Miss Hayden – The American Sybil

My March 16th post included a mention of Miss Hayden being the first magician to perform in Missouri. At the time I knew nothing else about her. Since I always love a “magic history mystery”, I spent a little time digging though digital newspapers and library collections. Actually found myself way down a rabbit hole on this one.  A rather interesting story emerged. Here is a summary, this is very much a work in progress. Do let  me know if you have any information on Miss Hayden.

The story begins in May of 1839 in Natchez, MS where John Rowson Smith was exhibiting a moving panorama or diorama. This was an emerging area of popular entertainment that was distend to be a blockbuster.  It was basically a very long painting, hundreds or even thousands of feet, which was scrolled across a frame and accompanied by narration and even music. It could be thought of as the silent movies of the times. His show at the Natchez Theater had three parts:

  • View of the mouth of the Licking River opposite Cincinnati and a beautiful automation figure (a slack rope walker),
  • Front view of New Orleans along the banks of the Mississippi,
  • The Conflagration of Moscow viewed from an elevated terrace of the Kremlin at night when the inhabitants are evacuating the capital of the Czar.

John Smith was from a family of artists and engravers and became an accomplished painter of theatrical scenery. Much of his work was in cities along the Mississippi river and its tributaries. These rivers can be considered the superhighways of their era, with steamboats providing rapid and easy transportation between the port cities. A perfect place for traveling entertainers.

In July we find Smith in Cleveland, OH. He is now part of a Combination Company featuring Miss Hayden, the “American Sybil” and Italian Fantocini (string puppets). This is the first time I have found reference to her in contemporary newspapers. Miss Hayden is the headliner performing “polite magic”, with her feature effect being the vanish of a gentleman. How they meet is not known.  Based on her future exploits Miss Hayden seemed familiar with touring cities of the mid-west and south. She may have known Smith from his theatrical activates there.

Future Miss Hayden’s shows also included string puppets. So she may have been part of a husband/wife, father/daughter or family troupe that had joined with Smith to form the Combination Company.  When Miss Hayden joined Smith she obviously had a lot of experience in performing magic and puppetry. Where she gained this experience is still a mystery.

After successfully playing the summer in Cleveland the Company set out for Boston and a tour of New England cities. An advertisement from the New Hampshire Gazette (March 3,1840) gives a good description of the show:

Notice that Smith has added a 200 foot moving panorama of a thunder storm on the Mississippi at night. This was a sign of things to come.

The New Orleans Times- Picayune of October 16, 1839 had a rather sarcastic comment on her performance in Boston:  “A Miss Hayden is performing “polite magic” before the Bostonians. She is the first lady in the world, she says, who ever attempted it. O, the degeneracy of the age.

At this point Miss Hayden and John Smith part company. He goes on to bigger things and Miss Hayden finds another partner. This time it is John Banvard. He was an entrepreneur, performer, artist, scenery painter, adventure and a basic all around showman. Born in New York in 1815, his father was a successful architect who indulged his son’s artistic talents. After the decline of the family’s fortunes he moved to Louisville, Kentucky too seek his fortune. For many years he traveled the western river systems as, among other things, an intenerate artist, scenery painter, and a small time showboat (more like a leaking barge) manager.

Banvard saw the emerging interest in panoramas and in about 1840 painted one of Jerusalem and Venice. Having never travelled out of the country he painted it using engravings and his imagination. The size of the panorama was advertised as being 1,000 square feet and probably was about 10 feet high and 100 feet long. Smith then took it on tour, with our favorite magician… Miss Hayden. The earliest performance I can find is at the American Museum in New York City starting June 19, 1840. The next time they were heard from they were playing Cleveland. Though it seems they had rather poor luck in that city, as this notice in the advertising section of the Cleveland Daily Herald from September 23, 1840 shows:

The Company headed south and is next seen playing at the Museum in St. Louis, Missouri. An advertisement from the Daily Missouri Republican of March 25, 1841 gives an insight into this  very successful show:

Miss Hayden must have bought the Venice and Jerusalem panorama from Banvard. With these and other funds he had earned Banvard bought part ownership in the St. Louis museum.  While this investment was a failure, it did lead him to fame and fortune.

Miss Hayden took the panorama and presented it along with magic and puppets for at least the next six years. She traveled on riverboats and presented the show at large and small towns along the western river systems. In the September 4, 1847 issue of Boone’s Lick Times (Fayette, MO) the show was being billed as “Palmo’s Grand Scriptural and Moral Panorama of the Cities of Jerusalem and Venice. The show also included 100 illuminated paintings. Just a few weeks’ later disaster struck while Miss Hayden was traveling to a show in Nashville. Here is a newspaper account (Spectator, October 23, 1847):

A true trouper, she had the panorama repaired and advertised performances November 4, 5, and 6th in Nashville.

Then she totally vanishes. Where did she go? My hope is that she got back on the riverboats and kept bringing a little entertainment to all of the small towns and cites along the great rivers of the south and mid-west.


Not long after Miss Hayden left St. Louis, John Banvard conceived the idea of painting a panorama of the Mississippi River. For the next couple of years he traveled the river from St. Louis to New Orleans sketching scenes for the panorama. The painting was completed in 1846 and was reported to measure 12 feet tall and 1,300 feet long. It became an instant sensation when first shown in Louisville. Banvard then took the show to Boston and New York where he had sell out crowds. In the fall of 1849 he took the panorama to London when he heard that a rival, who else but our John Ronsow Smith, was planning on showing his own Mississippi panorama. Once in London Banvard rented Egyptian Hall and again created a sensation. Smith did not arrive until the next summer and the battle of the two panoramas begun. Banvard kept creating and touring panoramas and went on to become one of the most successful and wealthy showman of the time.  Smith also did well and kept successfully touring his panoramas through both Europe and America.

The link between the two was Miss Hayden. She toured with both of them in their formative years when they were developing the skills and talents needed to achieve their future successes. What did she teach them? How did she impact their future? Was she their muse? One will never know, but I think a little of both Banvard’s and Smith’s success was due in part to our Miss Hayden.

Hope you enjoyed and good hunting.

One Comment

  1. Per Eklund


    I´m a magic historian, wrighter and magic collector from Sweden and I really would appreciate if you could contact me regarding Miss Hayden. I´m currently working on a book on the history of magic trying to put the history of magic i Sweden into an international context. Nobody has done that before and I´m also trying fo find facts about female magicians. Is it pssible for me to use information from your article, with full credit of course?

    Kind regards
    Per Eklund
    Former coach of The National Team of Magic, Sweden
    Former president of the Swedish Magic Circle

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