The Klondike attracted entertainers in abundance during the gold rush. Some of them went on to remarkably successful screen and stage careers. Perhaps the most successful stage artist at the time, though, and the most mysterious today, is the remarkable Cad Wilson.
Wilson had been a regular feature in venues across America. She was in San Francisco at the Orpheum as early as 1893, doing the Congo, grotesque dances and an inebriation act. A year later, she was billed as the feature act at the Vienna Buffet in Los Angeles.
In 1895 she was gyrating with “a profusion of filmy skirts” at the Auditorium in San Francisco, and billed as a comedienne at the Trocadero in New York in 1896. In late December of 1897, she performed in Victoria, B.C., according to a local newspaper, as the Craze of Greater New York, “engaged at enormous salary.”
Wilson arrived in Dawson City from Chicago in September of 1898 with her agent, Robert Blei, and departed less than a year later, after his theatre burned down and he was bankrupted. During that time, she was the queen of the stage in the Klondike, and a master at separating miners from their gold.
She was said to be no beauty, didn’t have much of a figure, and her voice was nothing to write home about. Yet the brown-eyed redhead had a stage presence that was hypnotic, and her wardrobe was the most elaborate to be seen on any stage in town. She was soon the best paid act in Dawson City.
Men would compete with each other to bestow her with the biggest gold nugget from their claims. They went mad when she sang, and when she started into “There’ll be a Hot Time in the Old Town
Tonight,” they pelted the stage with nuggets. She would dash about the stage laughing gleefully as she picked them up. When she concluded her act, a little boy would come out onto the stage with a broom and a dust pan to sweep up the remaining golden debris. It was said that if she didn’t clean up $500 a night, she left the stage in a pout.
All would shower her with nuggets, gold watches and jewellery during her performance, which was a risque repertoire with an affectation of innocence. Her most popular song, “Such a Nice Girl, Too,” which was composed by Arthur Seldon in 1892, became her anthem:
She told me that she was a ‘Miss’
And scarcely had turned 20,
She said she never cared to wed
Tho’ offers she had plenty.
Last week they took her up to court,
She said, ‘Judge be forgiving.’
He answered, ‘Yes, if you can prove
You’ve not three husbands living.’
Such a nice girl too,
Such a real nice girl;
So affable and full of animation.
All who know her must admit,
She’s a lady every bit!
Yes a lady with a spotless reputation.
She made no secret of the fact she wanted to separate the miners from their money. Before she came onto the stage, Eddie Dolan, the stage manager of the Tivoli Theatre, would read a letter he claimed came from her mother. In it, she admonished Cad “to be sure and be a good girl and pick nice clean friends.”
Dolan would look out at the crowd and shout, “I leave it to you, fellers, if she don’t pick ‘em clean!”
One admirer paid for a bathtub to be filled with wine. It is not known if she let him scrub her back, or if he even saw her in her expensive ablutions.
One Eldorado king is said to have lavished his attention upon her to the tune of $75,000, but she wasn’t choosey. A man known only as “The Sawdust King,” who made his living changing the sawdust on the barroom floors, had an uncharacteristic streak of good luck, winning $1,800. That was enough to propel him into Cad Wilson’s arms, temporarily, where “she had one arm around his neck and caressingly stroked his unkempt hair. Each was sipping wine from the other’s glass.”
A few hours later, he was thrown unceremoniously out of the Tivoli, still wanting to spend his remaining $60 on more booze.
She may have been a hit with the gentlemen, but the more refined sector of the fairer sex didn’t see her the same way. She scandalized the respectable ladies of Dawson with her performance at an Elks Club fundraiser in October of 1898. “Her audacity called out applause in the rear of the hall, but the ladies in the front hung their heads and their escorts wished they had never brought them,” said one newspaper the next day. In these Victorian times, exposing even the slightest hint of ankle beneath a lady’s dress was a considered a scandalous act.
August 18, 1899, Cad Wilson left the Klondike, headed for San Francisco and Chicago. She took with her a sizeable bankroll (newspapers varied widely in the amount they reported), her jewellery and other baubles, as well as a nugget-encrusted waistband given to her by the miners on Eldorado Creek. It was so large that she could wrap it around her waist one and a half times. She placed this gaudy adornment on display in San Francisco after leaving the Klondike.
Arriving in Portland, she and three others took a box in the Fredericksburg Music Hall, from where Cad sang along with the performers. She was finally induced to join them on stage, where, adorned with her famous gold nugget belt, she performed “Just a Little Lingerie.” During the song, she raised her skirt “much higher than necessary” to expose a diamond encrusted garter on her left thigh. For an hour, amidst repeated encores, she belted out one catchy song after another.
She performed in San Francisco the fall of 1899, but was in Nome the following year, featured at the Standard Theatre. Cad Wilson disappears from the record after that until she is named, along with 10 other women, in the divorce case concerning businessman John A. Clover in San Francisco in 1908.
One thing is abundantly clear: that Cad Wilson was the most popular performer ever to have set foot on a stage in Dawson City – and probably its most notorious good-time girl.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. This column was originally published in Oct. 2013.