by James Grieder
“Hello possums!” was how Dame Edna Everage greeted her throngs of admirers for more than 60 years. Barry Humphries, an Australian-born comedian, actor, author, and satirist, who created the character of Dame Edna, passed away in April of this year. Humphries’ one-man shows alternated between satirical monologues and musical numbers, interspersed with improvised moments and audience participation. Dame Edna never performed in the Great Hall of the Nantucket Atheneum, but another cross-dressing performer did so nearly 100 years before Humphries created his iconic character. A man named Marshall S. Pike performed there on multiple occasions in the 1850s, and his career as a musician and performer led him from Nantucket to the bloody battlefields and hellish prisons of the American Civil War before he found his way home again.
Pike was a noted poet and songwriter, with more than one hundred published songs in his body of work, and was well known for his sentimental favorite Home Again. Born in Westborough, MA, he began to write music and verses at 14 years old. In 1843 he formed a musical quartet with some friends that they named the ‘Albino Family’.” At the time, black-face minstrelsy, abhorrent to us in retrospect, was an extremely popular form of entertainment throughout the country. The Albino Family was a kind of gimmick that Pike and his friends used to try to stand out above the welter of similar acts competing for what little money there was on the theatrical circuit tour. Pike started his female impersonation career in white-face, wearing a “flaxen,” or blonde, wig.
Cross-dressing is the act of wearing clothes “traditionally or stereotypically associated with a different gender.” Strictly speaking, the term refers to an action or a behavior, without attributing or implying any specific causes or motives for that behavior: cross-dressing is not synonymous with being transgender. The phenomenon of cross-dressing is seen throughout recorded history, and in some periods, was mandatory—in Shakespeare’s England, all cast members were male with female characters being played by men or boys. There is also a traditional role in British theater called the pantomime dame, with men wearing heavy make-up and big hair, with exaggerated physical features, performing in an overthe- top style, Dame Edna being the prime example of the style.
Pike and company rebranded themselves as The Harmeone Family, later The Harmeones. As such they appeared in 1847 at the White House in Washington before President James Polk — this makes Pike, who played the part of ‘Fanny,’ the first female impersonator to perform for a US president. The group toured the eastern U.S. during the mid-1840s and 1850s. Pike later joined Ordway’s Aeolians in Boston, and in 1857 left to form his own troupe, Pike’s Harmoneons, later Pike’s Star Troupe. Pike performed with both groups at the Nantucket Atheneum, first with the Harmoneons in September 1854, and six years he later returned with his own group of performers:
“This company of talented performers have been giving Concerts among us this week… It is seldom, if ever before, that we have had among us a troupe of singers of such varied talent, as well as gentlemanly deportment, as are the members of the company composing PIKE’S STAR TROUPE, and if at any future period they may see fit to return, they may feel sure of receiving a cordial greeting from our citizens. Mr. PIKE, as a personator of female character, has no superior. Mr. KELLEY, the Tenor, has a voice of great purity and tone, and is a fine singer. Mr. FAIRBANKS is a superb Basso, bringing forth his songs with great care, and eliciting the applause he so justly deserves. Mr. JONES is a funny fellow, and keeps the audience in a continual roar by his comicalities …Taken as a whole, they are the very best troupe that have ever visited us.” (March 10, 1860, Nantucket Weekly Mirror)
A little over a year later, in September 1861, when civil war engulfed the land, the 43-year-old Pike volunteered for military service. He was appointed drummajor of the 22nd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry regimental band.
The volunteer Westboro Band from Pike’s hometown formed the nucleus of the 22nd Regimental Band, and while they waited for their orders, the members lived and rehearsed at Rocklawn, his home in Westborough. When he was mustered in on September 11, 1861, Pike left behind his wife Morning Oakes, whom he had married in 1849. Although Pike had been away from home for prolonged periods while touring as a performer, surely this departure was different for them both.
The band was a favorite of the regiment, their music helping to relieve the monotony of camp life. They also assisted with transporting the wounded during and after battles. In all the engagements of the regiment “they went in with the stretchers and did good service.” Drum-Major Pike was by all accounts popular with both officers and men.
The pleasantness didn’t last. On June 25, 1862, Major General George Mc- Clellan, commanding the Union troops, ordered an offensive beginning a series of engagements that would eventually be called the Seven Days Battles. The following day, General Robert E. Lee, who had recently taken command of the Army of Northern Virginia, launched a counter-offensive intended to drive McClellan’s army away from Richmond. For the 22nd Mass., the third day of the Seven Days Battles, the Battle of Gaines’ Mill, proved to be devastating, as they suffered their worst casualties of the war.
The 22nd was initially held in reserve, behind other regiments of their brigade that successfully repulsed several Confederate charges over the course of the day, but at 6 p.m., the Union lines broke and the 22nd was suddenly exposed to the brunt of the Confederate attack. With the 22nd flanked on both sides, Colonel Gove, the commander, soon gave the order to retire. Then, reluctant to yield the ground, he ordered his troops to about face and stand fast. Colonel Gove was killed almost immediately after delivering the order. In the subsequent fighting the 22nd suffered 71 soldiers killed, 86 wounded, and 177 captured, one of whom was Pike.
Pike’s captors marched him off to Richmond and Libby Prison (second only to Andersonville for the horrors reported there). A postwar sketch of Pike’s life recounted his experience: “There it was that some of those whose music-loving hearts he had delighted in former years, some southern friends who had learned that he was imprisoned, sought him out and the monotony of his life at Libby was somewhat lessened.” The sketch continued, “To while away the dreary hours in prison, Mr. Pike formed a glee club among his companions, and while it proved to be a source of comfort, it did not tend to benefit him. The prison authorities were so pleased with Mr. Pike’s vocal abilities that they kept him a prisoner when there was opportunity for exchange, merely for the entertainment of the other prisoners.” In the end, his imprisonment lasted about 9 weeks. On Sept. 7, he left was paroled from Libby Prison and, after spending time recovering in Union hospital camps he was discharged a few days before Christmas 1862.
After his release, Pike resumed performing and continued to do so through the mid-1860s. Why he ended his music career at that point is unclear: he may have retired early thanks to his earnings as a performer and song writer, or because his style of ‘heart songs,’ as one newspaper described them, had faded in popularity. It may have had something to do with the passing of his wife Morning Oakes, who died two years after his release from the Confederate prison, in 1864.
Three decades later, in early 1891, Pike came out of retirement and performed in Boston with other singers he’d known from his past.
Pike died ten years later at age 83. His home in Westborough, Rocklawn, nestled at the top of a ridge overlooking the Sudbury River. The spot where Rocklawn once stood is now an empty parking lot next to a pet supply store, but Marshall S. Pike has secured a place in history as a patriot, accomplished songwriter, and pioneering entertainer who once trod the boards of the Nantucket Atheneum’s Great Hall.
This Friday, June 23, to celebrate Pride Month, the Atheneum will host a free Gender Bender Prom for teens, ages 14 thru 18. Have you ever wanted experiment with your name? Change your pronouns? Try out a different look? Well, then this event is for you. As part of Pride 2023, The Nantucket Atheneum invites you to explore how you express your gender as you celebrate pride and strut your stuff in your finest drag upstairs in the Great Hall, where there’ll be dancing, refreshments, and an opportunity to lip-sync your heart out to your favorite songs with your friends. It’s recommended if possible that you bring your own supplies, but there will be a limited supply of accessories, clothes, and make up if you need some, as well as space to prepare. That this is meant to be a fun, safe environment, and disrespectful behavior will not be tolerated.