The reflection staring back at ballerina Giuseppina Morlacchi showed a tired, dark-haired woman with bloodshot eyes and a pale face. She had been up most of the night memorizing her lines for a melodrama she was to appear in entitled The Scouts of the Prairie.
The unique Western show would premiere at a massive amphitheater in downtown Chicago and entertain thousands of spectators. It was December 1872, and all those who hadn’t answered the call to go west were to see a program depicting the wild beyond the Rockies.
Giuseppina stared out the window of her hotel room and watched a light snow gently drift down and blanket the street. A frigid wind blew through the cracks around the windowsill and she pulled her paisley shawl tight around her arms and returned to her script.
Dime novelist and entrepreneur Ned Buntline had handed Giuseppina a copy of the three-act Western a mere five hours ago. It was now 3:30 A.M. and rehearsals were to being promptly at 9 A.M.
The petite dancer was to play an Indian princess named Dove Eye. Although she was billed as a featured attraction, the true stars of the show were the famous frontier scouts Buffalo Bill Cody and Texas Jack Omohundro. Buntline had convinced the pair to join his theatrical company and play themselves on stage.
“There’s money in it,” he assured them.
Looking up from her lines Giuseppina heard a pair of voices emanating from down the hall.
“I’m never going to be able to learn all of these,” she heard Cody insists.
“You’ll be fine,” Buntline assured him. “Just don’t memorize the cues – you don’t have to say those.”
“Cues be damned,” Cody answered back. “I never heard of anything but a billiard cue.”
Giuseppina smiled to herself and returned to her lines, confident that she was up to the task even if her costars weren’t.
Giuseppina (Josphine) Morlacci was born in Milan, Italy, in 1846. Her parents, Anthony and Mary, enrolled their only daughter in dance school when she was six years old. After studying ballet for more than six years, the graceful, dark-eyed beauty toured Europe performing with premier ballet companies.
In 1867 Giuseppina traveled to America to join the De Pol Parisian Ballet. Her remarkable debut in the ballet The Devil’s Auction that same year made her an international star. She was not only admired by patrons of the arts but her peers. Theater orchestras appeared under her hotel suite window and serenaded the charming premier danseuse with Strauss waltzes and operatic melodies.
Giuseppina’s manager quickly capitalized on his client’s fame and further heightened her popularity by insuring her talented legs for $100,000. Newspaper articles proclaimed that the “dancer Morlacchi was more valuable than Kentucky,” one of the finest racehorses of the day. Within three months after arrival in New York, Giuseppina was the most sought-after dancer in the United States.
On January 6, 1868, the introduction of a new dance further endeared Giuseppina to ballet patrons. American audiences had never before witnessed the “grand gallop can-can.” The sheer enthusiasm of the dance and Giuseppina’s interpretation left them breathless. The effects of the high-stepping ballet would be felt for centuries to come.
From the fall of 1867 to the winter of 1872, Giuseppina traveled the United States dancing in some of the finest venues. The programs presented by the Morlacchi Ballet Troupe that Giuseppina had formed were attended by politicians, dignitaries, and even the Grand Duke of Russia. According to historical documents at the University of Massachusetts, fame never adversely affected the ballerina’s personality. She was well grounded and kind, never demanding or arrogant, and was a shrewd businesswoman. Her onstage persona was vibrant and unreserved; offstage she was quiet and shy. It was the dichotomy that made her public adored her.
Ned Buntline was among Giuseppina’s fans. After he made the decision to launch the world-renowned Buffalo Bill Cody on a theatrical career he set about to round up actors for a Wild West show. Knowing Giuseppina was a popular attraction he sought the ballerina out to try to persuade her to join his company. He knew her consent to star in the yet unwritten drama would guarantee an audience. Giuseppina listened intently to Ned’s elaborate and ambitious plans for a western type of drama. The young ballerina could foresee the possibilities in such a show and agreed to appear in the opening performance.
Giuseppina met the famous costars of The Scouts of the Prairie at the first rehearsal for the production. The initial run-through of the play was a rocky one. The buckskin-clad Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill were nervous and awkward, leaving Giuseppina with the impression that they would have been more “comfortable in the midst of a band of charging Indians.” After three weeks of grueling rehearsals, the show’s discouraged acting coach asked Giuseppina to help tutor Jack on the fine points of acting.
The rugged scout and the dainty ballerina were instantly smitten, and what began as a student-mentor relationship quickly became a romance.
The curtain went up on the opening performance of The Scouts of the Prairie at the Nixon Theater at 2:00 P.M. The house was filled to capacity, and every woman in attendance received a portrait of Ned Buntline, Texas Jack, and Buffalo Bill posing together. The audience loved the program. According to the Chicago Tribune, the highlight event was the “specialty dancing acts by the beautiful and graceful Giuseppina Morlacchi.” The newspaper summed up her part as that “of a lovely Indian maiden with an Italian accent and a weakness for handsome scouts.”
Buntline’s company traveled the states and during the time on the road Giuseppina and Jack spent many hours together. At the close of the first tour of the show, Jack professed his love to Giuseppina and asked for her hand in marriage. She happily accepted and the pair was wed in August of 1873.
Giuseppina and Jack stayed with Cody’s show until 1877 when they started their own program. They purchased a home in Italy and one in Leadville, Colorado. During their stay at their spacious home in Leadville, Colorado, Jack became sick with pneumonia. Giuseppina, along with Leadville physicians, tried in vain to nurse the vigorous scout back to health. On June 28, 1880, Texas Jack passed away. Giuseppina’s grief was overwhelming and after hours of crying she fainted. She never fully recovered from her husband’s sudden death. The ballerina retired from the stage and spent much of her time at her summer home in Massachusetts.
Giuseppina died of cancer six years after Jack passed away. She was remembered as a wonderful friend, wife, and the amazing star of The Scouts of the Prairie.
Chris Enss is the COWGIRL Book Editor, and a New York Times Bestselling author who writes about women of the Old West. For more stories about these wild women, visit www.chrisenss.com for more information on her books.