Sallie Stickney

By Molly Thomas

Sallie Eloise Stickney, also spelled “Sally Stickney” and sometimes billed as “Mlle. Heloise” was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her date of birth is unknown, but has been loosely placed around 1835.[1] At an early age (“since she could walk” according to historian T. Allston Brown) Sallie had a career as a circus equestrienne.[2] Her father, Samuel P. Stickney, was a well-known circus manager, rider, ringmaster, horse-trainer, and teacher of equestrian arts. He raised Sallie and her four siblings, Robert, Rosaline, Emma Auline, and Samuel Jr., in the business.[3] S. P. Stickney was a notoriously harsh trainer, a shrewd manager and an oppressive father. Like many young circus prodigies, Sallie’s upbringing was likely physically and emotionally demanding, due to her role in securing the family’s income.[4]

In June 1855, Sallie received one of her earliest acknowledgements by the press. The Dover Gazette & Strafford Advertiser in New Hampshire announced that a circus featuring both General Tom Thumb and S.P. Stickney’s Troupe of Equestriennes was on its way. Sallie is highlighted as, “a young lady of the most brilliant talents in her line,” excelling in her equestrianism beyond “all the most popular demoiselles and signoras in the country.”[5]

This reputation persisted in September 1858 when Sallie performed with Dan Rice’s Regular Company, a caravan consisting of 80 people and 100 horses. She was then advertised as “the most modest, chaste and accomplished Equestrienne in America.” Her accomplishments, of course, were credited to her father. That month, the caravan pitched its tent in Hillsboro, Winchester and Cinllicothe Ohio, performing twice a day in each city at two and eight pm.[6]

Sallie frequently appeared solo on her “flying steed,” Camille.[7] From C.G. Sturtevant, (quoted in Slout) we get a visual description of her dressed in silk draperies and carrying a long silk scarf, “striking” various poses as she rode around the ring. Sturtevant also purports that Sallie introduced dancing, pirouettes, and rope skipping to horseback rising.[8]

Sallie often performed duets and group acts in addition to her solo act. One such was La Gitana (Spanish for “the Gypsy”), which she fascinated audiences with in December 1858 while with Tom King’s Circus Company at the Front Street Theatre, Baltimore.[9] Another act was a thrilling adventure piece called Abruzzi Brigands, where she played Queen of the Bandits alongside Mr. Tom King himself as Marco.[10] That same month in Baltimore, she did a double horse act with Tom King, and a dance with Mr. Geo. T. Sheldon.[11] At the end of the engagement, in a night of variety advertised as “THE FEAST OF THE SEASON,” Sallie performed for the first time 75 consecutive leaps, alongside a Spanish Trampoline act, the Double Perch, and an equestrian pantomime of Don Juan.[12]

Two years later, Sallie was a part of one of the most anticipated circus events of her time. In 1860 Niblo’s Garden had just been rebuilt, and a number of famous acts were hired under Mr. Nixon’s management to perform at its re-opening. Funnily enough, it was here that Sallie acquired the stage name “Mademoiselle Heloise.” As her father tells it, earlier on in her career she had sometimes been billed as Mlle. Eloise. This time, for the Niblo’s opening, since Nixon thought “Mlle. Eloise” was a more attractive name than “Sallie Stickney,” he requested she be billed as such. Unfortunately, there was a typo when the advertisements went to print, and an extra “H” was added. Henceforth, whether she liked it or not Sallie kept the name. It proved popular with the public, so she continued to perform as “Mlle. Heloise” for the remainder of her career.[13]

Importantly, during the engagement at Niblo’s, Sallie met another young equestrian, Omar Kingsley. At the time, the public knew Kingsley as “M’lle Ella Zoyara,” since he had been trained and advertised as a female equestrian by his manager James Stokes from the age of eight. Though critics had their doubts, Zoyara was widely believed to be a woman because he dressed and rode as one in the ring. For their riding, Omar and Sallie were often compared by the press, though the New York Clipper made it clear they were not as impressed with Zoyara’s “astonishing and daring efforts,” his attempts at “apparent impossibilities” as they were by the “grace and finish” in the “‘Act of Beauty’” of M’lle Heloise.[14]

Interestingly, coinciding with the opening at Niblo’s, the New York Tribune did a feature on the circus riders in Nixon’s Company, which the Newark Advocate reprinted. It outlined the rates of pay of eminent performers, listing “Mlle Heloise” as receiving $100 a week, and “Ella Zoyara” as receiving $500 a week.[15]

Far from being rivals, however, Omar and Sallie became romantically involved, united by a mutual disdain for their oppressive, managerial father figures (S.P. Stickney and James Stokes).[16] In October 1861, they eloped, much to the surprise of the American public, many of whom still believed Zoyara was a woman.[17] After the elopement, Omar continued touring as Ella Zoyara (despite his gender having been found out) with Sallie presumably in tow. They had a daughter soon after, named Dona, who later became a wire performer.[18] In 1863 Omar debuted in San Francisco with John Wilson’s circus. He then toured the Pacific slope for two seasons.[19]

In 1865 Sallie and Omar travelled with Wilson’s circus to Australia, where Omar performed as a female inside the ring, but was seen outside it dressed in male attire and “swearing like a Gulf pirate.”[20] It is likely Sallie remained in Australia while Omar, in 1867, toured India, China, Japan, and the Philippine Islands.

It’s unclear what Sallie did in Australia. Was she performing? Certainly she would have been raising Dona, and was perhaps even training her in circus arts. Equally unclear is the motive behind her return to America in 1869. Her choice may have been related to a debacle in Manila over the question of Kingsley’s gender, which saw Kingsley and Williams thrown in a local jail and then shipped back to the US.[21] Perhaps Sallie meant to continue the marriage in San Francisco, where Kingsley had ended up. Circus historian William Slout maintains that their marriage was doomed from the start.[22] Given the nature of their work, the fact that they had run away from their old lives, the constant touring and separation, the birth of their first child, and the disconnect between Kingsley’s public and private personas, it’s perhaps no surprise that when Sallie arrived in New York in 1869, Omar procured a divorce.[23]

Sallie died in January 1886, in New York. According to the Evening Star, she had been sick and living in extreme poverty for nearly four months, necessitating that she be buried by the Actor’s Fund. By the time she died, it seems Sallie had become only a footnote in the story of Ella Zoyara (Omar Kingsley). The obituary itself was titled “ELLA ZOARA’S WIFE DIED IN POVERTY,” and as the writer points out matter-of-factly, “She had been forgotten many years until her death recalled the name.”[24]


[1] William L Slout, Olympians of the Sawdust Circle: A Biographical Dictionary of the Nineteenth Century American Circus (San Bernardino, CA: Borgo, 1998), 290.

[2] T. Allston Brown, A History of the American Stage (New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1870), 348, Web, December 12, 2015, Victorian Popular Culture, Adam Matthew, May 4, 2015.

[3] William L. Slout, Clowns and Cannons: The American Circus During the Civil War, (San Bernardino, CA: Borgo, 1997), 72.

[4] Shauna Vey, “The Master and the Mademoiselle: Gender Secrets in Plain Sight in Antebellum Performance,” Theatre History Studies 27 (2007): 44, Web, November 28, 2015, Project Muse, DOI: 10.1353/ths.2007.0012.

[5] “TOM THUMB AND THE CIRCUS,” Dover Gazette & Strafford Advertiser (Dover, New Hampshire), June 9, 1855, Web, November 28, 2015, 19th Century U.S. Newspapers,

c:set var=”TI” value=”Tom Thumb and the Circus”/> <p> <b><i>Dover Gazette & Strafford Advertiser</i></b>. Jun 9, 1855</p.

[6] “DAN RICE’S GREAT SHOW!!” The Highland Weekly News (Hillsboro, OH), September 2, 1858, Web, November 28, 2015, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress,

[7] “FRONT STEET THEATRE,” The Daily Exchange (Baltimore, MD), December 9, 1858, Web, November 28, 2015, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress,

[8] Slout, Olympians, 290.

[9] “FRONT STEET THEATRE,” The Daily Exchange (Baltimore, MD), December 6, 1858, Web, November 28, 2015, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress,

[10] “AMUSEMENTS, FRONT STREET CIRCUS,” The Daily Exchange (Baltimore, MD), December 9, 1858, Web, November 28, 2015, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress,

[11] FRONT STEET THEATRE,” The Daily Exchange (Baltimore, MD), December 23, 1858, Web, November 28, 2015, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress,

[12] “FRONT STEET THEATRE,” The Daily Exchange (Baltimore, MD), December 30, 1858, Web, November 28, 2015, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress,

[13] Slout, Clowns and Cannons, 7.

[14] An article from the New York Clipper, January 28, 1860, quoted in: Vey, “The Master and the Mademoiselle,” 49.

[15] “Pay of Circus-Riders,” Newark Advocate (Newark, OH), May 18, 1860, Web, November 28, 2015, 19th Century U.S. Newspapers,

c:set var=”TI” value=”Pay of Circus-riders”/> <p> <b><i>Newark Advocate</i></b>. May 18, 1860</p.

[16] Vey, “The Master and the Mademoiselle,” 45.

[17] Ibid, 43.

[18] Slout, Olympians, 288.

[19] “ELLA ZOYARA: DEATH OF THE NOTED CIRCUS FEMALE IMPERSONATOR,” from San Francisco Chronicle, quoted in the New York Times, May 28, 1879, Web, November 28, 2015, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times with Index, 5,

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Slout, Olympians, 290.

[23] Ibid.

[24] “ELLA ZOARA’S WIFE DIED IN POVERTY,” Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), January 13, 1886, Web, November 28, 2015, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers Online, Library of Congress,


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