The Mysterious Annabelle Whitford
The obituary of Annabelle Moore gives very few details about her life. She was a performer, a dancer, who was “fatally burned in the great Chicago theater fire.” The majority of the column in which her obituary appears is taken up by a large photograph of Moore, surrounded rather gruesomely by flames, smoke, and panicked theater patrons. No memorable performances are mentioned. The greater part of the text is actually given over to a description of how Moore avoided performing at an event that would have been far too scandalous: a dinner party given by one Clinton Barnum Seeley, requesting that Moore—also known as Annabelle Whitford—stripped entirely nude. Moore/Whitford refused and brought the police down on Seeley.
Most interesting about this obituary is that it gives no mention whatsoever of Whitford ever having danced as Little Egypt, which was what brought her to my attention. Rachel Shteir asserts in her book Striptease that Annabelle Whitford was the only name to be attached to a Little Egypt dancer. Piqued by this omission in her obituary, I set out to find the truth of the matter.
The account of the Seeley affair in the obituary, found in the San Francisco Chronicle, is consistent with another report of the incident found in a Washington Post feature on the ensuing trial. Whitford is portrayed as an unfortunate victim who, although having been a “public dancer” for the past four years, is not entirely depraved and without standards. The performance requested of Whitford is slightly different here—according to the Post, she was only asked to appear nude from the waist down. Of course, that could ostensibly be what the writer of her obituary meant as well. Equally likely is an intentional sensationalizing of the event at the later date, or simply an inflation of events.
The Post column reveals a few more interesting tidbits about Whitford. Assuming that the age she gives—eighteen—is accurate, as is the her figure of having been a public dancer for four years, Whitford began performing at the age of fourteen, “at the time of the World’s Fair” in Chicago. Her dancing debut was at a venue called the Grotto, which was apparently “reputable,” although “liquors were sold there.” Whitford also describes two of her costumes. One seems to be fairly conservative—the sleeves are short and the neck low-cut, but the skirt reaches her ankles and she wears tights underneath. The other costume is not described except for the total yardage of fabric involved (110 yards “of silk and gauze”), which leads one to believe that it, too, is fairly conservative.
This report from the Post is fascinating in that there is a good deal of distance put between Whitford and any Little Egypt act, and no real connection between them. Another dancer who was at the party gives a description of Little Egypt’s costume, which left the dancer “practically naked” according to the reporter and the standards of the day. This account comes at the end of the column, whereas Whitford’s testimony takes up the first half. If there is truly any connection between Whitford and any Little Egypt act, let alone the one that performed at this scandalous party, both witnesses and reporters are being careful not to make it known.
Another account recalling this infamous dinner and scandal appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on February 27, 1987, about a month and a half after the courtroom account in the Post was published. This column gives Annabelle’s surname as Moore and again paints her as the dancer who brought down the fire on the Seeley party because she was so offended at the prospect of appearing nude. In this article, however, she appears right after a mention of Little Egypt, whose name appears in quotations in this paper.
It is difficult to conclude whether or not Whitford was indeed a Little Egypt dancer at the Seeley dinner, but she continued performing regardless, appearing in a number of touring stage productions. She is listed playing Johnnie, a friend of Prince Charming’s, in a production entitled The Sleeping Beauty and the Beast. In this breeches role, Whitford was surely a draw to the audience, who could glimpse her scandalous legs. Her final tour was in a production called Mr. Blue Beard, in which Whitford played Stella, Queen of the Fairies. The spectacle opened the brand-new Iroquois Theater in Chicago, and a notice in the Tribune heralding its arrival lauded the play’s spectacle above all else. The second act is reported to “contain more gorgeousness than has yet been shown on the American stage,” and not one but two ballets are advertised. Although Whitford was listed as a principal performer for this production, it seems likely that the Queen of the Fairies would take part in ballets entitled “The Land of the Ferns” and “The Triumph of the Magic Fan.”
Whitford appears again in connection with the Iroquois Theater and Mr. Blue Beard, this time in a New York Times article about the hazards of overcrowding in theaters; specifically the danger associated with evacuating in the event of a fire. Whitford appears here as a victim of such a fire at the Iroquois, the injuries from which ultimately took her life. The column speaks of her proudly as a New York girl, but spends more time remembering her involvement in the Seeley affair. Whitford herself gets a short paragraph. The scandal is reviewed in the following two.
Annabelle Whitford remains a bit of an enigmatic figure. She was certainly a dancer who showed a little skin, and she was certainly centrally involved in the infamous Seeley party. Her prominence in that trial was one of the distinguishing features of her career, and followed her the rest of her life, presumably giving her career a nice little boost of notoriety. But was she a Little Egypt dancer? It does seem likely, but contemporary reports are murky on the subject. It seems most likely that she did dance as Little Egypt, but abandoned the act and attempted to distance herself from the persona as much as possible in order to provide a more credible defense at her trial. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to know for sure.
Annabelle Moore Fatally Burned. (1904, January 1). San Francisco Chronicle (1869-Current file), p. 2. Retrieved July 13, 2010, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers San Francisco Chronicle (1869-Current file).
Before the Footlights. (1901, November 5). Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), p. 5. Retrieved July 13, 2010, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849 – 1987).
Conditions in New York. (1903, December 31). New York Times (1857-1922), p. 2. Retrieved July 13, 2010, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers, New York Times (1857-1922).
The Guest of Honor at the Sherry Feast. (1897, February 27). San Francisco Chronicle (1869-Current file), p. 16. Retrieved July 13, 2010, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers San Francisco Chronicle (1869-Current file).
Playbills. (1903, November 22). Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922),p. 33. Retrieved July 13, 2010, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849 – 1987).
Shteir, Rachel. Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show. New York: Oxford University Press. 2004.
Those Dinner Dances. (1897, January 10). The Washington Post (1877-1993),p. 5. Retrieved July 13, 2010, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The Washington Post (1877-1993).