Wednesday, July 31, 2013

"Wives Is What I Hanker For": Mormons Take Center Stage

by Stephen J. Gertz

We shift from rare prose literature to rare literature of the theater today, inspired by an item offered in Swann Galleries upcoming Vintage  Posters sale, August 7, 2013.

During the 1880-1881 theatrical touring season the Goesche-Hopper Company presented 100 Wives, an anti-Mormon tabloid-theater comedy-melodrama with a dash of anti-Chinese racism that appears to have sold out every performance in every town and city it played in.

The playbill set forth the proceedings:

EMBLEMATIC TABLEAU - Inner Temple of the Mormons. The Danites Receiving a New Covenant. The Solemn Oaths of the Blood atonement. The Chant of the Priests. Immediately following this picture, which illustrates the mission of the Destroying Angels, the curtain rises upon the Play.

ACT I - Salt Lake City. Arrival of the English Colony at New Jerusalem. Elder Bezum's Wicked Designs. The McGinley Family. Elsie Bradford Hears Terrible News. A Timely Rescue.

ACT II - Nick's Ranch at McGinely's Gulch. The Chinese Question. A Boys Celebrate. A Lost Child. The Danites in Pursuit. Bezum Baffled. The Dead Restored To Life.

ACT III - TABLEAU I - McGinley's Home. Reconciliation and New Terrors. Mrs. McGinley's Plan. "Wives is what I hanker for." TABLEAU 2 - Up among the Mines. Little Bessie Prays for her Papa. The Death Fall from the Cliff.

ACT IV - Exterior of the Mormon Tabernacle. The Marriage. Elder Bezum presses Hard. The Mormon Church is Supreme. Surprise. The Govermnet has Something to Say at Last. "Home Sweet Home."

First on the bill, the play's lead character possesses my new favorite name, one right out of S.J. Perelman. Elder Bezum, third on the bill, is the zealous Mormon who declaims, "Wives is what I hanker for." A better headline for a personal ad  would be difficult to compose, "SWMM Seeks Wives! Wives, Wives!" lacking its quaint colloquial fervor.

The Cast:

Confucius McGinley, a Doubtful Convert.
Edward Branford, a Gentile.
Elder Bezum, A Pillar of the Church.
Hung Li, a Celestial.
Mrs. Sophronia McGinley, an Ambitious Woman.
Elsie Bradford, a Deceived Woman.
Mrs. Andrews, a Deluded Woman.
Little Bessie

"If this play could run for a hundred nights instead of closing this week, it would still not exhaust popular interest, for every one who has once seen it must want to go again. It has taken the town by surprise, and that, too, in the midst of election excitement; such a fresh and dramatic story, based on a matter that all are familiar with, yet that for the first time seems to come home to the audience with all its tragic capabilities.

"The popular idea of the 'American play,' with its slang and localisms of manners and dress, is very far indeed from all that is presentd in 'The Hundred Wives.' Nor need any one fear to be introduced into the American harem at Salt Lake, or be treated to any moralizing sermons or situations, in themselves demoralizing and disgusting. On the contrary the plot of this Mormon story is worked out with a hand at once delicate and skilful.

"The believer and the Danite, Mormon Apostle and Destroying Angel, are given just that touch of fanatic devotion and of quaint phraseology as brings out the livery this creed has adopted to serve the devil in, and the opening tableau of the Danite vow in the Mormon Tabernacle is the real keynote to the story. The skill, too, with which the Chinaman is made to foil a Mormon plot is very noticeable, especially as he is a typical Chinaman, of the California pattern, not above the tricks of his tribe - yet turning his secretive qualities to good and loyal effect as the plot thickens.

"Here are the two nearest problems that the American people have to deal with - the Chinese and the Mormon - most ingeniously worked out, and although the audience is in a broad ripple of laughter from beginning to end, there is an undercurrent of appeal constantly that this is a live story, and here is a matter that must be presently be settled in one or another way.

"The entirely novel humor and style of acting of Mr. De Wolf Hopper and Miss Ada Gilman have already been noticed. Both are such natural and such new personations, and both have such unusual physical advantages for the comic situation, that the matrimonial argument is irresistible whenever the diminutive wife takes her tall, strapping miner in hand. Mrs. Sophronia, with her unwavering attachment to the Mormon creed, and her undisguised horror of it when the reality os played off upon her by her own earnestness and her husband's joke, is altogether delightful.

"…In fine, the play is an argument, such as people can understand, against the hideous Mormon creed, which is suffered to exist by virtue of popular indifference to its every-day features. There will certainly be a change in public sentiment wherever the 'Hundred Wives' is played, for it is the one wife that comes out triumphant.

"Forcible as the plot is, it is none the less a clean plot, and all the more dramatic for being a true bill" (The Scrap Book, Volume 2, Sept. 1906- Feb. 1907, pp. 723-724, reprinting a review from the Philadelphia Ledger, 1880).

"This talking drama will occupy the boards at the opera house on Monday night next. The New Orleans Democrat pays the entertainment the following flattering tribute: The new American play, 'One Hundred Wives,' which has created an immense sensation wherever presented, was produced here last night and made a decided hit. The theater was filled from top to bottom, and the unanimous verdict of the immense audience was, that the drama is the best thing in its line which has ever been brought before a New Orleans audience. Though it is somewhat on the order of 'The Danites,' it is far superior to that play both in plot and detail. The company presenting it is an excellent one" (Decatur Review, January 28, 1882).

Producer-Actor De Wolf Hopper (1858-1935), who portrayed Confucius McGinley and was, presumably, the play's writer-director, was ninety-four marriages shy of "100 Wives." Married only six times, his fifth pass at the altar espoused him to actress Elda Furry, who later became the famed Old Hollywood gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper.

The world awaits a play with clean plot and true bill whose lead character is named Lao Tse McGonagle, Mencius O'Malley, or Zhaozhou Schwartz.

Images of 100 Wives and De Wolf Hopper courtesy of Swann Galleries; image of 100 Wives flyer courtesy of Ebay, with our thanks.


  1. I'm sure the play would be hilarious, if what Mormonism does wasn't so tragic. Mormonism pulls people away from the truth of the Gospel that would save them from judgement and leads them into a deception that will destroy them.

    1. A deep and abiding personal relationship with my Savior whom I love with all the love that I posses and the gift of love for my fellow man is what "Mormonism" has given to me. I am so grateful for the grace and love of my Savior as it has given me a life of peace, joy and hope here in this temporary existence. What a gift!

  2. What would they do now that there are Chinese Mormons! The horror! Ah, the Mormons, the go-to villain for the 1800s.
    I am a Mormon, so I love reading about the history of the perception of our religion.


Subscribe to BOOKTRYST by Email