In the early 20th century, Fall River mills were producing large quantities of cotton cloth, and the city was one of the world’s top producers. Mill workers toiled long hours for small pay; in what little leisure time they had, looked for entertainment. In the summer, there was the arrival of the many circuses that criss-crossed America—as many as five a year. In the winter, live shows were popular, and Fall River had a number of venues. Vaudeville offered a variety of singers, dancers, and circus acts. The Academy Theater presented more sophisticated shows, including legitimate plays and concerts. There were also theaters that offered shows of what some might have considered lower-class entertainment. As early as the 1880s, we find citizens testifying against the renewal of the license of the Fall River Opera House with Robert K. Remington leading the opposition. Another theater was under attack for offering “indecent” entertainment—Rich’s Empire Theater on Second Street, formerly Rich’s Dewey Theatre. This theater faced Main Street and became one of the major vaudeville and movie houses in later years. The Little Egypt episode occurred here in March of 1900 and brought some notoriety to the city.
The Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago in 1893 to celebrate the arrival of Columbus in America some 400 years earlier. Countries exhibited their products and varied entertainments were offered. One venue was called “A Street in Cairo” and it featured, for the first time in America, the belly dance. At the time, it was called the hoochie-coochie or shimmy and shake, the latter term aptly describing the motions involved in the dance. Fareda Mazar Spyropolis performed it at the Exposition and was a sensation, drawing worldwide recognition. Another notable belly dancer was Ashea Wabe—stage name Little Egypt—her real name was Catherine Devine, a Canadian girl of Lebanese extraction. She became known internationally and appeared in many cities in America, including Fall River.
Little Egypt knew how to attract attention. In 1897, she was dancing in New York City and was hired to perform at a bachelor party for Clinton Barnum Seeley, thrown by his brother Herbert Barnum Seeley, both grandsons of P.T. Barnum. P.T. left them a fortune with the stipulation that they use Barnum as their middle names. Clinton was the favorite grandson and was supposed to help run the circus. He had little interest or skill in show business and lasted one year on the road. Herbert was the playboy type and P.T. had no faith in him. P.T.’s very able partner, James Bailey, didn’t feel that the Barnum boys were up to the task of running the circus and even threatened to end the partnership if Clinton stayed.
The party featured a 17-course meal and scantily clad young ladies distributing gifts and tokens. In the early morning hours, Little Egypt was to do her dance, ending in a finale posing in the altogether. Word got out and the police raided before Little Egypt got to her finale. The police captain that led the raid came under considerable criticism from the newspapers for interfering in the simple fun of these gentlemen. Coming to the defense of the captain was none other than New York City Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt. The story of the party was covered by the press, and it appeared in the Fall River papers.
Ms. Wabe continued to dance for her supper and formed the Little Egypt Burlesque Company. In Fall River, her show was called “The Little Egypt Farce and Extravaganza Company.” (You have to make it interesting for the rubes.) The show played three days in Fall River with three matinees and three evening performances. Word circulated that it was interesting, and it attracted large audiences. The police saw the Friday matinee and deemed it unacceptable for the city. Little Egypt was told to eliminate the belly dance from her show. However, the dance was not cut out of the Friday evening show and a warrant was issued for her arrest. Captain John Brocklehurst and Lieutenant Fred T. Barker went to Rich’s Theater to serve the warrant, but Ms. Wabe had been tipped off and escaped to the McKinley Hotel where she hid until friends obtained a hack and aided in her escape over the Slade Ferry Bridge to Somerset. It was reported that she boarded a train at the Brayton Station in Somerset, to Providence and safety.
To their dismay, the Saturday matinee customers heard an address by the theater manager announcing that Little Egypt wouldn’t appear as “such a wave of morality had suddenly swept up Second St. as to render it impossible for honest people to make a living dancing for the public.” There were many sad faces that day at Rich’s Theater. One newspaper reported part of the sadness was that the city officials would miss the dance in court; perhaps they should have just bought a ticket. There was a rumor that there was a dinner performance on Thursday evening in which Little Egypt gave a parlor recital to a very select coterie of Fall River men, but no indication was given of whom these gents were. The scenario is entirely plausible.
This was not the end of the Little Egypt affair. The police were still holding the warrant and smarting over the fact that they couldn’t serve it. It was learned that Ms. Wabe would be traveling from New York City to Boston via the Fall River Line and boat train. Officer Bartholomew Leary, whose beat was the Fall River pier, was designated to serve the warrant. Since he had never seen the dancer, he had to rely on the passenger list and could not find anyone who he thought looked like the subject leaving the ship for the train. Maybe Little Egypt used her real name for the ticket. Regardless, the warrant was never served, and Little Egypt again escaped.
In late October, Little Egypt’s manager arrived in Fall River to smooth things out with the city officials. The manager suggested that she be allowed to deliver herself, plead nolo contendere, do a couple of steps on the probation officers’ table in the District Court to determine the degree of her offense and open up at a local theatre for another run. An advertisement was posted for a November 1-3 stand at Rich’s Theatre featuring Little Egypt’s Burlesque Company. We find no documentation that the show was ever presented.
Miss Devine proved to be a good businesswoman. She died young in 1908, by asphyxiation when her gas heater malfunctioned; her estate was estimated between $100,000 and $200,000.
Special thanks to George Petrin for his contributions to this article.