No. 583
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
November 29, 2022

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
...
...

Fifteen-year-old Jody Randall of Long Beach, California, was in most ways a typical suburban teenager.  The one thing that set her apart was a passion for antiques which was unusual for someone of her youth.  As a result of spending all her available free time (and her parents’ money) on her hobby, she eventually amassed some impressive pieces, including a doll collection noteworthy enough to
More...
Strange Company - 11/28/2022
`
Shell and Pea Game on the Trail"Sketched from life by M. W. Newberry"San Francisco ChronicleApril 10, 1898(Click image to enlarge)    UNKO MEN AND THEIR TRICKS      A wonderfully detailed description of the modus operandi of Soapy Smith's three shell and pea manipulators along the Chilkoot and White Pass trails. Witnessed and reported by Joseph D. Barry, and published in the San Francisco
More...
Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 11/21/2022
Museum of the City of New YorkWilliam Howe and Abraham Hummel were the most successful criminal lawyers in Gilded Age New York. With a combination of skill, showmanship, and unethical practices, they defended most of the city’s significant criminals and many of its murderers. Whether they won or lost, Howe and Hummel made every trial sensational. Here are a few of the many accused murderers
More...
Murder By Gaslight - 11/26/2022
Working as a domestic servant in 19th century New York City had plenty of challenges. Sure, servants received room and board in addition to their wages, and they usually had at least Sunday afternoon off. But living in another family’s home was isolating and lonely—particularly if you didn’t speak English or weren’t accustomed to urban […]
More...
Ephemeral New York - 11/28/2022
On this date in 2002, Pakistani Mir Aimal Kansi, Kasi, or Qazi was executed by lethal injection in Virginia, U.S.A. “Real angry with the policy of the U.S. government in the Middle East, particularly toward the Palestinian people,”* Qazi on January 25, 1993 revenged himself on Central Intelligence Agency commuters queued for a left turn […]
More...
Executed Today - 11/14/2022
Fifteen-year-old Jody Randall of Long Beach, California, was in most ways a typical suburban teenager.  The one thing that set her apart was a passion for antiques which was unusual for someone of her youth.  As a result of spending all her available free time (and her parents’ money) on her hobby, she eventually amassed some impressive pieces, including a doll collection noteworthy enough to
More...
Strange Company - 11/28/2022
Museum of the City of New YorkWilliam Howe and Abraham Hummel were the most successful criminal lawyers in Gilded Age New York. With a combination of skill, showmanship, and unethical practices, they defended most of the city’s significant criminals and many of its murderers. Whether they won or lost, Howe and Hummel made every trial sensational. Here are a few of the many accused murderers
More...
Murder By Gaslight - 11/26/2022
Wishing you a happy and bountiful Thanksgiving Day! Lizzie is thankful for turkey and all the trimmings – and no mutton broth in sight!
More...
Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 11/22/2022
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: […]
More...
Early American Crime - 12/17/2021
Old King Brady. | Hallow Eve Sports.

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