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John Kauffer: McKnight Kauffer's father

John Kauffer

b. 21 October 1854 Evansville, Indiana

d. 17 February 1913 Cincinnati, Ohio

Part Two chronicles John Kauffer’s personal life, and his engagement to lead the orchestra at a theatre in Great Falls, Montana.

One of the main aims of my Blog (started in October 2O21) was to reveal new research into the life and work of McKnight Kauffer. Apart from two lines in Mark Haworth-Booth’s ground-breaking book E. McKnight Kauffer: a designer and his public, and the additional information I revealed in my PhD, virtually nothing has been written about John Kauffer, McKnight Kauffer’s father. This post adds to the new information to be found in my previous posts such as McKnight Kauffer: the early years, Walking to Munich, and Posters Too Good for Films. I will divide the text into 3 separate posts – this second part chronicles John Kauffer’s personal life, and his engagement to lead the orchestra at a theatre in Great Falls, Montana.

As his musical reputation increased his marital life was less successful. His first marriage to Eliza A. Smith took place on 31 December 1872 when John was eighteen years of age. I can find no information on Eliza Smith. All I know is the marriage did not last long as he began a troubled relationship with Mildred Knox, whom he married twice.

Such are the vagaries of research that in contemporary documents such as census forms,

marriage announcements, and newspaper reports, Mildred Knox’s maiden name is cited as

Knere; Knore; Knorr. Her first name as Midran; Mildwin. Her married name to John Kauffer

appears as Keiffer; Kauffner, and, to Charles Fenimore it appears variously as Kenmore;

Fermemare; Fenneman

Mildred Knox and John Kauffer were “married” on 14 January 1878, although a gossipy Evansville newspaper report thought the marriage might not be legal. Headlined “Wrecked The Happiness of Three People” the rambling article noted that the newly wed Mildred Kauffer had disappeared a few days after her marriage to John Kauffer. The report stated: “About a year ago or more Millie [sic] Knox then a HANDSOME GIRL OF EIGHTEEN was married to George Hall [marriage January 1876], a young man to whom she was warmly attached”. The “warm” feelings soon disappeared and, over the next two years Mildred filed for divorce on a number of occasions, but each time they were reconciled, and the divorce proceedings withdrawn. Eventually a divorce application was granted but Mildred claimed it was a mistake – she only meant to shock her husband into yet another reconciliation. Meanwhile, by chance, she met John Kauffer, a young musician who was making quite a name for himself. Kauffer immediately proposed to Mildred and within days whisked her off to get married. Realising it was all a mistake and wanting to get together again with George Hall, she left John Kauffer - “disappeared” the newspaper claimed - but was in fact staying nearby with a friend. John Kauffer filed for divorce which was granted, although the Indiana laws at that time stated that she should not have been able to marry him in the first place. A divorcee could only marry after two years had passed. Ironically, she returned and continued to live with John Kauffer.

A son was born in 1879, and, according to the 1880 census, they were living together at Mildred’s mother’s house. They named their son John L. Kauffer. I am sure the ‘L’ stood for ‘Leland’, named after Mildred’s deceased father, Leland C Knox. Another son, Charles, died within a few days of his birth in 1881. McKnight Kauffer used Leland as middle name for a period of time.

John L. Kauffer (1879 – 1904) Yet another John Kauffer. Like his father, he too led a troubled life. Born in 1879 he worked at various times as a brakeman on the railroad, as an actor, and as an electrician with Wrights Carnival company. In November 1901 John L. unwittingly gained a considerable amount of notoriety, not only locally, but in newspapers and journals across the United States of America, when he was arrested for the murder of Lena Renner, described in one newspaper of “not good character”. John L, a frequent visitor to Renner’s house, was found in possession of her pocket-book claiming that she gave it to him for safekeeping. His story was believed and he was released becoming a witness for the prosecution. A policeman, Wilbur Sherwell, was eventually charged with the murder of Lena Renner and two more women of ill repute. (The story of the Lena Renner murder case is presented as a footnote)

In 1902 John L married “Wild” Rose Carter, a snake charmer with the Wrights Carnival company. The marriage only lasted a few months. During her divorce hearing she stated that she had been happy in marriage for a while, but it soon fell apart. The judge cruelly remarked: “that name [Kauffer] did not stay with you long. He died on 15 January 1904 at the age of 25 with complications following a bout of appendicitis. His headstone is in the Oak Hill Cemetery, Evansville.

His death was reported in one newspaper as follows:

It appears that Mildred and John Kauffer continued living together for at least two years after a divorce was granted. She then remarried, but was soon to be widowed, subsequently marrying John Kauffer for a second time in 1884. In later years Anna Rees recalled that Mildred had inherited some money on the death of her husband, and this would have attracted John Kauffer, but once again the pair divorced.

Evansville Courier & Press, 25 April 1888

Anna Johnson / Anna Rees – born 1872 Chicago

I will write about Anna Johnson’s (McKnight Kauffer’s mother) early life, sometime soon. Anna’s mother (possibly

née Svenson) was Swedish. She came to the USA as a newlywed with some money given to her by her parents

to enable the couple to make a good start in the US. Her husband immediately left her, taking the money. She

moved to Chicago where she married a Mr Johnson, later moving to Lafayette, Indiana, where Ann was born. Mr

Johnson then left them leaving his wife destitute.

John Kauffer first met 17-year old Anna Johnson [born 1872 in Chicago] in March or April 1889 in Indianapolis. The celebrated Beach & Bowers minstrel show was appearing at the Park Theatre at this time – it is quite possible that John Kauffer was leading the orchestra. Minstrel shows were popular in rural theatres across America and for many years Beach & Bowers put on some of the best of these, with novelty acts and military style bands. The troupe of performers at this time totaled thirty-two. This included a band, drum corps, and buglers.

There is a major collection of Minstrel Show material, which includes records of Beach & Bowers, at The Harry

Ransom Center, The University of Texas, Austin

Park Theatre Indianapolis c.1900

I can find no record of John Kauffer actually marrying Anna, but she was his partner for the next two to three years. As stated earlier most of his theatre engagements took place in Indiana and cities in states surrounding Indiana, but for some inexplicable reason, in the summer of 1890, he accepted an engagement in Great Falls, Montana, taking him and the now pregnant Anna some 1600 miles north-west of Evansville which would entail a complicated rail journey (the Great Northern Railroad reached Great Falls in 1887), and a cold winter in Montana. It is difficult to comprehend why he was attracted by this theatre engagement as at that time Great Falls was a very small town with a population of under 4,000, having risen from a mere 100 in 1885.

Founded in 1883 by Paris Gibson, a pioneer and entrepreneur, Great Falls acquired its name from a series of spectacular waterfalls on the nearby Missouri River. These were the Falls that presented Lewis and Clark with one of their greatest challenges on their epic expedition when they found it necessary to portage around them. Lewis recorded in his journal for 14 June 1805 that he “…was … presented by one of the most beautifull [sic] objects of nature, a cascade of about fifty feet perpendicular stretching at right angles across the river from side to side to the distance of at least a quarter mile.” He later recorded that he found the Falls a “truly magnificent and sublimely grand object which has, from the commencement of time, been concealed from the view of civilized man.” The city itself is situated on the edge of the Great Plains where they meet the Rocky Mountains. Gibson had visions of Great Falls becoming a major metropolitan centre. In the early years it gained some financial success from its silver and copper smelting works, driven by cheap hydropower made available once the Black Eagle Dam was built.

Photograph of waterfall at Great Falls,
circa 1890

The two impresarios, who had owned the theatre since 1888, John Gerin and W.H Davenport, were successful in staging popular vaudeville acts. For the opening night Gerin and Davenport engaged Dan Crimmins and Rosa Gore, a hugely popular vaudeville act at that time. Crimmins, real name Alexander Lyons, was born in Liverpool, England, met and married Rosa Gore in New York. At a later date they both had a good career in silent films.

In April1890, after eighteen months of continued success for the Park theatre, Frederick Amme, the leader of the orchestra died suddenly. The local newspaper reported that “little did anyone think that before the sun arose he [Amme] would be called away by the Master’.

I can only presume that John Kauffer was called upon to replace Amme. Gerin and Davenport might have continued to run their shows with a temporary leader of the orchestra or perhaps they ended the season until a replacement was found. One certainty is that John Kauffer became the new leader of the Great Falls Park Theatre orchestra sometime later in 1890 and in December of that year McKnight Kauffer was born.

Part 3 to follow

The case against Wilbur S Sherwell (also known as Wilbur J Charville), charged with the murder of Lena Renner and two other women:

On the night of her murder (Monday 11th November 1901) Lena Renner told a friend she was going to take a ride in a buggy that evening with a policeman who was on the last night of his furlough. The murder took place on that evening. As stated previously John L Kauffer was initially arrested for her murder as he was one of the last people to see Renner. He was quickly released, initially becoming a useful witness – although not called upon when the actual trial took place two years later. The policeman in question was Wilbur Sherwell, who was known to be on the last night of his furlough. He was seen by a number of acquaintances riding in his surrey with a woman beside him. For newspaper reporters it was obvious that he was the murderer.

Another murder took place that night, once again the evidence pointed to Sherwell. He was eventually put on trial for the murder of Lena Renner, Mrs Georgia Railey and another woman who had been killed some months earlier. Newspapers across the country took up the story. The Evansville papers carried huge gossipy articles covering every aspect of the story and, in effect found him guilty.

Crowds of onlookers turned up each time he faced the court, with standing room only. Sherwell himself remained calm during each court appearance giving an air of confidence and perceived innocence.

Indicted for three separate murders, the last case heard was for the unlawful killing of Lena Renner. The surprising outcome was that he was found not guilty for each of the three murders. A curious addendum to this story is that although married with two children living in Evansville he left them and returned to Norwalk, Ohio, a small town where he had lived previous to moving to Evansville. Here he re-assumed his given name of Wilbur Charville. In August 1904 he was caught in the act of burning down a barn. There had been a number of previous arson attacks on barns, with Charville becoming the prime suspect. He was arrested, found guilty, and given a three-year prison sentence. He died, aged 49, in 1917. Three weeks before he died he was fined $1,000 and given a prison sentence (period of time unknown) for selling obscene pictures! He was baptised in an Evangelical Lutheran church and died the following week on 24 February 1917.


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