James Speaight, forgotten child prodigy
A colleague was looking at the Music Division’s vast clipping file, and pulled out a folder with a strange name: “Americus, Young.” The picture inside, of a highly decorated young boy and published in 1874, made it clear that “Young Americus” was just a nickname - but what was his real name?
A little bit of research in Google revealed the answer: he was James G. Speaight, child prodigy on the violin, who is probably known most for his sudden death. Thanks to the England & Wales FreeBMD Birth Index database (available on Ancestry.com, marketed to libraries as AncestryLibrary), we discovered that, in spite of his nickname, he was born sometime between July and September 1866 in Mile End Old Town in London, Great Britain. According to the account in Curiosities of the American Stage by Laurence Hutton (published in 1890, which can be read or downloaded from Google books), he first learned violin by ear, since his father was an orchestral violin player. Only near the end of his very brief life did he start learning to read music, feeding his appetite to know more. He must have possessed unusual talent because he was performing in the 1872 edition of The Black Crook at Niblo’s Garden in New York City (according to the Internet Broadway Database, this edition ran from December 18, 1871 through February 24, 1872). He was five years old! (The Black Crook is considered the first American musical; the site of Niblo’s Garden–once of the center of entertainment in the 19th century–is located near the Spring Street stop in Manhattan on the 6 train — read the Library's 1873 edition, digitized by Google.) At some point during the entertainment, he would get on the podium and lead the orchestra in a number. By 1874, his father had brought him to Boston, where he was appearing at the Boston Theatre in a show called The Naiad Queen. As recounted in the Boston Globe of January 12, 1874:
It was only as he came off the stage at the matinée performance that Mr. Shewell, the manager, noticed a look of fatigue and an air of languor in the lad, and, laying his hand kindly on the little fellow’s shoulder, asked him, “What ’s the matter, Jimmy? Aren’t you feeling well?” The lad cheerfully replied, but the manager seeing that he was evidently not well, advised him not to come to the theatre in the evening, and coutined his father against bringing him. Accordingly, Jimmy remained at his lodgings with his father in the evening, though professing his ability and desire to go to the theatre as usual, and saying that nothing ailed him. Father and son retired early, the lad seeming bright and complaining of no ill feeling. Sometime after, the father was awakened by hearing the lad’s voice, and distinguished, after waking the words: “Merciful God, make room for a little fellow!” or something similar. He supposed the boy was talking in his sleep, and spoke to him with the intention of rousing him, but received no answer. He became somewhat alarmed and endeavored to wake the child, when he discovered to his grief and horror, that his son was dead. His young life had gone out with that touching aspiration. Coroner Foye was called, but deemed an inquest unnecessary, the cause of death being, manifestly, heart disease.
The Globe article speaks glowingly of his abilities:
The lad was a bright and handsome child, a marvel of musical precocity, and a perfect enthusiast in the profession for which he seemed designed by nature…Not only did he play violin solos with a degree of precision and technical skill marvellous [sic] in one so young, but he proved that his musical powers were not limited to execution by the grace and accuracy with which he was able to conduct the orchestra through an intricate overture. He was passionately fond of music, and it was his life and constant thought.
The mislabeled clipping file had a lovely lithograph which I moved to our Iconography file, where it is one of two relatively larged sized images of James G. Speaight. An unidentified article in our clipping file (this one filed under “Speaight, James G.”) provided a brief description of Speaight’s funeral, which was well attended, in particular by members of the theater troup with which he appeared. Though a British citizen, he was buried in Boston Commons, in the tomb of Mrs. George H. Cutter.
It’s sad to think the story ends there. Perhaps the family was able to move on. Further investigation shows that a Speaight family continued living in Mile End Old Town, where several children were born: Sarah Ann Speaight, July-Sept. 1876, Amelia Susannah Speaight in Jan-Mar 1878, and Sydney James Speaight in July-September 1892.
The social issues concerning young performers were also on peoples’ mind. Novelist and poet Thomas Bailey Aldrich wrote a short story, The Young Violinist, in which Speaight’s demise figures as part of the story, intended to arouse awareness of child exploitation. This theme is echoed in the obituary/editorial authored by John S. Dwight and appearing in his Dwight’s Journal of Music (Jan. 24, 1874, p. 165). Without recordings, printed music, or even music criticism, it’s almost impossible to know how Young Americus played. Yet, with newspapers notices combined with these fine images, it’s possible to imagine the affect this young talent had on the people who heard him, and the great loss felt upon his death.