The front page of the Minneapolis Journal on March 21, 1905, included a story about a Wayzata man committing suicide “in preference to a lingering death of consumption [tuberculosis].” Two men were indicted in the slaying of little Freddie King at Mingo’s saloon in Columbia Heights. And the War Department was poised to approve an extension of the streetcar line to Fort Snelling.
But the big headline of the day, in all capital letters, announced: MINNEAPOLIS GIRL IS AN EARL’S BRIDE, above pictures of the mustachioed Earl of Rosslyn and his new wife: Anna Robinson, a former scullery maid turned showgirl, actress and frequent gossip target from New York to Paris.
The quiet London wedding, on a Monday, stayed anything but quiet — making papers across the country. Her hometown Journal dropped in all kinds of juicy tidbits: Anna’s affair with Belgium’s King Leopold, her gambling hot streaks in Monte Carlo, the “pint of diamonds” that her countless suitors had bestowed upon her.
“The countess is a brunette, tall, stately and with a distinct patrician bearing,” the newspaper said.
She enjoyed Paris the most because, she said, “counts and barons pelt you with gifts and diamonds. In New York, they step on your toes on the streetcars or drunken cabmen take you to the wrong street.”
Paris and New York came after Robinson spent her first 23 years in Minneapolis, where she was born in 1870. Her father died before she turned 15 and her widowed mother rented a dwelling in 1885 on First Avenue North and Fourth Street. She took on boarders, and Anna and her sister, Margaret, made beds, washed dishes and waited tables.
As the boardinghouse business picked up, the Robinsons moved to the St. Leon Hotel on Marquette Avenue. The Grand Opera House and Bijou theaters weren’t far and Anna would stop by to lure traveling troupes to stay at their hotel.
“The expression ‘gold digger’ had not been coined as a synonym for a scheming woman in those days,” journalist Merle Potter wrote in 1931. “But Anna Robinson set out to entrap the hearts of men and befuddle their heads with no higher purpose than her own selfish interests.”
Potter quoted C.A. Parker of the Grand: “She came to me as coldblooded as anyone could be and said she knew she was beautiful. She said her mirror told her she could have men at her feet and that she intended to use her lure and her physical charm for that purpose.”
By 1893, Anna and Margaret were off to New York, where their mother followed and opened an inn for the theater crowd. Anna is sometimes described as a chorus girl, but she also landed roles in theater productions. She would return to Minneapolis to act but before long went on to Europe.
A former soldier in the Royal Horse Guard and a war correspondent in South Africa for the London Daily Mail, James Erskine (aka the Earl of Rosslyn) tried his hand at acting. He landed a New York role in an ironically titled play, “There’s Many a Slip,” in 1902 — the same year he divorced his first wife and before his second engagement fizzled a couple of years later.
His royal blood helped him inherit a 3,400-acre estate, but his gambling debts mounted.
“I ended up in Bankruptcy Court,” he would write in his 1928 memoir, “My Gamble with Life.” “I cannot understand it because I seemed to be winning always.”
Proud of his conquest, the Earl took his new Minnesota wife to all the hot spots in 1905: Vienna, Venice, Monte Carlo.
By 1907, though, the couple were locked in a nasty divorce in Scotland. The Earl insisted he “accepted blindly [Anna’s] statement that she had a house in London and sufficient money added to mine to keep us alive until we made good on the stage.”
He called her a “drug fiend and addicted to drink.” Among the items in dispute: a 32-case shipment of wine to the castle they called home. He said she ordered the wine, using his name. She said his credit was so lousy, he used her name.
Their divorce, like their wedding, made newspapers around the globe.
Anna drifted around Europe, failing to resurrect her career and plowing through her money. She returned to New York in 1915 — “beaten, in poverty, a wretched remnant of the Anna Robinson who had made that proud boast in Minneapolis so many years before,” according to Potter’s 1931 profile.
Friends eventually led her to the psychiatric ward at Bellevue Hospital after a judge deemed her insane, according to a website that tracks Gilded Age women who married into nobility. She died Oct. 5, 1917, in the Manhattan State Hospital of the Insane. She was 47.
“ … unknown, penniless, and unwept,” Potter wrote. “The coquette who had once swayed the heads of men died a pauper ….
“It would have been better, perhaps, if she had forever been a scullery maid. But Anna Robinson wanted to live and she lived the only way she knew.”
Curt Brown’s tale on Minnesota’s history appears each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com.