Bessie Bonehill

Bessie Bonehill (17 February 1855 – 21 August 1902) was an English vaudeville singer, comic entertainer and male impersonator.[1] She toured widely in the United States in the 1890s, becoming “one of the most famous and wealthy entertainers of her day“.[2]

She was born into a poor family in West BromwichStaffordshire, England. Official records give her birth name as Betsey Bonehill.[3] She appeared in the 1860s as a double act with her sister Marion.[4] After cropping her hair, she became well known as a “principal boy” actor in local pantomimes, before moving to London and appearing as a male impersonator and performer of “coster songs” in theatres in the 1870s and 1880s.[2] Many of her songs were written by Arthur West,[a] a friend of Charlie Chaplin.[4]

While she was appearing in London, American vaudeville impresario Tony Pastor persuaded her to travel to the United States to perform. She first appeared in Pastor’s Theatre, on 14th Street, Manhattan, in 1889. 

Bessie Bonehill, Scan by NYPL, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

According to her local obituary, “her success was immediate, and her male impersonations were the theatrical sensation of the winter. Her beauty, cheerful personality and her entire freedom from vulgarity were new then in male impersonation.”[6] Her song “Comrades”, which she performed as a newsboy, was a success, and she toured widely in the United States.[6]

She performed in the musical Little Christopher, and another show, Playmates, written by her husband, before returning to vaudeville as the head of her own traveling company which toured across the United States.[5] She was sometimes billed as “England’s Gem“,[2] and as “England’s Favorite Comedy Cantatrice“.[7] 

One reviewer described her as “the best character singer ever imported to these shores“.[8] Her style as a male impersonator was adopted by later artists such as Vesta Tilley and Hetty King.[4]

“Wikiwand – Bessie Bonehill.” Wikiwand,

Bessie Bonehill, by Joseph Hall matte vintage print, 1890s, CC license

Bessie Bonehill is “lithe and frisky, strident as to voice and nimble as to feet…. [S]he is as much at home in masculine garb as if to the manner born.”

New York Times

Bessie Bonehill, Scan by NYPL, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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