The Mysterious Death of Fred Stinson

Theatrical companies made regular stops in Calais in the late 1800s

Before the advent of motion pictures, public entertainment was largely provided by local musicians and thespians. The exception was troupes of actors, musicians and comedians who came through town in traveling stock companies. A wooden wall or hoarding near the Calais library provided a space for these companies to advertise their performances. The one above was promoting the play “All A Mistake” to be performed by the Miles Ideal Stock Company, a well-known troupe of the late 1800s.

Pike’s Opera House, corner of Church and Main Streets

Calais was fortunate to have a magnificent venue for these acting companies-Pike’s Opera House at the corner of Main and Church Street.

 Spacious and modern, Pike’s Opera House was one of the best venues on the East Coast

Built after the Great Fire of 1871, the Opera House was state of the art with a large stage, spacious backstage facilities, and ample seating for even the most popular acts, plays and musicals. Calais also had the advantage of being on the route the companies traveled to St. John and Halifax. Calais was a convenient spot to stop for a few days either coming or going, rest the company and supplement the revenue from the tour.

The July 15, 1880, edition of The Calais Advertiser announced a performance of the Ideal Comedy Opera Company, Fred Stinson Manager as follows:

The Ideal Comedy Opera Company is to perform at Pikes Opera House this evening and tomorrow evening is one of the very best performances traveling. They have been playing in Saint John the past week to crowded houses and gave general satisfaction. The press of that city speak of the performances in the highest terms of praise. If half they say of it be true, it must be well worth witnessing. See advertisement in another column.

It should be stated that the glowing recommendation of the Advertiser, while probably correct from an artistic standpoint, was either blissfully unaware of the financial problems of the Ideal Opera Company or chose to ignore them. The manager, Fred Stinson had spent his first night in the St. Croix Valley not in the hotel with his troupe in Calais but in the St. Stephen lockup for stiffing Nova Scotia and New Brunswick merchants and hoteliers. This was not an uncommon occurrence for traveling acting companies. Many were scandalously unprofessional and dishonest, but no such claim could be made about Stinson’s company. It had a national reputation for quality performances and featured one of the stars of the era-Sadie Martinot who Stinson had married a year earlier. Further Stinson was well regarded and even admired by his peers, so it was a great shock both locally and nationally when Fred Stinson apparently committed suicide after the last Calais performance.

Newspaper throughout the country carried the news of Fred Stinson’s death

The cause of Stinson’s death was said to be suicide given the strange circumstances under which he disappeared and a note he left his wife which strongly suggested this was his intention. Then there was a telegram sent from Eastport by an unknown person claiming Stinson had died in that city the day after his disappearance. There was also little question Fred Stinson had good reason to hope his creditors believed him to be dead, but the cause of death could not be determined because there was no body to examine. Even so his obituary was published throughout the country as Downeasters searched for his body. Friends of Stinson who were interviewed were of the opinion he had sent the telegram from Eastport and then committed suicide.

Debate raged for several days Downeast and nationally on whether Fred was dead or alive. One paper claimed the Maine woods were being searched for his body, no small job but a few days after the “suicide” a man whose integrity was not in doubt and who knew Stinson well said he had seen and talked to Stinson in a hotel in Machias.

While the question was still in doubt the Boston Globe summarized the situation in an article on July 21, 1880.

Boston Globe 21 July 1880:


The Disappearance of Manager Fred Stinson.

Not Dead, as at First Reported, but Missing.

A Departure Which May Have Been Caused by an Affected Brain.

The news sent by telegraph yesterday from Eastport, of the death of Fred Stinson caused a feeling of sadness in everyone who had ever been brought in contact, whether by business or friendship with him and there seemed to have been a void left in the immediate surroundings of each one, even though Fred has not been engaged in active business here for some months. The telegram told of the death of a good friend, a pleasant companion, and a thoroughly good businessman who could not well be spared from the seething vortex of business, pleasure and good fellowship, which is all too ill supplied in this selfish world of ours.

One telegram stated that Mr. Stinson dropped dead in the street, having been suddenly stricken down by rheumatism in the heart; another stated that, after an illness of four days, the cold band of death had been laid upon him. Both of these telegrams were false, and the question now is as to who sent them.

It is a fact that Mr. Stinson so far as anyone now knows, did not drop dead in Eastport as was reported by telegraph Monday; nor is he dead so far as can be learned now. In fact, all the circumstances of the case, together with an intimate acquaintance with Mr. Stinson on the part of the writer, tends to the belief that he is now alive. The true facts of the case, as told by Mrs. Stinson and Sir Charles Henry, who enjoyed Mr. Stinson’s confidence, are as follows: The theatrical venture made by Mr. Stinson in Halifax, St. John and Calais, was anything but a pecuniary success. Where he hoped ‘to reap a rich harvest’ he met only with losses, and the result was that after the company had played four nights in Calais, Manager Stinson found himself completely stranded, so far as pecuniary resources were concerned, and with an engagement, likely to prove a paying one, at Rocky Point, R.I.

In order to reach which place would require no small amount of money. For some months past it has been noticed by Mrs. Stinson that her husband acted in a peculiar manner, and before the trip to Halifax was taken she believed that his mind was affected by the reverses which he had met with in this portion of the country, but it had not been made sufficiently apparent to cause her any lasting alarm. Mr. Henry, the business manager of the company, says that he noticed a peculiarity in Mr. Stinson’s manner which he could account for in no other way than that his brain was diseased, and in one or two cases this belief was particularly forced upon him. As has been said before, the theatrical season was a failure, but Mr. Stinson had borne his losses as well, or better, than could have been expected, and after the company had concluded their engagement at Calais no very marked change in Mr. Stinson was noticed.

 On last Sunday the company was at Calais, and an hour or two before dinner Mr. Henry was in Mr. Stinson’s room. Mrs. Stinson and Mr. Henry were amusing themselves with some trifling bit of drawing, and Mr. Stinson was Iying down. After a time, he arose, looked over the shoulders of the two, who were seated at the table, and then walked out of the room without speaking. At the time nothing was thought of his absence by the occupants or Mrs. Eagins, Mrs. Stinson’s mother, who travelled with her daughter, and who always occupied a communicating room.

But when the hours rolled by, and no word was received from the manager by the company they were naturally anxious. The feelings of the wife, who waited for the return of her husband, may be imagined, but may not be even attempted to be described. Night came, and signs of the man of whom no one could think bad was gone from them, perhaps, forever. It was nearly midnight when it was decided by Mrs. Stinson and those more intimately connected with the missing man, to open his satchel, in which his private papers were kept.

This was decided upon not because there was any belief or hope that anything would be learned regarding his sudden departure, but in the almost vain hope that some clue might be found there which would give some idea of the nature of the business that called him away. The surprise of all was great when the first thing seen, after the satchel was opened, was a letter in Mr. Stinson’s handwriting, directed to his wife. The writer there stated, as plainly as words could state, and not mention the fact outright, that it was his intention to commit suicide and yet some portions of it would seem to convey the idea that he had a plan of absenting himself from those he loved  best, without committing the one supreme act which would usher him before his Maker with his own blood to answer for.

The contents of the letter are sacred to Mrs. Stinson and Mr. Henry, to whom the writer directed it should be read, and have not been seen by any other. At that late hour of the it was almost impossible to institute any search for the man over whose fate such a cruel cloud of doubt then hung. But even then Mr. Henry caused search to be made, and that search was continued until the time for the steamer connecting at Eastport for the Boston steamer to leave Calais. Then by sacrificing jewelry to satisfy hotel bills, a portion of the company, including Mrs. Mrs. Stinson and Mr. Henry, left town.

At Eastport Henry caused further search to be made for Mr. Stinson and employed parties to look for him until some trace should be found. No news could be learned in that town of Mr. Stinson nor did anyone there know anything regarding the subject of the dispatches which was sent from there to the press.

Mr. Henry did telegraph to his wife that it was believed that Mr. Stinson was dead, and further than that no member of the company, so far as can now be learned, telegraphed anything regarding it. The question as to who did send the telegrams announcing Mr. Stinson’s death in Eastport still remains to be answered.

Mrs. Stinson, accompanied by her mother, and also by Mr. Henry. who, faithful to the trust reposed in him by his missing friend, remained with the stricken woman, arrived in this city yesterday morning. As can be imagined, the lady is completely prostrated by grief, and is obliged to refuse to see any, save a very few friends, whom she may need in her extremity.

It is the belief of both Mrs. Stinson and Mr. Henry that the unfortunate man has committed suicide; but that, considering all the circumstances, can hardly be possible. Mr. Stinson had been for many years a sailor, serving in the navy for some time, and the manner of his disappearance is exactly in accordance with a plan often stated by Mr. Stinson as a very ready relief from any worldly troubles, and it is the belief of those who knew him best that he has taken passage or engaged as sailor on some outward-bound vessel, and within the next few days it may be possible to show this as a fact. Whether it will be possible for Mrs. Stinson to fill the engagement made for her at Rocky Point can only be determined by her physical condition later, and the future of the company is all undecided.

 On the same day the above article was published the Chicago Tribune reported that the theatrical community of Boston had met the Eastport to Boston steamship on the 20th to receive Stinson’s body, but the body was not on the boat. In fact, the body, quite alive, had removed itself to Cutler after being recognized in Machias and assumed the name Joe Bradford. Stinson eventually wrote to the friends from Cutler “but does not explain why he is in the place from which he writes, nor what he intends to do, but devotes space not given to the explanation of his alias to a farrago of comments on theatrical people, and the products and characteristics of the coast of Downeast Maine.”

Whether Stinson would have reappeared had he not been recognized in Machias is questionable. He may well have been planning to ship out to the Far East. Discovered, he returned to Boston and his career as a manager of theatrical performances.

In the end there was almost no condemnation of his actions except from our neighbors across the border who suffered most from his financial transgressions. On August 4th the Halifax Herald in a scathing editorial said in part:

We have only this to say by way of comment, that any man who abandons his company in straits of this kind is a coward and a knave. The only reparation, indeed, that a manager can make to a company to whom he does not pay salaries, is to stick by them in distress. On the whole therefore we are rather sorry the report about Mr. Stinson is not true, the death of such men is a blessing to the profession at large.

The American papers were more forgiving. Within two months the Boston Globe was reporting that “Fred Stinson has been piloting Fun on the Bristol through the country in the interests of Thayer, Smith and Moulton” and after that would return for a New England tour on behalf of the Jarrett and Rice Company. His marriage to Sadie Martinot, however, did not prosper. Within a few months an altercation on Washington Street in Boston between Stinson and Sadie’s mother made the headlines. Stinson made an unseemly comment about Sadie to her mother which resulted in a stinging slap to Stinson’s face. He responded by striking his mother-in-law with his cane whereupon a bystander handed his cane to the feisty lady who proceeded to attack Stinson. Stinson reported the assault to the police who were not interested in prosecuting. The marriage ended and within a year Stinson had remarried. He died in 1895 at 47 years of age-still much admired and loved in the Boston theatrical community.

Sadie lived until 1923. She became a star and was described in the San Francisco Examiner in 1921 as “Sadie Martinot, once the toast of New York! Sadie Martinot, once the idol of Paris and London! Sadie Martinot, once called by the great artists the most exquisite of American women!” She acquired great wealth which she squandered and ended her life in an asylum.  Her obituaries do not mention her marriage to Fred Stinson. She probably never forgave him for being forced to sell her jewels to pay the hotel bill in Calais in 1880.

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