Unraveling the mystery of Esther Lyons

My last article was written about Cad Wilson (Such a Nice Girl Too!), one of the most popular entertainers to ever grace a Yukon stage. While gathering information about her, I found reference to a dual identity for the famed performer.

My last article was written about Cad Wilson (Such a Nice Girl Too!), one of the most popular entertainers to ever grace a Yukon stage. While gathering information about her, I found reference to a dual identity for the famed performer. Melanie Mayer, who, in 1989, published the excellent book Klondike Women, stated that Wilson was actually another actress named Esther Lyons (Robinson).

Based upon an anonymous obituary for Lyons and photograph of Cad Wilson in a collection in the Alaska State Library in Juneau, author Mayer was led to describe Lyons’s double life.

In 1897, Esther Lyons (born Goldstein, she used Lyons, her mother’s maiden name on stage) published under her own name Glimpses of Alaska Klondike and Goldfields. It was a booklet of photographs taken by Veazie Wilson during his trip to the Yukon in 1894. That was followed in early 1898 by a series of articles in Leslie’s Weekly, titled An American Girl’s Trip to the Klondike, describing her trip to the Yukon. Lyons claimed to accompany Wilson on his journey to the Yukon, and repeated this theme while touring the continent giving talks illustrated by Wilson’s excellent photos of the trip.

However, writer Frances Backhouse, in her excellent book Women of the Klondike, made no reference to Lyons when describing Wilson, and author Lael Morgan actually questioned the veracity of this connection between Lyons and Wilson in her informative work, Good Time Girls.

Were Esther Lyons and Cad Wilson one in the same, and did Lyons explore Alaska before the gold rush? Lyons asserted that she had accompanied Veazie Wilson and his wife on the trip in 1894. In his book, Guide to the Yukon Gold Fields, however, Wilson made no mention of her or his wife, as members of his traveling party, nor is Lyons seen in any of the unaltered images of the trip that he captured on glass plates.

A.E. Ironmonger Sola, who accompanied Wilson, and who published his own account of their journey over the Chilkoot Trail and down the Yukon River to Forty Mile, also failed to make any mention of Lyons or Mrs. Wilson being in their travelling party.

Nor did the newspapers covering their journey make mention of any women accompanying the two men on their Yukon adventure.

Did Esther Lyons really travel over the Chilkoot Trail and down the Yukon River as she claimed, or does the record show her to be doing something else?

The August 16 edition of the Victoria Daily Colonist provides a partial answer. In it, a brief article states the actress, Miss Esther Lyons, also known as Mrs. Burt

Ramsay, was granted a divorce in a Cleveland Ohio court from her husband, a traveling jewellery salesman, on the grounds of desertion.

Another article from the Washington (D.C.) Tribune in September, reports on her performance in Eugene Robinson’s production of the play Paul Kauvar. Melanie Mayer, who is a thorough researcher, must have had some personal doubts too; in an article she wrote for the Pacific Northwest Journal in 2003, she tracked Esther Lyons’ performance in the play Paul Kauvar all across America throughout the period when she was supposed to be in the North. So Esther Lyons wasn’t in the Yukon exploring with Veazie Wilson after all.

Yet, in 1897, Lyons published a booklet of Veazie Wilson photographs from his Alaskan journey, and was touring the continent in the fall, giving lectures titled “A Woman’s Trip to the Klondyke,” including one in Toronto, about her journey through that northern place with the Wilson party.

A skeptical reporter for the New York Sun who attended one of her lectures at the Academy of Music in November, 1897, noted that her talk was full of facts available to anybody who read the newspapers and magazines of the day. He caught her slipping up on facts she should have known had she ever been in Alaska.

The photos that accompany articles Lyons wrote for Leslie’s Weekly, in early 1898 are Veazie Wilson’s photos, but with a difference. Her image had been clumsily inserted into them. In one, which shows her standing in a ravine at the top of the Chilkoot summit, the perspective is wrong. If she were actually standing where she is shown in the picture, she would have to be 30 metres tall!

I haven’t found any news reporting on her activities earlier in 1897 that might tell us what she was doing, and where, but she certainly wasn’t in Alaska.

What about the possibility that she traveled to Alaska to perform under the name Cad Wilson, as is suggested by Melanie Mayer?

Aside from the one obituary, I could find no other articles that made any connection between the two names. Nor could I chronicle Lyon’s whereabouts during September 1898 to August 1899, when Cad Wilson was wowing the miners on stage in Dawson City, but I could readily track the progress of Cad Wilson’s career in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and even Victoria, in the years before she went to Dawson City.

Lyons would have to have been extremely nimble to maintain two separate identities and careers (Wilson was a singer, while Lyons was an actress) on opposite sides of the continent through the early 1890s.

In the December 19, 1897 edition of the Victoria Colonist (Victoria, B.C.), I found an advertisement for a week long engagement at the Trilby Theatre featuring Cad Wilson. Yet in its January 16, 1898 edition, the same newspaper reports on Esther Lyons’ continuing American lecture tour. Here is more evidence that Wilson and Lyons are two distinct and separate individuals.

I think it is unlikely that Esther Lyons ever set foot in Alaska, or performed on a Dawson stage as Cad Wilson. But this entire debate raises some interesting questions: What was Esther Lyons doing while Cad Wilson was headlining in Dawson City, and how did she come to be confused with Cad Wilson in the first place?

After Veazie Wilson died in 1895, Lyons claimed she purchased the Veazie Wilson photographs from his widow.

Did she ever meet the Alaskan explorer? If so where, when, and under what circumstances? How did she come to acquire the Wilson photographs?

Most important of all, why did Esther Lyons perpetrate her Alaskan con upon America in the first place? Getting the story correct isn’t always easy!

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net