Is that a naked woman on a horse, on stage in Albany?

While researching the old newspaper microfilms for a recent blog post, I came across what may have been the most scandalous event in 19th century Albany entertainment history.

Yes, even more scandalous than the time the Petit Cine 1-2 had an exclusive engagement of The Devil in Miss Jones.

Step into the magic time portal with me, and let’s go back to 1861.  Back to the time when one of the most popular actresses of the legitimate stage, Adah Isaacs Menken, scandalized the Capital District’s theatergoers.

Adah Isaacs Menken.  From the archives of the San Francisco Museum.
Adah Isaacs Menken. From the archives of the San Francisco Museum.

Adah Isaacs Menken was one of the top actresses of her time, and one of the most newsworthy. She married with a frequency that would put Elizabeth Taylor to shame; her romantic relationships included such scions as musician Alexander Isaac Menden, profesional prizefighter Johnnie Heenan (also known as “The Benecia Boy”), author Alexander Dumas, and tightrope walker Blondin.

In 1861, Albany’s theatrical stages included Tweddle Hall, the Green Street Concert Hall (formerly the Green Street Theater) and the New Gayety Theater (which was also on Green Street).  Performing at the Gayety was stage legend Adah Isaacs Menken, but despite her fame at the time, the general public were more concerned about the Civil War, and theater ticket sales were light. With that in mind, the management of the Green Street Concert Hall offered Menken the opportunity to play the lead role in a stage adaptation of Mazeppa.

<i><b>Mazeppa and the Wolves</i></b>, as painted by Horace Vernet (1826).
Mazeppa and the Wolves, as painted by Horace Vernet (1826).

Mazeppa was based on a play by Lord Byron, and tells the saga of a Ukranian man who falls in love with a married countess.  Upon discovery of the illicit affair, the Ukranian man is punished for his adultery by being strapped naked to the back of a galloping horse.

This poem was a popular stage production, but but when it came to the climactic riding scene, the standard of the day was to attach a fabric mannequin to a live horse, so as to not offend the genteel theater viewing public.

Menken would perform the role of Mazeppa – a role originally written for a man. This was not unusual for the actress – she performed many cross-gender roles on stage, to the delight of her many fans.  But for Mazeppa, things would be different.

During rehearsals for Mazeppa, Menken wanted to take her role as far as she could.  Not satisfied with having a naked dummy representing her on the back of a wild horse, Menken wanted to be strapped to the horse – wearing nothing but flesh-colored tights and leggings, to give the appearance of nakedness.

With that in mind, it was up to Capt. John C. Smith, the proprietor of the Green Street Concert Hall, to make sure everything worked out safely and effectively.  The climactic scene, in which Menken would be strapped to a galloping horse, was worked out in rehearsals between Smith, Menken, and Smith’s horse, “Belle Beauty.”  Belle Beauty was trained to quickly walk from the footlights to the top landing, the mare carrying the required stuffed dummy.  A special harness was designed to hold the mannequin to the back of Belle Beauty, and Smith instructed Menken on how to apply the harness and ride Belle Beauty safely.

According to the 1880 book Players of A Century, a history of Albany’s early theaters, Menken asked if, instead of having Belle Beauty gallop up the narrow landing, the horse could instead be led up slowly.  Captain Smith reluctantly honored Menken’s request, and in rehearsals the horse was led slowly up the footlights.  Unfortunately, Belle Beauty’s rhythm was disrupted by this change in gait.  On its way up the landing, the horse missed part of the 18-inch walkway, and the mare – along with Menken – tumbled to the pit below.  Menken suffered a shoulder wound, while Belle Beauty needed care to remove painful splinters from her hide.

But the show must go on, and on June 7, 1861, Mazeppa played to one of the only packed houses the Green Street Theater would see that year.  To promote the show, Captain Smith had thirteen different horses parade through the streets of Albany, each horse advertised as “The Menken Stud.”  The Albany Evening Journal, whose advertisement of the day can be seen here, promoted that it would be Menken – not a stuffed dummy or anyone else – strapped to the back of Belle Beauty, and that those who knew what the play Mazeppa contained, well then you might see something you hadn’t seen before.  Also, in case Menken was unable to perform due to her shoulder injury, Smith had hired a troupe of singers, dancers and acrobats so the patrons would get their money’s worth in entertainment.

The play was a success.  Much was made of Menken’s swordplay in one of the climactic battle scenes, to the point where the reviewer noted that Menken actually broke two swords in mid-battle with her acrobatic parries and thrusts.  I wonder if the reviewer’s report would have been as glowing had he not known that Captain Smith had carefully filed down some of the swords so that a quick hit to the hilt would cause the blade to snap away.

And, of course, the vaunted horse ride went off without any problems.  Menken, wearing her flesh-colored bodysuit, allowed Belle Beauty to hoist her all the way from the footlights to the highest landing of the Green Street Concert Hall without any hesitation or hassle, just as the horse had been trained to do.  Mazeppa became Menken’s signature play, and she performed the show in various other cities, including Pittsburgh and San Francisco, Paris and London.

Sadly, in 1868, barely seven years after her performance on the Albany stage, Adah Isaacs Menken passed away at the age of 33.  She lays in eternal slumber  in a Paris cemetery, with only the words “Thou Knowest” engraved on her headstone.

As for Belle Beauty, the book Players of a Century noted that the mare finished her years in retirement at a farm in Poughkeepsie.  And somewhere in a tavern in Buffalo, if it has survived to this day, is the original harness that held Adah Isaacs Menken to the back of a horse, all to enthrall the Albany theater cognoscenti.