Tag Archives: morality

The Insidious Poison of the Opera: 1871

The Opera Box, Henry Nelson O'Neil, 1859

The Opera Box, Henry Nelson O’Neil, 1859


It may be mentioned as illustrating still further, the false tendencies in music, that it takes a brave man to ask for a sweet, simple song. I tried it the other night. I asked a Flora McFlimsey to give us “Way down upon the Swanee River.” The words, it will be remembered, are singularly pure, sweet and pathetic.

Many of the Italian songs just now so fashionable, are couched in language, listened to by pure-minded people, only because they don’t understand it.

When I said, “Please sing ‘Way down upon the Swanee River,'” Miss McFlimsey replied, “Excuse me, I never sing that class of music. I haven’t sung one of those simple airs, I don’t know when.” I know, by the way the girls looked at me, that their respect for my musical taste vanished at once and forever. If I had asked her for “Ah, que faime les militaire,” or “Une Poule sur la mur,” insufferable trash, both as to music and words, utterly beneath contempt, she would have eagerly screamed the bald bosh, and the weak ones would have declared it ineffably exquisite.

[Since the above was in type, Mile. Nilsson has several times sung “Way down upon the Swanee River” at her concerts.]


If you understand Italian, I need not explain; and if you do not, purchase a libretto, with English translation, of almost any of the operas, and read. 

Among those most popular on the American stage, I cannot recall more than two, that I should be willing to have my daughter read. But the music pupil must study every word, often every syllable of a word.

The lascivious suggestion, the sly inuendo, the bold challenge, — they are all exhausted in the language of the opera.

One of the charms of much of this class of music is similar to that of a new dance introduced into this country last winter; and it came, too, from the land of Italian opera. Of this dance I will only say that I overheard a buxom lass telling her lady friends “that the new dance was perfectly glorious; but,” said she, “it’s of no use to put flowers or bows in your bosom, for they get pressed flat enough, long before the first dance is over.”

Is it not a simple fact that operatic songs are popular just in proportion as they are indelicate? I have asked this question of more than a score of devotees of the opera. Half of them, perhaps, have said yes, the other half have said that the finest music happened to be associated with naughty words. Read the words of “Un mari sage” without the music. Where, outside of a brothel, could there be found a company of girls, who, with men present, would keep their faces uncovered, and listen.

I wish you would go to the opera with me; I will show you something which will impress you more deeply than any words I can write.

Here we are, so placed, that we can look into the faces of a part of the audience. Let us select a couple, and, with our glasses, watch them.

There is a beautiful black-eyed girl, — the one with that fat, red-faced gentleman. She is about sixteen, and he about thirty. I know him. He is a regular roué, although he has the entree of many of our best homes. His companion seems a modest, sweet girl.

The opera is “Faust,” one of the most unclean of the whole unclean batch.

They are both using one and the same libretto, with an English translation. This gives him an opportunity to put his arm behind her, but of course he is careful not to touch her shoulder. But we shall see, when we come to certain parts of the opera.

Now look at them. See the red spots on her cheeks; they tell us of struggling modesty and innocence. The story proceeds; the lascivious gestures, the lecherous gaze of the men and half-naked women on the stage, are beginning to tell upon the whole audience. See our girl. That arm is pressing her against his side, and her eyes are busy with the words, as if she were completely absorbed. When she returns to her home to-night, her mind will be filled with thoughts, of which she will not speak to her mother.

God alone knows the number of pure souls that have been ruined by the insidious poison of the opera.

Our Girls, Dio Lewis, 1871

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: “Dio Lewis” was “Dr.” Diocletian Lewis [1823-1886], homeopathic physician, educator, temperance and physical culture advocate. He ran several schools and has the dubious distinction of having invented the “beanbag.” The articles in Our Girls, on such subjects as purity, deep breathing, and hygiene were taken from his popular lecture tour. A “Flora McFlimsey” was a young lady obsessed with fashion and appearances. She first appeared in 1857 in a poem called “Nothing to Wear,” a satire on New York society extravagance.

Un mari sage, “A Husband Wise,” is from La belle Heĺeǹe by Jacques Offenbach. The song suggests that a prudent husband, returning from a trip abroad, will give advance notice of his advent so there are no unpleasant surprises. “Eprouve du désagrément.”

Ah, que faime les militaire,” (“Oh, how I love the military!”) is from La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, also by Offenbach. The soprano sings of her love of all soldiers: their smart uniforms, moustaches, and plumes and of how she longs to be a camp-follower.

Une Poule sur la mur,” “A Hen on the Wall” is a French song, supposedly for children, but with slightly suggestive lyrics

Une poule sur un mur

Qui picote du pain dur

Picoti, picota

Lève la queue

Et puis s’en va.

“lifts the tail,” indeed…

Faust, of course, tells of the seduction and betrayal of the innocent Marguerite.

One rather sees what Dr Lewis was driving at, although Mrs Daffodil must censure severely any Mama who would allow her sixteen-year-old daughter to go to the opera unchaperoned with a fat, red-faced “gentleman,” no matter what entree he has or what is playing on stage. Without a vigilant Mama en suite, a roué will find a way, whether at Faust or at a week-day matinee. Mrs Daffodil, who always tries to think the worst of her fellow-humans, wonders if the “gentleman” was very rich and the young lady was being used as bait on the matrimonial hook. Or if the sweetness and modesty was merely feigned for commercial purposes.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes.


“Such books are to be shunned as a moral leprosy:” 1848

A specimen of depraved reading.

A specimen of depraved reading.

Reading and Books.

Paragraphs are to be seen every day, in newspapers and elsewhere, in favor of reading. This is to be a paragraph against reading, or rather against the abuse of it. It is good to read, but it is not good to read every book. The number of books that are merely useless is already Legion; while the number of those whose tendency is positively injurious, is increasing to a deplorable extent. On looking over the counter of any popular book store, it is truly lamentable to find how large a proportion of the books and pamphlets whose price renders them accessible to the majority of readers, is of this description. There may be seen, in all directions, staring the public in the face, like murderers shameless of their crimes, books with such titles as “The Bloody Hand,” “The Crimson Dagger,” “The Bloodstained House;” and also another description – such as, “The Haunted Hall,” “The Apparition ,” &c. pretending, as their titles would indicate, to be stories about resurrectionised ghosts, which, inasmuch as they are what they pretend to be, are wretched enough; but these also contain scenes, which, as may be discovered by merely glancing at the heads of the chapters, are not a whit less sanguinary than the others. The scenes portrayed are such as there never was and never will be the most distant resemblance of on earth – probably not in hell. They are scenes of horror from beginning to end – relying, in fact, upon this one feature, for all their interest. The writers seem to imagine, that the more horrible, unearthly, and unnatural they make their productions, the more popular will they be. Where these miserable abortions find readers it is difficult to imagine. No one will read them who has the slightest regard for his peace of mind, and who does not wish to have his night visions disturbed by apparitions of spectres and hobgoblins, and men weltering in blood, in the last throes of an agonising death. A book, that it may be fit to be read, must have at least the shadow of rationality. Such books as those with the above titles, have not. They store the mind and imagination with, at best, nonsense – with, at worst, vice. Such books are to be shunned as a moral leprosy. Let them sink deep down, down, into the lowest depths of a merited oblivion, if not into the still deeper abyss of a shameful infamy. – J.D. The North Star [Rochester, NY] 12 May 1848

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The late Dr. Richard Altick, in his memorable volume, Victorian Studies in Scarlet, suggests that such lurid literary creations had a salutary, escapist function for the working class:

Such works as The Black Monk; or, The Secret of the Gray Turret; Almira’s Curse; or, The Black Tower of Bransdorf; The Ranger of the Tomb; or The Gypsy’s Prophecy; and above all Varney the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood chilled the marrows of countless workingmen and their families, transporting them from their dingy world into the dungeons of sinister castles hidden in German forests or convents where nuns found entertainment in flogging screaming novices. Life was much easier to endure when one could read, with mounting horror, of the evil deeds of werewolves and vampires, specters and hags, in a twilight or midnight world where murder was the most commonplace of events.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott, one of the Two Nerdy History Girls, recently wrote this delightful piece about the effects of reading romance novels, complete with a 18th-century image of a young lady who seems to have lost her virtue to a book.

Mrs Daffodil apologises for lapsing from posting Saturday Snippets. Things have been very busy at the Hall recently.  She has decided to post shorter items on a (perhaps) irregular basis on Saturdays as she can find time. The regular weekly schedule will not be altered.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.


The Bride in a Coffin–Her Dreadful Revenge: 1896

Bridal post-mortem photograph

Bridal post-mortem photograph


Of His Discarded Bride

Lying in a Coffin in Her Wedding Costume,

Made James Cocroft a Hopeless, Raving Maniac

Ghastly and Awful Revenge of a Deserted Girl.

Unique Romance of Two Ardent Lovers Separated By Cruel Accusations of “Friends.”

New York, April 4. The recent confinement in an insane asylum of a young accountant, named James Cocroft, has revealed one of the most original dramas of real life ever plotted by human ingenuity. It is the unique romance of an unusually moral youth, a fair enchantress of the sparkling metropolitan music halls, rapturous love at first sight, a betrothal that caused domestic delight at Cocroft’s home, and then cruel accusations from “loving friends” that brought about a chain of mental discord with a frightful result.

Cocroft comes from a highly respectable old American family, much reduced in circumstances since the death of his father, who was an expert accountant. The elder Cocroft made his money easily examining the books of several large dry goods firms in the commercial district, and was at one time confidential clerk in the employ of A. T. Stewart. He spent his money lavishly entertaining many friends in a handsome brown stone front on Madison Avenue, and died suddenly of heart failure eight years ago, leaving a small income to his widow and some real estate in trust; the interest from which his son was to receive on coming of age. He also left a daughter, who is now the wife of a wealthy St. Louis merchant. Mrs. Cocroft’s allowance was insufficient to retain the almost princely splendor of the Madison Avenue residents, and she


At Locust Valley, Long Island. One evening, while his sister’s betrothed was visiting New York, about a month previous to their marriage, young Cocroft spent an evening with him in the metropolis, and Cocroft was shown the sights for the first time. The exhibition of gayety and vulgarity he saw had little impression on his mind either one way or the other, but a certain young siren, who sang sentimental songs to an unappreciative audience at the Imperial Music Hall, interested him seriously. Later in the evening, at a popular dance hall, since closed by the police, Cocroft’s companion pointed out the same young woman. He was seized with a desire to make her acquaintance, being impressed by the apparent innocence of the pretty face. Her sympathetic voice not only charmed his ear, but also her graceful manner bewitched his eye, completely captivating him.

In the course of their conversation, Cocroft obtained her name and address, and discovered that she had an aunt who was the wife of a Long Island farmer living near Locust Valley, where she frequently spent her Sundays. On returning home James showed himself a rapturous candidate for matrimony, and so his mother and sister noted the change in his manner with increasing regret. He no longer seemed to find pleasure in their society, and when unable to visit the mistress of his heart


His mother and sister made fun of him and exhorted him to listen to reason, but all to no purpose; and then, bowing to fate, consented to make the acquaintance of the fair enchantress.

The first impression was truly favorable. In fact she finished her introduction at his home by weaving around mother and daughter a spell as potent as that cast over the son. So Etta, although only a shop girl, as she had chosen to call herself, was formally recognized as the bride-elect, and the date of the wedding was fixed in the near future.

Miss Marmon left her boarding house in the city, and came to live with her aunt on the outskirts of Locust Valley. She laid new plans for the future, resolving to resign all connection with the music halls, and forget much in her life that had led in an erring direction through a necessity that her betrothal to Cocroft had obliterated. She is an orphan, and had to earn her own livelihood or eke out a miserable existence on a farm with her aunt. She had been given a musical education, and her more cultivated tastes rebelled against such a life. What she had been forced to do in the metropolis, in order to support herself according to her desire, was far from being satisfactory, but it was naturally her choice of the two paths fate had opened before her.

Young Cocroft was madly infatuated with his attractive betrothed, and she—as much enamored.

Mrs. Cocroft was Puritanical in her ideas of right and wrong, and so she determined to separate James from his adored one. This was not so difficult to accomplish as might be assumed, as the young man had been brought up to worship his mother’s principles, and accordingly.


He was prevailed upon to renounce his fair betrothed. At his mother’s request he also resigned his position, it being a matter of only a couple of months’ time from his twenty-first birthday when he could claim his inheritance, and she wanted to make sure that he should not see Etta again until his infatuation had passed away.

In the meantime Etta wrote letter after letter, pleading for an opportunity of defending her wretched position. She did not deny that she had been mixed in with a fast set, but emphatically asserted her innocence of blame. That she was heartbroken and almost despondent her letters plainly told. In the most pleading tones the English language supplies she begged and implored her estranged lover to overlook what bitterness there may have been in her career for the sake of the happiness the future held for them—would he but say the word, and she warned him that every day that passed without such a reconciliation took their souls farther apart on the sea of life. But as she lost courage her letters became less and less frequent, and more and more melancholy in tone, until they ceased to disturb the Cocroft household. Finally Etta’s feelings changed. She began to reproach herself forever having loved such a man of self-conviction and wished to hate him. Her lover’s indifference to all the heartbreaking appeals she made, the several long, unanswered explanatory epistles she penned in the gloom of his cruel neglect, and her growing desire to transform her tender anxiety into malignant hatred, soon triumphed, bearing


A craving for vengeance arose in her breast, and she conceived a ghastly plot for bringing remorse to her former lover. It was to send him a photograph of herself artistically arrayed in her bridal costume with her shapely figure laid out for dead in a handsome casket.

She had the deceptive photograph taken. Then the question arose as to the best means of assuring his seeing it. She had begun to doubt whether James had received her letters. She decided to send the photograph to Mrs. Cocroft, instead of to her son, and to send it in her aunt’s name. Next day Mrs. Cocroft received a registered letter with a deep black border. The handwriting was not that of any of her friends or acquaintances. She nervously tore the seal and drew out—not a missive as she had expected the contents of the envelope to be, but a photograph, a picture far more eloquent than any letter could have been. It was the portrait of Etta attired in her bridal finery, and lying lifeless in a handsome casket. She rushed into the library, where her son was reading, and laid the fatal photo before the unhappy Romeo with a significant air of triumph. Her silence was more expressive than any word she could have employed. It plainly bespoke of her satisfaction that the crisis of her beloved son’s threatened destruction had passed, and that thereafter he would never give a thought to Etta. She thanked God that her good influence had save him from wrecking his life.

For a few moments the young man gazed intently at the gruesome likeness in silent horror,


Its pallid face, the awful recognition of the features, hypnotized him. For a moment the fierce contraction of his muscles stood still, then twitched violently again, and with a loud, piercing cry he threw himself on the floor, beating his breast in terror. In his frenzy he seemed to see Etta in death and called to her in bating whisperings.

In awful language Cocroft reproached himself as the murderer of his martyred love. He raved and tore, and madly smashed everything within his reach to pieces, exclaiming:

“Oh, Etta—Etta! Oh, I know—God will demand my life at thy hands! I am branded forever—a murderer!”

The paroxysm of wild despair continued and inspired the sufferer’s relatives with fear for his life. The family physician was called from the city, and his diagnosis proved even more terrible than death—confirmed insanity, with very little hope of ultimate recovery. When the physician arrived James had sunk exhausted in a comatose state, but before he left the victim of Etta’s morbid act revived his strength and went into another fit of raving. It is impossible to describe the grief of the broken-hearted mother on hearing the truth of her son’s state.  On the physician’s advice James was placed under the personal treatment of a famous expert on insanity in the specialist’s private sanitarium. After what passed in her cozy little cottage Mrs. Cocroft could not remain there alone, and so when her daughter and son-in-law were compelled to return to St. Louise, she accompanied them. She is said to have developed symptoms of dementia, and to be under the care of a St. Louis specialist.

The life of Etta Marmon is strikingly interesting in itself. She was first employed in the stage work of J. M. Hill in the Marie Tempest production of “The Fencing Master,” as a member of the chorus. Etta was then only 17 years old, and the most doll-like of the beauties of that much complimented flock, when the opera was presented at the New York Casino. She partook of late suppers with her companions and their friends, and was considered the angel of the company. She was not engaged by Mr. Whitney, when he bought the opera, the manager declaring such work not suitable for her, and so she drifted into the demoralizing music hall circle. At present she is on the road with a traveling company of burlesquers. 

Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 5 April 1896: p. 17

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The article draws a veil over Mrs. Cocroft’s ease in persuading her son to drop the young woman he supposedly loved. It is frustratingly silent about those “friends.” Did the mother enlist them to whisper  hints to her son about the entertainments available at those “late suppers?” The article also does not divulge whether his mother withheld the girl’s letters. In this distressing case it does not appear that a Boy’s Best Friend was His Mother.

The photograph below is of Marie Tempest in “The Fencing Master.”  The play offered much scope for the display of charming limbs in tights. One wonders what ultimately happened to Miss Marmon and if that traveling company of burlesquers was yet one more step towards her final ruin.

Marie Tempest in "The Fencing Master."

Marie Tempest in “The Fencing Master.”

The photograph at the head of the post is of the so-called “Italian Bride,” whose incorrupt body was found in Chicago’s Mount Carmel Cemetery.


Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.