Pearl Hobson: From Roanoke to the Russian Revolution

I have no idea how I first learned about Pearl Hobson (1879-1919) but I’m glad I did, for her journey is a fascinating ride, as though you had plunked Josephine Baker down in the middle of Dr. Zhivago.

A person of color (with likely white paternity), Hobson was raised by a single mother in Bedford County, Virginia, and later Roanoke. Her mother worked as a domestic, as did Pearl initially but by 1901 she was in New York as a member of the all-black chorus billed as The Fencing Musketeers a.k.a. The Fencing Octoroons headed by Jennie Scheper of Walker and Williams’ Sons of Ham company. Formed by French actress Nina Diva, the cakewalking cuties played cities in Germany, Denmark and Austria-Hungary before they mutinied over a salary dispute. With new management they renamed themselves the Florida Creole Girls, playing dates in the UK, France, Austria-Hungary, and finally Imperial Russia. The original compliment of 11 girls was now down to a quartet. They played dates in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Riga, alongside fellow Americans like Harry Houdini and the Manhattan Quartette before finally disbanding.

Hobson now became a singing, dancing solo act in the music halls and cabaret of the Russian Empire (including extended periods in the Ukrainian resort of Odessa) during its tumultuous last years. At one point she was billed as a “Mulatto Sharpshooter”. As a person with origins in America’s black underclass, it would be tempting to think Hobson took part in the Revolutionary events like the Reeds in Reds, or that she would endorse the developments in the manner of later figures like Paul Robeson or the Black Panthers, but her situation and inclination was quite the opposite. She became one of the lovers of Count Alexander Shemeretev, aide-de-campe to the Tsar, moved in high society and amassed her own personal wealth, including a coterie of servants. It speaks volumes, I think, that after the Revolution finally succeeded in 1917, Hobson did not return to the U.S., where she would have gone back to being a second class citizen, but to Finland, which was only just then breaking away from the Russian Empire as an independent state. She died there in 1919, either from Typhus or Spanish Flu (which was then still raging in a global pandemic).

For much more info on this fascinating life I heartily recommend Dulcé Bartira’s thoroughly researched article (as well as her website Black Jazz Artists overall, wherein she treats of many similar performers). It may be found here.

For more on vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous