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Melody and mirth on Washington Street: John Ordway and Blackface Minstrelsy in Antebellum Boston.

ON TUESDAY 27 April 1880, the Boston Evening Transcript published a lengthy obituary of John Pond Ordway, "a prominent citizen of Boston" who had been "identified in many important enterprises" in his fifty-six years. (1) The obituary described Ordway's Harvard education, enlistment in the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment, and role as "one of ten surgeons sent to minister to the wounded" at Gettysburg, as well as his political career, his thirty-year involvement in Freemasonry, and, not least of all, his "splendid physique." (2) In this midst of these personal, professional, and physical attributes, the obituary described the pursuit of his "early life": music. (3) Not only did Ordway "write many popular songs," but he also "organized the troupe known as Ordway's Aeolians, which performed in Ordway Hall, where the Province House now stands." (4)

The obituary provided a very thorough description of one of Boston's more noteworthy nineteenth-century citizens, especially when compared to the Boston Post's two-sentence notification of Ordway's death in its 28 April edition. (5) But the Transcript had long been a supporter of Ordway and his musical endeavors.

In 1852, the newspaper published a detailed announcement of Ordway Hall's grand opening, and published listings for the theater's live performances virtually every evening throughout the decade. (6) Unlike those announcements and listings, however, the obituary neglected to specify the parameters in which Ordway and his Aeolians functioned. Nor did it explain how the young John Pond Ordway, before Harvard Medical School, before the Civil War, and before his stint in the Massachusetts legislature, made his money--and his name--by scripting, staging, and performing in blackface minstrel shows.

The existence and popularity of blackface minstrelsy was not exclusive to Boston, of course, and Ordway was far from the only respected citizen of an American city who made a living from the genre. Nevertheless, a close analysis of Ordway and his Aeolians provides a concise, comprehensible example of how the popularity and prominence of blackface minstrelsy in antebellum America speaks not just to the racial climate of the period, but also the cultural, political, and economic pulse of an American city. Indeed, not only was 1850s Boston a city with a vibrant abolitionist fervor, it also held a rich theater tradition. (7) Concurrently, a strong political rift had taken over the city in the form of the nativist Know Nothing Party. John Ordway, through the Aeolians and Ordway Hall, was at the center of it all. Ordway, his Aeolians, and his theater represent the rise of a popular nineteenth-century entertainment as well as reflect the atmosphere of an entire antebellum city.

The historiography of blackface minstrelsy is vast and varied. A classic example is David Roediger's study of class conflict and racial tension in nineteenth-century America, Wages of Whiteness. (8) Roediger argues that minstrelsy's popularity peaked just as the American working class struggled with its collective identity as American (specifically white) workers. He contends that white actors (workers), portraying and performing as blacks, gave white workers a sense of identity because, at the end of the show, the white actors could erase the blackness. Indeed, Roediger writes that "blackface performances identify [the actors'] particular appeals as expressions of the longings and fears and the hopes and prejudices of the Northern urban working class," arguing that the "[creation of] a new sense of whiteness by creating a new sense of blackness" allowed minstrel show spectators to find "solace and even joy" in one another and in the spectacle on stage; this "new whiteness" was founded in the performers' "physical disguise," which "served to emphasize that those on stage were really white and that whiteness really mattered"; even at a time when American industrial workers feared loss of work due to an increasingly present immigrant class, and immigrant stereotypes were not immune to minstrelsy, being not black was seemingly enough, or, as Roediger phrases it, "[while e]thnic types were recognizable under blackface ... all whites could easily participate in minstrelsy's central joke, the point at which remained a common, respectable and increasingly smug whiteness under the makeup." (9)

In addition to Roediger, it can be argued that the most prominent scholarship on blackface minstrelsy remains Eric Lott's Love and Theft. (10) Lott presents blackface minstrelsy not as an example of white supremacy or racial hegemony, but rather as a culturally heterogeneous form of amusement which is still present in contemporary popular culture, "not least because of the minstrel show's success in introducing the cultures to each other." (11) The minstrelsy debate, Lott believes, is "the debate over people's culture versus cultural domination"; minstrelsy was designed not to incite conflict, but to "mute" it. (12) Indeed, the interracial mixing of the artistic and expressive forms of both blacks and whites was, for Lott, a positive outcome of minstrelsy.

A major aspect of Lott's analysis that appears to a lesser extent in Roediger's is the depiction of homoeroticism on the minstrel stage. However, Lott devotes much more of his argument to the idea of homoeroticism's presence within the entire cycle of blackface minstrelsy, from subject, to actor, to audience. To support his claims he presents psychoanalytical evidence, some of which may not be entirely convincing (which he fully admits). Lott's discussion is heavily grounded in the actual words being spoken, or more specifically, the phallic sources of songs delivered on stage. He refers to songs such as "Jumbo Jim," which Lott describes as being about a female orgasm ("She dropt right down on the floor/In a state of agony you know,/I kissed her gently on the chin,/Says she pray do dat again"), and "Long Tail Blue," which he describes as a song about miscegenation. (13) Lott's analyses of the white male's homosexual attraction to the black body is yet another example of transference of anxieties of whites onto blacks, but in Lott's discussion the anxieties are sexual rather than political, cultural, or economical.

What ties these pivotal works together is that they offer broader analyses of minstrelsy embedded in painstaking research and detailed depiction. What is lacking in both of them, however, is a succinct and specific example of minstrelsy in action as it pertains to an individual American community. Their discussions of minstrelsy are not specific to one time period or one locale, but present a macroexamination of blackface minstrelsy. This was a problem with much of the scholarship that preceded theirs as well. Furthermore, the recent works by Roediget and Lott portray minstrelsy as less of a form of entertainment and more of a transference of nativist, racial, and sexual tensions among the nineteenth-century working class. Indeed, modern minstrelsy historiography as a whole is lacking an analysis of minstrelsy as Ordway intended it to be--middle-class family entertainment. A case study of this troupe thus fills a void in the scholarship, while adding a new dimension to how blackface performances are analyzed.

A study of this one specific group proves that, contrary to the theses of Roediger and Lott, minstrelsy did not exist solely in a vacuum of gender-sexual tension and labor struggle. With the exception of various song titles ("Charming Lizzie Clay"; "Mother Dear I'm Thinking Of You"), Ordway's performances appear to be void of any gender conflict, sexual innuendo, or homosexual undercurrents. His audience--Boston's middle class families--would have undoubtedly disapproved of such suggestions. In addition, Ordway was not a member of the working class; he was, as his obituary read, a songwriter in his early life. The Aeolians were his creation, and he made a comfortable living off of them for nearly a decade. The Aeolians themselves were not disgruntled laborers, acting out their aggressions in blackface at the expense of black Americans. Many of his performers were, or intended to be, professional stage actors or musicians, such as Irish-born Patrick Gilmore, who would be best known for penning the famous tune "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." (14)

It is true that Ordway and the troupe performed in blackface, freely perpetuated racist stereotypes, and deliberately made blacks the focal point of their music and comedy. Yet, the Aeolians and their founder garnered attention not because of what was being presented (for it was nothing new) but bow it was presented. Ordway Hall was the home of middle-class, family entertainment: ladies accompanied the men, children were admitted for half the price of admission, hats removed, whistling and feet-stomping during the performance prohibited, and colored Bostonians given assigned seating in the gallery. After the performances, many families undoubtedly went home to their own copies of the Aeolians' sheet music, which was "published and for sale by E.H. WADE, 197 Washington street, who [had] purchased the entire stock and catalogue of J.P. Ordway." (15) Quite literally, blackface minstrelsy had been taken out of the factories and placed into the homes of the urban middle class.

WHEN THE YOUNG John Ordway commenced what he hoped would be an economically-sound career as a musician, stage performer, and theater proprietor, he did so at a time when the city of Boston was emerging as what Thomas O'Connor has called the "Athens of America," that is, a city that reflected the values, morals, and culture of the greater nation. Even more essential to this label was the pride Bostonians felt at the superiority of their city, and their sincere belief in its greatness. O'Connor argues that while "Bostonians visualized their city as a significant influence upon the future of the United States," it was more important how they "saw their city as a reflection of their own personal moral beliefs, social values, and intellectual accomplishments." (16) Boston was a thriving, growing city (with its population just below 140,000 in 1850 (17)), but for its citizens, living, working, and even playing in Boston were very personal experiences, and essential to the definition of Bostonian. To be a Bostonian was to be not just satisfied in your environment, but also appreciative of the quirks and intricacies that might take aback a visitor. This sentiment is clear in a 1916 description of Boston's historic theaters, in which the author notes that many "of the best-constructed or most popular" were built "on streets that amaze the visitor with the impression of being shabby or narrow or hard to find ... naturally, this sort of thing does not strike a Bostonian ... like a man knowing his way familiarly about his own backyard." (18)

Despite difficulties that visitors may have had locating the city's performance venues, historians have described Boston's antebellum theater culture as one of the most active theater communities in the nation. (19) Following the Revolutionary War and prior to the 1840s, Boston amusement culture was chiefly restricted to museums and concert halls, but some venues, such as the Boston Theatre (erected in 1794), were dedicated to theatrical productions. Others opened and closed with regularity due to financial woes and even sabotage from rival theater managers. One such venue, the Tremont Theatre, closed in 1843 due to lack of revenue, yet it was during the early years of the decade that various halls and amphitheaters began appearing throughout the city. Many of these venues were owned and operated by the same proprietors; other theater proprietors would often merge with the competition. No single theater was typical. Venues such as the Boston Museum Theatre were the most "beautifully decorated, best constructed, and well managed theatres in the United States." (20) Others, such as the Howard Athenaeum, described as a "one-story wooden tabernacle," featured small audience capacity, but would often partner with restaurants and breweries to distinguish themselves from the more prestigious venues. (21) What resulted was indeed a vibrant, if not always financially fruitful, entertainment community. Many of the productions were variety-based shows, featuring classical musicians, vaudeville actors, magicians, and of course minstrel performers. One historian has claimed that by 1850, minstrel shows "captivated" the city, citing an 1851 performance of "Cooper's Minstrels" at Boston's Central Hall, a venue "fitted up with 600 seats." (22)

Beyond the city's theater presence and its popularity among Bostonians, the pre-Civil War years in Boston were characterized by a very strong consciousness of the racial and political strife that had gripped the nation. This awareness of the sectional dispute over slavery was due in no small part to the racial demographics of the city in the 1840s and into the subsequent decade. According to Peter Knights' study of Boston's population, in the three decades prior to the Civil War between one-fourth and one-fifth of Massachusetts' African American population lived in Boston (approximately 2,000 black residents in both 1840 and 1850, with an eight percent drop in 1845), the majority living north of Beacon Hill. (23) Black Bostonians were faced with extreme prejudice that often led to the segregation of living spaces, that is, historically black communities, mainly in the northern parts of the city, remained that way throughout the antebellum period. One historian has argued that nineteenth-century black Bostonians "with no statistical studies or race-relations advisors to guide them, tried to solve the basic dilemma of securing equal and identical facilities for unequal parties," but their pursuits were threatened by the complex economic hierarchy of antebellum Boston, such as the city's majority class of "free artisan" workers and the wealthy businessmen of Boston's elite class; as a result the overall "ethnically heterogeneous" population forced the black residents of the city to live and work in the same communities, avoiding conflict with white citizens. (24)

In spite of this economic and social segregation, the abolitionist movement in Boston was active and vocal in the years leading up to the debut of Ordway's Aeolians. While slavery had been abolished in Massachusetts in 1780, abolition had long been a divisive issue throughout nineteenth-century America, and Bostonians were at the forefront of the movement. The most prominent of the Boston abolitionists was William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the anti-slavery Liberator newspaper, who O'Connor calls "certainly the most articulate spokesman for a militant and immediatist approach to the problem" of African slavery. (25) Further, Garrison "took the unequivocal position that slavery was a sin ... [and] viewed every slaveholder as a sinner and a criminal." (26) After the 1831 establishment of The Liberator, Garrison and his supporters were met with immediate opposition from all sides. The city's elite class, already fearful of what would occur if Southern planters, who partly blamed Garrison for the Nat Turner rebellion of 1831, refused to sell to the abolitionist north, worried that Garrison and others would "upset the peace and prosperity of the Commonwealth" with their incessant anti-slavery talk. (27) Garrison and his followers even faced resistance from other anti-slavery activists who found Garrison's brand of extreme, morality-based abolition counterproductive.

Notwithstanding the opposition from local whites, black Americans were active members of the city's abolitionist culture, their involvement stemming directly from the social activism they practiced throughout the nineteenth century. Similar to white Americans, prior to the antebellum period Boston's black residents "established formal groups and associated informally to provide for community services, to protest discriminatory restrictions, and to lobby for social and political change." (28) By mid-century, new black churches were formed in the city to protest the racial segregation of the city's Christian church services. Similarly, "blacks were also excluded from or segregated in many places of public entertainment," such as theaters, and insulted freely by whites and even immigrants in the streets. (29)

As the century progressed, abolitionist groups such as the Massachusetts General Colored Association, the New England Anti-Slavery Society, and the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society became prominent among the black community. (30) Horton and Horton have argued that the Liberator was essential for black involvement in the abolitionist movement, as well as increased communication among blacks. Garrison's Liberator was "a journal for black Americans," who wrote "letters and articles concerning black problems written by blacks from as far away as Colorado and California," having "an undeniable influence on Boston itself, [and] helping to establish the city's reputation as a stronghold of antislavery sentiment and a haven for fugitive slaves." (31) Boston's role as an abolitionist hub garnered attention from Frederick Douglass, who gave an early abolitionist speech on Nantucket Island in August 1841 and afterwards worked closely with Garrison before he became an active recruiter of black troops during the Civil War. Yet, while Bostonian blacks worked and waited for the abolition of African slavery, they continued to face discrimination in their own city. One member of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, Sarah Remond of Salem, "won a civil court suit after being ejected" from the Howard Athenaeum, despite advertisements stating that blacks were allowed admission into the theater. (32)

This discussion of theater and abolition in antebellum Boston indicates that John Ordway chose an opportune time to embark on a career in theater, with its post-1840 surge in construction and production. In addition, blackface performances were a timely choice for this would-be entrepreneur, due to their proven success in the city, as well as Boston's racism. As we have seen, blackface entertainment during the antebellum period was primarily concentrated within factory and immigrant communities. While mid-nineteenth century traveling minstrel troupes, such as the aforementioned Cooper's Minstrels and the (better known) Christy's Minstrels, were famous throughout urban America, John Ordway was establishing the entertainment (and revenues) of a traveling minstrel in one venue and in one city. While no one can be sure of his reasoning for this endeavor, it is not without significance that, as an amateur musician in his late-twenties, Ordway had various friends and acquaintances, such as businessmen and other musicians, who encouraged and supported his plan. As we will see below, the Boston theater community may have been substantial, but it was also a very close-knit network of artists and entrepreneurs. Regardless, by 1850 the twenty-six-year-old John Pond Ordway set out upon a career that would bring him moderate fame and considerable economic prosperity. By the end of the decade, he would abandon it.

WHILE JOHN ORDWAY made his name and reputation in large part upon the foundation of Ordway Hall, the early performances of the Aeolians occurred not in Ordway's namesake, but in Harmony Hall, located on the "Corner of Washington and Sumner Sts., over Jones, Ball, & Poor's," where the troupe performed for just over a year beginning late in 1850. (33) "OUR MOTTO IS TO PLEASE!" shouted an opening-week advertisement. (34) The 18 December 1850 edition of the Boston Evening Transcript published a short review of the debut performance of the group, boasting how
   Mr. Ordway's enterprise at Harmony Hall promises to be quite
   successful.... He had a crowded audience last evening--so crowded
   that the sale of tickets had to be stopped. The performances seemed
   to give much satisfaction. (35)


Additional remarks in this edition of the Transcript are even more significant than the positive response to the Aeolians' debut. For included in the event's listings was an announcement for "the seventeenth national antislavery bazaar," that was to be held the next day, December 19, at Faneuil Hall. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the same page a short piece proclaimed "WAR PREPARATIONS IN SOUTH CAROLINA," explaining that the South Carolina state senate passed a bill approving the assembling of a state convention as well as an additional $300,000 in military spending. While it is unclear what "war" South Carolina politicians were preparing for, that this news appeared in the same edition as an announcement of an antislavery bazaar only further attests to the turmoil affecting the everyday lives of antebellum Bostonians. (36)

It was during these early years of the Aeolians, prior to the establishment of Ordway Hall, that the leader of the troupe began to form a consistent entertainment program that would remain relatively unchanged throughout the decade. The first commonality among Aeolian performances was a three-act structure: Typically, Aeolians performed the first act "As Citizens," that is, without blackface, while the second and third acts were performed as "Darkies," usually qualified by "Northern" and "Southern," although Ordway would add "Plantation Darkies" as a fourth act on rare occasions. (37) Other programs touted an "ENTIRE ETHIOPIAN PERFORMANCE," in which the Aeolians performed in blackface during the entirety of the production. (38) Song titles in these early performances were also indicative of the strong presence of slave stereotypes in the city. Titles such as "A Darkies life is always gay," "Colored Fancy Ball," and "Darkies Cheer," composed by Ordway himself, were staples of the second, third, and sometimes fourth acts of the productions. (39)

In addition to individual performances at Harmony Hall, the Aeolians occasionally appeared at other venues. At an April 1851 event at the Boston Museum, the troupe was listed on advertisements as featured players, performing in the second and third acts of the production, as Northern Darkies and Plantation Darkies. (40) Ordway himself often performed with the troupe; according to one report, he "usually played the piano in the first part and invariably in white-face." (41) His role in the first act was so integral, in fact, that in the rare case of his absence, the evening's program was rearranged. In an advertisement for a performance in May of 1851, the "Citizens" segment was left completely off the program. The reason? "Owing to Death having taken place in Mr. Ordway's family," the advertisement read, "the WHITE PERFORMANCE will be suspended for a few evenings." (42) Ordway's role as performer solely in the opening act may be indicative of his personal resistance to performing in blackface, or perhaps the necessity of the manager to be able to observe the latter parts of the show.

Indeed, public accounts of the man suggest that Ordway was an active participant in the Aeolians' narrative. As a young man, Henry Clay Barnabee knew Ordway and eventually performed with the Aeolians. In his memoirs, Barnabee writes

Not that Ordway was precisely in the class of Eddy, Guilmant, or Saint-Saens, but he had a fashion of mingling sacred and profane music that would have staggered those masters....
   [Ordway was the] patriarch pioneer [of an] Actors' Church Alliance,
   ... sometimes, on a Sabbath morning, he would mix things up with a
   recklessness that sent cold chills chasing down my spine....

   [Playing his own tunes during church services, Ordway] would freeze
   my young blood by playing that hard-shelled orthodox Baptist
   congregation out of church with ... some other coon classic
   provided for the minstrel show, harmonized and deftly embroidered
   in with the right. (43)


While it is unclear when specifically this particular encounter occurred, what is for certain is that John Ordway, while being a talented musician, also appears to have had a twisted sense of humor, a quality that many around him seemed to lack. This apparent playfulness served Ordway and his troupe well in the coming years.

While the Aeolians continued to perform at Harmony Hall throughout 1851, there is little evidence regarding audience response to the Aeolians or any financial success for Ordway during the first year of his venture. Nevertheless, the Aeolians regularly performed in the same venue, and therefore Ordway was at the very least able to make his rent. By the end of the year, he must have been satisfied with both public response and his financial situation, for by February 1852, he became proprietor of his own music venue, which was named Ordway Hall. This new property, along with a new advertising campaign and immediate public response, turned Mr. Ordway's enterprise into a mainstream cultural presence within antebellum Boston's middle class.

By the early months of 1852, Ordway's Aeolians had moved out of Harmony Hall and found permanent housing in the abandoned Province House, which Ordway soon renamed after himself. It can be assumed that the revenues Ordway received in the first year-plus of his Aeolians, as well as his rising popularity among the community, contributed to both the need for and methods of opening Ordway Hall. Ordway Hall's early years of existence coincided with a dramatic shift in the political and social culture of both the city of Boston and the nation as a whole. Several events spurred this change, most notably the elections of 1854 and the seizure and trial of the fugitive slave Anthony Burns. We will return to these developments further below, after we have explored the contemporary success of the Aeolians and Ordway in Ordway Hall.

Prior to John Ordway's leasing of what would become Ordway Hall, the venue was known throughout Boston as Province House, and had an illustrious history of its own. It was located at the "Rear of 169 and 171 Washington Street, Nearly Opposite the Old South." (44) This former Province House was constructed in 1679 as a private residence, and remained the property of a single family for decades, until it was purchased by the "Provincial legislature" in 1716; the home subsequently became the property of the city of Boston and was dedicated to public use. (45) It "was a magnificent building; no pains had been spared to make it not only elegant, but also, spacious and convenient." (46) The home was used by provincial governors until the Revolutionary War, when "it was converted into accommodations for our own officers, for the transaction of public business." (47) Following the Revolution, and the subsequent construction of a new State House, the building was purchased by an independent buyer, but when he became unable to make the payments, it became state property once again. The building was then "given over to commercial uses," and by 1851 "the whole building was changed in appearance for the purpose of accommodating a company of Eolian [sic] vocalists under John P. Ordway." (48) The building officially opened as "Ordway Hall" in 1852. (49)

If the building had undergone significant aesthetical changes as early as 1851, then Ordway was likely planning for his grand opening many months before the new year. Out of Harmony Hall and now working in a venue carrying his name, by February 1852, he and his Aeolians were ready to debut in their new home. The Boston Evening Transcript announced the opening of Ordway Hall in the February 9 edition, and that first announcement speaks to the atmosphere Ordway hoped to establish within his theater and among his audience: "The above new and elegant Hall will be opening on MONDAY EVENING, February 9th, by ORDWAY'S AEOLIANS, with a Grand Vocal and Instrumental Concert," explaining that the actors would be performing "As Whites and ETHIOPIANS and continue every evening during the week." (50) Seeking a middle class, family-oriented audience, the listing boasted 25-cent general-admission seating, with reserved seats slightly more expensive at 50 cents, and assured readers that the "ticket office, for the choice of seats, will be open every morning from 9-11 ... [,while no] expense [has] been spared to make this the pleasantest and most agreeable place of amusement in the country, both as respects to proper ventilation, good seats, and everything that can conduce to the comfort of the patrons [, even allowing the sale of candy during the performances]." (51)

Early reviews of Ordway's new venue and his troupe were overwhelmingly positive, due in large part to the manager's insistence on providing the greatest possible enjoyment and comfort for his guests. The first-week performances themselves were similar to the troupe's earlier Harmony Hall productions, with the exception of a four-act production on 10 February. Throughout the first several months at Ordway Hall, the performances consisted of a variety of acts, including one which featured the Aeolians performing as "Black Shakers," while new songs such as "The Darkies Sigh," and "Commence Ye Darkies All" were introduced; circulating advertisements for the new theater reiterated the message of the Evening Transcript's listing, and as summer approached the manager began asking "Gentlemen ... to take off their hats during performance hours." (52)

Reaction to Ordway, his hall, and his troupe were positive throughout 1852. Describing what had been known as the old Province House, a Boston literary critic suggested to his middle-class readers in June of 1852 that:
   If one of our fathers should at the present time revisit his abodes
   upon earth ... he would perhaps be surprised at the present
   condition and uses of this house ... [finding] himself in company
   with a number of other intelligent and refined people listening to
   sweet strains of melody, discoursed by one of the best bands of
   'negro minstrels' in the United States....

   [Their] well-attended [performances,] in the course of the jokes
   and pleasantries which are forward at such entertainments, [offer]
   nothing which ... could offend even puritanical ears. (53)


The seemingly innocent nature of Ordway's blackface performances was echoed in other reactions. "The walls of this old house, that once echoed with kings' decrees, eloquent speeches, and loyal toasts, now ring with the gay laugh, tender songs, and humorous jests of the negro minstrel," wrote R.L. Midgley in his 1856 Boston travel guide, adding that "under the management of Mr. Ordway, [the theater] has become deservedly popular, as order is preserved, and all that may offend banished." (54) Even the Aeolians' daily advertisements expressed the innocence of the racially-charged performances, promising patrons "MIRTH AND MELODY WITHOUT VULGARITY." (55)

From the perspective of a twenty-first century audience, it seems rather absurd that the performances of the Aeolians would be met with such flippancy and even adoration. Yet, the public response to Ordway's Aeolians is an irrefutable example of what George Fredrickson has called "romantic racialism," emerging during the mid-nineteenth century, and amounting to "the beginnings of a nationalistic glorification of the dominant stock, a tendency to make America's virtues racial rather than historical or environmental." (56) He argues that antebellum America was defined "by its lack of exclusiveness, as reflected in a general unwillingness to acknowledge significant and enduring ethnic divisions among white Americans." (57) The development of this ethnocultural psyche reached the forefront of American intellect "at the very time when the slavery controversy focused on the Negro character," and when "democracy itself was beginning to be defined as racial in origin and thus realizable perhaps only by people with certain hereditary traits." (58) This "racialist" thinking, coupled with the perpetuation of African-American stereotypes, depicted a black person "as a pathetically inept creature who was a slave to his emotions, incapable of progressive development," and in turn, created romantic racialism, that is, "a body of thought and imagery about black-white differences." (59)

Frederickson further argues that "romantic racialists acknowledged that blacks were different from whites and probably always would be, [projecting] an image of the Negro that could be construed as flattering or laudatory in the context of some currently accepted ideals of human behavior and sensibility," grounded in the stereotype of blacks as child-like individuals, with "innocence and good nature," whose "docility constituted that ultimate in Christian virtue." (60) While Fredrickson's argument focuses primarily on literary depictions of American blacks (such as the title character in Uncle Tom's Cabin), the black faces on Ordway's stage, singing, dancing, jovial Northern and Southern Darkies, no doubt further perpetuated the notion of romantic racialism. Specifically, they encouraged "a limited kind of cultural amalgamation in which the blacks, although remaining forever a distant race, would somehow add a touch of softness to a national character that currently manifested too much Anglo-Saxon toughness and insensitivity." (61)

BY 1853, ORDWAY'S program format had changed slightly. The shows were primarily divided into two or three acts. Contrary to the Harmony Hall performances, the first act would be performed as "Dandy Darkies." (62) In a two-act performance, the second act would typically be called "Variety and Novelty," while in the three-part performances, the second act would be Variety, and the third segment would be Novelty. In these 1853-54 performances, the first part of the production was dedicated to the singing of Ordway's songs, while the subsequent acts focused on dances such as various polkas and racially-described dances such as the "fashionable Ethiopian jig" or "Imitations of the Races." (63) Meanwhile, following the 1852 season, advertisements instructed their audience that they were forbidden to keep time with their feet, and that "[w]histling is positively forbidden in the Hall" as well. (64) Beginning in 1853, the same advertisements began to explicitly recognize the city's racial climate, as "Colored Persons [were to be] admitted to the Gallery only, to seats assigned for them." (65)

The 1853 and 1854 seasons also saw an influx of guest performers and limited engagement participants in the productions. Guests such as Edward Kelly, "the celebrated comic singer and Burlesque Shakesperian [sic] ... from London," and George Brown, "the witty punster," performed in the winter of 1854. (66) During the summer months a limited engagement by "the champion Dancer" John Diamond was announced. (67) Later in the year, "the Talented and Favorite Bone Player and Ethiopian Comedian Johnny Pell," and the "favorite Tenor" E.W. Prescott appeared at Ordway Hall for a limited engagement. (68) This is by no means an exhaustive list, as by the mid-1850s, Ordway and his Vocalists' popularity, not to mention his financial clout, drew dozens of musicians, comedians, and other artists to Boston. Despite this popularity among the fashionable citizens of Boston, Ordway's admission price held steady at 25 cents per ticket, with some entry fees being just half-price for children under ten years old.

The Aeolians' performances (and presumably box-office revenue) remained stable throughout the first half of the decade. While Ordway and his men were entertaining the masses, however, 1854 brought political changes and an outpouring of racial tension to Boston as a result of two separate incidents. The first was the capture and subsequent trial of fugitive slave Anthony Burns. As Charles Emery Stevens wrote, "In the evening of the 24th of May, 1854, Anthony Burns was arrested as a fugitive slave in the heart of Boston, ... [h]e had been employed, during the day in a clothing store ... belonging to ... a respectable colored trader." (69) Burns was arrested in view of Faneuil Hall, and it was in "this favored locality Burns had passed exactly one month of quiet freedom, spent in honest industry, when the sudden interrupting of his happiness took place." (70) The arrest of Anthony Burns, an enforcement of 1850's Fugitive Slave Act, resulted in a violent raid of the courthouse where Burns was being held, and ultimately left a US Marshal dead. (71) Despite the violence and rapid response of the city's abolitionists, the court ruled in favor of Burns' master, and the fugitive slave was sent back to Virginia and a life of slavery. "Slavery was not created, established, or perpetuated by the Constitution; it existed before; and it would have existed if the Constitution had not been created," read Massachusetts Circuit-Court Commissioner Edward Greely Loring's decision. "In this spirit ... it behoves all persons bound to obey the laws of the United States, to consider and regard them," even if (especially if) it meant returning a black man to bondage. (72)

Nearly six months after the riots and trial, the political climate of Boston changed drastically when the state's "Know-Nothing" politicians emerged victorious in the election of 1854. George Haynes wrote in the American Historical Review in 1897 how "[i]t was a strange spectacle that American politics presented on the morrow of the November elections in 1854, [when] time-honored parties found that they had been grappling in the dark with an unknown antagonist and that they had been terribly worsted [and a] wave of Know-nothing victory swept through the North." (73) The party had not always been so organized or vigilant, however. Albert Von Frank argues that prior to the Anthony Burns trial, the Know-Nothing (or American) party "was a secret society of handshakes and passwords, spiced with a dollop of pseudo-Masonic mumbo-jumbo," but in the wake of the dual-drama of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Burns incident, "the movement took off in a manner that would have been spectacular had it not been an astonishingly well-kept secret ... by November its electoral power would be formidable." (74) The Know-Nothings, running for office across the country on a platform of anti-Catholicism, anti-immigration, and nativist rhetoric, became a visible and vocal force in many cities, but especially Boston. "In no other northern state did the Native American or Know-Nothing party achieve such phenomenal, if short-lived, success as in Massachusetts," argues Dale Baum, "because after New York City, only New Orleans rivaled Boston as a port of entry for the large numbers of immigrants in the 1840s and 1850s." (75)

Indeed, the increased presence of immigrants, as well as labor competition, growing population density, and the greater threat of mass poverty, undoubtedly influenced the voting population. While John Ordway's political leanings are by and large unknown, his interest in Freemasonry as well as his religious leanings (he was an American-born Protestant) may have shaped his personal convictions. (76) Regardless of his voting preferences, he was at the very least politically minded enough to compose, publish, and presumably perform in 1855 a piece in honor of the new Know-Nothing governor of Massachusetts: the "Know Nothing Polka, as danced by Pike and Pell of Ordway's Aeolians," which was "composed and respectfully dedicated to his Excellency Henry J. Gardner," and featured a cover portrait of the new governor. (77) The published sheet music of the composition was available for purchase for 25 cents, the same price of admission to an Aeolians performance. If not necessarily revealing the man's political leanings, Ordway's dedication of a polka to a Know-Nothing politician indicates that he happily pandered to the political moment in hopes of drawing audiences to his performances. He never let his sense of humor, his creative spirit, or his intuition as a businessman fail him.

These two events attest to the role antebellum Boston played in fanning the flames of an already-sweltering national tension. Moreover, if these events are taken together with the popularity of Ordway's Aeolians, it is abundantly evident that the popular culture of 1850s Boston developed in a very specific social climate. John Ordway may have gone to great lengths to create a middle-class form of entertainment, but regardless of the pains he took to provide an escapist diversion, Bostonians could not ignore what was going on outside the walls of Ordway Hall. While John Ordway and his Aeolians were romanticizing racial differences on stage, Bostonians were confronted with the very real racial tension that was occurring just beyond their doorsteps. Nonetheless, middle-class Bostonians still looked to be entertained, and as long as there was an interest in his work, Ordway did not disappoint his audience.

Political and social turmoil may have surrounded Bostonians during the latter half of the 1850s, but for John Ordway and his troupe it was business as usual. On 14 November 1854, the troupe performed the "Famous Know-Nothing Speech" in honor of the new governor, and by the following spring the Aeolians were hosting visitors from the famous Christy Minstrels. (78) "The combined attraction of these four stars with Ordway's Aeolians," read the program, "cannot fail to exceed any thing of the kind ever before presented to the citizens of Boston." (79) Otherwise, the second half of the decade appears relatively commonplace for Ordway and the Aeolians. Performance programs resembled those that appeared in the early years, and listings for their nightly performances still appeared regularly in Boston newspapers, especially the Evening Transcript, which continued to champion Ordway and his troupe. And an advertisement for the 31 May 1856 performance indicates that the Aeolians were still performing to full houses. Their "concerts in this city, for the past six years," the program read, "have been visited by CROWDED and fashionable audiences." (80)

While the Aeolians continued to play at Ordway Hall, the troupe was eager to spread their influence beyond the borders of the Bay State. A performance towards the end of the decade marked the troupe's final appearance on the Ordway Hall stage before they embarked on a tour of "the South and West for the purpose of giving a series of concerts." (81) At the performance's closing, according to one newspaper account, Ordway was by a local man named H.W. Chester "presented with a magnificent diamond ring valued at $175 ... of massive gold, having in the centre a cluster of superb diamonds, in behalf of the number of Mr. Ordway's friends." (82) After receiving the ring, Ordway made an eloquent statement to the crowd, one of the few recorded instances of the prominent Bostonian publicly addressing his audience:
   To yourself and the kind friends who have deputed you to present
   this really unexpected token of their regard, what can I say but to
   thank you, ... I see many familiar friends who have for the past
   eight years by their kind looks and encouragement thrown a halo on
   my prospects. May my remembrance of them and their friendship
   remain as long as these beautiful diamonds here presented. (83)


Before departing the stage, Ordway left the audience with one final farewell: "To me the only regret I have is in leaving good old Boston--Boston friends and the home of my child hood, even for a season." (84) At this point, primary source material indicates that the Aeolians spent the majority of 1858 traveling, then returned to Boston for the 1859 season. It is then that the disintegration of the troupe began. While evidence regarding Ordway's departure from his entertainment pursuits is limited, it is clear that by the end of the decade he had made a conscious decision to move on. One reason may have been the new competitive nature of minstrelsy in Boston. Much of this competition came from within the troupe itself. As early as 1857, four members of the Aeolians left the group to form their own, including J.T. Huntley, who Rice describes "one of the early wench dancers of minstrelsy," and the Morris brothers. (85) This departure from the Aeolians may not have been an arbitrary incident, and it in fact may have led to the end of the Aeolians and Ordway Hall. "Some misunderstanding between Dr. Ordway and the Morris Brothers resulted in the opening by the latter of the Schoolstreet Opera House ... in 1858," writes Bacon in Boston of To-day, adding that "[t]he new house proving a dangerous rival to Dr. Ordway, an arrangement was effected between the disputants, and the Washington-street establishment [Ordway Hall] thereafter was known as the Morris Brothers, Pell & Towbridge's Opera house." (86)

Given the scarce primary source material, it is yet unclear as to what the disagreement Bacon mentions might have been. What is clear, however, is that the Morris brothers' new troupe gave Ordway something he had never experienced in his near-decade of being in business, that is, competition. Concomitantly, the leader of the Aeolians and founder of Ordway Hall had graduated from Harvard Medical College in 1859, and within a year opened his own medical practice in Boston. (87) Attempting to determine what exactly led Ordway to abandon the theater is futile. It could have been any number of things, including the new competitive nature of the business, as well as the time and commitment required by his medical degree and profession as doctor. Perhaps, as racial tensions escalated and the sectional crisis reached a fever pitch, he saw his work with the Aeolians as trivial, perhaps he lost his creative spirit, or even his sense of humor. Whatever his reasons, by the end of 1859, he had given up his musical endeavors. In September, the Aeolians, as they had been known for nearly a decade, gave their final performance. Ordway himself appeared in one last professional appearance on 12 December 1859, but now with a troupe called Anderson's Minstrels. (88) Ordway's Aeolians had been officially retired.

Of all the performers to appear on a nineteenth-century Boston stage, perhaps none have remained as (in)famous as the members of the Booth family. The patriarch of the family, Junius Brutus Booth, was a manager at Boston's Tremont Theatre in 1828, and in his final years around 1850 "always drew crowded houses ... by his wonderful power as a tragedian." (89) His son Edwin first performed on a Boston stage in 1849, at sixteen years old. Sixteen years later, the very night his brother John Wilkes shot and killed President Lincoln, Edwin was on stage at the Boston Theatre, "fulfilling a star engagement." (90) Upon hearing word of the assassination, the theater manager "inform[ed] him of the necessity for terminating the engagement at once." (91)

Eugene Tompkins, the manager who notified the brother of John Wilkes Booth that his engagement had been cancelled, wrote of Edwin's return to Boston less than two years later:
   Edwin Booth returned to the Boston stage on Monday, September 3,
   1866, making his first appearance after his retirement on account
   of the assassination of President Lincoln, in the tragedy
   "Othello," in which he played the title role. (92) He was received
   by a crowded house, who greeted him with a spontaneous and
   long-continued burst of applause which affected him almost to the
   point of breaking down. (93)


While the above incident occurred many years after John Ordway left Boston and joined the Union army as a surgeon, Edwin Booth's experience indicates that nineteenth-century Boston was a perfect intersection of history and culture. A decade earlier, John Ordway and his Aeolians reflected the dueling tensions of racism and entertainment, or popular culture's eternal question of what is just good fun and what is a reflection of deep-rooted insecurities. Not only that, but the prominent events that surrounded Ordway, the troupe, and the city of Boston, such as the abolitionist movement, the trial of Anthony Burns, and the success of the Know-Nothing Party in the election of 1854, were a microcosm of the political and social confusion that was taking place throughout the greater United States. The story of Ordway and his beloved Aeolians defines theater, culture, and popular entertainment as a social signifier, representing the political, social, and cultural pulse of a city and a country.

John Pond Ordway died at age fifty-six, on the same street where Ordway Hall once stood, as the result of internal injuries he received in a railroad accident. (94) He left behind a widow and a daughter. (95) He was a man who many knew in his time, but was quickly forgotten after his death. His theater no longer stands, and no known photograph of him has been identified. While there is still much to be known about Ordway, it is certain that he left minstrelsy behind on the eve of the Civil War. He never returned to the career that had once made him one of Boston's prominent citizens. We can only speculate on his decision to abandon the Aeolians and the world of minstrelsy. Regardless of his reasons, it is fair to conclude that John Ordway gave the citizens of antebellum Boston an opportunity to view their social, racial, and cultural tensions live on stage, every night.

(1.) Boston Evening Transcript, 27 April 1880, 2.

(2.) Ibid.

(3.) Ibid.

(4.) Ibid.

(5.) Boston Post, 28 April 1880, 4.

(6.) Boston Evening Transcript, 9 February 1852, 1.

(7.) Thomas O'Connor has done significant work on the social and cultural dimensions of the city of Boston in the nineteenth century, see especially Th.O. O'Connor, The Hub. Boston Past and Present, Boston, MA: Northeastern UP, 2001, and Th.O. O'Connor, The Athens of America: Boston, 1825-1845, Amherst, MA: U. of Massachusetts P., 2006. In addition, a comprehensive analysis of Boston's theater culture, past and present, is Donald C. King, The Theaters of Boston: A Stage and Screen History, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006.

(8.) David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, rev. ed., London: Verso, 1999 (1991).

(9.) Roediger, Wages of Whiteness, 115-18.

(10.) Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, New York: Oxford UP, 1993.

(11.) Ibid., 5-12.

(12.) Ibid., 37.

(13.) Lott argues in analyzing "Long Tail Blue" that, while the wording of the song seems to be reflective of a black man's relationship with a white woman, "the black male seems to be the real object of scrutiny here" ("Jim Crow is courting a white gall,/And yaller folks call her Sue;/I guess she back'd a nigger out,/And swung my long tail blue"; see Lott, Love and Theft, 120-1.

(14.) For information about P. S. Gilmore, see the Patrick S. Gilmore Society and the Boston Irish Tourism Association, available at http://www.psgilmore-society.org, accessed 14 November 2011.

(15.) Harvard Theater Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University Library, Cambridge, MA [from here: HTC], TCS 66 Boston Playbills Collection (Ordway Hall), Playbill, 2 January 1852.

(16.) O'Connor, Athens of America, xiv.

(17.) Peter R. Knights, The Plain People of Boston, 1830-1860: A Study in City Growth, New York: Oxford UP, 1971, 20.

(18.) Robert Shackleton, The Book of Boston, Philadelphia, PA: Penn Publishing, 1916, 87-8.

(19.) See for example King, Theatres of Boston, 1-42.

(20.) Ibid., 32.

(21.) Ibid., 34.

(22.) Ibid., 39.

(23.) Knights, Plain People, 29-32.

(24.) Adelaide M. Cromwell, The Other Brahmins: Boston's Black Upper Class, 1750-1950, Fayetteville, AR: U. of Arkansas P., 1994, 34-5.

(25.) O'Connor, Athens of America, 163.

(26.) Ibid., 164.

(27.) O'Connor, Athens of America, 165. See as well Robert C. Hayden, African-Americans in Boston: More Than 350 Years, Boston, MA: Trustees of the Public Library of the City of Boston, 1991, 35; O'Connor, The Hub, 111-12. O'Connor, Athens of America, 170-1.

(28.) James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, Black Bostonians: Family Life and Community Struggle in the Antebellum North, New York: Holmes and Meier, 1979, 27, 40-3.

(29.) Ibid., 68-9.

(30.) Hayden, African-Americans in Boston, 37-9.

(31.) Horton and Horton, Black Bostonians, 81-2.

(32.) Hayden, African-Americans in Boston, 38-9.

(33.) HTC, Playbill, 17 December 1850. There is some discrepancy regarding the precise opening performance date of the Aeolians at Harmony Hall. The Boston Evening Transcript review of the first performance appeared in the 18 December 1850 edition of the paper (see Boston Evening Transcript). In addition, an undated, untitled newspaper clipping at the Harvard University archives lists the "second week of their [the Aeolians] existence" to be in 1850 (see HTC, TCS 66 Boston Playbills Collection). On the basis of these primary sources, I have concluded that 18 December is the correct date of the opening. Even if Edward Le Roy Rice's 1911 publication Monarchs of Minstrelsy lists the first performance as 18 December 1849, however, I have been unable to locate a playbill or program from that date (Edward Le Roy Rice, Monarchs of Minstrelsy, From "Daddy" Rice to Date, New York: Kenny Publishing Company, 1911, 44).

(34.) With the exception of newspaper articles, listings, or reviews, I will be using the terms "program," "playbill," and "advertisement" interchangeably to describe the majority of my primary source material. However, my citations will always refer to the items as "Playbill(s)."

(35.) Boston Evening Transcript, 18 December 1850.

(36.) Boston Evening Transcript, 18 December 1850.

(37.) HTC, Playbills, 18 February 1851, 31 July 1851, and 24 September 1851.

(38.) Ibid.

(39.) Ibid.

(40.) HTC, Playbill: 19 April 1851.

(41.) Rice, Monarchs of Minstrelsy, 44.

(42.) HTC, Playbill: 20 May 1851.

(43.) Henry Clay Barnabee, My Wanderings: Reminiscences of Henry Clay Barnabee; Being an Attempt to Account for His Life, with Some Excuses for his Professional Career, Boston, MA: Chapple Publishing, 1913, 91-2.

(44.) HTC, Playbill, 5 March 1852.

(45.) C. Benjamin Richardson, The Historical Magazine, and Notes and Queries Concerning the Antiquities, History, and Biography of America, New York: John G. Shea, 1864, 393-394.

(46.) Ibid., 394.

(47.) Ibid.

(48.) Edwin Monroe Bacon, Washington Street, Old and New- a History in Narrative Form of the Changes Which This Ancient Street has Undergone Since the Settlement of Boston, Boston, MA: Macullar Parker, 1913, n.p.; Richardson, The Historical Magazine, 394.

(49.) Bacon, Washington Street, page unknown.

(50.) Boston Evening Transcript, 9 February 1852.

(51.) Boston Evening Transcript, 9 February 1852; Edward Payson Weston, The Pedestrian, New York: Edward Payson Weston, 1862, 47.

(52.) HTC, Playbills, 10 February 1852; 4 March 1852; 10 April 1852; and 1 June 1852.

(53.) Charles Hale, ed., To-day: A Boston Literary Journal 24. 12 June 1852, 380.

(54.) R. L. Midgley, Sights in Boston and Suburbs, or Guide to the Stranger, Boston, MA: J.P. Jewett & Company, 1856, 109.

(55.) HTC, Playbill, 9 May 1855.

(56.) George M. Fredrickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914, New York: Harper and Row, 1971, 99.

(57.) Ibid.

(58.) Ibid., 100-1.

(59.) Ibid., 101.

(60.) Ibid., 101-102.

(61.) Ibid., 123.

(62.) HTC, Playbill, 13 September 1853.

(63.) Ibid.

(64.) HTC, Playbill, 14 November 1854.

(65.) HTC, Playbill, 8 June 1853.

(66.) HTC, Playbills, 4 January 1854; 11 January 1854; and 14 January 1854.

(67.) HTC, Playbill, 8 June 1854.

(68.) HTC, Playbills, 4 September 1854; 8 September 1854; 11 September 1854; 27 September 1854; 11 October 1854; 20 October 1854; and 14 November 1854.

(69.) Charles Emery Stevens, Anthony Burns: A History, Boston, MA: John P. Jewett, 1856, 15.

(70.) Ibid.

(71.) Ibid., 43.

(72.) Ibid., 118.

(73.) George H. Haynes, "The Causes of Know-Nothing Success in Massachusetts," The American Historical Review 1, 1897, 67-82: 67.

(74.) Albert J. Von Frank, The Trials of Anthony Burns: Freedom and Slavery in Emerson's Boston, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1998, 236.

(75.) Dale Baum, "Know-Nothingism and the Republican Majority in Massachusetts: The Political Realignment of the 1850s," Journal of American History 4, 1978, 959-86: 959-60.

(76.) Boston Evening Transcript, 27 April 1880, 2.

(77.) Bostonian Society Research Library, Boston, MA. Sheet Music Collection. MS173, MS174 (Sheet music and cover portrait of Governor Henry J. Gardner, 1855).

(78.) HTC, Playbill, 14 November 1854.

(79.) HTC, Playbill, 6 April 1855.

(80.) HTC, Playbill, 31 May 1856.

(81.) The article from which the following quotations have been lifted is located in the HTC collection, but is undated, while its source and publisher are unspecified; based on Ordway's mention of friends he had known for eight years, I suggest the performance and ceremony to have taken place in late 1857 or early 1858, and tour to have occurred in 1858.

(82.) Ibid.

(83.) Ibid.

(84.) Ibid.

(85.) Rice, Monarchs of Minstrelsy, 43.

(86.) Edwin Monroe Bacon, Boston of To-day: a glance at its history and characteristics. With biographical sketches and portraits of many of its professional and business men, Boston, MA: Post, 1892, 94.

(87.) Oliver Ayer Roberts, History of the Military company of the Massachusetts, now called the Ancient and honorable artillery company of Massachusetts, 1637-1888, vol. 4, Boston: Alfred Mudge and Son, 1901, 91.

(88.) Rice, Monarch of Minstrelsy, 44.

(89.) Oliver B. Stebbins, "The Oldest Theatre Now in Boston," The Bostonian 2, November 1894, 113-30: 123.

(90.) King, Theaters of Boston, 35.

(91.) Ibid., 54.

(92.) Presumably in blackface.

(93.) Eugene Tompkins, The History of the Boston Theatre, 1854-1901, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1908, 130.

(94.) Roberts, History of the Military Company, 91.

(95.) Boston Evening Transcript, 27 April 1880, 2.

Christopher Tucker is a second-year PhD student at Clark University. His review of One of Morgan's Men: Memoirs of Lt. John M. Porter of the 9th Cavalry will be published in Civil War History in 2012. Selections from this article were presented at the 2011 British Association of American Studies Postgraduate Conference in Birmingham, England. The author would like to thank Professor Janette Greenwood for her generous guidance and suggestions throughout the development of this article, as well as the editors and reviewers at The Historian for their helpful insight and criticism.
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