Saturday, March 19, 2022

Bess clowning around?

Above is the famous photo of the Welsh Bros Circus troupe in 1895. You can see a young Houdini standing on the far right (labeled #6). But where is Bess?

I've always wondered if Bess is the clown standing in the center of the photo (#4). The clown looks to be Bessie's size, and why else would she be absent? There is also evidence that supports this. On page 78 of the Harold Kellock biography, Houdini His Life Story, Bess talks about this first tour with the Welsh Bros. and remembers:

"We had only two clowns with the circus, two serious- minded middle-aged men. The tragedy of their lives was that they could not sing, for they had the songbook privilege for the show, and, with no one to sing the songs, they could not sell the books. They were overjoyed when they found that I could make a stab at singing. They dressed me as a clown, put me on a chair, and I sang verses of all the more catching songs, for which I received the large sum of two dollars for fourteen shows. My, but I was proud of that money! I felt that I earned it all myself."

So what do we think? Does this photo capture Bess the singing clown? I think it does!

Speaking of the Welsh Bros., the next issue of BANDWAGON, the quarterly publication of the Circus Historical Society, will feature an article by Greg Parkinson about The Houdinis days with the Welsh Bros. that promises "new and surprising details."

Visit the Circus Historical Society website for details on how to join. You'll need to be a member by Monday to receive this issue of BANDWAGON.

Thanks to Diego Domingo and Chris Berry.

UPDATE: Chris Berry checks in with evidence that the Welsh Bros. Circus did have three (male) clowns at this time. The New York Clipper for May 5, 1895 identifies them as Charles O'Brien, Josesph Kearney and Billy Ashton. So it's possible they are the three pictured here and Bess, for whatever reason, is absent.


  1. An interesting idea! The suspected clown is #4. If the label list is ever found, it would confirm, or dispel the Bess clown theory.

  2. I'm just throwing this out there...Don't women generally tend to pose with ONE hand on their hip, as opposed to men?

    1. A great observation Joe! Notice in this photo that the men don't use the hand on hip pose.

  3. I suppose we will never know for certain, but here is an opposing viewpoint. These are additional facts related to this 1895 photo.
    * There were at least three other featured females on the circus that year that do not appear in this photo. Trapeze artist Lillian Delsabos, Ida McCormick who did a gun act with her husband, and an aerialist known as "Miss Russell."
    * Even though we know that Bess DID appear in the "after show" concert as a singing clown, that turn happened just a few minutes prior to the Metamorphosis routine. While it is certainly possible that she could be wearing elaborate whiteface makeup for this photograph, it is very unlikely that she would have been made up to this extent for an actual performance, as it would take time for her to remove the makeup with very limited water supplies on the circus lot in 1895 - and I can't imagine her doing the featured performance of Metamorphosis in clown makeup.
    * Although Bess is quoted as saying there were only two clowns on the show in 1895, she may have been mistaken in her recollection made decades later. We know for a fact (from the New York Clipper - May 5, 1895, p.131) that there were three whiteface clowns with the show, and their names (Charles O'Brien, Josesph Kearney and Billy Ashton).

    So while we will never know for certain, based on the evidence that we have I would suggest that Bessie's memory may have been playing tricks on her when she said there were only two clowns in 1895 - and these three are O'Brien, Kearney and Ashton

    1. Fantastic information. Thanks Chris.

    2. Who owns the original photograph? The Hinsons? Wasn't this photo published in the Henning book? Didn't the Hinsons share their Houdini photo collection for this book? The back of the photo should have the name list corresponding to the number on each person.

  4. Greg Parkinson's excellent article in The Bandwagon now has me rethinking this. Greg notes that this photo does not include any of the female members of the company, of which there were 3 plus Bess. So that provides a reason why Bess wouldn't be here. It appears these are the male members of the company. Perhaps there is a lost photo of he female performers? So, yeah, I don't know now.