In 1847, the western U.S. was a wilderness populated mostly by American Indians and Mexicans. The region changed quickly when word of gold reached the East. Some 200,000 individuals, mostly men, but some women and children, traveled to the untamed lands, primarily to California, during the first three years of the Gold Rush.
As fortunes were made and lost daily, gold seekers also sought out crude entertainment provided by ragtag bands, bear-wrestling and prize-fighting exhibitions, gambling dens, saloons, brothels and dancehalls. After a while, the miners and merchants longed for more refined entertainment. Theatres, backstreet halls and playhouses were built and stayed busy.
The pioneers’ passion for diversion lured brave actors, dancers, singers and daredevils west. Bored miners were willing to pay high sums to these entertainers, especially to the females. In the boomtowns during the mid-and-late 1800s, one of the most celebrated female entertainers was Adah Menken. Critics claimed she had one of the most beautiful figures in the world.
San Francisco was anxious to see Adah star in Prince Ivan in Mazeppa, a role that was making her famous. Rumors circulated that she played the part in the nude. Eastern newspapers reported audiences had found the scantily clad thespian’s act “shocking, scandalous, horrifying and even delightful.”
The storyline of the play was taken from a Lord Byron poem, in which a Tartar prince is condemned to ride forever in the desert, stripped naked and lashed to a fiery, untamed steed. Adah insisted on playing the part as true to life as possible.
The audience could hardly wait for the actress to walk out onto the stage. When she did, a hush fell over the crowd. The stunning actress with her curly, dark hair and big, dark eyes wore a flesh-colored body nylon and tight-fitting underwear. During the play’s climatic scene, supporting characters strapped the star to the back of a black stallion, which then raced up the narrow runway between cardboard mountain crags. The audience responded with thunderous applause. Adah had captured the heart of another city in the West.
Adah was born Adois Dolores McCordon June 15, 1835, in New Orleans, Louisiana, to her French Creole mother and her highly respected, free black father. Prejudice against Adah’s ethnicity plagued her early career. Theatre owners familiar with her heritage refused to hire her. She created stories about her upbringing, apparently to secure work. The truth about her roots was not uncovered until the early 1900’s.
Adah earned an estimated$150,000 from her 29 Nevada shows. When she left Virginia City, lovesick miners gave her a silver brick valued at $403.31 and stamped: “Miss Adah Isaacs Menken from friends of Virginia City, Nevada Territory—March 30th, 1864.”They also named a local mine after her and formed the Menken Shaft and Tunnel Company. The company’s stock certificates bore a picture of a naked lady bound to a galloping stallion.
In June 1868, while acting out her famous “nude” scene, the horse Adah was bound to ran too near a stage flat and the flesh of Adah’s leg was torn. A doctor found a cancerous growth had formed as a result of the accident. Six weeks later, Adah collapsed from tuberculosis. She died on August 10, 1868,and was buried in Paris, France. The actress was only 33 years old.
Adah’s talent and daring had made her world famous and the toast of princes and poets of two continents. Among some of her most loyal fans were novelist Charles Dickens, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and journalist Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. The journalist’s description of her performance, published in the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Nevada, is considered the best surviving account of Adah in action: “She is a finely formed woman down to her knees,” Twain wrote in September 1863. “…Here every tongue sings the praises of her matchless grace, her supple gestures, her charming attitudes. Well, possibly, these tongues are right…. she works her arms, and her legs, and her whole body like a dancing-jack; her every movement is as quick as thought…. If this be grace then the Menken is eminently graceful.”