History's Dopplegangers

      The tears washed at the palms of my hands with the determination of a river washing away its painful, rugged banks.  The pain was unbearable.  How could I have been so stupid, so proud as to think my family could support and love me no matter what?  Living at college had given me the strength to go home to my family and tell them who I was, that I was a homosexual.  Needless to say, they did not take it well.

     After I said it, there was a fight.  I got the Bible speech, the grandchildren speech, all the norms that come when parents find out their child is gay.  Sitting alone in my room, I dug through the boxes that filled the space where I used to live and dug for something to take my mind off of the horror I was living.

     I opened a box that had the words "Old Stuff" written on the side.  The contents were old and dusty.  There were ancient rattles for long forgotten children, old gloves and caps that someone once used to keep them warm, and then there was the book. It did not catch my eye at first. I looked down at the dusty cover of leather.  It was blue black. I picked it up and dusted off the cover.  The smell of the old paper filled my nostrils with a sense of history, a sense of worness that only something someone cared about could have, and a sense of excitement as I opened to the first page.

January 1, 1843

   17 years ago, I was born.  My name is William, and I am a 17 year old man living in Pennsylvania outside of Philadelphia. I learned to write a few years ago and have been saving up since then to buy a book of paper for this.  I feel I need to practice my writing, and I feel that much is going to happen to me, at least I hope it does.

   Born in December of 1825, I have a mother Kathryn and two sisters.  Our father left when I was just about one.  When I was six, I was apprenticed under a Mr. Woodword to learn to make chairs.[1]  It is a decent career.  It helps me bring home money for my mother who needs it to support us children.  When I was eleven (1837), free public elementary school was developed.[2]  Mother wanted me to go.  She knew I would need the skills to function in this new and developing time.  I also got to come home and teach my sisters.  They had to stay and take care at home, but my mother wanted them to know how to write and read as well..  Once I learned to write and read properly, I went full time back to the furniture trade.  I had been going there on and off during school, but then I returned completely.[3] 

   I was brought up Lutheran.  When I could understand what was being taught, I became a Reformed Lutheran, but due to the bickering between the two,[4] I just decided to be Christian, but when asked I still say I am Lutheran.

   My sisters and mother and I all live in a tenement.  There are many families here.  We all know each other, and there are fights and such, but they are like my extended family.[5]  Mom works in the clothing factory near by.  She has really long hours, and the boss isn't very nice to her,[6] so I don't mind walking a little further to get to the furniture shop.  Besides, walking to the shop gives me time to dream about living the good life.  Although in school they taught us that God had made certain people rich and others poor and not to envy them because they had major problems we didn't even know about,[7] Mom told me that I could have anything I put my mind to, and so I walk by these rich houses that sometimes sat between the tenements,[8]  and I would dream of being rich and having all that school said I couldn't.

   That is why I am writing this journal is a sense.  I want to never forget about my dreams and never be told what I can and cannot have.  I want to make something of myself and enjoy it.  William

 

     I could not believe it.  First of all, my family kept something so great.  This guy from the early nineteenth century had kept a journal.  He was so like me. I could not believe that our lives were so alike.  But there are also some things that I noticed were different from now.  I did not have to work when I was a child. I got to go to free school from the time I was five to now.  I am still in school.  Time does not demand that I have a job.  That is dictated by my own buying habits.  Excited by this new find, I flip ahead a few pages and begin reading.....

March 14, 1843

   I have found it. I know what I must be.  It all happened today.  Mom came home tired from work as always.  She sent me out to get some bread and milk. She did not usually send me out to get things at this time of the late evening because she usually picked things up and her way home from work, but she forgot and I offered.  On my way to the shop, I passed the Vaudeville House.  I had passed it many times before, but never at this time, and there was some commotion going on inside.  I was curious and went inside.  The greatest sight met my eyes.  People everywhere, in all kinds of clothes, in all sizes, from all over were sitting in there drinking, laughing, and having a good time.  No one cared to look down on each other.  Mesmerized, I sat down to watch.  No one noticed me because they were focused on the man on stage who was doing magic.[9]  It was miraculous. This man was making things disappear, things connect and reconnect, and all such marvels.  He then asked for a volunteer to come up and help him with a trick.  I instantly stood up and volunteered myself.  Walking up to the stage was great.  People were applauding and laughing.  I went up there, and he told me not to be scared, that it would not hurt, and then he added much for the humor of the crowd.  He then waved his hands about my head and proceeded to pull a long string of handkerchiefs out of my ear.  I was amazed.  When he was done, the crowd was excited beyond all I had seen before.  As I walked back to where I had been sitting, men clapped me on the back and women winked or whistled my way.  I felt great, then I noticed the time.  I had been there almost an hour.  Mom was sure to be worried, and I rushed out of there.  Well, she was, but even more upset that I had not gotten the items she sent me to get.  Well, I am now in bed without supper, but I do not care.  I keep playing my day over and over in my head.  I know this is what I want to do with my life.  I love food, but if something makes me think of it instead of hunger, then that is what I need to be.  William

I sat there with this journal in my hand. He wanted to be an entertainer, much like me.  And Vaudeville at that.  I became more excited and flipped ahead a few years.  He wrote only every now and then so a few years was like twenty-five pages. I ended up on a page three years later and read.....

May 21, 1846

   Well, I am still in the furniture business.  I have been here and am developing my own designs.  People seem to like them well enough.  But I still frequent the Vaudeville House.  I have many friends there and sometimes get up and sing a song my mom taught me or an improv scene which is what they call making up words off the top of your head.  I am getting really good and hope that I am because I have big news. Tonight when I went, my friend Momma Rose who runs some of the acts told me that the Keith Theatre in Philadelpia[10] needed some new workers for the sets and that I was perfect for the job because of my furniture skills. I was full of hope.  I knew telling mom would be hard, but I had to. She took the news well.  She knows how much this means to me, and gave me her blessing to go.  I don't know for sure if I will get the job.  I don't know what I will do if I don't, but I believe I will. It is my one chance to get into performance.

 

May 31, 1846

   I arrived in town just in time.  The last day for hiring was today.  I walked in and showed them what I could do.  I talked about what I knew of tools and how things went together.  They were also impressed with my skill in decoration and design.  I was hired on the spot.[11]  They took me around the theatre and showed me things, and then took me two buildings down to a tenement where the actors and other stage hands who worked at the Keith lived.  They ended my tour by telling me to show up at 6 am the next day and I was to be paid $10 a week.[12]  I have enough money to pay rent and such like buy food, but I try to put a little back because I am starting to write some scenes and work on an act.  Maybe one day I will get to perform it.  Let's hope so.  My dream is coming true.  William

Well, I know how hard it is.  Some things never change.  I could not believe how easily his mother let him go.  From what I know of that time, she really needed his income.  Her actions were definitely not the norm of that time.  I was then curious to see how he fared with the stuff he was writing and decided to see if he ever got to make in onto the stage.  I flipped ahead about a year.

August 7, 1847

   Well, I have been working here for over a year now.  I have seen many acts come and go.  I add and remake my scenes and acts to what the crowds enjoy but stay true to my style.  I want so bad to be up there on that stage.  Well, I think that is coming to pass.  After the shows today, I was cleaning up some stuff and after everyone was gone, I went our onto the stage and began to perform my skits.  After my favorite joke, this peal of laughter came from the audience and clapping.  I was shocked.  Mr. Snide stood up.  He was a organizer for the house.  His daughter sat beside him.  He came up to me and asked who had I stole that from.  When I told him that I wrote it, he looked at me and asked me if I wanted to be in the business.  I quickly said yes but my mouth was too dry, and it came out in a hushed whisper.  He sat me down and explained that I would need a partner.  I looked over at his daughter and blushed. She was kind of pretty.  I liked her.  He suggested that the two of us join up.  She had been around it all her life, and I had the skill to write some really funny stuff.  He predicted that we would be great.  he said we would start out at the bottom, but if we were good, then we could easily move up, and he thought we had the potential to go far. I gladly agreed and signed on the dotted line.  He had a contract eagerly awaiting there for me.

   Shelia, his daughter came over earlier.  We went over some of the scenes I had been writing.  She liked them.  I am so glad.  She is really nice. I can't wait to write my mom and tell her that I have met a nice girl.  She told me of some songs she thought we could use, and we discussed the kind of scene we wanted to do.  Her father was going to get us a slot next week, so we had to be ready. I cannot wait.  William

God, I thought. It must be so easy to fall in love if you are straight.  It brought back and my recent argument with my family came back to me.  I listened, and I could barely hear something going on.  Someone was crying, others were soothing.  Who are they soothing?  The wrong person, that is who.  I am in here alone.  I will be alone for the rest of my life.  A single tear hit the page I was reading.  No, I can't start this again.  I flipped to see what else happened in his life.  I ended up a few weeks from where I had been.

September 17, 1847

   Well, it has been good.  Shelia and I have been a hit.  We landed the coveted spot between the two featured acts after intermission.[13]  It was hard to get, but because of the crowd loving us and always coming to see us too, we weren't famous enough for the featured spots, but moved quickly into the spot we have now.  The older acts that wanted it were angry since it is almost unheard of in this theatre for a young act to move so quickly.  We have been performing a new act I put together beginning with the old folk song about Germans called "Oh How That German Could Love" and then moved into a scene I wrote about the comedic date of two people on a date where the man is afraid he has made another date on the same night called "Dinner and a Date"  which ends in the two of us singing "The German Senator" which pokes fun at everything from the Statue of Liberty to Andrew Carnegie and ends with a comedic finale about the battle between the sexes.[14]  It always brings the crowd to their feet, either in applause or arguing with their female or male dates for the night over which sex is better.  We got the salary of $25 a week to split between us.[15]  We don't really have any other time to go out since we perform three times a day on the days when we do[16] because the Vaudeville House is open from eleven in the morning to eleven in the evening.[17]  It is a long day, but I am doing what I love.  I sometimes help with the sets, especially if it is our set pieces, and in the spare time, Shelia and I spend it together either talking or going over new material for the act.  I really like her but it is almost like there is something missing in my life. Like all along, there is something that I have been missing but don't know what it is.  Maybe I just am getting serious with her, and I am not use to it.  That is probably it. Have to go rehearse. William

 

September 29, 1847

   I was right. There is something missing in my life.  Another person. I love someone else.  I can't believe this is happening.  I know it has occurred among other actors, and it is usually overlooked, but I am supposed to be with Shelia.  I will avoid details for fear of this journal being found, but I was at the theatre.  I was lowering some scenery with one of the pulleys when the rope holding the backdrop broke.  I stumbled backward and the person caught me.  Their arms held me in a way no other has held me.  I felt completely there for them.  I knew this was the person for me.  It wasn't right, and I shouldn't have allowed it, but we kissed.  I knew that was the missing thing in my life.  The kiss lasted a little more than a few seconds, but I will remember it till my dying day.  We stood there in each others arms until, I pulled slowly away.  They just stood there.  As I walked away, the person followed me.  We went back to my place.  There, we made love.  Although I had done little in my time, and most of it with Shelia, I somehow knew everything with this person.  It came like a second nature or instinct.  I knew this person should be with me until I grow old and die.  I fell asleep and woke to find myself alone.  I lay there thinking of what had occurred.  Now I am getting ready for rehearsal with Shelia.  What will it be like?  I will deal with that when I have to.  William

What could have occurred?  I cannot believe he was with another woman.  I thought infidelity and things of that nature were not common occurrences among people of that time.  Go figure that we are supposed to be the immoral generation.  I wonder who it is.  Maybe another actress or a female stage hand since she was there backstage?  I glimpse over the next few pages and see that they are just as vague as the first one.  I become desperate to find out who it is and begin flipping through pages and find myself on the following page:

November 13, 1847

   I don't know why I wish to relive this pain.  I assume that maybe one day someone will read this and never put anyone through what I have had to experience.  I was in bed with the one I love.  Shelia came over to invite me out.  We were doing so well at the House that the manager had given us a little bonus. I didn't know about it, and Shelia wanted to surprise me with it. Well surprise me she did. She found me in bed with Richard. There I said it.  It was another man.  I have never felt more ashamed in my life, and then ashamed for loving the one thing that made me feel right.  She walked in on us after our love making.  She stormed around then, marched outside the apartment, gathered up some of the other men who then barged into my place while Richard and I were desperately trying to get dressed, drug us out to the street and threw us half naked into the puddles.  I sat there, seething with anger and terrified with embarrassment.  I didn't know what to do.  Men who were supposed to be my friends turned on me like a pack of wild dogs turning on another of their pack for lack of food.  They began calling out all sorts of vulgar names for what I was.  The sad thing was that I knew some of them had done this very thing.  They had never been caught like this.  I sat there, ready to get up and run.  Run for my life, run for my sanity, run back to the safety and anonymity of home.  Then my eye caught a young girl.  She had to be no more than six years old and clung desperately to her mothers skirt who had just been out buying goods for the family when they were stopped by the scene playing out in the streets of Philadelphia.  I then knew what I had to do.  No matter what came of this, I knew that in front of that child, for these people, and for myself, I had to stand up for what I was.  I had to let them know, I had to let that child know that when she grew up, if she was different in any way, then she could be it and stand proud of it and not back down.  I stood up, finished pulling up my pants. Standing there panting, I helped Richard up.  He stood there not knowing what was to occur.  I began looking directly into the eyes of my assailants.  As I looked at each of them, I began calling out names of some of their homosexual lovers.  I did it so they knew what I meant, but did not embarrass them as they had me.  The ones I yelled to ducked their heads, stepped back, or went back inside.  The ones that we left I spoke to quietly and sternly. I told them of the friendship we had shared, of the times we spent laughing.  I asked if I had been indecent or tried anything against their upbringing with them.  I told them that I was with Shelia and what else I did behind my door was mine and her business.  Then I looked at her.  I told her that the duo we had created was over.  It was a desperate move knowing that I would have to start from scratch with a new act, but I was willing.  I knew no one else would take her.  She wasn't that good at it and brought in only on her name. She knew it to that she had ridden the coattails of her father and me long enough.  She knew that if I ended the act, she would not have made it any further.  She coaxed the rest of the men to leave.  They walked away still fuming.  A few derogatory words were thrown mine and Richard's way, but they left.  Shelia stood there staring at me.  I took Richard's hand and led him past her, past the people, into the tenement and up to my place[18].  There we waited until Shelia returned.  We talked.  We kept the act together.  We acknowledged our situation, and she conceded to my tastes and agreed to not interfere anymore. We both acknowledged the damage she had done in her haste to the act since some people knew of my situation and decided we could fix it.  Richard got up and left when he heard our resolution.  I got down on one knee and proposed to a teary Shelia who quickly said yes.[19]  Richard walked out. The Wedding is to be held at the end of November.  William

  What?  He was gay.  I should have known.  Things are not that different today.  Arranged marriages for gay performers happen all the time to protect their sex appeal selling aspect to the audiences. But in this time.  Things really have not changed that much for the homosexual community.  Then I think of why I am sitting in the room alone.  I realize that I do not have to be forced into a marriage of convenience.  I also take pride in his standing up for himself.  I know that I did him proud by telling my parents this early.  Then I remember.  We are both 21 at this point.  I have to know how it turns out.  I flip to the next page and .....

December 20, 1847

   We got married to everyone's delighted surprise.  The wedding hushed any spreading rumors of my affair with Richard.  He still comes over often.  Our relationship is in a new form of understanding.  Shelia now lives with me, of course.  We turned the study into a spare bedroom for when Richard would stay over. We explained the extra bedroom to the fact that I would stay up late at night working on new ideas for the act and didn't want to wake her, so I would just fall into that bed.  People knew what it was for, but pushed it out of the way.  So is the way of this time.  To hide everything. Richard and Shelia are understanding of the situation.  They actually get together and nag me at times.  I told Shelia that if she needed, she could have someone else. I knew it would not be fair to have someone there for me, and then not allow her[20] another.  She had men every now and then, but I think truly she loved me with all her heart and I feel bad for that because I am partly responsible, but she and I both understand that this is the way it has been for people like me, and this is the way it will always be.  Rumors have started up again about Richard and I.  Shelia and I have talked about what we could do to stop them.  She continually apologizes for what she did, but I continually remind her that I don't really blame her. She was hurt and embarrassed. Once past that we talked more about how we could keep the rumors from affecting our featured spot.  They were getting ready to take us back down to our old coveted spot after intermission which would mean we had been beaten.  What can we do? I was hoping writing would bring something to mind.  Maybe a good night's sleep after some brandy.  William

I flipped to the next page to find it blank.  I flipped through a few more to find the same thing.  I wondered why the writing had stopped.  I wondered if he had died soon after that entry, if the journal got lost, or if something major had happened.  I sat back and revelled in the lost events I had just uncovered.  The trails and tribulations of a gay man bearing my name in 1847 Philadelphia.  It was almost as if what would have happened to me in that time.  Maybe this is what people mean by time travel?  One can experience it through family who was there.  As I start to put the book back, I decide to begin a new journal and write it as if someone will one day wonder what it was like to live now.  As I put it in the box, a note falls out of the back.  I pick it up and open it.  It is in a different writing than William wrote in.  I open it.

William,

   I am writing you this note to tell you it is fine what you had to do.  I know you were drunk and were not thinking as clearly as you should have, but I also know that in this time and day, such occurrences had to be.  I still love you with all my heart and do not want to end our relationship.  I want to be a part of yours, Shelia's, and the baby's life.  Please keep me there.

                                                Love Richard

The tear fell onto the card as some sort of final punctuation behind the note.  A note written for love built on secrecy and sadness.  With that pride and a new found courage, I placed the note back into the book, put it back in the box, and got up.  I was going to go face my family.  Past generations have been through too much with this for me to have to relive it.  I can make that change.  I do not have to marry a woman anymore.  My family knows, and I am happy now.  It will be hard, but maybe this will make it easier on a William in the future.

 



[1]Frank Trommler and Joseph McVeigh, eds., America and the Germans:  An Assessment of a Three- Hundred-Year History, vol. 1 (Philadelphia:  U. of Pennsylvania P., 1985) 71.

 

[2]Howard P. Chudacoff and Judith E. Smith, The Evolution of American Urban Society (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey:  Prentice Hall, 1994) 68.

 

[3]Trommler, 47.

 

[4]Trommler, 144.

 

[5]Christine Stansell, City of Women:  Sex and Class in New York 1789-1860 (Chicago:  U. of Illinois P., 1987) 83.

 

[6]Robert W. Snyder, The Voice of the City:  Vaudeville and Popular Culture in New York (New York:  Oxford U. P., 1989) 43.

 

[7]Chudacoff, 68.

 

[8]David R. Goldfield and Blaine A. Brownell, Urban America:  A History (Boston:  Houghton Mifflin Co., 1990) 132.

 

[9]Gunther Barth, City People:  The Rise of Modern City Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1980) 198.

 

[10]Charles W. Stein, ed., American Vaudeville:  As Seen By Its Contemporaries (New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1984) 115.

 

[11]I doubt this happened all that often.  A strange man in a strange town was less likely to be given a job over a man they knew could do it, but for the stories sake, the fact that William knew so much and spent the day there going over things, they did not want to pass up the talent that was there.

 

[12]Snyder, 59, 47-51.  The wages I quote in this paper are an estimation.  In Voice of theCity, they quote prices from 1918 and I estimate to the best of my ability to that time, so the prices are lower than the salaries they quote and this is true for other wages I will quote in the latter pages.

 

[13]Leigh Woods, "Two-A-Day Redemptions and Truncated Camilles:  the Vaudeville Repertoire of Sarah Bernhardt," New Theatre Quarterly vXn37 (Feb 1994):  11.

 

[14]Snyder, 146.

 

[15]Snyder, 47. Actually, int he source as I stated before, was actually higher in the $40 a week range for duos, but it was in the early 1900's that this salary was qulted so I thought it would be less in the mid 1800's.

 

[16]Snyder, 61.

 

[17]Barth, 192.

 

[18]I realize that it is not common for a gay man of this time to have gotten off so easily, but I do think that since homosexuality frequents the performing arts and that there must have been gay men who stood up for themselves in those times and were accepted because people already knew them and liked them.  Not that it was openly allowed but "swept under the rug" and hidden.

 

[19]Jacky Bratton, "Working in the Margin:  Women in Theatre History," New Theatre Quarterly vX n38 (May 1994): 129.  Men and women in this time usually got married becasue a man needed a wife to breed and take care of his home while he was at work and the women needed someone to bring in the money.  This was not untrue for performers either.  People in Vaudeville got married for their acts. In this incident, the two get married to save the act which might be damaged due to the fact that now people think he is gay.

 

[20]This was not common practice either.  Men usually almost always had extra marital affairs,a nd did not allow women to have them.  But due to my characters unique situation, I have allowed him some intelligent insight into needing someone to love.

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