Monday, March 18, 2013

Alfred E. Neuman in Drag - Willis Searle Looks like a Girl

As I noted in my first post, Willis Searle is one of the original Alfred E. Neumans.  He was the first actor to play the role of Archibald Rennick in The New Boy in the United States.  The image of Archibald Rennick on the advertising poster for The New Boy is the original Alfred E. Neuman-like image.  

Willis Searle was also the punch line in a poem about a cross-dressing soldier before his debut in The New Boy.


We were on picket, sir, he and I,
Under the blue of a midnight sky,
In the wilderness, where the night bird's song
Gives back an echo all night long;
Where the silver stars as they come and pass,
Leave stars of dew on the tangled grass,
And the rivers sing in the silent hours
Their sweetest songs to the list'ning flowers.

He'd a slender form and a girlish face,
That seemed in the army out of place,
Though he smiled as I told him to that day -
Aye, smiled and flushed in a girlish way
That 'minded me of a face I knew
In a distant village; 'neath the blue,
When our armies marched, at the meadow bars
She met and kissed me 'neath the stars.

Before us the river silent ran,
  And we'd been placed to guard the ford,
A dangerous place, and we'd jump and start
  Whenever a leaf by the wind was stirred.
Behind us the army lay encamped,
  Their camp-fires burned into the night
Like bonfires built upon the hills,
  And set by demon hands alight.

Somehow, whenever I looked that way,
  I seemed to see her face again,
Kind o' hazy like, as you've seen a star
 A peepin' out through a misty rain;
And once, believe, as I thought of her,
  I thought aloud, and called him Bess,
When he started quick, and smiling said,
  "You dream of some one at home, I guess."

'Twas just in the flush of morning light,
  We stopped for a chat at the end of our beat,
When a rifle flashed at the river's bank,
  And bathed in blood he sank at my feet;
All of a sudden I knew her then,
  And, kneeling, I kissed the girlish face,
And raised her head from the tangled grass,
  To find on my breast its resting place.

When the Corporal came to change the-guard,
  At six in the morning, he found me there
With Bessie's dead form clasped in my arms,
  And hid in my heart her dying prayer.
They buried her under the moaning pines,
  And never a man in the army knew
That Willie Searles and my girl were one.
  You're the first l've told – the story's new.

The poem was disguised as a romantic ode to a soldier’s sweetheart, Bessie.  It tells of a soldier on late night guard duty.  It recounts in sweet, tender, loving detail how his partner on guard duty reminds him of his hometown sweetheart, Bessie; his slender figure and a girlish face seem so out of place in the army.  Only after the partner is tragically shot and killed by a sniper in the middle of the night does he realize that his buddy, “Willie Searles,” actually IS his sweetheart from back home.

The poem appeared in the National Tribune on September 18, 1894.  The National Tribune was a newspaper that specialized in news and information for members of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) and its women’s auxiliary, the Relief Corps.  The GAR was a fraternal organization for Union Army veterans of the Civil War.   The poem appeared, specifically, in the section of news related to the Relief Corps.

The poem was reportedly reprinted from another newspaper, but the source and the author are not named.  The poem was provided by Kate B. Sherwood and Emma D. Sibley, the President and National Secretary of the Relief Corps, respectively, in a bundle of news items dated September 8, 1894.  They present the poem as a “beautiful story, sweetly told.”  They appear to have been oblivious to the underlying humor.

It is likely that most of their readers were also oblivious to the cross-dressing reference to ‘Willie Searles.’  Willis Searle was an Englishman who was brought to America to play the role of Archibald Rennick in The New Boy.  The New Boy premiered in New York on September 17, 1894, one day before this poem was published in The National Tribune, but nearly two weeks after the date on which the President of the Relief Corps sent the poem to the newspaper.

It is therefore likely that most of the readers were unfamiliar with Willis Searle and his background as the cross-dressing star of Charley’s Aunt on the South African stage.  The role of Charley’s aunt is a cross-dressing role.  Charley’s college chum poses as his rich aunt from Brazil who is in town for a visit.  Although Searle would later tour the United States in a production of Charley’s Aunt, he does not seem to have performed that role in America before the poem was reprinted in The National Tribune.

Charley’s Aunt premiered in London in 1893.  Willis Searle’s performances in the role in South African would therefore have taken place sometime during 1893-94.  Coincidentally, or not so coincidentally, the British South Africa Company was fighting the First Matabele War against the Ndbele (Matabele) Kingdom during 1893-94.  The original source of the poem may well have been a British soldier serving in South Africa during that period.

I do not know how many English-language stage productions were available to entertain soldiers on leave or liberty in South Africa in 1893-94, but it seems likely that British soldiers in South African may well have appreciated the humor in the poem’s penultimate line,

“Willie Searles and my girl were one.”

The humor of the line was probably lost on the President and Secretary of the Relief Corps of the GAR in September, 1894.

Due to poor reviews, Willis Searle was fired from The New Boy within weeks of his debut and was immediately sent out on a national tour of Charley’s Aunt.  Assuming for the moment Willis Searle was the original Alfred E. Neuman, Alfred E. Neuman would not appear in drag again until his appearance as Tootsie on the July 1983 issue. 

Of course it is also possible that The New Boy poster image was based on Weedon Grossmith, who originated the role in London, or James T. Powers, who popularized the role in the United States, or Bert Coote, who toured throughout the United States and Canada in the role for years.  It is also possible that Alfred E. Neuman’s face was altered from the original; James T. Powers, for example, bears a greater resemblance to Alfred E. Neuman than he does to the original The New Boy poster.  For the whole story, see my original post, The Real Alfred E.

For his part, Willis Searle was back in England by July 1895.  According to William Archer, The Theatrical ‘World’ 1895, Searle performed two roles at the Avenue theatre in London in 1895, The Private Secretary (September) and Mrs. Ponderbury’s Past (November), before falling off the radar.


  1. Perception is strange.
    You refer to the humor in the poem’s penultimate line, whereas I perceive this as the revelation of a soldier's personal tragedy.
    Fascinating story, nonetheless.

    1. Willie Searles was an actor famous for the cross-dressing role in Charlie's Aunt - he was very much alive and not dead. It's funny if you know the context. It's sad if you don't.