I picked up this cabinet card photograph on Etsy. The fashion and composition drew me in and the identification on the reverse sealed the deal. It reads “Grace Pearce, Grace Darling Pearce, Huntingdon, Huntingdon Co, Pennsa.” And yes, she’s sporting a spider brooch!
Grace, born in 1869 in Pennsylvania, was the youngest of six children. Her father, John Jamison Pearce, was first and foremost a Methodist Episcopal minister, although he also served in Congress from 1855 to 1857.
I believe it was about 1884 when Grace visited the photography studio of James R. Applegate at Vine and 8th Streets in Philadelphia. In 1877, The St. Louis Practical Photographer wrote of Applegate: “The man of millions, who encases 50 portrait faces every minute, we found hard at it, with a bevy of young ladies finishing the same and scores waiting to be set. Here, indeed, no signs of dullness were manifest in this line of business.”
Grace’s experience visiting Applegate’s must have been an exciting one. Imagine the hustle and bustle of the photographers and assistants, the multitudes of sitters dressed in their finest milling about the place, and the all of the studio props and backdrops on display.
It was in 1884 that Applegate, 54 years old, added to his business ventures, opening an amusement pier in Atlantic City that featured the Palace of Flying Animals, a more alluring name for a carousel.
In late 1890, he closed up shop in Atlantic City and moved his Palace of Flying Animals to Vine and Franklin Streets in Philadelphia. It was billed as family fun for all and during the day operated as such, but by night the establishment took on quite a different clientele; it was a circus themed house of prostitution and Applegate was the panderer.
After hoards of complaints to the police, including “brothers interfering on account of their sisters, parents looking for their children, husbands whose wives had been led astray,” Applegate’s was the scene of “the biggest raid ever made in the city.” In January 1892, over two hundred persons were taken into custody, including Applegate, who was charged with “operating a disorderly house” and “soliciting to commit an infamous crime.” Girls recognized as “dissolute characters” were sent to reformatory institutions, such as the House of the Good Shepherd, some to the Philadelphia Hospital, and others to county prison.
In May, before Applegate could face trial, the Palace burned to the ground. With Applegate’s promise not to rebuild, and a plea of guilty, the judge handed him a suspended sentence. It was said the judge’s lenient decision was to spare the girls, most of whom returned to their families, from the shame of testifying at trial and having their identities revealed and reputations ruined.
With his character in shambles and his family relationships strained, Applegate left the studio at 8th Street in the hands of his son, Frank, and made an attempt at a fresh start by opening a studio in New York. This ended in failure and he soon returned to Philadelphia where he operated the photo gallery until about 1904 when records of it disappear from the city directories. His son moved to New Jersey and opened a photo gallery of his own.
I’m unsure what Applegate did after closing the 8th Street studio, but I do know that instead of living out his final years as a millionaire, with security and peace, he was reduced to vagrancy.
Back to Grace, who started us on this journey…Grace’s family moved to Conneaut, Ohio sometime during the early 1890s and she went off to continue her education, studying in Boston, Massachusetts. In January 1894, The Lock Haven Press cited “The people of Lock Haven…have in their midst a noted elocutionist, Miss Grace Pearce…a graduate of the Boston School of Oratory. She has recently added to her reputation by making a decided (sic) “hit” in her reading given before the Century Club, of Philadelphia.”
In July 1895 Grace sailed for Europe on The New York. How I wish I had uncovered details about her adventure!
At the age of 31, Grace married William Ritchey. The record states she was wed once before, a marriage that ended in divorce in 1898 on the grounds of adultery and cruelty. Unfortunately, I found no record of her first husband’s name. Is it possible that the mystery man was someone she met during her European travels?
Grace had no children and died, just 53 years old, after a year-long battle with breast cancer.
I wonder if Grace was a visitor to the Palace of Flying Animals, and if so, what she thought of it. Although there was a lot of seedy goings-on it sounds like it would have been quite an attraction.
Ohio death records
The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (various articles)
The Times, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (various articles)
Showman John Lake Young
Wicked Philadelphia: Sin in the City of Brotherly Love: Chapter ~ The Best Little Whorehouse in Philly, by Thomas H. Keels
Philadelphia History: Vine Street