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When An Indian Chief Played Hamlet

Stephan Bibrowski, better known as Lionel the Lion-Faced Boy, was a famous sideshow performer. His mother considered him an abomination and gave him up to a German impresario named Meyer when he was 4. Meyer gave him his stage name and started exhibiting him around Europe. In 1901, Lionel traveled to the U.S. to appear with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Stephan Bibrowski, better known as Lionel the Lion-Faced Boy, was a famous sideshow performer. His mother considered him an abomination and gave him up to a German impresario named Meyer when he was 4. Meyer gave him his stage name and started exhibiting him around Europe. In 1901, Lionel traveled to the U.S. to appear with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

In 1840, at the time of the Second Seminole War, the William C. Forbes acting troupe, which included musicians and a dancer named Miss Rosalee, traveled south from Georgia on the Florida, a steamship that made the run twice weekly from Savannah to Picolata on the St. John’s River. The actors’ destination was St. Augustine, 18 miles due east, where they were booked for a two-week engagement. From Picolata, Fla., this time in a stagecoach and wagons that contained scenery, costumes and Yorick’s skull, the troupe continued their journey through the scrub oak, pine and speared fronds of the saw palmetto of Central Florida.

A few miles west of St. Augustine, the caravan was ambushed by a band of Seminoles led by Coacoochee, son of Miccosukee chief King Philip, and the nephew of Micanopy, head of the Alachua Seminoles. While Miss Rosalee and Forbes survived to go on with the show, a comedy in five acts called The Honeymooners, five members of the troupe were killed and the contents of the wagons looted, including costumes from Othello, Hamlet, Julius Caesar and Richard III.

Ten months after the attack, while Forbes returned to the sanctuary of Rhode Island and Miss Rosalee took her seven veils to parts unknown, Coacoochee and his band went on with a show of their own, donning the ransacked Shakespearean costumes for truce talks at Peace Creek, a United States Army post west of Indian River on what is today Route 60. Dressed in the grommeted doublet and nodding plumes of Hamlet while his second-in-command wore the royal purple and ermine of Richard III, Coacoochee, known as Wildcat, delivered an eloquent, if not defiant, statement to Army Commander Walter Armistad on the subject of the Seminoles’ forced exile from Florida in Oklahoma. “They may drive our wives and children night and day,” Coacoochee proclaimed. “They may chain our hands and feet, but the red man’s heart will always be free.”

Read the entire article in the May 2011 issue