Miss Berenice Wheeler was an actress in the 1890s. It was her lovely, whimsical outfit that first caught my eye. This style of exaggerated sleeve was referred to as leg-o-mutton, or gigot in France, and it was all the rage at the time.
However, Berenice’s dress brought a much earlier fashion to mind. As you can see in the above comparison, the 1830s balloon style sleeves (on the left) had what I would describe as a softer, more romantic flair than their 1890s counterparts. Close your eyes for a moment and picture our sitter walking down the street in this eye-catching ensemble. I imagine many a head turned, which is exactly the type of attention I suspect a young actress craved.
Born about 1874 in Ridge Farm, Illinois, Miss Berenice Rubottom called Kansas City, Kansas home from the time she was five years old. It was there, at 16, that she tied the knot with the much older Edmund K. Wheeler, a 27-year-old traveling man from Chicago. A couple years later Edmund did a runner and Berenice was granted a divorce in 1895.
It seems most were surprised to learn that Berenice was a divorcee, a fact that she’d hoped would remain private. However, maybe Oscar Wilde was right when he said, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
Although I’m sure her husband’s desertion brought with it many tear filled days and nights, Berenice hadn’t let it get her down for long. She began a career in theatre, even keeping her married name of Wheeler as her stage name. Berenice nabbed roles in Belasco & De Miles The Charity Ball, and productions by Frohman and Stapleton including Americans Abroad, The Wife, and Bachelor’s Honeymoon to name a few.
A new romance blossomed out of a long held friendship and in October 1897 Berenice gave marriage another go. The groom was John B. Coleman, a well-known horse trainer/racer and bookmaker. Newspapers reported Berenice left the stage to settle down, but her retirement was short lived.
Unable to give up the “foot-lights and applause”, in April of 1898 Berenice made her way to New York where she accepted the leading role of Mrs. Smith in the play Why Smith Left Home by George H. Broadhurst.
Tragically, Berenice would never get the chance to continue the profession she loved so much. The 24 year old was one of 549 who lost their lives during the SS La Bourgogne disaster on July 4, 1898.
Berenice, accompanied by a maid, was traveling to Paris to purchase new costumes when the ship collided with another. Even more horrific than the idea of the women having drowned were reports that they may have been murdered as the vessel sank. Survivors described witnessing “the most terrible scenes of horror and cruelty.” Instead of aiding passengers into life rafts, the crew took the boats for themselves. On the deck, the strong overtook the weak, who were beaten and stabbed during the frenzied melee.
What terrors did Berenice and her companion face? For those lucky enough to make it into the water, the violent attacks continued. Passengers who tried to pull themselves into the rafts or cling to the sides were beaten away with oars and hooks. The most telling of the heartless brutality was that none of the children aboard the La Bourgogne lived and only one out of the 300 women passengers survived.
Dorothy Usner, a fellow actress and castmate from Why Smith Left Home, wrote the following poem dedicated to Berenice.
There’s a spot in mid-Atlantic
Marked only by the sea bird’s flight;
Over which the Evening Star
Sheds its soft, effulgent light.
Somewhere ‘neath those cruel waters,
In her unmarked grave she’s sleeping;
May the angels guard in peace,
Thy pure spirit, Berenice.
Well beloved of all who knew thee,
Taken from us without warning.
Countless hearts will mourn thee; gone
To rest in life’s spring morning.
Time can never fade thy image,
Gentle girl; nor fill they place; but
Day by day thy loss increase,
Dear, departed Berenice.
So sad to die, with life so sweet,
Friends, amibition, husband, mother,
All to grieve and feel thy loss
And idolize no other
But thy dear self – decreed by fate
To yield thy body to the sea.
Prayers to heaven shall never cease
For thee – our lost Berenice.
Sleep thee well, nor wake to listen
To the waves that form thy pillow;
Nor to feel thy cold, wet shroud,
Of each suceeding billow.
Till the day of Life Eternal
When the sea shall give up its dead.
Rest thy gentle soul in peace,
Our beloved Berenice.
Two years after Berenice’s death, John Coleman married again. He died at the age of 83 of a heart attack while on a fishing trip. And in case you were wondering what became of Berenice’s first husband, ol’ Edmund “the runner,” he got hitched again in 1902, went on to be the treasurer of the Feature Film Corporation, and passed away in 1916 at the age of 53 years.