“Spaulding’s bell ringers gave an excellent entertainment at Legg Hall last Wednesday evening; nearly every piece on the program receiving two, three or four encores. Our people are highly pleased with them, and will give them a crowded house when they next appear in Skaneateles.” – Skaneateles Free Press, February, 1882
To properly illuminate this review of a performance at Legg Hall, I need to go back to 1844, when P.T. Barnum, a showman always in search of the next big attraction, was traveling in England. As he recalled in his autobiography (The Life of P.T. Barnum):
“Having heard while in London in 1844, of a company of ‘Campanalogians, or Lancashire Bell Ringers,’ performing in Ireland, I induced them to meet me in Liverpool, and there engaged them for an American tour. One of my stipulations was that they should suffer their moustaches to grow, assume a picturesque dress, and be know as the ‘Swiss Bell Ringers.’
“They at first objected, in the broad and almost unintelligible dialect of Lancashire, because, as they said, they spoke only the English language, and could not pass muster as Swiss people; but the objection was withdrawn when I assured them that if they continued to speak in America as they had just spoken to me, they might safely claim to be Swiss, or any thing else, and no one would be any the wiser.”
In October of 1844, a young writer named Edgar Allen Poe, at the New York Mirror, described one of the troupe’s first American performances:
“The Swiss Bell-ringers enter, to the number of seven, white-plumed and fancifully costumed, and each armed with four or five hand-bells of various sizes, which they deposit on a cushioned table before them, retaining one in each hand, which they are continually changing for others in their armory, putting down and taking up with the rapidity of jugglers, and all the while ringing the changes upon them with a delicate harmony and precision, which are as perfect in a symphony of Haydn as in ‘Miss Lucy Long.’”
The Swiss Bell Ringers toured the U.S. and Canada, and were very popular, but after a year or two of touring they longed to return to England. One writer maintained that two members of the troupe had died from the North American climate, and the other five wanted to get out with their lives. Another story is that they ran into legal difficulties in St. Louis and were forced to sell their bells before departing for home. Perhaps both stories are true.
In 1847, the bells were snapped up by the Peak Family, a touring group of musicians, who wanted to capitalize on the fame of Barnum’s ringers and revitalize their own flagging fortunes. The newly equipped Peaks billed themselves as The Original Swiss Bell Ringers, the originality and nationality apparently having been transferred with the bells.
Touring entertainers could not live by one instrument alone, and often included a comedian or two, and other musicians, to keep the act fresh. The Peak family, for some time, employed a violinist named John Franklin Spaulding, from Boston, who had a second-cousin named William P. Spaulding, a musician with Kelly and Leon’s Minstrels in Chicago. Also in Chicago was the future Mrs. William P. Spaulding, Georgia Dean. She had come to Chicago at the age of five, in 1850. Her father was a symphony musician, and he set up young Georgia with an Italian gentleman who gave lessons on the harp. She was a natural. She debuted as a harpist at Bryan’s Hall, Chicago, and began her career as a musician. As fate would have it, William Spaulding played the harp as well; the harpists met, and were married in 1865. The following year, William left the minstrels, and with John, who had left the Peak Family, the cousins formed the Spaulding Brothers’ Swiss Bell Ringers. Newlywed Georgie Dean Spaulding played the harp and bells, and sang.
There were by then many traveling “Swiss Bell” troupes. Indiana humorist Kin Hubbard noted, “Swiss bell ringers wuz as thick an’ common as wild pigeons. Sometimes they’d show up in coveys.” But Georgie Dean Spaulding was the real deal, and she set the Spaulding Bell Ringers apart. Nor was William a slouch; one writer noted, “Mr. Spaulding is one of the most versatile performers in the profession, playing on any instrument from a harp down to a penny trumpet, while his solo on the bass bells is said to be wonderful.”
John Spaulding returned to the Peak Family in 1870, making William the sole manager of the Spaulding Bell Ringers. Georgie added the cornet to her repertoire, hired another cornet player, Nellie Daniels, and the troupe became known as the Spaulding Bell Ringers and Ladies’ Cornet Band. When Georgie acquired a gold cornet, the name stretched out to The Spaulding Bell Ringers and Ladies’ Gold & Silver Cornet Band.
Over the next ten years, the troupe toured extensively in the eastern U.S. and Canada. They packed every hall, at 35 cents a seat. They played New York for eight weeks. In Montreal, they played Queen’s Hall for three days, and 1600 tickets were sold for a single matinee performance.
Georgie was something of a marvel. One of her set pieces was to play, “Yankee Doodle” with one hand on the harp strings and “The Fisher’s Hornpipe” with the other, and sing “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, The Boys Are Marching,” a Civil War favorite, at the same time. More than one reviewer noted that all three melodies could be heard distinctly. Her husband and manager proclaimed, “Her execution of three different and difficult melodies at one time is the wonder of the 19th century.”
She was also unflappable. On one occasion as she played the harp, the fashionably tight sleeves of her new dress cut off the circulation to her hands. She stopped playing for a moment, produced a pen knife, calmly slit the sleeves, and resumed playing to thunderous applause.
In the early 1870s, William and Georgie had two children, Little Willie and Little Kittie, who were added to the act. One reporter noted, “Though this is one of the oldest companies traveling, there is nothing stale or played out in the varied treat which they furnish.”
On Wednesday, Feb. 15th, 1882, the troupe finally played Skaneateles. The program featured solos on harp, cornet and staff bells by Georgie Dean Spaulding; humorous recitations by Esther Straton; solos on the ocarina by Mademoiselle Lucier, said to be the first woman to play the ocarina in America; serio-comic songs by Miss Kittie, who also performed solos on the metalaphone (a vibraphone with metal bars); new songs by C.W. Johnson; and the much-anticipated bass bell solo by William Spaulding. And as noted, nearly every piece on the program received calls for an encore.
I don’t believe the Spaulding Bell Ringers ever returned to Skaneateles. William Spaulding died at home in Neponset, Massachusetts, in November of 1888. After a month of mourning, Georgie returned to her “professional duties” in December 1888. In 1890, she married another musician, Frank H. Kent, and in 1893, she had a bell of polished granite placed as a monument on the graves of the two deceased members of the Spaulding bell ringers, Emma F. and William P. Spaulding.
In June of 1900, Georgie was widowed again when Frank Kent drowned; his skiff turned over in Long Pond, Plymouth, Massachusetts, where the couple had been resting after their winter concert tour. In 1905, Georgie Dean Spaulding died at the age of 62 at her home in Neponset, Massachusetts.
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I cannot leave this subject without taking you back to 1844 and this final note from P.T. Barnum:
“As compensation to England for the loss of the Bell Ringers, I dispatched an agent to America for a party of Indians, including squaws. He proceeded to Iowa, and returned to London with a company of sixteen. They were exhibited by Mr. Catlin on our joint account, and were finally left in his sole charge.”