Today is April 14, a date noted in history for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the sinking of the Titanic. Not that Oscar Wilde had much to do with either event, although he once met the former President’s widow, Mary Lincoln, when she was living in retirement in New York City; and two of his friends died in the Titanic disaster.
But April 14 is also the 161st anniversary of the opening of the short-lived but historic Pony Express, and this, surprisingly, does give me an opportunity to talk a little about Oscar Wilde.
There is a British pop song from 1970 by the American vocal soul group Johnny Johnson and the Bandwagon called “(Blame It) On The Pony Express“—and it is how people of my vintage may have first learned the termini of the titular mail service: as the song tells us, “It’s such a long way from St. Joe to Sacramento.” 1600 miles, in fact, which is a long way especially by rickety old train, as Oscar Wilde could have told you because he lectured in both places.
St. Joe is the familiar name for St. Joseph, Missouri, and when Oscar was here on his lecture tour of 1882, not only was it in the anniversary month of the Pony Express, but he also he stayed at the very hotel that served as the eastern terminus of the service. Wilde’s lodging was The World’s Hotel, and it was in front of this building that the cannon inaugurating the opening of the Pony Express was fired back on April 3, 1860.
In those days The World’s Hotel was known as The Patee Hotel, which explains why the building is now the Patee House Museum, fittingly devoted to a history of communications and transportation. In the museum’s Blue Room there is the George Warfel Westerners on Wood art—a collection that features more than 40 life-sized portraits of famous westerners including Jesse James, who was shot dead in St. Joseph two weeks before Wilde’s lecture.
In the aftermath of the Jesse James shooting Wilde wrote to Norman Forbes Robertson from The World’s Hotel ironically pointing out that in the auction of the western hero’s effects, the asking price of his door knocker was equivalent to the income of an English bishop. I’m not sure why this symmetry occurred to Wilde, because, as he explained, “Americans…always take their heroes from the criminal classes.” (Complete Letters, 164)
It was also from The World’s Hotel that Wilde wrote to the mysterious “Hattie” expressing his love for her agate eyes and tigress qualities. And if you think it was Bosie-induced London that first brought to Wilde’s mind panthers and rose colored lips then you don’t know Hattie. (Complete Letters, 165)
For more on the identity of “Hattie” see Sturgis, p. 246-7—but if she was who Sturgis says she was, then, serendipitously, Hattie was a girl Wilde knew from Sacramento, the city at the other end of the Pony Express. Of course, Wilde’s letter would not have traveled to her on horseback: the service having lasted for a mere 16 months before being peremptorily rendered obsolete by the transcontinental telegraph.
Until quite recently St. Joseph was also noteworthy for being one of the very few places on Wilde’s lecture tour, where his hotel and his lecture hall are both extant structures. The hotel we already know. As for the lecture hall, it was the wonderfully named Tootles Opera House and surely Milton Tootle would have had it no other way.
© John Cooper, 2021