Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Wild West, Hot Dogs and Gertrude Kasebier

Gertrude Kasebier, Portrait of Charging Thunder (1898)

Above A studio portrait of a Native American (Lakota) named Charging Thunder, as photographed by Gertrude Kasebier (1852-1934) at her Fifth Avenue Studio in New York.

Kasebier had studied with Arthur Wesley Dow (whose theory of composition also influenced Georgia O'Keeffe), and was associated with O'Keeffe's partner Alfred Stieglitz and the Photo-Secession. After attending the Wild West show in Brooklyn, she secured permission from Buffalo Bill to photograph a group of the Wild West show Indians in her studio.

The photography session took place on Sunday, April 24, 1898. It lasted for three hours, during which the guests were served with tea and hot dogs ("hot frankfurters between unbuttered bread"). It isn't certain, but apparently one of Kasebier's guests was Charging Thunder (shown in the Kasebier portrait above). Details about the session and a selection of the portraits can be found in Michelle Delaney, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Warriors: A Photographic History by Gertrude Kasebier (New York: Harper Collins, 2007).

There seems some confusion about whether there might have been two performers named Charging Thunder. The person in this photograph appears in another photograph (also taken by Kasebier) with his Native American wife. However, elsewhere online, we have found a story (with photos) of another Lakota Indian named Charging Thunder (they certainly don't look like the same person), who was part of the Wild West troupe when they performed in Salford, England, in 1903. This second Charging Thunder, who was 26 years old at the time, had fallen in love with one of the show's horse trainers, a woman named Josephine, and when the Wild West left town, the two of them remained in the UK, married and raised a family. For the rest of their lives, they lived in the vicinity of Manchester. Charging Thunder changed his name to George Edward Williams, registered as an immigrant, and worked for many years at the Belle Vue Zoological Gardens, where he took care of the elephants. According to BBC Manchester, two of his grandchildren have recently been located in the UK.

It's nice to see the Kasebier photo of the first Charging Thunder with his dog. Back then, it was commonly rumored that some of the Native Americans considered dog meat a delicacy. Here for example is a paragraph from the New York Times (Thursday, June 28, 1888, p. 2)—

WHERE DOGS ARE DISAPPEARING: The refining influence of civilization has not lessened the strong taste that Buffalo Bill's Wild West Indians have for dog flesh, and the canine population of Staten Island is rapidly diminishing. New Shirt yesterday devoured with apparent relish an expensive poodle that had been used to much better treatment than it received at the hands of the fighting warrior. The show is still drawing large crowds.