Julia Marlowe and Madame Brough's Saloon on Front Street

The Boneyfiddle Childhood of a World-Famous Actress and Women's Voting Rights Activist

In December 1888, when Julia Marlowe's star was first rising in the national firmament, the Portsmouth Daily Times published an account of Marlowe's scandalous childhood in the Boneyfiddle District of Portsmouth, Ohio. Her mother, Sarah Brough, "kept a saloon and fast house generally on Front Street.... The bar was in the second story, and was the resort of river roustabouts and tough characters generally. The stairway was narrow and the passage dark, and it was no uncommon thing to hear and read of wild carousing and lawlessness at ‘Madam Brough’s.’”

Indeed, just over ten years earlier, in October 1878, the Times reported "there was a terrible row at Madame Brough's Saloon on Front Street, last Thursday night, and beer glasses flew around in a lively manner. It appears that John McCarthy came in in an intoxicated condition, and began to smash things. The madame was struck in the face with an empty schooner, and her eyes and lips were badly cut with the glass. Dr. Mussey was called in and rendered surgical aid. No arrest, as the young man suddenly made up his mind to visit a friend over in Kentucky. He was afterwards arrested, and upon the request of Madame Brough, officer Keil filed a charge of assault with intent to kill and murder. The case will probably be heard today or Monday."

Stories of Julia Marlowe's childhood take us back to the Gilded Age, when steamboats regularly loaded and unloaded goods on Portsmouth's Ohio River bank landing and the railroads kept commerce flowing overland, expanding the city's access to the national market. The Boneyfiddle was booming, with Front and Second Street, intersected by Market Street, serving as its main arteries. The city had its fair share of saloons and houses of ill-repute, what the Times in the 1880s called "fast houses."

Julia Marlowe, when she lived on Front Street, was known as Sarah Frances (Fanny) Brough. She had been born in the village of Caldack, Cumberlandshire, England in 1868, with her original last name, recorded as Frost. In 1870, John Frost (her father) fled England out of fear of prosecution on an assault charge. Taking his family with him, they first immigrated to a small village near Kanas City, Kansas. At this point, they adopted the maiden name of Fanny's mother, Sarah Brough. From Kansas, the family moved to Ohio, first briefly taking up residence in Ironton, before settling in Portsmouth about the year 1872.

Her father, a shoe worker by trade, struggled with his responsibilities and couldn't hold down a regular job to support his family. At least this is how accounts of her childhood explain her mother's business endeavors as a saloon and brothel keeper in Portsmouth's Boneyfiddle District. Madame Brough, as she was known, would operate a "fast house" on Front Street, which was originally located just west of Jefferson Street on the first alley, which today is the empty lot west of the Scioto County Welcome Center. The Broughs at first lived in the same building as the saloon, but eventually made their private residence on the second floor of 425 Front Street, in what is now recognized as Julia Marlowe's childhood home. This Front Street address, according to newspaper reports, would also serve as the location of her mother's "fast house."

Aware of the scandalous circumstances of the Brough household, the women of All Saints Episcopal Church took a particular interest in the well-being of the Brough children. Fanny would regularly attend the church's Sunday School. As the Times reported in 1888, "the good people of All Saints Church took an interest in the children, took them to Church and Sabbath school, and threw around them every good influence. The heart of the poor mother, too, when she discovered that pure Christian women were taking an interest in her and her children, was melted, and she yielded to the good influences and attended religious services." The Times concluded, "Out of the darkness surrounding her childhood little Julia Brough emerged, a bright and shining theatrical light."

In 1879, after spending seven years of her childhood in Portsmouth, Fanny would move to Cincinnati with her mother, who soon divorced John Brough and remarried, taking John Hess as her second husband. Hess was the proprietor of "the Royal Hotel at the corner of Court and Walnut Streets," which was said to have been frequented by traveling stage performers. According to the only known interview with Fanny's mother, published much later in 1897 in the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, "one day, when Fanny was thirteen, she came running home to her mother, much excited. She had, she said, a chance 'to be an actress and make some money.'"

The chance had been provided by Col. Robert E. J. Miles, a traveling theater company manager, who "was organizing one of the numberless juvenile companies that played Gilbert and Sullivan's Pinafore through the country." Her mother would explain that Miles had "wanted Fanny because she was pretty, to play one of the small parts." At the time, she confessed, "I did not think much the stage, and was strongly opposed to having Fanny undertake anything of the kind, but she persisted, and finally so annoyed me that I partially gave my consent. That was the beginning of it."

The actress Ada Dow, "a sister-in-law of Colonel Miles," took Julia under her tutelage, arranging for acting and singing lessons. In 1882, Fanny was cast as "Balthazar in Miles' production of Romeo and Juliet, marking "her first Shakespearean part." This was followed with the role of Maria in Miles' production of Twelfth Night. At this point, "Fanny Brough disappeared from the stage and was taken to New York by Miss Dow, and there put through a course of training such as few actresses ever undergo." In October 1887, after nearly three years of training, Dow arranged for Fanny's debut as Julia Marlowe at the Bijou Theater in New York City. "She played Parthenia, the heroine of Ingomar, the Barbarian, a potboiler romance set in ancient Greece." The performance, when combined with her reviews, launched her career. Edward A. Dithmar of the New York Times, wrote: "Julia Marlowe: remember her name, for you will hear of her again."

Throughout the remainder of the 1880s and 1890s, Marlowe traveled the nation performing various starring roles. In 1901, she directed and starred in When Knighthood Was in Flower, playing Mary Tudor, the sister of Henry VIII. The success of this production, which toured for two-years across the United States, is what made her a national celebrity. She "went on to establish a well-regarded Shakespearian company with the actor Edward Hugh Sothern, who became her husband in 1911.

Julie Marlowe would go on to become an outspoken supporter of women's rights. In 1909, she secured national headlines when she and other suffragists met in Dobbs Ferry, New York, at the home of Eva Ingersoll Brown, the daughter of Robert Ingersoll, the famous American proponent of "free thought." The New York World reported that Marlowe "is going on the tramp -- or possibly even the street corner -- this winter to help get votes for women. She says she has always been a suffragist, though she never 'spoke out in a meeting' before yesterday." Marlowe explained "I guess I was just born doing it. And this winter I'm going to 'do' it in earnest, make heaps and loads of speeches -- oh, you'll see!"

Marlowe would go on to champion the cause of suffrage and women's rights as a member of the Advisory Council of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, which first listed her as member in 1915. The Union was led by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, and took as its primary goal the passage of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, which upon ratification became the Nineteenth Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote.

"Marlowe retired from the stage in 1916 but made occasional appearances until 1924." Following her husband's death in 1933, she went into seclusion, taking refuge in her apartment in New York City's Plaza Hotel. In 1944, she briefly returned to the public, attending the opening of an exhibition of her costumes and memorabilia at the Museum of the City of New York. She died at her residence in the Plaza Hotel on 12 November 1950.

Garff Wilson, writing in History of American Acting, notes that "in a period when the acting profession often was considered disreputable, especially for women, she insisted on creating a 'high moral influence' through her parts and was part of the trend in which the centrality of personality became a dominant school in American theater."

Julia Marlowe left her mark on the history of the American stage, and her numerous portraits capture her striking beauty, which will not be forgotten. A handful of recordings, made in the 1920s, survive and her voice will now live on for all to hear. Much of childhood in Portsmouth, however, remains largely lost to history. Perhaps out of embarrassment, Julia said little about her time in the city. And considering incidents like the one that left her mother's face scared from a drunken brawl, it is not surprising that she once claimed she had "no pleasant recollections of my childhood, if I can be said to have had any; it was all sordid and hard." She did, however, "except from the generally drab tinge of my recollections ... the woods about Portsmouth."

Marlowe would recall that "the best picture I have is of the woods in the fall. The leaves were brilliantly colored; it must have been the first time I had ever really seen an American fall; and the solemn stillness in the air and the gorgeous tints on the trees seemed to me wonderful. Pawpaws were ripe on the hillsides. I organized an expedition among the girls and we played hookey and went to the woods and gathered bright-colored leaves and picked pawpaws. I was punished for playing hookey, but I remember thinking that the leaves were worth all they cost."


“Rough Sailing," Portsmouth Daily Times (12 October 1878).

"Marlowe, Whose Right Name is Brough," Portsmouth Daily Times (29 December 1888).

"Suffragists At Rally in Home of Robert Ingersoll's Daughter," New York World (18 October 1909).

Forrest Izard, "Julia Marlowe," Heroines of the Modern Stage (Sturgis & Walton Company, 1915): 299-323.

Charles Edward Russell, Julia Marlowe, Her Life and Art (D. Appleton and Company, 1926): 16.

Federal Writers Project, The Ohio Guide (Oxford University Press, New York, 1940): 455.

"Minego's Sport Gossip," Portsmouth Times (26 August 1946): 10.

Charles Harlen Shattuck, Shakespeare on the American Stage: From Booth and Barrett to Sothern and Marlowe (Folger Shakespeare Library, 1976).

Garff B. Wilson, History of American Acting (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1980): 150.

Daniel J. Wakin, The Man with the Sawed-Off Leg and Other Tales of a New York City Block (Arcade Publishing, 2018).