Not So Wild About Harry, Part 2

Portion of a book cover from 1899 with the word 'poetry' and a decorative flourish.
Smyth is a man with a history and he has written a history of his wife, which paints her as a highly accomplished adventuress. Smyth is evidently half crazy.
- The Kansas City (Kansas) Gazette, August 14, 1890.

In this episode, we learn the rest of the story from Glendale Park, near Nashville. Will Estelle and Harry succeed? Will their marriage to avoid impending calamity turn into a happy ending?

Listen to the episode or access the transcript below.

Transcript for Not So Wild About Harry, Part 2

[00:00:04] Narrator: Estelle True-Nell was a remarkable woman. Our modern era has forgotten her, and I think that's too bad. I'd like to introduce you to her amazing life, one career at a time. Along the way, we might pick up a tip or two for ourselves, as we learn How to Be Estelle.

[00:00:25] Narrator: Things were not off to a good start. In early 1890, Estelle's partnership with Capt. Harry M. Smyth had not produced the profitable summer theater she hoped to start in Nashville. Her original partner, confusingly also named Harry Smith, was eventually charged with fraudulent appropriation of $400 of the company's money for his own use.

[00:00:48] Narrator: After several weeks of delays, the Anglo-American Comedy Company was to open Capt. Harry's play, "The Happy Family, or the Nashville Model Boarding House," on April 21 at Glendale Park. Opening night was finally here.

[00:01:04] Narrator: Things did not go well. First, the streetcars were delayed, and 75 people who had intended to take in the show arrived after the performance was over. It was probably a good thing that the crowd was a small one. Estelle, the leading lady, became ill during the performance and had to be carried off stage. In better news for the hotel, the café and soda fountain did good business, despite the coolness of the weather.

[00:01:29] Narrator: Four days later, William Shoemaker, the proprietor of the hotel which housed the theater and which housed and fed Estelle's family, sued Capt. Harry.

[00:01:39] Newspaper: The contract, so Shoemaker states, was that the board should be paid monthly. He claims that Smyth has paid him only $20 on account, of which he has borrowed $5 back. Shoemaker last week demanded his debt, and Smyth, failing to materialize, was ordered out of the house. He refused to go and said that he would go to the law about it. Shoemaker refused to feed him any longer. The company remained in the house, but had to get their meals at Smith's eating house.

[00:02:06] Narrator: Yes, it seems there is yet another Smith involved.

[00:02:10] Narrator: Yesterday morning the theatre people tried to remove their baggage out of the hotel and a scrimmage occurred over the trunks. No damage was done, and the trunks remained in the hotel pending a writ of attachment.

[00:02:22] Narrator: Shoemaker sued Harry for the company's hotel bill, which totaled $250. The Nashville Tennessean reported:

[00:02:31] Newspaper: The Glendale Park hotel-theatre rumpus is nearing its close. The first of the suits that are pending was heard before Justice John L. Glenn yesterday morning. It was that of William Shoemaker against Capt. Harry Maurice Smyth, of London, England, New York, Chicago and the United States, as he states it.

[00:02:48] Narrator: The case, the newspaper said, was "very interesting and at the same time very laughable." Harry claimed that because Shoemaker, the hotel keeper, had not kept to his side of their contract, Harry felt that the troupe did not owe Shoemaker anything for the family's meals. Mr. Shoemaker took the stand and submitted evidence of the time the company had been boarding with him, and then rested his case.

[00:03:12] Narrator: Harry responded with what the paper called "a cloud of witnesses," and Harry himself testified that the meals they received at the Glendale Park Hotel were not fit for human beings to eat. All of Harry's witnesses testified that the steak was "tough enough to sole a pair of shoes," the coffee was weak and lukewarm, and the butter "was strong enough to walk."

[00:03:34] Narrator: Justice Glenn eventually ruled that no matter how bad the food was, and no matter whether the contract was broken, Harry and the family were liable for the full amount, because they had continued to stay at the hotel and take their meals there.

[00:03:46] Narrator: There was to be a second trial on the following Monday, with Capt. Harry suing Mr. Shoemaker for $1,000 for breach of contract. Harry later had Shoemaker arrested for assault, but he was acquitted.

[00:04:00] Narrator: The troupe continued to place ads in the newspaper, including their customary list of business staff, but that list began to shrink. Instead of the play, the featured act was to be Young's Great Georgia Minstrels. Charles Young was still listed as the Electrician for the group, but I suspect he had charge of those performers, too.

[00:04:17] Narrator: A day or two later, the ad included a ball to be given at the park. Tickets were 50 cents for each person, and the admission fee included ice cream and other refreshments. By May 1st, the paper reported,

[00:04:30] Newspaper: "There will be a ball at Glendale Park tonight for the benefit of the theatrical company performing at the Casino."

[00:04:37] Narrator: Their performance had turned into a fundraiser to help pay their bills.

[00:04:40] Narrator: Constable Sharpe seized the company's trunks in an effort to collect the money they owed. Charles Young filed suit against the Constable, arguing that his three trunks were his individual property and not subject to the debt of the theater company. The Tennessean reported that Charles won the case and was awarded $350.

[00:05:00] Narrator: All the legal wrangling took its toll. The company's attorney was a man named Ford Reddick. One day while they were in the Magistrate's office, Attorney Reddick confronted Estelle and claimed that she had made insinuations against his character. Estelle replied that she didn't know he had any character. Reddick then made statements impugning Estelle's character, and she smote him across the face with her parasol. According to the paper, "This ended the argument."

[00:05:27] Narrator: It was time to move on. Glendale Park certainly did - the management decided to replace theatricals with a dance three times a week. They promised good music, and the Nashville Banner reported that attendance was good.

[00:05:41] Narrator: Estelle was ready to pack up and move on, but Capt. Harry was not pleased with her plans. Here's the story he told to the Nashville Tennessean on May 23:

[00:05:50] Newspaper: Last Wednesday his son had discovered that the Madame had had all the trunks of the company sent to the depot, preparatory to leaving the city, and had come to him and told him of it.

[00:06:00] Newspaper: He went to the depot but failed to find the trunks. He went to her and asked her for an explanation, and she struck him with her seemingly favorite weapon, her parasol. She then had him arrested to get him out of the way and left the city Wednesday night for Kansas City. He claims that she took, in addition to his wearing apparel, a valuable box of jewelry, two plays, written by himself, and under contract for sale of upwards of $2,000.

[00:06:25] Newspaper: He says that he, and not Mme. Trunelle, furnished the capital for the dramatic venture, and that everything that the Madame has was furnished by him. He is going to indict the Madame for larceny, he says, and if possible, put her in the penitentiary. He also makes charges against his step-son-in-law, and says that he will get him, too. He was left by his spouse in a bad fix; he has only the clothes that he has on his back and is dead broke.

[00:06:51] Narrator: Estelle tells the story as a desperate escape. A friend gave her $135 and advised her to leave Smyth. I'm guessing that $135 is about what was left over from her son-in-law Charles Young's legal winnings after they paid their hotel bill

[00:07:07] Narrator: Estelle packed up the family and fled to Kansas City, where her sister Emma lived. She set up a dressmaking business at No. 12 James Street, while Charles Young got a job as a performer at the Dime Museum, and Pearl and Ella pursued their theater careers.

[00:07:22] Narrator: Capt. Harry soon followed and pelted Estelle with letters urging her to live with him, combined with "threats and vile accusations." He appeared on her doorstep and created a disturbance. Her son-in-law slapped him and her son had him arrested.

[00:07:38] Narrator: Some of Harry's threats were made in the media. The local press reported that when Estelle refused to live with Harry, he said

[00:07:45] Newspaper: "He has written what he purports to be a history of her life and threatens to have it published. The statements which he makes concerning her and her two daughters are too shocking to repeat."

[00:07:55] Narrator: Another report said,

[00:07:58] Newspaper: "Smyth is a man with a history and he has written a history of his wife, which paints her as a highly accomplished adventuress."

[00:08:04] Narrator: Okay, note to self -- new life goal: highly accomplished adventuress.

[00:08:10] Narrator: The Kansas City Gazette was a bit kinder to Estelle. It said,

[00:08:14] Newspaper: "Mrs. Smyth is about 38 years of age, of good form, fine looking and a woman of more than ordinary intelligence."

[00:08:20] Narrator: The Gazette described Harry as "a professed writer of dramas and comedies" and "an alleged journalist." The paper concluded,

[00:08:29] Newspaper: "Smyth is a well-educated man and a ready writer. He is evidently not sound of mind, however."

[00:08:37] Narrator: Whether Harry really fulfilled all the different roles he claimed, I do not know. I do know he had a tendency to exaggerate. By this point in August 1890, Harry is claiming to Kansas City reporters that Estelle had relieved him of about $6,000 of property, including the manuscripts of his plays, jewelry, and clothing. (In Nashville back in May, it was $2,000 worth of valuables.)

[00:09:01] Narrator: In October, Smyth claimed to have inherited $50,000 from a relative in England. He announced that he would travel to London and then return to Kansas City, where he planned to build a foundry and manufacture heating stoves, radiators, and "other articles of domestic use." Some newspaper accounts claim that he also wanted to produce his plays, while others reported that he was done with the theatrical business.

[00:09:26] Narrator: At that time, Estelle was beginning her career as a scientific life reader, and the kids were trying to make it in Vaudeville. I believe they were in St. Joseph, Missouri at that time, so it's very possible they heard the gossip from Kansas City, but it doesn't appear that Estelle took the bait. It would explain why Estelle chose to be Mrs. Dr. De San, and why the Van Arsdale Children became the Trunelle Children on stage.

[00:09:50] Narrator: There's no evidence that Estelle and Harry ever reconciled. I've also found no evidence that Harry actually collected $50,000.

[00:09:59] Narrator: Or, maybe he had. The New York Clipper reported in 1892 that Harry was organizing a company at Madison, Illinois, to build a hotel and theater near St. Louis, but there's no sign of the money, and I don't find any mention of the project after that.

[00:10:14] Narrator: When Harry died, he had little or no money, and there were papers among his effects that show others had raised funds to help Smyth and his family. There was some evidence that he had a third wife named Mamie, and an Indiana paper had reported that the couple were planning to operate a hotel in that state.

[00:10:32] Narrator: Harry Smyth died alone on January 9, 1896 at the Columbus House at 620 North Broadway in St. Louis. He had been a lodger there for about ten days. He became ill about five days into his stay, but, as the paper reported, "being without funds, he could not afford the luxury of a physician."

[00:10:51] Narrator: Unsteady on his feet and barely able to walk, he made his way to the stairs, collapsed, and fell to the bottom, where the clerk found his body early that morning.

[00:11:03] Narrator: Residents of the hotel claimed that two unnamed women had called to see Smyth on Sunday afternoon. Smyth had told men in the hotel that he had been married three times, but no one knew who those visitors were.

[00:11:15] Narrator: Here are the last notes of Harry's song, courtesy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on January 18, 1896:

[00:11:24] Narrator: Smyth left no valuables. All his effects consisted of a bottle of whisky, a knife, 15 cents and voluminous memoranda.

[00:11:34] Narrator: We know from other accounts that those voluminous memoranda probably included his play scripts and the scandalous memoir he claimed to have written revealing Estelle's many secrets. It's a long shot, but I dream that her unauthorized biography is still out there, somewhere. Even with Capt. Harry's creative filter, it would still be a fascinating insight into How to Be Estelle.