More than a century ago, a boy from the coast of Maine became a worldwide trapeze sensation as “Lulu, Queen of the Air,” pretending to be a girl as he soared above vast crowds awed by the beauty and grace on display overhead.

An 1871 poster advertising Lulu’s appearance at the Royal Amphitheatre in Holborn, England.

Lulu first captured the hearts of Europeans — receiving love letters in bulk and marriage proposals from scores of starstruck men — and then returned to the United States to further acclaim.

An advertisement in The New York Clipper in 1873 proudly announced the “first appearance in America of the great sensation gymnast, Lulu. The marvel of the age.”

It was one of the great scams of an era chock full of deceptions that sought to separate the masses from their money.

At age 18, the boy — Samuel Wasgatt — had already traveled a long way from his Mount Desert Island home.

Nobody knew who he really was. Billed as a sort of mysterious princess from an obscure locale, Wasgatt appeared in public only in women’s wear, appearing to nearly everyone as a lovely, exotic young woman.

The notion took hold that Lulu was an orphan — something that remains the standard tale of his origin to this day. Lulu did, however, have a family back in Maine. But truth was never his strong point.

Though Lulu is no longer a household name, his success as a gender-flexible performer long before “RuPaul’s Drag Race” deserves at least a passing mention in the history of popular culture.

That he also wound up taking some of the most important early photographs of southern Africa only adds to his strange story.

LULU’S MENTOR, THE GREAT FARINI

For much of his public life, Wasgatt called himself Lulu Farini.

That alone says something about the influence of the Canadian-born Guillermo Antonio Farini, a stage name flourished by William Leonard Hunt.

The Great Farini and El Nino, about 1869, pictured on an old visiting card.

Seventeen years older than Lulu, Farini had yearned to perform in a circus since boyhood, but he burst into fame when he walked across a rope stretched above Niagara Falls — on stilts.

That led to fame and fortune for Farini. During his travels for circuses and shows, he somehow met Wasgatt, apparently in 1866.

Within a couple of years, they were performing together, with Wasgatt newly dubbed as El Niño Farini, the adopted son of the tightrope walker. They wowed audiences across North America and the United Kingdom with such escapades as the boy balancing on his neck on a high trapeze bar while banging on a drum.

Another time, Farini carried the boy on his back as he flitted across a tightrope 180 feet in the air.

But Farini saw an even bigger opportunity.

In 1870, he unveiled “The Beautiful Lulu, the girl Aerialist and Circassian Catapultist” in Paris, the first appearance by the mysterious young woman he claimed to have discovered.

El Nino Farini The Victoria and Albert Museum

It didn’t take long before Lulu could be seen in many European cities, a young beauty risking life and limb high above the heads of spectators who gladly paid to see her.

It must have been a staggering sight, a seemingly weightless beauty somersaulting through the air, at one point propelled high into the air by a hidden catapult under the stage and a finale that saw her tumbling from on high into a waiting net below. The Philadelphia Telegraph said she “shot up like a bullet from a gun.”

Novelist Lewis Carroll, who wrote “Alice in Wonderland,” headed to the Holborn theater in June 1871 to see the spectacle for himself.

In his diary, Carroll proclaimed the circus “very good” then added, “The acrobatic feats of Lulu were most wonderful of all: her ‘bound’ (where she is shot 25 feet up by machinery) was quite extraordinary.”

A CONTEMPORARY ACCOUNT OF LULU’S ACT

A news account appeared in English papers in 1875 describing Lulu’s appearance with Sanger’s Circus in the resort town of Bath in Somerset.

The anonymous writer reported that he took in the circus because of Lulu, “whose name is in everybody’s mouth.”

“Where all the world goes, I must go,” he noted. “Now all the world – I mean the local world – has this week been tearing towards the Circus in Walcot-street each evening, impelled by the desire to see the ‘eighth wonder of the world.’”

“I had never seen the real and original Lulu before this week, and I was eager to behold the little lady who caused such a sensation in London not long ago by her wonderful athletic performances, the interest in which was increased in no small degree by her reputed graces and charms.

“I make use of the words ‘her’ and ‘feminine’ with a firm conviction that they are quite correctly applied, notwithstanding the report which one has heard so often repeated in Bath this week, that Lulu is not at all feminine, but masculine.

“If she is not ‘she,’ then I don’t know what a woman is at all. I must have grown up with very erroneous ideas respecting the natural distinctions of the sexes.

“If Lulu be not a woman, she bears a very striking resemblance to all the representations by best authorities of our mother Eve as distinguished from the representations of our father Adam.”

Reporters, even then, didn’t get everything right.

Next, the writer proclaimed the house crammed for the circus, with nearly seat filled.

“At an early stage of the entertainment Lulu made her entrance. There is much that is attractive in her personal appearance.

“She was effectively costumed in a rich crimson tunic and pink silk fleshings, her arms and neck being bare. She also wore pretty little shoes of white satin. Small in statue, but of comely proportions, agile as an antelope, with eyes like a gazelle’s, young, and well-featured, Lulu, as she lightly tripped into the arena and made her bow to the audience, created a most favourable impression at once.”

After everyone clapped, “she mounted aloft, and went through a number of feats on the trapeze, a minute description of which would sound odd enough, performed as they were by one of the fair sex.

“The spectators, however, were filled with wonder and delight at the grace, agility, and courage of Lulu.

“Her great feat, however, the one that was so much talked about at the time of her debut, is her vertical leap from the stage to a small platform, swung on ropes, about 30 feet above,” causing people watching to scream, the account said.

LULU’S REAL GENDER RESOLVED

An 1873 advertising card for Lulu in New York City.

Almost from the start, stories and rumors about Lulu’s real sex were apparently common. But people nonetheless went along with the act, suspending any disbelief.

For instance, not long after Lulu began performing at Niblo’s Garden, a renowned Broadway theater, The Daily State Journal in Richmond, Virginia, declared, “It is stated that the pretty Lulu, who does the flying leap at Niblo’s, over whom half the city is crazy, and who is advertised as a girl, is a boy.”

“The gentle youth is said to have remarked the other day,” it reported, that ‘The old man hain’t got more than a year or two of the Lulu business. I’m getting a moustache and ain’t near as pretty as I was, either.’”

Even so, three years later, The Evening Star in Washington, D.C. pointed out that Lulu, whom it tagged as “the champion female trapezist of the world,” had fallen and “dislocated her hip in London.”

“The attending physician discovered that Lulu is a man!” it added.

There were many stories of this ilk at the time, spread over the course of several years, always mentioning an injury and a doctor who found out the truth. There may even be some truth to the tales, but they differ so much in time and place that it’s hard not to attribute them to some sort of public relations shenanigans.

In 1877, The Penny Illustrated Paper in London reported that Lulu was among the throng viewing a caged whale “and the mystery of Lulu’s sex was solved.”

With his long hair and pale features, the paper said, he still resembled “the daring young gymnast” who used to perform on the trapeze “and sing out in a boyish treble, ‘Wait till I’m a man!’”

So the pretty girl flying through the air at the circus hadn’t been trying too hard to maintain the illusion.

In 1875, he quietly married Edith Hunt, Farini’s sister. Two years later, they had a daughter, May Julia Wasgatt Farini.

In any case, the day eventually arrived, sometime in 1878, when Lulu simply couldn’t pass himself as a woman.

He began performing instead as Lu, his hair cut short and his mustache waxed, still soaring in colorful garb but no longer bombarded with offers of marriage.

Even so, reporters remained confused about Wasgatt’s sex. An 1882 account in a Philadelphia paper put quote marks around the “he” it used in a story about him and added it used “the masculine pronoun that Lulu now claims.”

Wasgatt later told the Cardiff Times that during his long career as a woman he “maintained my disguise under all circumstances, even my intimate acquaintances were deceived.”

Once, he said, he served as the bridesmaid at a wedding, “blushing when it was proper and looking demure and sorry just at the right moment.”

Wasgatt kept performing for a few more years, then called it quits about 1883, giving up the bright lights and the big cities to return to Maine.

LULU’S BOYHOOD IN MAINE

It isn’t clear whether Wasgatt was actually an orphan, but it is obvious that he had a large family, including four siblings and many aunts and uncles, when he left the Maine coast at a tender age.

A little sleuthing in the genealogical realm sheds more light on the man than previously published accounts have mentioned.

Fitz Henry Lane’s 1850 painting of Bar Island and the Mt. Desert Mountains in Maine. Cape Ann Museum

Early connections may start with Lycurgus Wasgatt, who became a well-known painter and photographer in Milbridge but who first shows up in the 1850 census on Mount Desert Island as the 3-year-old son of George W. Wasgatt, 34, and Eliza Jane Wasgatt, 29. He had an older sister as well, Francena, age 5.

George had 12 siblings, most of them living nearby, according to research. There were quite a few Wasgatts on the island at the time and had been for at least a couple of generations.

It appears that Eliza Wasgatt died and George remarried soon after, perhaps to a woman named Sarah. They had three children, including a daughter they named Eliza and a son Samuel (Lulu).

What happened to Samuel Wasgatt’s parents isn’t clear, but members of the family remained in the area.

A MORE SINISTER VERSION OF LULU’S LIFE

In 1880, Charles H. Kent of Davenport, Iowa wrote a self-published “Kent’s New Commentary: A Manual for Young Men” that tells a decidedly different story of Lulu’s career.

Kent’s book claims that an uncle of a 9-year-old Wasgatt, by then fatherless, sent him to the Home for Little Wanderers, a historic Boston orphanage that still exists. Shortly after, Kent said, a gentleman adopted him because of his “bright and active appearance.”

Home For Little Wanderers, 1872.

The family heard nothing about Wasgatt again for 14 years, Kent said, until the uncle received a letter from London written by the long lost boy.

The man who took him — Farini — “was a traveling showman,” Kent wrote. “He had trained Samuel for an actor” and treated him “most inhumanly,” whipping the flesh off his arms that left cavities in his skin “that will literally go with him to his grave.”

El Nino Farini about 1870. British Museum

Farini “made him do the most daring of feats, unequaled in the world,” Kent wrote, “flying 150 feet through the air, 50 feet above the stage, where the slightest accident would be instant death.”

Kent said that Farini changed Wasgatt’s name 14 times to cover his identity and “dressed him all the time as a girl.”

For all the intervening years, Kent wrote, the two traveled among the great cities, with Wasgatt “not allowed to communicate with his friends or know anything but his master’s brutal orders.”

“At least he escaped, only to learn he had been held by no contract or obligation” for at least several years, Kent wrote.

Wasgatt then advertised in the New York Herald to try to find his mother, whom he eventually turned up in Iowa, married to a lawyer named Leonard Rice in Kent’s own city on the Mississippi River.

The young performer, still in England, sent his mother $500 to come visit him, Kent said.

Kent said the mother hesitated to go, fearing some mistake, but when she saw him face-to-face, she knew he was her lost son. She wound up spending the winter with him in London, he wrote.

Whether Kent’s tale is true is hard to discern after so many years, but he doesn’t seem to have profited from it or had any particular reason to invent it.

And Rice, born in Massachusetts, apparently married a woman from Maine sometime after 1870. Her name was Susan. Whether she was Wasgatt’s mother, though, is a mystery.

It is telling, though, that Kent appears to be the first person anywhere to connect Lulu with Wasgatt. If he didn’t learn that from Wasgatt’s mother, how did he know?

WASGATT’S RETURN TO MAINE

In the early 1880s, after his circus days came to an end, Wasgatt came to Maine to stay for a long stint with a brother in Milbridge and visited a sister on Vinalhaven.

If Kent’s story is true, it likely followed on the heels of his mother’s journey to London.

Details are scant, however.

Lycurgus Wasgatt’s picture of Milbridge, Maine, in the 1880s. Image courtesy of Special Collections, Raymond H. Fogler Library, [email protected]

The Maine State Year-Book and Legislative Manual for 1884 lists his brother Lycurgus Wasgatt as living in Milbridge and working as a photographer. Some of his pictures have survived, including a stereoscope of his town from about that time.

The Mount Desert Herald reported in February 1884 that the Wasgatt brothers in Milbridge “are getting up some very fine pictures.”

Samuel Wasgatt, it said, “has studied the art of painting and photographing with some of the best artists of Europe,” while his brother “has always followed the business of painting and photographing.”

The two were apparently working with an apparatus from Europe that could transform a tintype photograph into a life-size oil painting.

“They expect to go west in the spring,” the paper said, “where they will open an art studio in one of the leading western cities.”

They may never have gone west, but they did manage to reach Vinalhaven in September 1884, where the two brothers — and their wives — visited their sister. By then, she had married W.I. Pierce.

The Rockland Courier-Gazette noted the brothers’ sojourn on the Maine island, and remarked that Samuel “is the celebrated Lulu, who until within a year or two, astonished circus-goers by his wonderful flight in mid-air and daring acrobatic feats.”

Those days were over, however.

Yet Farini remained a key figure in the famed young man’s life, which is odd if Kent’s tale is true. But Wasgatt’s life had no shortage of oddities.

The Great Farini, left, and Lulu as depicted in their 1886 book about a journey to Africa. Princeton University Rare Books Collection

THROUGH THE KALAHARI

One of the joys of 19th century America is the way people so often reinvented themselves, becoming, almost overnight, something quite different than they had seemed to be before.

For Wasgatt, the change was especially astonishing.

During his time in Maine, he adopted the look of a professor and learned the skills of photography, almost certainly from his talented brother, whose shots of Maine are still used by scholars and antiquarians.

Though Lycurgus Wasgatt died at 43 in Milbridge in 1890, he left behind his pictures and a brother who took photography to a whole new level.

Tagging along with Farini, Wasgatt sailed to southern Africa in 1885 to journey into little-known parts of the continent’s interior to take pictures as part of an exploratory expedition.

“Photograph of Waggons & Riding Oxen, Kalahari,” by Lulu Farini UK National Archives

The journey, detailed in Farini’s book about the Kalahari Desert and beyond, brought to the West reports of unknown landscapes, people and animals. The photographs that Wasgatt took are now in the National Archives of the United Kingdom, cherished shots that capture the time and place.

The book still attracts attention because of its claim that Farini and Wasgatt discovered the ruins of a lost city. It appears what they really found were some especially cool rock formations. But one never knows.

While they were in Africa, they apparently “wanted to get some bushmen to exhibit” back in London, according to a letter in the Bangor Whig from a friend in South Africa. But luckily for the natives, the pair failed in that quest.

It’s not clear what Wasgatt did in later years aside from working in the 1890s as a photographer in Bridgeport, Connecticut. For his Bridgeport studio, in the legendary P.T. Barnum’s hometown, Wasgatt called himself Lulu Farini.

He apparently worked later as a photographer in New York and played a role in the early motion picture business. He died in 1939 in New York at the age of 83.


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