1862-1901 Bessie Bonehill

Years active

Stage Name // Legal/Birth Name
Bessie Bonehill & Jack Wellington (from the musical comedy “Playmates”)
Betsey Bonehill; her gravestone says “Betsey Smith otherwise Bessie Bonehill.”

Was married to:
Louis William Abrahams (had 3 children); and to William Robert Seeley (had 1 child)

Country of Origin
United Kingdom, England

Male impersonator, Pantomime, and English vaudeville singer

Day Birth – Day Death
Born – February 17, 1855
Died-  August 21, 1902


Bessie Bonehill started off in England as a coon singer and clog dancer with her sisters in 1862, then advanced to a principal boy in pantomime at the age of seven.  In 1889 she was invited by Tony Pastor to perform in his NY theatre at Union Square, and became an instant hit.  She moved to the US in 1891 to continue her career and lived there with her family till she died August 21, 1902.  She was recognized as the first of the Victorian male impersonators, specializing in singing patriotic songs, and specializing in boy characters such as newsboys and sailors.  She dedicated her life to male impersonation and built a successful career allotting her to tour the world becoming ‘one of the most famous and wealthy entertainers of her day.’

Bessie Bonehill was born Betsey Bonehill, February 17, 1855 West Bromwich, Sandwell, West Midlands, England.  She started performing principal boy characters in pantomime in 1862 at the age of 7.  She claimed to be the first male impersonator in the English music halls and was so dedicated that she cut off her hair to fit her growing ambition.  While in England she specialized in boy characters such as newsboys, sailors, and soldiers singing patriotic songs. She gained such popularity that she was able to have paid advertisements on horse-drawn London buses carrying posters that declared her tremendous success.  Many of her songs were written by Arthur West, a friend of Charlie Chaplin. She caught the attention of Tony Pastor from New York, and in 1889 accepted his offer to come and perform in his theatre.  According to the New York Times she was an instant hit “New York Times, 5 Nov 1889, ANOTHER BRITISH ART

IST.Mr. Tony Pastor’s latest acquisition, Miss Bessie Bonehill, direct from London and set down on the play bill as “England’s greatest character and descriptive singer,” was enthusiastically welcomed last night and overwhelmed with floral offerings, after the correct and truly orthodox fashion. Miss Bonehill, besides being lithe and frisky, strident as to voice and nimble as to feet, is evidently a public performer of extended experience. Her command of the stage is something remarkable, and she is as much at home in masculine garb as if to the manner born.”  In 1891 she moved to the US to continue her successful career which lasted till 1901 (when she started to become ill with cancer).  In her ten years living in the United States she carried out a 360 consecutive sell-out performance over a 5 week period with fellow male impersonator Millie Hylton,  starred in the boy role of Christopher in “Little Christopher”, toured the world including South Africa, Ireland, and Berlin, and established the new performance aesthetics for male impersonation in the US becoming one of the most famous and wealthy entertainers of her day.  She died of stomach cancer on August 21, 1902 in the company of her family at their Dear Hill Farm in Sayville, L.I.


  • Just One Of The Boys – Gillian M. Rodger
  • Historical Milestones
    • 1862 – first role as a principal boy (age 7)
    • 1862-1889 – advanced her career from principal boy to well-known male impersonator in London, England becoming known as the first of the Victorian male impersonators
    • 1877 – married first husband Louis Abrahams (had three children)
    • 1889 (November) – came to New York to star in Tony Pastor’s theatre. After first run was re-engaged for regular performances at an increased salary
    • 1890 – married second husband William Smith also known as William Seeley (had one child)
    • 1891 – moved to the US
    • 1895 – starred in the boy role of Christopher in “Little Christopher”
    • 1899 (December) – performed at Empire theatre in Johannesburgh, South Africa
    • 1899-1900 – six week run in Dublin, Ireland then a twenty week run in London, England
    • 1901 – She started a tour in England but fell ill from stomach cancer
    • 1902 (August) – died of stomach cancer at the age of 47




This link has a short essay on Bessie Bonehill by David Soren



Has many old cards of a variety of male impersonators