De Cost Smith was born in Skaneateles, at home in Cobweb Cottage on West Lake Street. As a young man, he made his way west, and found himself, one evening in 1884, in a bunkhouse on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota. It was a simple accommodation: a log house with partitions “as required,” and bedsteads of rough boards topped with grass-stuffed mattresses and buffalo robes for warmth.
He later wrote, “We were kept awake a good part of the night by a young fellow with a very fair voice, who entertained his hearers with endless repetitions of ‘The Violet I Plucked from Mother’s Grave,’ though some of them, probably, didn’t know whether their mothers were dead or alive, and most of them had never seen a violet.”
What fascinates me about this is the ubiquity of the popular song.
Will H. Fox published the sheet music for “A Violet from Mother’s Grave” in Philadelphia in 1881. Without benefit of recordings or radio, the song made its way across the Great Plains to serenade De Cost Smith in 1884.
Just four years after that, one night in Whitechapel, London, a prostitute named Mary Jane Kelly, who had spent the evening drinking, was heard singing “A Violet from Mother’s Grave” in her room. When morning came, she was found horribly murdered, the fifth and last victim of Jack the Ripper.
One song, making its way around the world, keeping all sorts of company.
* * *
A few notes:
De Cost Smith’s memories of the American west can be found in his wonderful book, Indian Experiences (1943).
Will Fox’s “A Violet from Mother’s Grave” was essentially a rehash of “A Flower from My Angel Mother’s Grave” by Harry Kennedy, who published his song three years before, in 1878. Kennedy knew about Fox’s light fingers, but was more annoyed than angry, as his original version had already earned him a large sum of money.
Cobweb Cottage is today known as The Cove. In 1852, its builder, Reuel Smith, referred to his entire 22-acre estate as The Cove, because it fronted on a small cove on Skaneateles Lake; he referred to the house, a Gothic Revival fantasy by Alexander Jackson Davis, as Cobweb Cottage. The house’s original name fell into disuse some time in the early 1920s, and as the estate shrank to the size of a single building lot, its name came to stand for the house alone.