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Posted on August 1, 2013 by

The amazing Miss Adah Isaacs Menken to perform Mazeppa at the Front Street Theater!

See Miss Menken in multiple roles over the next two weeks as she performs in Mazeppa, The Three Fast Women AND The French Spy of Algiers.

Todd NessonA blog post by exhibition intern Todd Nesson. Todd is working on our upcoming Passages Through the Fire: Jews and the Civil War exhibit with Curator Karen Falk. To read more posts by Todd and our other interns, click here.

In 1862, Front Street Theater brought the talented and renowned Ms. Adah Isaacs Menken to Baltimore. At the time she was currently starring in the play Mazeppa. The lead role though was written for a male and she both scandalized and delighted audiences as she appeared on stage in flesh colored tights making her appear completely naked.

Front Street Theatre, courtesy of the Baltimore Sun.

Front Street Theater, courtesy of the Baltimore Sun.

Adah was born in Louisiana not from New Orleans and married Alexander Menken, a fellow Jewish Actor from Cincinnati at the age of 20 and converted to Judaism. When they divorced a few years later, she was not satisfied until she had received a Jewish divorce.  As befit the volatile but dedicated temperament of this 19th century diva, she embraced the troubles of her fellow co-religionists whole-heartedly and was well known for her pro-Jewish views.

Adah as Mazeppa, courtesy Rodney Higginbotham.

Adah as Mazeppa, courtesy Rodney Higginbotham.

Along with her pro-Jewish views Adah became well known for her pro-Southern views as well. When she came to Baltimore, these pro-Secessionist views almost became her downfall. Originally, she was scheduled to perform in Baltimore for only two weeks but during those two weeks though she managed to pack the house night after night.  The owner of the Front Street Theater, after seeing her popularity, wanted to negotiate a new contract for a longer engagement. Before agreeing to his terms though she demanded that the dressing be made over in Dixie colors and have a prominent place for the President Jefferson and the successful Dixie Generals.

Her vocal passion for Dixie was viewed suspicion and then one of her recent visitors and admirers was arrested for being a spy. This led Adah to being brought before the Provost Marshal for being a Secessionist. According to some accounts, during her hearing Adah put her biting tongue to good use and did not allow the officer to get a word in edgewise. She was given 30 days in which she could either take the Oath of Loyalty or be put across Union lines without a stitch of clothing. This last part rendered after the tongue lashing she unleashed at being told she could only bring 100 lbs of clothing during her hearing.

Courtesy of the Ron Sheeley Collection.

Courtesy of the Ron Sheeley Collection.

For the next month Adah continued to perform Mazeppa to packed houses due to the feeling of solidarity felt by many in Baltimore with the actress. As fate would have it, Adah managed to avoid being sent across Southern lines not because she took the oath but because she became ill due to being stripped night after night in the drafty theater and was sent to New Jersey to recuperate.

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