group, 2011.

Lillian Russell Papers

Lola Montez