Dec. 9, 1899: The fall and rise of a prima donna

  • Blog Post by: Ben Welter
  • December 12, 2011 - 11:16 AM
A century before Google and YouTube and Facebook, it was much easier for a person to erase the memory of a public humiliation and emerge years later as a respected professional in the city in which the humiliation was widely reported and discussed. The Minneapolis Tribune provides Exhibit A, recounting the fall and rise of one Lillian M. Knott without connecting the dots:


Lillian Knott, Once a Prominent
and Talented Singer, Now at
a Wash Tub in the Min-
eapolis Workhouse.
She Recites the Sorrowful
Causes and Conditions Which
Led to Her Disgrace
and Downfall.
As she toiled at a washtub in the convicts’ department at the work house yesterday, with tears running down her face and her attitude that of a person who has lost her last friend, it was hard to see in Lillian Murray Knott, serving sentence of 40 days imprisonment for the theft of a cloak from a colored woman, a once popular singer, who in her prime drew a salary of perhaps $300 per week.
  The Tribune's sad account portrays Miss Knott as a singer of considerable talent who was once understudy to Camille D'Arville, above. D'Arville was a noted figure in American comic opera in the late 19th century. Her name turns up dozens of times in a Google search. Knott? Not so much.
The story of Miss Knott, or rather Mrs. Joseph Barnett, to call her by her legal name, is a pathetic one, and shows what sickness, misfortune and general ill-luck can do for a person when it tries, and when the victim fails to make a hard fight against the conditions which confront her. If Miss Knott were not a singer of national reputation, and if she had not a father of the highest respectability in Terre Haute, Ind., her case would be but one of hundreds of others, but as it is, it is decidedly out of the common.
Miss Knott was arrested several days ago on complaint of Minnie Steele, a colored woman, who accused her of having stolen from her a cloak. As the Knott woman was wearing the garment at the time of her arrest, and as her explanation of how it came into her possession did not accord with the strict notions of honesty entertained by the judge of the police court, Lillian was sent to the work house to serve out a sentence.
There are but few women on the stage today who are superior in singing ability to Miss Knott, yet in spite of this she has been working in a variety theater in this city, a pitifully small salary, in order to get money enough to take her to the home of her parents, where she was assured of a welcome. She claims she was on her way to the ticket office to get a ticket her father sent her when she was arrested, wearing the cloak which has caused all the trouble, and she insists the garment had been loaned to her by the colored woman.
Miss Knott was born in Marietta, Ohio, and when a child developed such a taste for singing that she was given every advantage that money could purchase. She was a student for six years in the Cincinnati college of music, and completed her education in Boston, after her parents had removed to Terre Haute, where her father is the manager of the Wabash Iron works. After completing her studies in Boston Miss Knott began her professional career which has terminated in the Minneapolis work house.
She appeared first with the Duff Opera company, singing in the role of prima donna. Then for two years she was understudy for Camille D’Arville, and later sang leads for Corinne. Afterwards, when leading lady with the company of Joe Flynn, in “McGinty, the Sport,” she was married to Mr. Barnett, who was musical director of the company. When in St. Paul, she says, her husband deserted her, and since then she has been making her own living.
For a long time she sang in the cheap variety theaters of the Twin Cities, trying to save enough money to take her home, and just when she had saved the desired sum she was taken ill and forced to give up her position. Then she had to go to the hospital, where she remained long enough to spend all of her money, and when she emerged she was weak and penniless, and without a friend in the city to whom she could turn for aid.
Several days ago Miss Knott wrote to her father, asking him to send her a ticket, and, according to her story, he did so, and the ticket is now at the office of the company awaiting her order. Speaking of her case Miss Knott says:
“I was born in Marietta. I loved singing from a little thing in short dresses. When I was old enough, my parents gave me the best vocal instruction the place afforded and afterwards sent me to the Cincinnati College of Music where I was a student for six years. Then I received final instruction of a Boston vocal school and made my first professional debut with the Duff Opera company, singing prima donna roles. After that I was understudy with Camille D’Arville for two years and then I sang leads with Corinne.
“Then I was induced by the promise of a good salary to go out with Joe Flynn as leading lady in a play called ‘McGinty, the Sport.’ It was while with that company that I married Mr. Barnett. He was the musical director of the company. We came to St. Paul together and I sang in music halls to get money enough to go East and try for another engagement. Mr. Barnett left me.
“I persisted in my music hall singing amid the most degrading surroundings, so that I could redeem myself and go home presenting a respectable appearance. Then came the typhoid fever and what little I had was dissipated in a week. After I got out of the hospital, I sang at the Palm Garden in St. Paul, but my strength was gone and I feared to go on the stage, because I thought I should fall over the footlights.
“It was in this extremity that I wrote to my father and told him I was in trouble. He promptly replied that he had sent me a ticket and money. I cannot do the work to which I have been assigned in this prison. I have but just recovered from typhoid fever and – and I have never done any washing before.
“I realize that this ends my career. Nothing can be done for me now. I am the consort of common criminals, and, according to the verdict of the court, a criminal myself, but the court erred. I am quite innocent. I didn’t steal the coat. I didn’t know the colored woman at all – never saw her in all my life before.
“I had been to the Milwaukee ticket office to see about my ticket from papa. They said the ticket had been ordered for me, but that it had been issued in the name of Lillian Knott, and, of course, my true name is Mrs. Barnett. Mr. Rogers, the ticket agent, told me the rules of the company would compel him to wire the head office and find out if he could issue the ticket to me as Mrs. Barnett.
“I was ill and disheartened and it was a very cold day. I had no cloak or winter garment of any sort. After coming out of the hospital I had nothing, positively nothing that a woman ought to have. I suppose it was because I was so broken-hearted that I went down to the Milwaukee depot and saw the train go out. I don’t know what made me do it, except that I knew the train was homeward bound, and I just wanted to look at it – that was all.
“When I was coming out of the depot I met a colored man whom I had known as an attaché of a local variety theater. He always seemed to me a respectable man. He spoke to me and remarked that I was shivering. It was fearfully cold, and you see I hardly had any clothes on. He said his wife lived near by, and they had a fire, and he invited me to go there and get warm. I had to go somewhere. I was freezing.
“So I went to the place – where it was I do not know. When we entered it seemed to me the woman had been drinking. I had never seen her before. The colored people were very kind to me, and when I told them that I was going to the Milwaukee office to get my ticket for home, the woman offered to lend me her cloak to wear on the way.
“A short time after I borrowed the cloak I was arrested on the street for stealing it. Perhaps the woman really thought that I would get my ticket and leave for home with the cloak. It was a cloak upon which I would not have allowed my little dog to sleep three years ago, but I do not say that in a spirit of unthankfulness.
“I have found by bitter experience that white skins do not make kind hearts. The colored man seemed disposed to be kind to me. At the moment that I met him, had a dog licked my hand I would have fallen on my knees and embraced him. Do you know what it is to be ill and lonely and hungry and a stranger, to crave a civil word or a kindly smile where neither are to be had? I might have sold my soul for them – I had sold everything else – why not?
“At this place the officials are kind, but I really am not strong enough for such work, and, besides, my ticket to take me home is in Minneapolis, and I am sure there is money there for me, too. Why will they not let me go? I have done nothing to be sent here for. I am innocent of any offense except being ill and in want.”
The Minneapolis workhouse at 50th and Lyndale Avenues N. in about 1902. (Image courtesy
THE NEXT DAY, the Tribune reported that Knott had been released from prison and was on her way home to Terra Haute. A number of sympathetic Elks had raised $40 and paid her fine. Before her release, she met with the grand jury and repeated the story she had told the Tribune, describing with “graphic emphasis the details of the alleged theft” and denying “as firmly as ever” that she had stolen the garment.

  Music educator Lillian M. Knott in 1915.
Several supporters materialized and appealed to the judge to drop the charge, but he was unmoved: “If the accusation were a true one, as I believe it was, this young woman has received no more than her just deserts. The testimony of the police is that she has been leading a dissolute life and been consorting with disreputable characters for some time.”

SIXTEEN YEARS LATER, on Sept. 19, 1915, the Minneapolis Tribune trumpeted the appointment of Lillian M. Knott as director of the public school music department of the Northwestern Conservatory. This Knott had spent the past five years at Tulane University in New Orleans, leading the school’s “public school music department,” and the past 10 years leading a summer program for Louisiana teachers.

It’s unclear if it’s the same Miss Knott. The story doesn’t mention a background in opera, let alone an arrest in Minneapolis so many years before. But it does note that she “received her musical education in the New England Conservatory,” which matches the claim of the penniless prima donna. Seems unlikely that two women named Lillian M. Knott earned a music degree in the same city about the same time and later found work in Minneapolis. What do you think? Perhaps someone with full access to can settle this.


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