A Peculiar Case of Bigamy by a Circus Clown

In August 1884 a series of advertisements were placed in theatrical newspapers announcing the imminent arrival of my great great grandmother, Ada Isaacs, from the United States for the Winter circus season.

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The Mazeppa, the female jester, the twice married but not twice divorced ‘Ada Isaacs’ was back in town. She opened in the first week of November at Cooke’s Circus in Manchester. A review in The Stage tells us,

‘the popular spectacle of the Mazeppa has been revived here with Barnum’s 5,000 dollar beauty Miss Ada Isaacs… The business is extraordinarily good.’

Ada’s return from America also coincided with the opening of a new circus in Liverpool, a rival to Hengler’s well-established Grand Cirque.  Now the Cooke circus dynasty had plans to open their ‘New Circus’ on the site of the old Theatre Royal in Williamson Square. Both Hengler’s and Cooke’s ramped up their publicity and attractions in the local press towards the end of November in an attempt to attract custom.

Mazeppa image from Bernard Falk book

As Ada paraded Cooke’s Manchester circus ring, bound to the back of her fiery steed in the role of Mazeppa, what of her second husband Fabian, the contortionist clown? He was also to be found in the North West – in Liverpool – at Hengler’s – together with Charlotte, his second wife of nearly ten years standing. And as evidenced by a correspondence address listed in one of her many advertisements in The Era, Ada appears to have travelled from Manchester to Liverpool for the week of Cooke’s ‘New Circus’ opening. Fabian was in the uncomfortable position of having two wives in town during the same week! One of whom was publicity hungry AND in the employ of a new circus also looking for publicity. What better opportunity could there be for Fabian’s bigamous second marriage to be brought to the attention of the authorities? 

On Wednesday 26 November, Fabian (in the name James Patrick Bantry-Fagan) appeared at Liverpool Police Court and was charged with having committed bigamy in August 1875 on marriage to Miss Charlotte Taylor Giles. He was described as having been ‘given into custody’ by none other than his first wife, Ada Isaacs.  A week later Fabian was back at Court and committed for trial having pleaded ‘not guilty’ and claiming in his defence that he ‘recollect[ed] nothing at all’ of his first marriage to Ada in 1869. According to a report in The Times the scene in the court room was as entertaining and lively as the circus ring: ‘the clown’ was initially sat at a seat at his solicitors’ table until he was required to move to the prisoner’s dock. And then on one side of the court, known as the complainant’s side, ‘the lady who claims to be the lawful wife sat, with a few professional friends’ and on the opposite side sat ‘the other lady with her friends.’  The expression ‘throwing shade’ has been popularised by Ru Paul’s Drag Race in recent yearsI would guess that there was a lot of shade being thrown about in that Liverpool Court room that Wednesday morning.

Shade-throwing aside, there were of course very good reasons why divorce was not sought at that time – it was difficult and costly to end to a marriage. It was hardly surprising that bigamy was commonplace, illegal or not.  A cheaper deed of separation could be sought between spouses but much better to come to a tacit agreement with your spouse and move on. The itinerant nature of circus lives might have made ‘theatricals’ more vulnerable to marry more than once, thinking that the vast distances they travelled meant families and spouses would not find out.

 

The press have always enjoyed a bigamy story and the report of ‘Bigamy By A Circus Clown’ was repeated (often with erroneous details) in news publications throughout the country.  Fabian’s status as a ‘clown at Hengler’s’ was reported widely. Although there is no comment on this, one can only imagine the delight with which this news must have gone down with that new Liverpool circus proprietor as Hengler’s name was dragged through the press in connection with the case.  No-one picked up on the fact that Ada had herself committed bigamy at the time of her marriage to Fabian, having still been lawfully married to Herr Christoff.  Fortunately for Ada, Christoff had expired in the Lambeth Workhouse in 1881 and thus was safely out of the way.  There was also no news from America where she had certainly entered into a new relationship and was the mother of two children, father unknown. Where were those children? In America in the care of some kindly friend or with Ada as she journeyed from circus to circus?

Having turned Fabian into the authorities, Ada was safely away from the scene of the hubbub and in Great Yarmouth by December with George Pinder’s Great Continental Circus. She was billed as ‘The Queen of Female Jesters and the best exponent of the role of the Mazeppa extant.…”  January 1885 saw her performing in Middlesborough, Huddersfield, Warrington, Derby and then back to Liverpool for arguably her greatest performance of all – her appearance at Fabian’s trial. 

The trial began on 10th February 1885 at Liverpool Assizes. The ‘not guilty’ plea was withdrawn, presumably after advice from Mr M’Connell, his Counsel. The evidence – a marriage certificate provided by Ada –  was conclusive and putting up a defence was hardly worth the wasted time or expense. Other ‘reasons’ to excuse his bigamous actions were put forward by his Counsel –  that Ada had deserted him on numerous occasions and taken his clothes and belongings with her; in 1872 she had left him for good and gone to America. He had presumed that was the last he would see of her; he had heard through circus gossip that she had re-married and had two children. 

Mr M’Connell also put to the Court that the charge had been made because of professional rivalry, ‘the two circuses being in the city at the same time.’ As at the earlier committal hearing, the Court was packed with friends of all parties; it must have been a veritable gathering of circus folk. 

Three female witnesses took the stand – Charlotte, Ada and Charlotte’s mother, Mrs Giles.  Charlotte’s evidence was that she was unaware that Fabian had been married to Ada, he had told her they only co-habited (he would, wouldn’t he?). 

Mrs Giles stated that she had seen Ada in Leamington and told her that her daughter was to marry Fabian. Ada’s response was, ‘God help her; before she is his wife 5 months she will wish herself dead,’ which gives a brief insight to Ada’s thoughts on her marriage to Fabian. Mrs Giles said Ada told her she had no claim on Fabian. 

Ada claimed that any meeting with Mrs Giles took place after the bigamy had been committed and she contradicted Fabian’s tale of desertion by claiming she had gone to America as he had deserted her. And when in America ‘she heard of his death having been advertised, and then, as she was destitute, she accepted the protection of a gentleman, considering it was better to do that than starve.’ Another interesting insight into Ada’s motivations. Who was the ‘gentleman’ who so kindly offered her protection? What was the current status of that relationship with him? Was he the father of  her two children? These are the questions I would love to ask my great great grandmother.  Ada also denied any professional rivalry either between Hengler’s and Cooke’s and between Charlotte and herself – ‘because she was a bona fide artiste, and Miss Giles was only an “utility” woman,’ at which point the Liverpool Mercury tells us there was ‘[Laughter].’  More shade-throwing. And Ada’s plea to the court ended on a rather odd note – ‘All that she desired was to vindicate her character.’ The Leeds Times described the case as ‘very peculiar all round’ and it is difficult not to agree. What was Ada’s motivation? Was she provoked into it by petty jealousies and in the interests of self-promotion? What had gone so wrong in her relationship with Fabian that she wanted to inflict incarceration on him? And one can’t help but feel compassion for Charlotte – very probably lied to by the man she had been married to for ten years and now finding her life upended.

Fabian was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment in HMP Liverpool, with hard labour.  Mr Justice Day said he looked upon the crime of bigamy as a ‘most serious offence’ and he failed to see a redeeming feature in this case.  However, he went onto mention that the second marriage had taken place as long as ten years ago and that Fabian was  prosecuted ‘not in the interests of justice, but for some different motive, by his first wife…’ which suggest that Justice Day did see some mitigating circumstances.

Fabian’s relationship with Charlotte survived the prosecution and imprisonment and on his release they continued touring together as Monsieur Fabian and Mademoiselle Carlotta Fabian. Fabian died in Tuam, Eire in 1914 aged 68. Charlotte ended her days in Canada where she moved to live with her sister after his death. In The World’s Fair in 1916, Charlotte placed an ‘In memoriam’,

In loving memory of James Fabian…Never forgotten by his loving wife, Charlotte Fabian.

And what of Ada? She was on her way back to the USA by the end of the year and the next few years were spent touring with theatrical companies with her two children in tow. In 1886 she was in Kentucky, touring with The Croix Dramatic Company. Now she had another project – the theatrical careers of her two children.

Notes

Cooke’s New Circus opened on Monday 24 November 1884 in Williamson Square, Liverpool on the site of the old Theatre Royal, which in the words of the Liverpool Mercury had become ‘with the aid of the architect, builder, upholster, gas fitter, decorator, artist and sculptor, a circus with every convenience to render it a very successful place of amusement.’  The building was demolished in the 1960s after a very long period of time as a cold store.

Hengler’s Circus had first set up in Liverpool in 1857 and was at three sites – Dale Street, Cropper Street and finally West Derby Road.  It closed as a circus in 1901 to make way for Thomas Barrasford’s The Royal Hippodrome (designed by architect Bertie Crewe) which converted to a cinema in 1931. This was closed in 1970 and the building was empty for many years before being demolished in 1980/81.

In her publicity advertisements during this period Ada refers to being ‘Barnum’s 5,000 dollar beauty’. This sounds like a publicity puff worthy of the Greatest Showman himself. She possibly toured with Barnum’s circus as an equestrienne but that is a piece of research for another time. She also mentions her ‘new and sensational’ equestrian drama – Buffalo Belle which had been written expressly for her. I cannot see that Ada got the opportunity to unleash this on the British public in 1884/85 but it would undoubtedly have been influenced by the ‘Buffalo Bill’- style Wild West Shows that were enormously popular in the USA at that time.

With thanks to British Newspaper Archive, Gale Historical Newspapers/The Times, Sheffield University National Fairground and Circus Archive and http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk.

6 thoughts on “A Peculiar Case of Bigamy by a Circus Clown

  1. Oh my – just when one thinks Music Hall Alice could not possibly expose any more familial drama – along come these incredible revelations…What next?! Looking forward to the next epsiode of this wonderful real life soap opera which should be gracing the pages of a book. Flog the film rigjhts , Alison, – love, Your mother’s ‘distant’ cousin.!
    P.S. Bigamy – hope you will research any genetic link !!

  2. What a story! Truth stranger than fiction but which is which? I love your blogs, Alison, and your writing style. Am thinking, in a slow way, about my next one. Mx

  3. Such a gripping read! One of your campest, with a nod to both RuPaul and Mandy Rice-Davies! I agree with those above, what a film this would all make! Superb!

  4. Wow! What a story. I can’t help feeling very sorry for Fabian and Charlotte. Family history research can be so tantalising, so many questions always remain unanswered! As you say, one has to wonder what Ada’s motivation was for bringing the case against Fabian. You continue to unearth fascinating facts, not only about your ancestors but also the music hall/circus way of life. I continue to be amazed by the distances they travelled at a time when that in itself wasn’t easy. Keep delving!

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