How an unexceptional vaudeville performer turned a lurid tabloid scandal into national fame and a lucrative personal brand.
Story by Kat Vecchio
By all accounts Katherine Devine, a New York City vaudeville performer who went by the name “Little Egypt,” was not a great dancer. Nor was she particularly pretty, once described as having “jet black hair … sharp black eyes and a face ugly but pleasing.” And in her early thirties she was older than most women in her profession. But she had a reputation for giving the kind of dance many of her contemporaries would not. The kind that required less clothing than the law allowed. In late 1896, when one late-night private performance became the center of a high society scandal, she seized it as a business opportunity.
Just after midnight on Sunday, December 20, Little Egypt and her maid took a carriage to the Sherry Hotel. A large, well-appointed hotel in New York City’s entertainment district, Sherry’s, as it was known, often hosted high society events. That evening Herbert Barnum Seeley, the grandson of P.T. Barnum, was hosting a stag dinner in the upstairs ballroom for his brother Clinton. The twenty or so male guests were all wealthy members of New York social circles. When Seeley booked the evening’s entertainment he told the agent it was “not a Sunday school, but … a gentlemanly stag dinner, fit for bachelors,” and he wanted “something fit.” What exactly Seeley deemed “fit” would become a major point of interest for the general public, because not long after Little Egypt arrived at Sherry’s so did the police.
When Police Captain Chapman heard that nude dancing was taking place, he was so determined to put a stop to it he left for Sherry’s without a warrant. Any “exposure of the person in any place where other persons are gathered” was a crime. What was considered “exposure” was subjective. Even a lack of tights could land a dancer in trouble with the law. Chapman, followed by two officers, pushed past the doorman, bounded up the stairs two at a time, and burst into the women’s dressing room. This caused a lot of commotion, but Little Egypt was nowhere to be found.
After the police departed, Little Egypt, having hidden in a private dressing room far from the party, finally joined the festivities at 3:30 a.m. She performed her specialty, the danse du ventre, or as it was more commonly called, “the hootchie-cootchie.”
Introduced at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, danse du ventre was the French colonial name for traditional folk dances from North Africa. Sol Bloom, a manager at the fair, said that when the public discovered the English translation was “belly dance,” “they delightfully concluded that it must be salacious and immoral. The crowds poured in. I had a gold mine.” When the Fair ended a bawdy new version of the folk dances began to pop up at sideshows, amusements venues, and vaudeville theatres. The hootchie-cootchie took the skillful, graceful undulating motions and transformed them into a shimmying, shaking suggestive spectacle.
On Monday the story of Chapman’s raid hit the papers. One did not raid a millionaire’s stag dinner without a warrant, or with one for that matter. While Seeley and the hotel owner Sherry both declined to make a formal complaint Police Commissioner Parker, Chapman’s superior, felt pressured by the bad publicity. He instigated a trial, really a formal inquiry, to decide if Chapman’s warrantless raid of Sherry’s was justified.
Then news broke that Little Egypt had in fact danced at the party.
Seeley, who approached the trial with the smug swagger of a wealthy 25-year-old, swore Little Egypt had not danced nude. Captain Chapman declared he “would prove that the woman danced with nothing on but stockings which reached to a point about two inches above her knees.” They had the public’s attention. The proceedings at police headquarters quickly morphed into a multi-day media circus. Forty individuals were subpoenaed to testify, including all of the dinner guests, the dancers, musicians, even the waiters.
It wasn’t just the salacious nature of the entertainment that caused a sensation. The public was dying to know how the smart set partied when they thought no one was looking. As the trial got underway The New York Daily Tribune declared much of the testimony unprintable. The Sun had less scruples, printing full transcripts daily of the most interesting and outrageous testimony. The tale of Seeley’s dinner and Little Egypt’s dance made it far beyond New York with accounts printed in papers across the Unites States and even in Europe.
Little Egypt was called to testify on the fourth day of the trial. As she entered the courtroom “[t]he degenerates sighed with disappointment,” reported The Sun. “In the place of the beautiful young woman they had conjured up in their minds, there appeared — but it wouldn’t be a proper thing to criticize the lady’s personal appearance; that is, the part of it for which she is not to blame.” The New York Journal estimated that four hundred spectators filled the courtroom to hear her story. She and her maid were the only women in the room. Days earlier two women “who looked old enough to know better,” according to The Sun, had tried to attend and were ultimately pressured to leave.
Little Egypt walked confidently to the front of the room, looking delighted at the number of people present. The New York Journal commented on the tightness of her blue- and white-striped dress. The Sun reporter thought it looked “something like a uniform popular in the town of Sing Sing.” Her large hat, festooned with three ostrich feathers, was worn to the side, almost covering one eye. Her lips were painted red.
Mr. Hart, Chapman’s lawyer, asked for her name. She replied, “Little Egypt, sir.”
“Yes, Miss Egypt, won’t you kindly tell us your other name?” pressed Hart.
It took a few more questions, but she finally gave “Ashea Waba.” The New York Daily Tribune reported, “The woman spoke with a French accent that didn’t work much more than half of the time.” Any of her rumored birthplaces — Algeria, Paris, and Montreal — could explain the accent, as could a penchant for theatricality. (Her real surname, Devine, points to an Irish ancestry.)
Hart began his questions. Had she been engaged to dance by the theatrical agent Mr. Phipps?
“Oui. I had interview. He asked me to do Oriental dances and poses … he say, ‘You do leeta Egyptian pose on pedestal with the altogether.’”
“Ah,” interjected Lawyer Hart, “the altogether. Was it to be nude?”
Colonel James, representing the prosecution, objected, “If she said the altogether, she meant the altogether. How did she know what Phipps meant when he said the altogether? Maybe he meant altogether dressed.”
Little Egypt attempted to clarify; “Mr. Pheeps he tell me do leeta dance, then do pose. Leeta Egyptian slave on leeta Egyptian pedestal. He said he want me pose on leeta pedestal with the altogether.”
Throughout her testimony she gestured expressively, bounced a little, laughed, and winked at people in the courtroom. The questions continued: yes she did attend the dinner, and yes she did perform. Hart asked if she performed naked.
“I know not what you mean,” she replied.
He tried again, asking what she wore.
“Oui, monsieur, I tell. Me bloomers, me leeta coat, me hose,” here she lifted her leg and pointed to just above her knee, “me leeta laced bloomer, all draped, see? Me draped; all draped.”
When Hart asked if her stomach was bare she answered with laughter, then, “No, no; no, me have leeta lace.” Hart asked how thick the lace was. “Oh, Monsieur, the gauze was very thin where me leeta leg was.”
This prompted a string of circular questions and answers, with Hart and others trying to understand if Little Egypt meant a little of her leg was bare, or that her leg itself was little. Her answers did little to clarify.
While it was clear that she was indeed dressed during her performance, one reporter noted that she was “clothed in a garb too near that of Mother Eve to come within the bounds of nineteenth century propriety.”
After leaving Police Headquarters that Tuesday afternoon Little Egypt likely went to the Olympia theatre where she and another performer from the party had new jobs. “Through the medium of burlesque, The Sun reported, “Cora Routt and Little Egypt, notorious through the Seeley dinner, reaped part of the reward of their publicity.” The show, Silly’s Dinner, opened with eighteen diners seated around a table “which was ornamented chiefly with bottles, the bottles being largely empty and the guests largely otherwise.” One guest quickly passed out on the floor, where the action of the burlesque continued around him. Soon a Captain Chipgrabber arrived to interrupt the party and lecture the guests. After he departed, Little Egypt finally appeared. She danced through the revelers, was lifted onto the table and pressed to remove her “gold-bespangeld gauze wrapping.” Agreeing, she dashed off stage as the curtain partially dropped, allowing the audience a view of only the performer’s legs. Then according to The Sun, “Presently appeared dancing on the stage the red stockings of Little Egypt and above them a vista of delicate pink over which flapped loosely the fringe of an opera cloak.”
Overall the reviewer was not impressed with Little Egypt’s turn on stage, “her costume was hardly as striking as that of her predecessor, the pink fleshings being too obvious by reason of certain abdominal wrinkles where abdominal muscles should have appeared,” and her dance “a mild imitation of the performances made familiar by Fatima, Ferida, et al.” Even with this lackluster appraisal Silly’s Dinner ran seven weeks with stellar crowds.
Little Egypt continued to capitalize on her notoriety, forming the “Little Egypt” Theatrical Company with entertainment manager, Clifford Grant. The operation toured the country. In early 1898 The Serpent’s Coil, featuring “Little Egypt: Who created such a sensation by dancing at the Seeley dinner” played in Seattle. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer declared, “This is the only and original Little Egypt, although there are others that use the name,” reporting that she was “now on her way to the Orpheum theatre, San Francisco.”
In May, not long after her West Coast performances, Little Egypt and other vaudeville performers were listed as passengers on a steamer bound for Alaska, which was booming due to the recent gold discovery. An 1898 photograph of Jeff “Soapy” Smith’s parlor in Skagway, Alaska, shows a hand-painted sign advertising “Little Egypt Tonight.” It’s hard to say if this Little Egypt was Katherine Devine or another dancer using the name.
Little Egypt was back in New York by 1900 when she was arrested for dancing indecently at the Empire Theatre. “She was paroled on her promise not to produce the offensive dance again.” A year later she was in trouble with the law once more. While attending a show at the Crescent theatre in New Orleans she refused to remove her hat, violating the city’s new high hat law, which prohibited the wearing of large hats in theatres. The fine was fifteen dollars.
Around this same time she tried to take her manager and business partner, Clifford Grant, to court. She claimed that they had formed a partnership in 1898 to evenly split the profits of the “Little Egypt” Theatrical Company and that “the company traveled … earning large sums of money … divided according to contract.” But then Grant had kicked her out and used her stage name with another dancer. He maintained they had no partnership, saying she was his employee who had been fired. Her legal action against Grant was not successful, but it appears they did mend their business relationship, at least temporarily.
Five years later she and another woman, Blanche Rose, allegedly stole two hundred dollars from Grant. His wife had been appearing on stage as “La Belle Egypt,” which Little Egypt insisted was an “infringement on her title, and that Grant owed her the money for the use of the title, as well as for salary.” When Grant failed to appear in court, both women were discharged.
In January 1908, eleven years after her dance at Seeley’s dinner, Little Egypt was traveling between New York and Philadelphia rehearsing for a production titled The Merry Widows, set to open in New Orleans. Knowing that she was due home from Philadelphia, her sister, Mrs. Frank Connell, tried to visit. The sisters had lived together until Connell’s recent wedding and were close. After days with no answer Connell had the building’s janitor climb up the fire escape and through a window to investigate. He found Little Egypt’s body lying on her bed. The police, and the papers, initially suspected foul play, but the coroner declared she died from accidental gas asphyxiation. Later it was reported that there had been complaints about a gas smell in the building.
In her obituary The Sun claimed she had been “arrested in nearly every city in the country.” Her five-room flat was not fancy, but it was thought that she had made quite a lot of money. There was talk that she had invested in Long Island real estate, and she seemed to own a lot of jewelry.
Even after her death one final scandal was still ahead. A few weeks later the headline “Little Egypt Left $100,000: Banker She Married Seeks To Administer On It.” ($100,000 in 1908 would be around $2.5 million today.) The Sun reported that Fred Hamlin “of the banking firm of Hamlin & Co. of East Bloomfield, N.Y.” had married Katherine Devine “the original Little Egypt” while he was a student at Yale. They met when she performed there not long after the Seeley dinner. One of Little Egypt’s sisters served as the only witness at the wedding. Hamlin’s family promptly threatened to disown him, and the couple never lived together. Now that she was gone, Hamlin and his attorneys planned to claim Little Egypt’s estate, but her sisters were determined to fight him in court. The story of the secret husband, Little Egypt’s unexpected wealth, and the upcoming court battle, became national news.
A few weeks later a very small notice appeared in The World: Hamlin would not pursue the money. Perhaps he decided the money wasn’t worth having his secret marriage to the notorious dancer splashed across the front page for days to come. Even a decade later Seeley’s name was still connected to the ill-fated dinner whenever he was mentioned in print.
Katherine Devine was not the only Little Egypt, but she was responsible for cementing the name in pleasant infamy at the turn of the twentieth century. The burlesque Silly’s Dinner was one of the first vaudeville performances to satirize New York high society and the hootchie-cootchie is cited as a precursor to the striptease. Her escapades did more than shift popular culture; she also built and sustained a lucrative career as “the heroine of the Seeley dinner.” All of this from the question of just how much lace was on her little leg.