By Anthony Sansonetti
The Boone Children are an elusive and mysterious bunch. The “e” at the end of Boone was often excluded from advertisements in the United States of America until 1857; the reason for this is unknown. In historian T. Allston Brown’s account of their lives, the Boone Childen were “well-known children” named “Isabella and Charlotte” who appeared in notable dramatic works such as William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Sheridan Knowles’ The Honeymoon and John Maddison Morton’s Box and Cox in both the United States and England from 1857 to the end of 1859.1 What is troubling about this claim is the fact that another pair of children named Lora Gorden and Anna Isabella were renowned for these very same performances in the United States as “the Boon Children” four years earlier than Brown’s “Boone children.” Is this merely an error on Brown’s part? Taken as a whole, periodicals discussing the performances of Isabella and Charlotte Boone appear to be nonexistent, whereas much writing can be found on the careers of Lora Gorden and Anna Isabella Boone.
Lora Gorden Boone and her older sister Anna Isabella Boone were born to Anna Boyle Boone. Their birthplace(s) and dates of birth are unknown, yet Anna was said to be older than Lora by one2 and, at times, two3 years. Lora and Anna’s father was invisible in the managing and facilitating of their careers, but he is said to be “one of the voluntary nurses” who assisted the South in curing a health “epidemic” during the summer of 1855.4 Unlike Lora and Anna’s father, the popular press wrote at length about Lora and Anna’s mother, Mrs. Anna Boyle Boone, who was also their full-time theatrical agent. Mrs. Boone possessed a flair for drama-based education; and with this skill in hand, she put a lot of effort into bolstering the careers of her children. In fact, one of the Boone children’s advertisements in The New York Daily Times tells us that Lora and Anna never had “the benefit” of “professional tuition,” since both children were schooled in the art of theatre “entirely by their mother.”5 This amateur training did not put a damper on the talents of Lora and Anna. During their time at Barnum’s Museum, Lora and Anna showcased “unusual mental precocity,” while Lora obtained further praise for her flawless “rhetorical skill” as well as her “regulated,” yet “strong, full voice.”6 Mrs. Boone also appeared on stage in New York7 and Virginia8 where she read scenes from Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Honeymoon and Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal with her virtuosic children by her side.
The Boone Children are particularly interesting insofar as they danced, sang, recited lines from notable works of dramatic literature and, as one journalist puts it, flaunted their financial distress to obtain “public sympathy.”9 Mrs. Boone was supposedly “robbed” of her finances in New York and used her children’s performances as a ready tool for financial compensation and, in turn, everyday survival.10 An advertisement in the New-York Daily Tribune reads: “WANTED, a Lady or Gentleman with Capital, to enter into a partnership with the Boon Children.”11 There was—as Shauna Vey so aptly illustrates in her recent study of the Marsh children’s perceptive methods for success—a stable market for troupes of juvenile actors after Lora and Anna’s initial success in 1853.12 The Marsh Children devised a plan to incorporate the children of various families in their one-of-a-kind performances.13 This paradigm for juvenile troupes in the United States attracted more audiences to the theatre and soon caught the eye of the Boone Children who began to rapidly increase in size.14 In February 1855, Anna and Lora travelled to Washington where they appeared at Carusi’s Saloon, a “Galaxy of Juvenile Genius.”15 Here, Lora and Anna introduced a child by the name of Mordaunt Boone to their familial troupe; the three children performed the tenth scene from Julius Caesar, Honey Moon, School for Scandal and Macbeth together and concluded with a song called The Low Backed Car and a “genuine Irish jig.”16
Mordaunt was just one of the multiple children who Mrs. Anna Boyle Boone recruited after the Boone Children performed in a New York-based tribute to General Tom Thumb at Barnum’s American Museum in the spring of 1856.17 By February 1857, the Boone Children travelled to Richmond, Virginia, where the advertising jingle “three in number” seamlessly transformed into “four in number”18 and, later, “five in number.”19 In a rapid performance of an “entire scene” from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Lady Lyons, Lora and Anna took on the roles of Claude Melnotte and Pauline.20 Lora also sang a solo and two new children named Volante Boone and Arthur M. Boone performed a “comic Chinese dance” as an afterpiece.21 Two days later a six-year-old girl named Katy Boone was added to the troupe to fill the role of a dancing partner for four-year-old Volante; the Boone Children were now five in number.22 Critics never discussed the virtuosic capacities of the other children in the Boone troupe of child performers; instead, Lora and Anna received most of the praise from popular newspapers. Washington’s Daily Evening Star claims that Lora was “the superior actress” of the two sisters seeing as Anna’s performance of Macbeth was no match for Lora’s performance of Lady Macbeth.23
Before the end of 1857, Lora and Anna abandoned the rest of the children in their troupe and crossed the Atlantic for the first time.24 The Boone Children—that is, Lora and Anna—made a much-discussed appearance in London and were no longer made up of a hodgepodge of young people. Lora and Anna performed The School for Scandal, a staple piece in their repertoire, for London audiences and were met “with great favor,”23 receiving “much applause each evening.”25 They also performed various songs and dances in London, which were reviewed at length in The Theatrical Journal by a perceptive reviewer who seems to be well-versed in nineteenth-century theatre and its various theatrical schools of thought.26 The Boone Children could not, however, keep up with their competition on either side of the Atlantic. Already deemed less “clever” than the Marsh troupe of juvenile actors by Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly,27 a journalist in London took this critique one step further, suggesting that the Boone Children were no match for Great Britain’s winsome Bateman Children either.28
As I wrapped-up my research on the careers of the Boone Children, I began to notice that their dramatic roles consistently stayed the same. The Boone Children’s repertoire was encapsulated in what the New York Times unexcitingly calls “classical readings, comic songs, duets” and “dialogues, etc. in character,”29 generating a kind of automatous structure of the performing child, one in which Ambassadors of Empire aims to deconstruct as well as see anew. In this limited conception of performing children, the Boone Children perform as part of a regular procedure rather than with a purpose or for a special reason. With this in mind, my closing question becomes this: how can we begin to analyze the Boone Children’s monotonous performances as complex undertakings rather than lacklustre happenings? Though I, too, was bored of reading similar descriptions of the Boone Children’s supposedly different performances in various newspapers, I wonder how we can access the Boone Children’s capacity to become a medium for trans-Atlantic fascination via their stable repertoire? Is there constructive potential for reciting or singing the same lines and dancing the same steps over and over again? Does this embodied repertoire of stagnancy in a trans-Atlantic and so mobile sphere produce what educationalists Megan Watkins and Greg Noble call “an active mind and active, well coordinated body” in performance?30 In other words, did the Boone Children’s recurring performances of the same dramatic roles allow them to become leaders in particular kinds of work while other performing children and their agents aimed for variety, only to become jacks of all trades and masters of none? It is my contention that we must resist the passive temptation to argue that Mrs. Boone was simply unable to teach her children new tricks. We must not forget that the Boone Children were able to appeal to audiences in both London and the United States in spite of their unvaried repertoire.
- T. Allston Brown, History of the American Stage (New York: Dick & Fitzgerald), 34.
- “Plaquemine, Southern Sentinel, May 21, 1853.
- “Amusements: Barnum’s Museum,” New York Daily Times, August 12, 1853, 4.
- “Chinese Assembly Rooms—Benefit,” New-York Daily Tribune, January 10, 1856.
- “Amusements: Barnum’s Museum,” 4.
- “Chinese Assembly Rooms—Benefit.
- “Amusements: Corinthian Hall,” The Daily Dispatch, February 11, 1857.
- “Chinese Assembly Rooms—Benefit.”
- Shauna Vey, “Beginnings and Success,” in Childhood and Nineteenth-Century American Theatre: The Work of the Marsh Troupe of Juvenile Actors, (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2015), 36.
- “Amusements: Carusi’s Saloon,” Daily American Organ, February 16, 1855.
- “Academy Hall—Complimentary Benefit to Gen. Tom Thumb.” New-York Daily Tribune, May 2,
- “Corinthian Hall—The Classical Boone Children,” The Daily Dispatch, February 7, 1857.
- “Corinthian Hall—Day and Night Performance by the Talented Boone Children,” The Daily Dispatch, February 11, 1857.
- “Corinthian Hall—The Classical Boone Children.”
- “Corinthian Hall—Day and Night Performance by the Talented Boone Children.”
- “Local Intelligence: Risley’s Variety,” Daily Evening Star, April 17, 1854.
- “Personal,” New York Times, September 30, 1858.
- “American Theatricals,” The Era, June 7, 1868.
- “The Boone Children,” The Theatrical Journal, October 20, 1859, 338.
- Lawrence Hutton, “Infant Phenomena,” Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, April 1886, 439.
- “Theatres, &c.: Strand,” The Era, July 25, 1858.
- “Amusements: Barnum’s American Museum,” New York Times, April 26, 1865.
- Megan Watkins and Greg Noble, “The Productivity of Stillness: Composure and Scholarly Habitus,” in Stillness in a Mobile World, ed. Gillian Fuller and David Bissell. (London: Routledge, 2011), 111.
“Academy Hall—Complimentary Benefit to Gen. Tom Thumb.” New-York Daily Tribune, May 2, 1856.
“American Theatricals,” The Era, June 7, 1868.
“Amusements: Barnum’s American Museum.” New York Times, April 26, 1865.
“Amusements: Barnum’s Museum.” New York Daily Times, August 12, 1853.
“Amusements: Corinthian Hall.” The Daily Dispatch, February 11, 1857.
“Amusements: Carusi’s Saloon.” Daily American Organ, February 16, 1855.
Brown, T. Allston. History of the American Stage. New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1870.
“Chinese Assembly Rooms—Benefit.” New-York Daily Tribune, January 10, 1856.
“Corinthian Hall—Day and Night Performance by the Talented Boone Children,” The Daily Dispatch, February 11, 1857.
“Corinthian Hall—The Classical Boone Children.” The Daily Dispatch. February 7, 1857.
Hutton, Lawrence. “Infant Phenomena.” Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, April, 1886.
“Local Intelligence: Risley’s Variety.” Daily Evening Star, April 17, 1854.
“Personal.” New York Times, September 30, 1858.
“Plaquemine.” Southern Sentinel, May 21, 1853.
“Theatres, &c.: Strand.” The Era, July 25, 1858.
“The Boone Children.” The Theatrical Journal, October 20, 1859.
Vey, Shauna. “Beginnings and Success.” Childhood and Nineteenth-Century American Theatre: The Work of the Marsh Troupe of Juvenile Actors, 14-28. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2015.
Watkins, Megan and Greg Noble. “The Productivity of Stillness: Composure and Scholarly Habitus.” In Stillness in a Mobile World, edited by Gillian Fuller and David Bissell, 107-124. London: Routledge, 2011.