Irish-American dance prodigy John “Jack” Diamond (1823-1857) was a phenomenon of the blackface minstrelsy** era. At age 17 Diamond won a citywide jig contest, and P.T. Barnum booked him for a whirlwind tour of the U.S. and Europe, reducing the boy’s age to 12 in advertisements. Diamond excelled at a wide spectrum of vigorous dance styles, borrowing from African American, Irish, and English folk dances. Sometimes Diamond would perform solo, or sometimes paired with a partner, most famously Billy Whitlock, “The King of Banjo Players.”
After a year, Barnum fired Diamond for drinking, whoring, belligerence, and being overdrawn on his wages. But Diamond did just fine. He danced with Whitlock’s Virginia Minstrels when they launched in 1843, then later, the Old Dominion Circus, the Olympic Circus, and the Ethiopian Serenaders. In these shows, like most minstrels Diamond sang and did humorous patter in addition to his celebrated dances. He also earned extra dough in competitions. Machismo was an integral part of this culture of dancing. It was very much like boxing. Ads were placed challenging the public to take on the champ, and the audience would vote on who came off the best. Diamond was considered the master among the white dancers, however he seldom won against his chief competitor Master Juba (William Henry Lane), an African American.
The circumstances of Diamond’s early death at age 34 are not known, but given his wild lifestyle, any number of unpleasant possibilities spring to mind. He did, however, outlive Master Juba by five years.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.