Adelaide’s Darkest Day

Courtesy of The Magic Circle Collection

Courtesy of The Magic Circle Collection


Today is the anniversary of the worst day of Adelaide Herrmann’s life – December 17th, 1896 – the day her beloved husband died in her arms on a train “flying along at fifty miles an hour on the coldest day in December.” (In Adelaide’s words, from her memoir.) The train was southbound from Rochester, NY towards Bradford, PA, the Herrmanns’ next stop.

Alexander Herrmann, age fifty-two, had been increasingly ill for a while. Adelaide wrote that “for some time he had been troubled by heart attacks.” It’s not clear exactly how she defined a heart attack, but Alexander’s episodes of chest pain drove him to seek medical help. A specialist in Chicago told him that if he didn’t stop his incessant cigarette smoking, he would die within two years. Alexander wouldn’t or couldn’t quit, and various doctors on the road diagnosed his distress as nervous indigestion.

The Herrmanns were in the midst of a grueling tour. The acquisition of a private railcar had opened new markets to them. For years Alexander Herrmann, the night owl, had refused to accept one-night and split week bookings because he hated waking early. With his luxurious railcar, Herrmann could wine and dine after his shows and never again be rousted from his hotel to catch an early morning train. This tour, the Herrmanns were playing both big and small cities, sometimes just for a single night.

When the company had arrived in Rochester on Monday, December 14, Alexander wasn’t feeling well. But he’d already promised a visit to the State Industrial School. He was whisked straight from the train to the school, only to find that they were expecting a show! Alexander sent word back to the theater, and his assistants brought some of his props up to the school. He then invited the entire school to his Wednesday matinee performance.

After his last show on Wednesday night, Alexander Herrmann was entertained by local dignitaries at the Genessee Valley Club. But, as usual, it was Herrmann doing the entertaining. Adelaide reported that he was in rare form, charming his hosts with witty stories and constant tricks. After the party, he brought several guests back to the rail yard to tour his private car and to see his horses and carriages.

At the end of the evening, he said to Adelaide, “Well, we ought enjoy these things while we are living, because after we die we are soon forgotten.”

The train left at 7:30 the next morning. Alexander had breakfast and met for a while with his business manager. A little later that morning, Adelaide discovered Alexander lying on her bed, looking deathly pale. He told her he was having trouble breathing. She helped him to his own bedchamber. A few minutes later his arms just dropped, and he was dead – according to Adelaide, “in just the way he had desired.”

The train stopped in Salamanca, NY, where a doctor boarded and pronounced Alexander Herrmann dead. The Herrmanns’ private car and their other railcars were detached from the southbound train and reconnected to a train heading east back to New York, where Adelaide and her company of sixteen would arrive at 8am Friday.

At this time of year, the sun goes down at 4:30pm. On this date in 1896, as her train headed east, away from the setting sun, Adelaide Herrmann was beginning the longest and darkest night of her life.

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