Al Lawson and Frances Namon Sorcho: "Lawson and Namon" : A tale of curiosity
The availability of indexed, digitized historical newspapers has revealed many new facts about the early life of Alfred W. Lawson. None was more intriguing than this note in the Dec. 14, 1900 edition of the North Adams Transcript:
"AL LAWSON NOW ON WHEELS -- All the baseball followers of New England know of Al Lawson, he of the peculiar record in North Adams, Manchester N.H., Fitchburg, Greenville N.H., and many other places to say nothing of the baseball trips to England and Cuba. He is now doing a trick bicycle act at the Gilmore."
Further searches on the terms "Lawson" and "bicycle" revealed dozens of references to an "Al Lawson" that had an extensive Vaudeville career from 1897 to 1913. The first two years were in an act called "Lawson and Ward"; but from 1899 on, the act he was in was called "Lawson and Namon." Nearly all these references were display ads from Vaudeville theaters, or brief mentions in theater review listings. From these it was possible to compile a list of over 55 separate billings: theaters, cities, and calendar week dates from a 14-year period. Also, several mentions noted the first name of the female half of the act, Frances Namon.
The act itself sounds odd today, but would have been familiar to theatergoers of that time: tramp trick bicycle riding and bag punching. Al Lawson used tramp makeup to get laughs with the juxtaposition of the downtrodden, unskilled homeless drifter effortlessly performing feats of balance and agility on the favorite new toy of the sporting class--the safety bicycle. It was not an original act; several years prior to Al Lawson, a performer named William E. (Billie) Ritchie had successfully toured on stage with his tramp-on-a-bicycle-doing-tricks act. [Legend has it that Ritchie lent his costume to a fellow performer who was looking for a new persona--Charlie Chaplin. When Chaplin's star rose, Billie Ritchie tried to reclaim the tramp character, and starred in several movies that many dismissed as a pale imitation of Chaplin's tramp.
William "Billie" Ritchie's tramp
Ritchie died at a young age of complications from injuries suffered on the movie set, when he was attacked by a group of ostriches.] At any rate, there were several trick bicycle acts during the history of Vaudeville that used tramp makeup; such acts can even be found today.
American Crown Circus, Las Vegas, 2004
"Bag punching" refers to the boxer's workout speed bag, a stuffed rubber or leather globe suspended on a spring from the ceiling or a special platform. Boxers of that era often gave exhibitions of their skills using bags instead of opponents. The speed bag, once set in motion by rhythmic punching, lends itself to tricks like using the elbows, head, etc. to keep it in motion; and acts were developed around keeping not just one, but many speed bags going at the same time. Frances Namon did bag punching in her full length Victorian tea gown. She too, was not the only female bag puncher on the Vaudeville circuits. She and Al Lawson both would share the stage together, and in between their acrobatic exertions would trade well-worn jokes. No other act combined trick bicycle riding and bag punching.
The only known photograph of Frances Namon's bag punching act
In looking at the dates of the 55+ "Lawson and Namon" billings, an amazing correlation occurred when compared against Alfred W. Lawson's baseball activity from 1897-1907: only 4 dates conflicted with one another, and there were some odd things about a couple of those conflicts. One occurred in April, 1902, when Alfred Lawson was training a team in Scranton, Pa. 120 miles to the north, Lawson and Namon were appearing at a theater in Syracuse, NY, but for several days running, the Syracuse papers gave his name as "Will H. Lawson." Alfred Lawson's middle name was William, and his father's middle initial was H. On another occasion in January, 1907, Lawson and Namon were booked for a week in Hartford, but stopped being mentioned in the daily theater reviews after just two days, on a Tuesday. Then Alfred Lawson appears in Philadelphia on Thursday for an emergency baseball league meeting.
Aside from the dates, the idea that Alfred Lawson could do bicycle stunts seemed plausible--he was a skilled athlete, and from 1897-1913 would have been between 28 and 44 years of age. From baseball clippings we know that he was a fast sprinter and ambidextrous thrower. He loved crowds and attention, and could project his voice.
But the real proof seemed to lie with partner Frances Namon and her personality. Once the act "Lawson and Namon" was researched in the digitized newspapers, further searches were done on the name "Frances Namon" alone. This found several reprints of an article she had written on bag punching as exercise:
"BAG PUNCHING FOR WOMEN--Miss Frances Namon, the Famous Expert, Says It Builds Up Tissues to Make the Thin Fat and Burns Out Unhealthy Adipose.
"By punching a rubber bag for 10 minutes a day for a week a woman can do more to reduce her weight and to preserve a firm figure than by observing a rigid diet for six months," says Miss Frances Namon, the woman athlete.
"Miss Namon is an expert in boxing, fencing and all gymnastics for women. Her specialty is fancy bag punching. She gives some cheering advice to the woman who dreads growing stout during the winter season of late dinners and little outdoor exercise.
"Bag punching is the ideal indoor exercise for women," says Miss Namon. "The object of all athletics is, of course, to get the blood circulating rapidly and well. It is the proper action of the blood that clears the complexion, builds up tissues and makes the thin woman fat� or burns out unhealthy adipose tissue and makes the stout woman thin. Plenty of good blood coursin fast through the veins is a remedy for nearly all physical ills that are remediable.
"If a woman has a complexion like paste, bag punching will start the sluggish blood in motion and give her a skin the color of peaches and cream, if anything will. When I began practice I had been an invalid with nervous dyspepsia for three years� and now I have the appetite and the digestion of an ostrich� and not an ounce of flesh too much. Bag punching exercises every muscle in the body, and especially those that have a tendency to take on fat. It develops the chest and shoulders and neck, and reduces the waist."
"'It requires a teacher, Miss Namon?'"
"Not at all, and there's a strong point in its favor for the average woman. Unlike fencing. It does not require an antagonist. Ten dollars will buy a first-class light rubber punching bag with framework support, and a fairly good one can be had for less money. This is all the paraphernalia necessary, except a pair of light-weight�say 1 1/4 ounce�boxing gloves, which will cost from 75 cents to $1.25. Exercise can be taken in evening dress or street costume, just as well as in the most up-to-date gymnasium attire. A woman will derive just as much benefit from the most awkward bag punching as from the most scientific.
"With practice, a puncher will learn to strike the ball with the regularity of a piston rod. To begin with, she will merely play with it, anti it will be a very enjoyable exercise, because a punching bag has come resistance to it. Dumbbells are well enough in their way, but they are very stupid and uninteresting. One takes the exercise because it is necessary. and not because there is any thing exhilarating in it. But with the punching bag it is different. One must be constantly on the alert, and it is like playing against an active opponent.
"In beginning, it is necessary to observe just two rules. Suspend the bag on a level with the shoulders, and strike straight out from the shoulder. This stroke brings into play a greater number of muscles than any other, and it tends to expand the chest and give a good poise to the neck. Always hit the bag, if possible. a trifle above the center. and this will prevent a rebound and a bruised nose. This, however, will be understood with practice, and it is a part of the game to keep out of harm's way.
"Bag punching is almost if not quite as valuable as fencing in making a woman graceful in movement and light on her feet, as the saying is. She will find in a short while that the easiest and best position for striking the bag is to poise herself lightly o the ball and toes of the feet, the right foot a little in advance of the left. This will give her a springy step and an easy and graceful carriage.
"Ten minutes a day is long enough for athletic exercises for the average woman, or 20 minutes if she wants to reduce her weight rapidly. Punch the bag 25 times with the right arm swing, rest a few moments, and then try 25 strokes with the left hand. Strike with the greatest regularity possible, and if one is careful. as I say, the punches will soon fall with the regularity of a piston rod. Then alternate one punch with the right and another with the left.
"Mark Twain's 'Punch, punch, punch with care,' about sums the matter up. Keep at it. Don't exercise an hour one day and then forget all about it for a week; although, I am a believer in the theory that even a little work is better than none.
"Of course, there are various fancy strokes that may be learned in time, as for example punching the bag with the right elbow, alternating with punches from the left fist, or vice versa. Then a little more difficult still is the elbow punch, with alternating upper arm and underarm thrusts with the fists. Gradually. the punches can be made faster and faster until the bag will be a regular tattoo on top of the framework overhead."
It is hard not to imagine that one Frances Namon act did more for the women's rights movement than a dozen well-intended lectures.
Fortunately, "Namon" is a very rare surname--only a handful appear in any American census in the nineteenth century. Those searches led to the discovery of Frances' previous performing career: "Frances Namon Sorcho : the World's First Woman Deep Sea Diver."
Frances Namon became a deep sea diver through her marriage to aquatic showman Captain Louis [Luigi] Sorcho. Sorcho himself had a long career as a showman, starting in the 1880s when he performed swimming endurance feats in a rubber Merriman suit--an imitation of the exhibitions of adventurer Paul Boyton. At the same time Paul Boyton expanded his exhibitions until they became billed as a "Paul Boyton's Water Circus," so too did Sorcho expand his lakeside and fair performances to include similar elements. Sorcho also appropriated Boyton's honorary title, "Captain"; his medal-festooned tunic; and background as a veteran of the U.S. Life Saving Service. But by the 1890s, either on his own or under a personal or legal threat from Boyton, Sorcho stopped his swimming exhibitions and concentrated on demonstrating deep-sea diving work in giant glass tanks on stages, at State Fairs, and in amusement parks. [Paul Boyton had invented the concept of self-contained amusement parks in the mid 1890s.]
Capt. Sorcho married Frances Namon (her birth name was Fanny Charlton; where she picked up the name "Namon" is still a mystery, hinting at an even earlier marriage and show career) on Mar. 24, 1896 in Fulton, GA. Less than a year later she was appearing in the deep-sea diving act with a featured role as the "World's First Woman Deep-Sea Diver." In souvenir booklets printed by Capt. Sorcho and reprinted in newspapers, the following narrative makes clear that her diving was not limited to glass tanks:
A FAIR DEEP SEA DIVER-- She Accompanies Her Husband on All His Submarine Jaunts.
After mastering about all the other occupations, woman has begun investigating the bottom of the sea.
This daring task has been accomplished by Mrs. Frances Namon Sorcho, wife of Captain Louis Sorcho, the veteran submarine diver and an ex-captain of the United States life saving service. She is the only woman in the world who has successfully striven to become a deep sea diver.
There is no task that falls to the lot of the diver who goes dawn to the ocean's bottom in search of everything, from a treasure to a dead body, that Mrs. Sorcho has not achieved. She isconsidered an expert, and is capable of doing any work that is done by the divers that travel around beneath the water of New York harbor. A pretty woman, without a sign of masculinity about her, this lady has as much courage as any one needs in the work in which she has engaged, and that is saying a good deal.
The ordinary woman would hesitate a long while before donning the armor and accoutrements of the diver that weigh in the aggregate 140 pounds, and taking the submarine trip. These things, however, are matters of every-day occurrence to Mrs. Sorcho, and she says she feels as much at home in the water as on the land itself. It would never do, either, for the woman , who is afraid of crawling things to travel about as Mrs. Sorcho does, for the fiendish-looking eel and the queer objects that live on the ocean's bottom are her frequent companions. Of course, she has the advantage of being without skirts, and protected by armor, but the very sight of the marine objects referred to, in their native element, would send an ordinary woman into a fit of by hysterics.
It isn't so many years ago that Mrs. Sorcho was a little girl down in old Virginia, without a thought of the diver or the dangers that are his.
"I don't doubt it seems odd that a woman should be a diver, and a deep sea diver, at that," she says. "Years ago I would not I have thought it possible myself. It took me a long while to make up my mind to try. At last I decided, and then I took a year's training in a school of physical culture. When I finished that, I believe I was as I strong as a prize fighter, and I had no physical fear whatever. I haven't changed in that particular at all. Really my diving armor seems as natural to me as my tea gown.
"I made my first dive off the southern coast of Florida, near Clear Water harbor, where my husband was collecting curios. My! When I first put that armor on, I felt as if I was being screwed up in my coffin. When I started down I expected to go as if I was a lump of lead. Instead of that, I went down as gradually as a bubble comes from a fish's mouth. Then, before I fairly knew what had happened, I stood on the bed of the ocean, five fathoms from the surface.
"To my surprise I found that I could see I quite well about me, and the little fish swam right up in front of my helmet and looked into my eyes. I suppose they wondered what new sort of a fish I was. In spite of that heavy armor. after I had got my diver's legs on, as it were, I felt remarkably buoyant and light, and found that if I pushed my foot a little on the ocean's bed I would go up several feet toward the surface.
"It was hard work to move about with the armor, though, and that was the only thing that really annoyed me. I only stayed down a few moments, for it soon seemed to me I'd like to see just how everything was up on the surface of the water.
"This was the first and only pleasure trip I ever made in a diving suit. After that I went for business. In a few days my husband and I took turns in picking up all sorts of curious things that lay on the bed of the ocean. I lived a regular diver's life for a number of weeks there, without taking any rest, and worked the same as any of the men. After a while we left there and then we dove for all sorts of things."
"Recovering a dead body is the task a diver dislikes morethan any other, and although I have recovered quite a number, the work is yet horrible to me.
"The first deadbody I ever brought to the surface was that of a man who was supposed to have been murdered and thrown into a lake near Atlanta, Ga. I searched the entire bottom of the lake, and finally in a deep hole found the body.
"It was shockingly mutilated and disfigured, and was almost unrecognizable, but we neverfound out whether the man had been murdered or not.
"When l came to the surface with thatbloated, disfigured corpse, strong men were made sick and turned away, and to tell the truth I felt a little squeamish myself; but it was a matter of business, not sentiment, with me, so l doffed the armor and pocketed the reward that had been offered.
One of these incidents, she says, she will never forget. "It was while we were working on a sunken steamboat in the Ohio River," says Mrs. Sorcho. "We had blown away the upper deck with dynamite; you can take my word for it that one does not feel very comfortable groping about with five or six pounds of dynamite in her hand, not knowing what minute it may take a notion to go off and blow her into kingdom come. I had then been lowered into the cabin to look for bodies of the luckless passengers. Breaking open a stateroom door, I saw in a berth, as natural as if they were alive, a mother with her baby in her arms. No, I do not want to see anything like that again."
What can be said? It is impossible not to admire the character of Frances Namon Sorcho after reading all the above.
However, her marriage to Sorcho was soon estranged. She began a solo bag punching act later in 1897, teamed up with Al Lawson early in 1899, and stopped appearing with husband Sorcho entirely after the summer of 1899. They may not have finally divorced until more than ten years later (Louis Sorcho indicated he was still married, not divorced, in the 1910 census--though he wasn't living with his wife.) The broken marriage of the Sorchos provided a compelling reason why Alfred Lawson would not have wanted to publicize his Vaudeville career--he was cavorting with another man's wife, a cardinal sin in those times.
For months, further details on the fate of Frances Namon Sorcho were elusive. She seemingly disappeared after 1913, as did the Vaudeville career of her partner Al Lawson. Census records, public records, genealogy databases, Internet forums, etc. revealed nothing--and nothing seemed harder than tracking show performers that never stayed in one place, or never stuck with one name, and seldom registered their marriages or divorces.
Finally, a trip to New York Public Library for the Performing Arts provided a resolution to the major mysteries. The Library has a newspaper clipping morgue that is the premiere tool for Vaudeville research. A 3' x 5' card index to that collection pointed to an entry for Al Lawson. After a half-hour wait, the requested clipping was retrieved, tucked in an acid-free envelope, with the envelope resting in a file folder. The clipping was yellowed and tiny. This is what it said:
"AL LAWSON -- Al Lawson, 64, former vaude trick bike rider and later northwest rep for Western Vaudeville and general fair agent, died in Minneapolis on Oct. 27  following a long illness. Widow survives. Burial in Minneapolis."
The house of cards tumbled. Alfred W. Lawson died in 1954, not 1938. Baseball's Alfred Lawson was totally unrelated to Vaudeville's Al Lawson (who census records subsequently revealed to be an Alexander Lawson.) Frances Namon was not the secret soul mate of Alfred Lawson, and he did not rival for her attentions with the formidable act-stealer, Captain Louis Sorcho. The North Adams Transcript of Dec. 1900 had reprinted a baseless story concocted from an assumption about similar names. The negative correlation between baseball dates and theater bookings could be explained by theater seasons ending in summer, due to lack of air conditioning. It was all a dead end, a huge waste of time...nothing about Alfred W. Lawson was to be found in this vein...
This caricature of the Lawson and Namon act eventually surfaced after it was discovered that Al Lawson the bicyclist was not Alfred W. Lawson. It is the only known image of the pair of vaudeville performers together.
...but whatever happened to Frances Namon?
Curiosity led back to the clipping index file at the library, first to the "N"s and "S"s, where no entries were found for Namon or Sorcho, and then back to the filed cards under "Lawson." Lawson, A...Lawson, B...Lawson, C...
...Lawson, Fannie see Franzeska, Mlle.
Could it be...?
Another 45 minutes later, four obituary clippings revealed the fate of Frances Namon. One article gave her name as Fannie Lawson, and mentioned she had toured in the act Lawson and Namon and at one point was married to Lawson, but then split with him. The three others gave her name as Fannie Law. At her death, no one was aware of her previous career as a deep sea diver or her marriage to Sorcho. Instead, all the obituaries told of her theater career that followed Lawson and Namon.
While still touring with Lawson and Namon, Frances kept parrots as pets. After she broke up with Al Lawson, those pets became the basis for her new act, "Mlle. Franzeska and Her Talking Birds." [Franzeska is a Hungarian variant of Frances, and Namon is also a Hungarian surname, perhaps a clue to her first marriage?]. In 1916, one of the birds even received a co-billing: "Franzeska and Jackie, the thinking and talking bird." Jackie was a white plumed cockatoo. The act performed mainly on the Western vaudeville circuit--only a couple of references to it exist in eastern newspapers. The act ran until vaudeville dwindled in the early 1930s.
Frances retired to a small, one-room tenement flat in New York City. She survived on a tiny pension and donations from the National Variety Artists Sick Committee. Mrs. Ethel Campbell, chairwoman of that committee, often visited Frances. Frances kept all her birds with her when she retired, but one by one they either died or she was forced to sell them, until only Jackie was left. Mrs. Campbell recalled that Jackie's calls were familiar sounds to the tenement residents, and that visitors were often greeted by Jackie's raucous "What the hell do you want?" Mrs. Campbell marveled at the conversations Frances had with Jackie:
"Mother, I love you," Jackie would say.
"Jackie, dear, mother is sick," Frances would reply.
"Poor mother! She is sick. What's the matter with you now?", Jackie would ask, tilting his head.
On April 17th, 1941, a social worker who was scheduled to meet with Frances and discuss her upcoming visit to the Ringling Circus could not get an answer at Frances' door, although she could hear Jackie inside. Jackie was not greeting her knock with his usual rude inquiry. After the building superintendent was located, the door was opened and Frances Namon's lifeless body was found in her bed. Jackie had spent the past two hours crying, "Goodbye mother!"
[The above, the last clipping I found on Frances, notes Jackie the Cockatoo getting top billing in the act. Over the years, did Frances push Jackie to the top of the bill? Also, this is the only clipping that describes Jackie as still calling out "Goodbye, Mother" even as he is carried away by the A.S.P.C.A.]
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