Many years ago, when I was in my 20s, my grandmother gave me a box of pictures, postcards and other memorabilia. Being a busy mom at the time, I put it away with other keepsakes and hadn't thought about it much until I rediscovered it this spring.
Tired from cleaning closets and sorting boxes, I got myself a cup of tea and took a break, deciding it was high time I looked through this box.
Among the vintage family photographs (thankfully, many of them were identified) were pictures of some of the Barnum & Bailey Sideshow people. A photo of seven women with hair to the floor piqued my interest, so, to the Internet I went.
The well-coiffed women are the Sutherland Sisters — Sarah, Victoria, Isabella, Grace, Naomi, Mary and Dora — who ranged in age from 18 to 36. There are many stories written about them and their climb from near poverty to extravagant wealth and back to poverty again.
CIRCUS, HAIR DEALS
In the April 1982 issue of Yankee magazine, writers Dianne L. Sammarco and Kathleen L. Rounds said the family came from Vermont, where their father, Fletcher Sutherland, was rather poor. Their mother, Mary, was gifted with musical skills, and their daughters were great performers.
Mom concocted an ointment to deal with the amazingly thick hair that all the daughters were graced with. However, the mixture had a foul smell, and this seemed to put the family in an unfavorable position with the community.
Their father, looking for a way to dig himself out of poverty, decided to audition the girls for the Barnum & Bailey Circus, figuring that the singing voices of seven sisters would make him a wealthy man. However, it didn't quite turn out like that.
With hair that reached the floor, the sisters attracted the notice of many men. Henry Bailey, nephew of the circus co-owner, married Naomi in 1885. He figured that men like to look at the girls and that they also lose their hair at an alarming rate, and the combination was worth much more money selling hair-growth ointment. Henry and Fletcher revamped Mother Mary's hair solution, bottled and sold it as the Seven Sutherland Sisters' Hair Grower. They also sold related products such as scalp cleaners, anti-dandruff lotion and hair coloring.
FAME AND FORTUNE
The money rolled in like snowflakes in January, and eventually the family moved to western New York and built a lavish Victorian home on the former site of their grandfather's log cabin.
The Niagara County Historical Society website states: "After achieving world-wide fame in 1893, the Sutherland Sisters spared no expense when building their new mansion on the Ridge Road just west of Warrens Corners. The house had 14 rooms, a marble lavatory with hot and cold running water, a turret, cupola and peaked gables, beds imported from Europe, black walnut woodwork, hardwood floors, massive chandeliers, as well as an attic room for the cook and maids."
Sammarco and Rounds said that it seems the money was so plentiful that it drove the family to very odd behavior: "Pets were treated like royalty, with winter and summer wardrobes, and grand funerals and obituaries in the local newspapers. The carriage horses were shod in gold. The sisters sponsored many a gala social for the neighbors, often including fireworks."
Such a story as this needs a villain. Enter Frederick Castlemaine, who was thought to be sweet on Dora but who switched tracks and married her older sister, Isabella. He was 27. She was 40.
The Yankee article states: "Castlemaine was handsome and charming but had a few eccentricities of his own, like addictions to opium and morphine, and the unnerving hobby of shooting the spokes out of wagon wheels from his seat on the Sutherlands' front porch. Impressive though his marksmanship may have been, local farmers were unhappy with this practice. He salved their indignation with handsome payments. In 1897, while accompanying the sisters on one of their tours, Castlemaine committed suicide."
When Frederick died, the sisters had him in repose in the music room in a glass-domed casket, unenbalmed, visiting them whenever they wanted. Finally, the board of health stepped in and made them bury old Fred. Isabella visited Fred every night at the cemetery for two years until she met and married Alonzo Swain. She was 46. He was 30.
Of the sisters, Naomi died first. Her body lay in the mansion awaiting a $30,000 mausoleum that never materialized and is buried in an unmarked grave.
The other sisters didn't have much luck either. Victoria was 50 when she married a 19-year-old man. Her sisters shunned her until she was on her death bed. Mary lost her mind and was locked in her room for endless weeks.
Short hair came into vogue in the early 1920s. The sisters who were left decided to cash in on their story in Hollywood. That turned sour, though, and was never completed. Dora was killed in an auto accident while there. With no money, Mary and Grace couldn't pay for her cremated remains, and in 1982, at the time of the Yankee magazine writing, they were still unclaimed.
The two surviving Sutherland sisters returned to their decrepit mansion, where they died. The mansion was eventually sold.
The Niagara County Historical Society records that on Jan. 24, 1938, "The mansion burned to the ground, taking many relics of the sisters' glory days with it. The Sutherland family lived lives of extreme excess, and even though they earned millions of dollars in their lifetimes, they all died destitute of their riches."
Susan Tobias lives in Plattsburgh with her husband, Toby. She has been a Press-Republican newsroom employee since 1977. The Tobiases have six children, 18 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. They enjoy traveling to Maine and Colorado, and in her spare time, Susan loves to research local history and genealogy. Reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.