Stage Name // Legal/Birth Name
Ella Wesner, The Captain // Ella Wesner
Spouse – Helen Josephine (Josie) Mansfield (1847-1931)
Country of Origin
Ballet Dancer, Male Impersonator
Day Birth – Day Death
May 29, 1841 – November 10, 1917
(Buried at The Evergreens Cemetery, Brooklyn, Kings County, NY)
Ella Wesner was from a family of ballet dancers and began her career in children’s ballet corps in Philadelphia. Before she was thirty, and prior to her career as a male impersonator, she was a ballet dancer in regional stock companies in Galveston Texas. In 1869 working as a dresser at the John Stetson Show she met male impersonator Annie Hindle. During the summer of 1870 Tony Pastor billed Ella Wesner as a male impersonator at his New York Theatre. She got herself an agent and regular gigs in New York and with touring companies that took her across America. She toured England from 1876 to 1880 performing at Oxford, the Cambridge, and at the Sun Music Halls in London, and was noted as ‘The New York Beau’ and ‘American Male Impersonator’. In 1880 she returned to the US where she continued her career touring with Tony Pastor, being a regular at Koster and Bial’s and at Harry Miner’s in New York, and creating her own touring show “Captain of the Queen’s Own”. The New York Dramatic Mirror credits her with helping Vesta Tilley; and, she mentored her niece Maggie Weston in the artform. She asked to be buried in her male costume.
Ella Wesner was part of a family of dancers and actors. She attained a twenty year career in ballet in regional stock companies in Galveston Texas, and was said to support her mother and four sisters on her salaries. She was introduced to male impersonation by Annie Hindle (who is known to be the first male impersonator in the US) while working as her dresser at the John Stetson Show. It is said that Annie Hindle gave her performance tips as well as songs to help launch Ella’s career. However, there is no record of them being billed or touring together, and when Ella hired Annie Hindle’s agent T. Allston Brown in 1871, Annie turned around and hired Harry Cunningham.
July 1870 Tony Pastor books Ella Wesner as a male impersonator in his New York theatre. She is an instant sensation. Her dancing and acting gave her the abilities for quick and multiple character changes. ‘She depicted a fairly broad range of male characters, from young to mature men as well as working; middle; and upper-class men.’ ‘Portrayed a different male character, and between songs the actress changed her costume in the wings’ (pg 38). Some of her characters were the ‘Swell’, the “Dude”, and the “Captain”. In 1872 she joined Tony Pastor’s summer tour in the northeastern States where she met Helen Josephine (“Josie”) Mansfield. Josie was the notorious mistress of Jim Fisk and Edward Stokes. After Edward Stokes shot Jim Fisk, Josie took off with Ella Wesner to Paris where they presided over a salon at the Café Américan for less than six months. Ella Wesner returned to the US in 1873 without Josie and started right back into her career performing at the Theatre Comique with manager Josh Hart that March. With or without her, the finalgravesite website notes that Josie was Ella’s spouse.
‘June 1876, Ella Wesner arrives in England with first bookings at Oxford, the Cambridge, and the Sun Music Halls in London.’ ‘She was noted in the newspaper as ‘The New York Beau’ (pg 90). From the ages of 35-39 Ella performed in England learning the styles of the English male impersonators who had already established the artform. ‘Reviewers who wrote for the London Era treated her as being in a class of her own and distinctly different from the other women who performed as male impersonators.’ (pg 107). ‘She even got treated by English reviewers as though she were a male performer. Billed “the idol of New York” “American Male Impersonator”.’ (pg 109). When she came back to the US in 1880 she brought her English ‘swell’ with her and got to perform at the National Theatre in Philadelphia. Immediately after she joined Tony Pastor’s tour and toured with him till 1881. ‘In 1882 she joined William Davene’s Colossal Allied Attraction and toured widely through the Northeast and Midwest of the USA.’ (pg 133), and then returned to New York in 1883 to perform at Harry Miner’s and at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall. In 1885 she performed an older character called “The Captain” and started making money singing for “Little Beauties Cigarette company” and for singing for champagne companies. By October 1885 ‘she started her own company/show called “Captain of the Queen’s Own” written by Laura LeClair Phillips and opened at Tony Pastor’s Theatre. It was a hit and noted such in the New York World and The Clipper.’ (pg 136). After being in New York for two weeks her show toured Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, St.Louis, Kentucky, and Indianapolis, but ended with a bad review there and the show disbanded. She returned to New York and performed regularly until the early 1890’s when her career started to decline.
On top of her successful 38 year career as a male impersonator both in the US and in the UK, Ella Wesner also mentored her niece Maggie Weston in male impersonation ‘who moved from variety into melodrama, and after having spent much of the 1880’s performing in male impersonation, Maggie transitioned into comedy and ended her career as a supporting player in the emerging movie industry in the early twentieth century’ (pg 12). Ella Wesner has also been noted by the New York Dramatic Mirror as helping Vesta Tilley debut as a male impersonator. And, Ella Shields noted in an interview that she felt honoured when she was compared to Ella Wesner, due to her strong depiction of male characters.
She passed away November 1917 requesting to be buried in her male costume.
- Just One Of The Boys – Gillian M. Rodger
- 1869 – meets Annie Hindle at the John Stetson Show
- 1870 (July) – is booked by Tony Pastor to perform in his New York theatre
- 1871 – hires agent T. Allston Brown
- 1871 – 1872 – tours with Tony Pastor in the Northeastern States
- 1872 – takes off to Paris with Josie Mansfield
- 1873 (March) – returns to the US without Josie and begins performing full-time and touring across America
- 1876-1880 – tours England
- 1880 – returns to the US and is first booked with Tony Pastor
- 1880 (October) – performs at the National Theatre in Philadelphia where she performed her English “swell”.
- 1880-1881 – tours again with Tony Pastor
- 1881 (February) – does a pantomime “Humpty Dumpty” at The Howard Athenaeum in Boston
- 1882-1883 – tours with William Davene’s Colossal Allied Attraction through the Northeast and Midwest, and when in NY at Harry Miner’s, Koster and Bial’s, or Tony Pastor’s
- 1885 – debuts “The Captain”
- 1885 (October) – produces “Captain of the Queen’s Own” and tours it till 1886
- 1886 – enters into burlesque and takes a female role in Offenbach’s Princess of Trebizond in the role of Paola
- 1890’s – 1908 – performs regularly but career is starting to end. Though ‘the mid-1870’s male impersonation was a specialty dominated by older women’ (pg 58) by the 1890’s Ella was in her 50’s and younger competition was on the rise.
- 1917 (November) – passes requesting to be buried in her male costume
From Just One Of The Boys
From the book “The Changing Room: Sex, Drag and Theatre” by Laurence Senelick
It’s only an excerpt but also talks about Bessie Bonehill, Annie Hindle, and Vesta Tilley.
The link below is mostly photos and posters of male impersonators from the 1800’s