"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Plumber and the Babe

On April 18, 1918, a plumber named William Wright was in the middle of a visit to Fort Wayne, Indiana. He desired a night of light, wholesome entertainment, so he patronized a local vaudeville house. The 45-year-old was a shy, solitary soul. He had never married, and spent his whole life living with his widowed mother until her death the previous year left him completely alone. He had a hunger for something beyond his dull, constrained existence, and perhaps he hoped to catch a glimpse of it in the glittering world of show business. He caught that glimpse, and it changed him forever.

In fact, this seemingly innocuous evening out on the town would eventually cause a great many people a great deal of inconvenience.

Blame all the trouble on one of the performers Mr. Wright saw that day, a little girl billed as “Miss Babe.” She came on stage, belted out “She’s My Baby, She’s My Beautiful Doll,” took her bows to the no doubt thunderous applause, and exited. Wright never laid eyes on the child again, but this brief performance was enough to leave him permanently entranced.

Wright returned to his home in Toronto, Canada, and outwardly, his semi-reclusive life went on as before. The only noticeable difference was that neighbors often heard his record player blasting out one song, and one song only—“She’s My Baby, She’s My Beautiful Doll.”

Ads for various shows, Fort Wayne Gazette, April 1918. We don't know which theater Wright visited on that momentous night, but perhaps it was one of these.

When Wright died in 1938, he left a posthumous surprise for everyone. His entire estate, valued at over $12,000, was left to “Miss Babe, Little Burlesque Girl.” The only other identification he could give was that her real name was “Willie Coughlin,” and she performed “an Indian burlesque.” His will stipulated that if “Miss Babe” was not found within three years, his money would go to the Sherbourne Methodist Church of Toronto—a church he had never attended in his life.

His executors, the Canada Trust Co., were left with the task of finding the now twentysomething girl. An international hunt was on. Newspapers and radio programs across Canada and the United States told the story of Wright’s curious bequest, and pleaded for “Miss Babe” to come forward.

This publicity worked rather too well. At least 240 women popped up claiming to be Wright’s heir. At times, it seemed that every young lady who had ever appeared on a vaudeville stage presented herself as the former “Miss Babe.” And everyone was frankly perplexed about how to tell which—if any—of them was the genuine article. In the meantime, a number of Wright’s relatives moved to contest the will on the not-completely-unreasonable grounds that the plumber was barking mad when the will was written. The Sherbourne Methodist Church also stepped into the fray. Although they did not take any direct legal steps to have the will overturned, the church elders could be heard quietly muttering that surely men and women of God deserved the money more than some vaudeville performer.



By 1941, the pack of would-be Miss Babes was winnowed down to three contenders: A New York woman named Edith Collins Stewart, who in her younger days had performed under the name, “Baby Edith,” a nightclub singer named Dorothy Olive Newman, (who once graced the vaudeville stage as “Little Dorothy Olive, the Four-Year-Old Child Wonder,”) and a Los Angeles woman, Dorothy Marguerite Willet, the former “Shimmy Baby Weymer.” The final touch of The Weird was achieved when it was revealed that none of these women had ever been known as “Miss Babe,” or “Willie Coughlin.” As a matter of fact, an exhaustive search of theatrical records found no mention at all of anyone by those names.

At the sanity hearing, a parade of witnesses told all sorts of curious tales about the late Plumber Wright. The court heard how he always kept a pistol by his side while he ate.   He fooled children into thinking lumps of brown rubber were chocolate candies. Once, while traveling in America, a porter asked Wright where his bags should be sent. On a whim, Wright said, “Oh, send them to Kalamazoo.” When he was taken at his word, Wright had to make a special journey to that city just to collect his luggage. He was also fond of sending remarkable telegrams and letters, which his relatives all happily produced in court. “Caw, caw, caw, saw, saw, saw,” read one message. “Dot dash dot dash dot dot dash,” read another. Perhaps Wright’s finest effort in the epistolary line was “Mother went to bed, one two three. Father went to your grandpa. Now I married your daughter. You know what he would say. He got a ton of coal and sold the stove.”

Personally, I think William Wright must have been a hell of a lot of fun.

After three days of testimony, the court ruled that while Wright had certainly been “peculiar and eccentric,” they found no evidence that he was actually insane.

The Wright relatives did not take this defeat in any sort of sporting spirit. They threatened to continue litigation over the will—litigation they vowed would go all the way to Canada’s Supreme Court, if necessary. If they could not have the money, they would damn well see to it that nobody could.

Everyone accepted that if the spurned relatives carried out their threat, Wright’s entire estate would go to no one but the lawyers. A compromise was reached among all the contestants: The Sherbourne Methodist Church would get 40%, the sore-loser Wright relations 12 ½%, Dorothy Newman 17 ½%. The also-rans, Dorothy Willet and Edith Stewart, each received 15%. (Unfortunately, it is not recorded how these percentages were calculated, leaving history to forever wonder how Newman was judged to be 2 ½% more of a Babe than the other two women.) All this was minus court costs, of course, which amounted to about a third of Wright’s estate. Even by the standards of the day, the money everyone eventually received hardly seemed worth all the trouble. It was never determined who was really the light of William Wright’s life.  In fact, I find myself wondering if "Miss Babe" wasn't just a deliberate invention of Wright's, making this bizarre, and ultimately unenforceable, will one last practical joke of his from beyond the grave.  If so, it was a smashing success.

In the end, probably everyone involved devoutly wished that on that April night in Fort Wayne, plumber Wright had just stayed in his hotel room and played cards.

3 comments:

  1. Whether crazy or not, whether there was a "Babe" or not, Wright seemed to have had fun the last twenty years of his life. But maybe he was insane. Who goes to Fort Wayne, Indiana, for fun and entertainment?

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  2. What an absolutely wonderful, fascinating story. I loved reading this, as I love all your posts - just my cup(s) of tea! I am taking a break from reading stuff over at Fulton History - much better reading than Google News :)

    Lidian (Laura)

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    Replies
    1. Thanks! Incidentally, I love the new name and new look for the Dime Museum.

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