In 1891, Cincinnati did not know how to respond when someone’s behavior marked them as “different.” Cincinnati certainly had no vocabulary for the Zulu Queen.
The mystery began with his—yes, his—name, which was Jim. The newspapers did not report a surname for Jim, but said he was a popular waiter in “the dining room of a fashionable boardinghouse on Seventh-st.” Jim, it seems, waited tables and did “upstairs work” in Cincinnati during the winter. He was, in essence, a butler.
Throughout the summer, Jim performed as the Zulu Queen in old John Robinson’s circus. The role was Jim’s choice. Jim was recruited into the Robinson troupe by an uncle who performed as the Zulu Chief. Robinson liked the act (his circus included fake American Indians and fake Asian Indians as well) and asked Jim’s uncle to collect a whole Zulu tribe of costumed African Americans. After a season or two, Jim and his uncle had a falling out and Jim decided to go solo. A correspondent for the Cincinnati Post [February 7, 1891] got the story from a Mr. Johnson, who knew Jim:
He got him a white fur carriage robe from somewhere, and I saw him sit down, cut the robe all up in little bits, and make a whole suit out of it. Then he made him some shoes out of canvas, and got a heap of teeth and bones and buttons and things and strung ‘em together for a necklace. One day I was going by a place on Vine and Court, and there was Jim dancing on glass as a Zulu queen on his own book. Jim and his uncle act in summer for Mr. Robinson, but in winter they go it alone.
Dancing on glass was rather expected for Zulu acts in the 1800s. In the pre-vaudeville days, most cities had something called a Dime Museum that featured biological oddities like Jo-Jo the dog-face boy or exotic people like Eskimos. Here is a typical line-up [Cincinnati Post, August 8, 1891]:
Among the features will be Colorado Charley the Cowboy Whistler, and his fine collection of souvenirs; Lusculumn and Folunora, the celebrated Indian jesters; Amosita, the child Circassian; Ozimbo, the Zulu princess; and Camm’s Punch and Judy.
Enterprising managers cobbled together a stage full of local African Americans, dressed them in raggedy fur costumes and called them Zulus. So long as the entertainers grunted, audiences paid their dimes in the belief they were observing authentic African people.
Jim got a buffalo skin and worked it up into a suit for himself. Then he got a lot of inks and stuff and tried to tattoo himself—said he was going to be a tattooed Zulu. He tried every way to be an actor. He gets $15 a week.
It appears that Jim just liked to dance, whether on glass or on carpet didn’t matter, and that he had another, somewhat classier repertoire he shared with his boarding house fans.
Last spring he took dancing lessons for some time before starting out with the circus, and one night he donned his dress suit—mostly pink ribbons and feathers—and gave us a private exhibition in the dining room.
It is obvious that Jim was not only popular but beloved among the habitués of his boardinghouse.
“’Just wait till you know our Jim,’ cried everyone. ‘and you’ll love him as well as we. He’s the best boy in the world.’”
The pink ribbons and feathers decorating Jim’s private costume sound almost antithetically different from the furs and bones Jim incorporated into his Zulu act. In fact, it sounds a lot like the costumes of the popular “Florodora Girls” of that era. There certainly weren’t many male dancers accoutered in pink ribbons and feathers.
The Post makes it clear that even Jim’s Zulu costume had fashionable aspects and their description of Jim’s Zulu appearance is almost lascivious:
As will be seen by his picture, Jim has the modest sweetness and complacency of demeanor well befitting a Zulu lady of rank. To look at this chubby young queen, with her beautiful arms, her fashionable décolleté bodice and wondrous jewels, who could doubt that she was to the manor born?
Traveling with the circus, it appears that Jim’s exotic appearance led to harassment.
“Out on the road the boys used to tease him when he got dressed up, and they’d chase him ‘round till he’d run in the sideshow tent and hide. He acted in the sideshow.”
However, one witness claimed that Jim could dish it out as well as take it:
They used to put the Zulus in a ring and chase ‘em on horseback. Jim didn’t like to be put in the hippodrome. He was tonier than the rest of the Zulus—he was queen. In the West he used to show his teeth and run at the Indians and go ‘um, um’ and scare ‘em.
Ultimately, the Post reporter concluded (having spoken only to acquaintances, never to Jim himself), the whole issue of Jim’s sexuality was unresolved.
“Two questions remain open: Is Jim a he or a she, and should he be called an African beauty or a Kentucky belle?”
That is a question the Cincinnati Post did not endeavor to answer, since no one knew how to discuss gender fluidity in 1891.
One wonders what happened to Jim. After this profile, the Zulu Queen never appeared in the newspaper again.