Monday, November 2, 2009

Josephine DeMott Robinson – West Hempstead’s Celebrity Circus Star

The following article appeared in the fall 2009 edition of the West Hempstead Community Support Association newsletter.

Amidst the rough-edged gold nuggets of prominent male personalities who pioneered in the early settlement of West Hempstead lies a sparkling gem of a lady whose efforts left a lasting effect on our community. When we hold up this jewel to be scrutinized and rub away the dust of history, it is revealed that perhaps no other West Hempstead resident before or since has achieved as much celebrity as the illuminating Josephine DeMott Robinson, the subject of our present sketch.

Born in Newtown (present day Elmhurst), Long Island in 1868[1], Josie DeMott came from a long line of circus performers whose bygone members performed in front of early 19th century French audiences. Throughout her childhood, she accompanied her parents in their small travelling circus and at a very early age, was trained to perform tricks while riding horseback. By her teens she became a highlight act by perfecting her trademark stunt - multiple somersault flips on a moving bareback horse, purportedly the only woman in the world at the time to perform the feat. The diminutive, five-foot tall circus star then went on to win international renown as a marquis act with the Barnum & Bailey Circus.

In 1891 she married Charles M. Robinson[2], a business manager of the circus who would later go on to serve as an Ohio State assemblyman, and soon thereafter she quit the circus settled down as a homemaker in Cincinnati. Unaccustomed as she was to the formalities of playing hostess in her husband's social and political circles, she never really adapted to this new lifestyle. In 1897, news of the Klondike gold rush swept the nation and Charles Robinson made a split decision to try his luck in the Yukon. Ever the adventuress and eager to break the humdrum of life in Ohio, Josie decided to join her husband in Alaska.

The next three years in the Alaskan frontier brought little else but misery for the Robinsons, as their gold seeking venture proved unrewarding. As one of the very few women among hundreds of men in the remote and isolated miners' camps, Josie found herself overburdened as the unofficial camp matron and having to care for the infirm. Out of hope and money by the spring thaw of 1900, the Robinsons longed to return home but simply could not afford passage back to the States. Stuck in Alaska with nowhere to turn, they caught a break that June by finding work as federal census agents and earning just enough money to get back home[3].

Soon after returning, the Robinsons purchased a picturesque 14 acre farm in West Hempstead from a man they had met in Alaska named William Pine-Coffin who had also spent 3 years up north in fruitless pursuit of gold. This farm, located between Nassau Blvd. and Hempstead Ave., was originally settled and built in 1855 as the summer home of prominent Kings County judge, Brooklyn school superintendent, and two time NY state assemblyman Samuel E. Johnson.[4] (The southern border of this estate is marked by Johnson's Lane, named for the original owner). The estate sprawled around a small lake about the size of Halls Pond that once filled an area just south of where Echo Park is presently located. In-period descriptions of this fine estate paint the picture of a long, hedge-lined driveway, rolling lawns, cornfields, forests of birch and pine trees, and a stately home with an expansive porch[5]. By 1900, three years of absence by its previous owner took its toll on the property’s appearance. With great effort, in short time the house was renovated, crops were planted, the pond was once again stocked with trout and the estate was brought back to its former splendor. Farm life in West Hempstead suited Josie much better than the straight-laced world of Cincinnati's upper class. But once again, fortunes would turn for the worse as a series of bad stock market investments erased the Robinson's savings and by 1906 nearly cost them their beloved farm. Though already pushing 40, Josie went back to doing what she knew best to remedy their situation; against the insistence of her husband but to the delight of Circus fans, she came out of retirement and rejoined the Barnum & Bailey Show.

Financial constraints and long periods apart weighed heavily on the marriage. The following year Josie and Charles Robinson separated and would later divorce in 1912.[6]

Josie was an early champion of women’s rights. Her strong will coupled with her life experiences in male-dominated environments - the years spent in various circus troupes and at the Yukon miners’ camps, undoubtedly influenced her to become a leading, outspoken advocate for women’s suffrage. In 1912 she stirred up controversy by organizing the women of the Barnum & Bailey Circus to work for the suffrage cause[7], and went on to become captain of the suffrage club for her district[8].

When her body could no longer handle the rigors of performing under the Big Top, she continued to stay involved in circus life by building a makeshift ring at her farm and training horses to perform in the circus. With her husband now out of the picture, Josie went on to use her home as she pleased. So, she opened a horse riding school for the young girls of Long Island and then converted the place into a sanitarium for women where young ladies could relax, go horseback riding, canoe or swim at the lake or partake in a variety of courses from dancing to nutrition.[9]

Though she never bore any children, in 1916 Josie Robinson adopted Verona Oakley, the twelve year old daughter of a colleague at Barnum & Bailey’s, a circus clown named ‘Slivers’ who tragically took his own life.[10]

As Josie got on in years, care of her beloved farm became too burdensome for her. So in late 1917, Josie sold the property to William and Margaret Collins[11] (after whom Collins Avenue is named) until they, too, sold to a developer in 1940[12]. (Part of the property was purchased later in 1952 as the site of the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County). Josie moved to Manhattan and taught classes in exercise and proper posture to women at the now defunct Traphagen School of Fashion. But her heart was always drawn to the circus. Whenever the circus would roll into town at the old Madison Square Garden, Josie would never miss the show, on occasion being called down to be recognized by the crowd.[13] In 1935, at the remarkable age of 67, she had a part in an ongoing live production called Jumbo that required her to perform shoulder stands on a moving horse[14].

Josie DeMott Robinson died on March 8, 1948, a relic of an era before the advent of motion pictures and television, when all the real starlets of the world were found on stage and in the circus.

(To read more about the remarkable life of Josephine D. Robinson, see her autobiography entitled The Circus Lady.)[15]


[1] As an adult, Josie would never reveal how old she was to reporters, in part because her appearance would belie her age. The 1880 Federal Census (Film T9-1182, Page 137B) taken on June 12 records that she was 11 years old at the time.
[2] New York Clipper 1892 Annual (New York: Frank Queen Pub. Co., 1892) 6.
[3] Entries of the diary that Josie Robinson kept during her years in Alaska were published as a three part feature in McCalls magazine Nov 1927 – Jan 1928. Leaving Rampart, AK on June 9, 1900 to do census work, the Robinson’s were not heard from for more than two months and were presumed dead until they turned up on Aug. 21, having surveyed every camp and native village in the territory.
[4] As for the date when the farm was originally built, see “In Memoriam, Hon. Samuel E. Johnson” Brooklyn Eagle 7 Feb 1870 4, wherein it is reported that Johnson purchased the property at Hempstead ‘twelve or fifteen years ago’ and converted it from swamp and marshland into a farm. See also Transactions of the NY State Agricultural Society Vol. XVI 1856 (Albany: C. Van Benthuysen, Printer to the Legislature; 1856) 551, which shows that Johnson presented corn specimens from his farm at the Queens County Agricultural Society Exhibition in September 1856.
[5] Photos of this lovely estate accompany an essay on Josie Robinson in “Romance of a Circus Rider’s Home” New York Herald Magazine 16 July 1911 8.
[6] “Love’s Dream Shattered” New York Clipper 6 Apr 1912 10.
[7] “Bareback Rider’s Husband Defies Mad Suffragists” Syracuse Journal 1 Apr 1912 4, recounts an incident when the husband of a participant rudely interrupted the suffrage gathering to pull his wife out of the meeting, to which Josie Robinson angrily shot back, “What right do you have to take your wife away from a decent, orderly meeting?”. The husband retorted, “Because she’s my wife and I’m not going to wait all night for my grub!”
[8] “Once Daring Circus Rider Now Soother of Jaded Nerves” Brooklyn Eagle 25 Aug 1916 8
[9] “Youth Possible to Every Woman Who Really Wants It” New York Times 16 Feb 1913 44.
[10] “To Adopt Slivers’s Child” 11 NYT Mar 1916 9.
[11] “Nassau County – Conveyances” Brooklyn Eagle 24 Nov 1917.
[12] The initial plans for the pond was to preserve it as a recreational centerpiece for the new “Hempstead Manor” development (see “Home Models ‘on Parade’ in Development” Brooklyn Eagle 31 Mar 1940 2D), but evidently the developers found it more profitable to drain and subdivide it.
[13] “Circus Star, 80, Revisits Old Scene” NYT 5 May 1946 16.
[14] “Mrs. C. M. Robinson, Once Circus Star” NYT 10 Mar 1948 27.
[15] 304pp. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co.; 1926. A personalized, autographed copy can be found in the special collections of the Hempstead Library.

4 comments:

farmax said...

I don't know if my previous comments made it. Just wanted to say I remember the creek when it ran clear and cold in its natural bed through a dense corridor of woods, when echo park was a field and there was a swamp behind the field. I remember ice skating on the pond on Johnson's Lane before it was filled in for houses. (where were all the enviornmentalists kback then?) I would like any info on where the source of the creek (Pines Brook) is located. Good blog, keep it going.

Jacob said...

Farmax:

Wow! Your memory of West Hempstead goes way back.

In the 1940's when the Janos Lester homes were going up, the developers originally envisioned keeping that pond for private recreation of the residents. But I guess at some point they realized they could make more money by draining it and dividing it up into lots.

Regarding the source of Pine Brook, I was at a WH civic meeting last year when they hosted some people from the County who said the waters originate from somewhere in North Hills/ Manhasset area in the North Shore. Surprising considering everything is now buried until you get south of Hempstead Tpke. In any case, I'm sure the USGS has some maps that can show this.

farmax said...

Hydrologists would probably tell you the source could not be that far north. I've talked to a dept of public works person who may get me some maps of the tunnels that direct the old stream bed north of hempstead turnpike. He said the watershed for the creek begins near old country road and the cree proobably originally ran through the two gold courses in garden city.I recently visited w hempstead last week walked the little league field near cherry valley and talked to a dispatcher at the garden city road dept. No evidence of a channel. I taled to the groundskeeper at cherry fvalley golf course: again no 3evidence of an opern channel. there has to be someone out there who recalls or knows something about the source of the creek and where it ran north of hemp. turnpike

Jacob said...

For what it's worth, following Pine Brook upstream in both the 1906 and 1914 Belcher Hyde maps, there is a split just north of Hempstead Tpke with one source flowing in from the northwest (paralleling Nassau Blvd)and another from the northeast (paralleling Cherry Valley Ave).

I'll try and track down a USGS map to see if we can get more info on this.