A chance request from my wife Kathy, to digitize a cassette from an interview she had recorded in 1976, has led me to a remarkable story.
The interview was with Betty Neumiller, who was visiting Dawson City seventy years after she left. One memory of her young days in the Klondike was the time she attended a performance at the Auditorium Theatre, now known as the Palace Grand.
Betty was invited to come to the theatre at the invitation of her young friend, Edwina Hewett, whose parents were visiting thespians. They returned to Dawson for several seasons, making it possible for young Edwina to gain some friends in the community, one of whom was Betty.
By sheer coincidence, I had just finished looking at a manuscript written by another woman who had lived in Dawson City as a young girl at the turn of the Twentieth Century. Her name was Dorothy Dorris Miller Clifford. She too had been invited to attend a performance at the Auditorium Theatre by young Edwina.
I was intrigued by these childhood connections, so I investigated the Hewett family theatrical troupe and found that they had visited Dawson City the summers of 1905, ’06 and ’07. The family presented a variety act that included stage plays like “Little Lord Fauntleroy,” a magic act, singing (Edwina was reported to have a loud clear voice, and became a favorite of the audience), and projection of novelty silent films. Newspaper accounts of the entertainment, which was said to be clean, wholesome and clever, reported that the performances were popular and well attended by Dawsonites.
According to Dorothy Clifford’s childhood memoir, Mr. Hewett, in his Prince Albert coat, was the stereotypical disciple of the stage, who was said to “quote Shakespeare by the yard.” Because her brother was too young to perform on stage, Edwina was enlisted to perform the lead role in “Little Lord Fauntleroy.” After that she returned to the stage in a buckskin cowgirl outfit to sing “Tony, Tony, Tony boy, come and be my pony boy.” Her powerful voice reached every corner and crevice of the cavernous old theatre.
The programs were varied each night. One evening little Edwina starred in the opening sketch titled “Bessie’s Burglar.” She was as sweet as she was clever, and the newspaper was quick to add, “…the whole tenor of the piece is moral and edifying.”
Edwina’s father demonstrated his magic skills with several illusions and tricks of sleight of hand. He called little Edwina onto the stage and performed an illusion in which she appeared to float above the stage with no visible means of support. In another magic trick, Edwina entered a box on one side of the stage, and exited from another box on the opposite side.
Mrs. Hewett flexed her psychic powers when, on stage, with her back to the crowd, she called out the objects that her husband had borrowed from members of the audience. He further tantalized and amused the patrons when he produced a string of ribbons from his bare hands, then changed the ribbons to handkerchiefs, then to an American flag, which transformed into the Union Jack, along with a shower of flowers.
Young Dorothy and Betty were able to watch Edwina and her family perform from backstage, and when the silent film was projected onto a large screen on the stage, Dorothy got to watch in reverse, “Niagara pouring down, or a forest fire raging.”
Frank Hewett, the master magician, also took his show on the road, and put on performances in various communities in the goldfields. “The miners of the Klondike were the finest fellows I ever met,” reported Hewett in 1905, and he vowed to repeat the tour the following year (he did).
But there was a deeper motivation for the Hewett family to tour the north. Frank Hewett’s sister Dr. Edith Chambers, was the first woman to graduate from the Minneapolis School of Dentistry and she had a practice in Dawson for a brief period of time after she arrived in 1900. She was described as a bright and cultured woman, one who had determined to live her life her way regardless of the customs of the day.
Then, in 1901, having an adventurous spirit, Edith decided to embark on a journey. Rumours abounded about the motivation behind her trip, but in fact, she planned to write a book about her travels. Her intention was to trek alone by horseback to the Tanana district. That was the last time that anyone saw her alive.
Edith Chambers might have succeeded in her travels if her supply of food had not been vandalized by marauding bears. Daily entries in her diary, which were found at her last campsite, indicate her plight and impending doom from slow starvation, but also show that she was alert and aware of her circumstances until the bitter end. Remains of her outfit were found at the head of the Goodpaster River about 35 kilometres from Central, Alaska, by a member of the American signal corps.
There were suggestions that the story of Hewett’s missing sister was nothing more than a publicity stunt, but the earnestness of his quest was later borne out by those with whom he searched, and those with whom he corresponded. When the remains of his sister were not found in 1905, Hewett and his family returned in 1906 and he eventually made his way to the last camp in the Tanana region of Alaska where she was known to have stayed.
There, in September, 1906, he collected the scattered remains of her clothing and her outfit, which were later identified by various Dawson residents to be hers. The second day at her final camp, he found enough of her scattered bones, that he could take them back to Seattle for a proper burial.
Hewett had accomplished the mission on which he had set out, but the subarctic held enough of an attraction for him and his family that they returned to perform in the Yukon and Alaskan interior for a third season in 1907. After that, I found no evidence that they ever returned to the north, where Frank Hewett’s sister came to such a tragic end.
And that is the amazing story that emerged when I explored the childhood memories of two girls who lived in Dawson in the early days.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book, From the Klondike to Berlin, was shortlisted for a national book award. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org