Edwin R. Lawton

Adrian J. Ebell (standing) with Edwin R. Lawton (head inside the darkbox)

I spent the afternoon at the MHS reading Edwin R. Lawton’s journal. It covers from July-August 1862 in great detail, with one background entry declaring the important events of the previous year. He attended the University of Chicago from November 1861-March 1862, and then spent around four months in a boarding house in Chicago. Adrian J. Ebell, his employer, worked in Hyde Park. Ebell would have been about 22 years old. This changes my perception of things a bit—they seem almost more like classmates (upper and lower level to be sure) than employer/employee that struck out on a great adventure.

I didn’t read the core part of the journal (in the historical sense) which was recorded during the Dakota war; I was more interested in the details regarding the phantasmagoria shows. Evidently, hydrogen and oxygen were involved. In the first proper entry, Lawton describes a mishap in which the copper flasks he was using to collect the gases blew up in his hand, imploding them like paper bags. Of course one floated to the ceiling before exploding, causing a huge hole. Entertainment can be dangerous. The show was cancelled

Another performance was described as having a very low attendance, only 15 or sixteen deadheads. The word surprised me, since obviously there weren’t any hippies that I know of in 1862—I checked the OED and found that it simply meant “unpaid bodies at a theatrical performance.” It makes more sense that the performance was called—I think Palmquist interprets this to me “ruffians” in error. Given the nature of a phantasmagoria (floating apparitions, etc.) it would make sense that you might want to load up the crowd with people you knew would react well.

But the travels in Minnesota seem most interesting of all. Lawton slept in Whitney’s office when they arrived in St. Paul, while Ebell apparently stayed in his home or a hotel (August 4th). They were trying desperately to set up a phantasmagoria performance in Shakopee, but there was a band of musicians that passed through the same time and took all the available entertainment funds. They roughed it by trying to pay their way by making photographs, but were broke most of the time and secured food and lodging on their looks/promises as much as anything else. After the Indian uprising, they pretty much just turned tail to escape, broke and without prospects.

But the travel details, such as the ability of Minnesota mosquitoes to drill right through the blankets were the best part. It was clearly a love/hate thing. At one point, Lawton claims that it was beautiful in a way that “only a Minnesota summer can be” and at other times he declared the wet prairie to be the worst vision of hell, virtually impassable.

I never heard of these people until a day or so ago; today I was reading Lawton’s handwriting in his tattered and stained journal. I love my job.