Vaudeville musical comedian’s last performance was at Hannibal’s Star Theatre in October 1907

This 1910 postcard of Hannibal’s South Main Street shows a star sign in front of the Star Theatre, pictured at left. The Star Theatre opened in 1906, and October 12, 1907, noted Vaudeville star Memphis Kennedy is believed to have performed his last show there. He drowned the next day on the Mississippi River. STEVE CHOU COLLECTION

Poster for The Adam Forepaugh and Sells Brothers – America’s greatest shows consolidated – featuring Madame Yucca, the female Hercules, the strongest woman on Earth […] Poster copyrighted by the Courier Litho. Co., 1898. Library of Congress

MARY LOU MONTGOMERY

The Star Theater on Hannibal’s South Main Street opened for business in 1906, across the street from the new Mark Twain Hotel, and just a block north of the bustling Union Depot.

Among the earliest vaudeville acts to perform at the Star was Miss Mae Snider, “Quincy’s clever vaudeville artiste,” according to the Quincy Daily Herald of Aug. 22, 1906.

In October 1907, downtown Hannibal put on its glitz in order to host to its week-long fall festival, during which time merchants had the opportunity to show off their prized goods.

During fair week, the Star Theater hosted vaudeville entertainment, including noted traveling comedian and musician, 54-year-old Memphis Kennedy aka Billy Kumpf.

Kumpf, performing as Memphis Kennedy, had recently finished a stint at H.N. Stone’s new 300-seat Elite theater on the west side of Washington Park in downtown Quincy, Ill. He was nationally known for his musical comedy routines, as he had performed from coast to coast for the previous two decades.

Leaving Quincy, he traveled downriver in his small, covered 18-foot john boat, tying up at the Hannibal riverfront during his engagement here.

On Saturday, Oct. 12, 1907, when the gig in Hannibal ended, he packed his belongings in two valises and boarded his boat, for the journey somewhere to the south.

He didn’t make it far. Two fishermen saw him leave Hannibal, but he was out of sight after that. Finally, some 40 days later, his boat was found, tangled in brush at the shoreline near Cincinnati Landing in Illinois, roughly across the Mississippi River from Saverton. His body was the next to be located, by two fishermen, who contacted in Pike County Coroner L.J. Huntley, before towing the body to shore.

Included within Kumpf’s possessions was a card identifying him as a member of the fraternal organization of Knights of Pythias. The New Canton chapter took charge of burial arrangements, interring him in Shearer Cemetery.

Sister’s grief

Tillie Gifford visited New Canton, Ill., early in December 1907, facing the grim task of collecting her brother’s worldly goods and arranging for his disinterment from Shearer cemetery, and re-interment in a cemetery at Little Rock, Ark.

A letter from Tillie had been found among Kumpf’s possessions, along with a note to contact her in case of his serious illness or demise.

His possessions included his 18-foot boat, a John pattern; two canvases, 20x30; a 13-ounce duck; one Maud mule; a target; one small canvas, and a lot of small toys and canes, of the sort to be used by a showman.

Early years

Billy Kumpf was born in Tennessee circa 1854. His father, an immigrant from Bavaria, died when Billy was young. Billy’s mother married Joseph Keenzler, who by 1860 was working as a saloonkeeper in St. Louis. Billy had one older brother, Robert Kumpf, and two younger half-sisters, including Matilda (Tillie) Keenzler, who was born in 1859.

Trip to Bavaria

Billy Kumpf applied for a passport in 1879, stating that he wanted to visit his deceased father’s hometown in Landau, Bavaria. His application indicated he had a high forehead, blue gray eyes, a pointed nose, a medium mouth, a dimpled chin, dark brown hair, a medium complexion and an oval face.

Comedian, musician

In 1893, Billy Kumpf was a headliner with Lew Dockstader’s minstrel company. Performing at the Grand theater in Indianapolis, Ind., in September, Kumpf was billed as “the originator of musical ioiosyncrasies.”

He was known to play on an endless variety of original instruments, including an old broom, a tin can and a row of bottles. In fact, he obtained patients for his original musical instruments.

Other performances:

• September 1893: Harper’s theatre, in conjunction with Dockstador’s Minstrels. Featured at the end of the show was Frank Dumont’s hit play, “Chicago World’s Fair Comforts.”

• In 1895, he shared billing at the Orpheum in Denver, Colorado, with the three-act Irish comedy act: Muldoon’s Picnic.

• In December 1894, Kumpf performed at Miners’ Eighth Avenue Theatre, New York, in conjunction with the Rentz Santley Co.,

• April 1898: Musical artist Kumpf was headliner at the Imperial Theater in Butte, Mont.

An odd match

William Kumpf, at age 25, stood just 5-foot-1 ¾ inches tall. Many years later, a newspaper article stated his weight at 100 pounds. To put this information together, in could be concluded that William Kumpf was a small man.

He chose for his wife Mary, who was dubbed the female Hercules by the Barnum and Bailey Circus, where she worked as a performer for a decade. She stood a foot taller than William, and her weight was estimated to be 1 ½ times his weight, or 250 pounds.

During the 1890s, while wintering in Mexico, Madame Yucca – as Mary was known – said William would imbibe, and she maintained that he became physically abusive toward her, or “ beat her when in his cups.”

She filed for a divorce at the beginning of January 1904. “What ‘Memphis’ lacked in size and strength he made up in grit and wickedness, according to Madame Yucca,” the Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester, N.Y., published in its Jan. 3, 1904 edition.

But of course, it would be irresponsible to assume that her words were gospel, because William didn’t show up at the hearing to defend himself.

Regardless, the divorce was granted. Newspapers across the country carried the news.

Note: Ancestry.com member “mahanli” has an extensive collection of data attached to William Kumpf’s profile, and this writer is grateful for the guidance in finding information on Kumpf’s life.

Mary Lou Montgomery retired as Courier-Post editor in Hannibal, Mo., at the end of 2014. Since then, she has contributed a weekly history story for the newspaper’s print and online editions. They can also be found at www.maryloumontgomery.com

 Recent Posts