SUMMIT CITY HISTORY NOTES


The search for 'Miss Babe'


By RICHARD BATTIN

Maybe a spring rain coaxed William Wright into the Fort Wayne vaudeville house some 76 years ago.

No one really knows what circumstances brought the Toronto plumber to Fort Wayne in April 1918, or even into which downtown vaudeville house he strolled.

What is certain is that Wright was so taken by a little girl he saw on stage here that he would eventually leave her all his money - $50,000, no small sum in the difficult years following World War I.

The generous inheritance sparked an international search for a little girl the world came to know as "Miss Babe." Before the case was resolved 23 years later, eight women would swear they were the one and only "Miss Babe," entitled to the plumber's fortune. A stubborn cousin and a Toronto church also would join the women in pursuit of the money.

But who was "Miss Babe"? The court fight would end with no clear answer.

William John Wright was unmarried and 45 when he visited the Fort Wayne vaudeville house on April 18, 1918. His widowed mother, with whom he had always lived, had died the year before. It was his first opportunity to get out and see the world on his own.

He might have gone to the Temple burlesque house at the northeast corner of Wayne and Clinton streets that rainy spring evening. Or to the Palace or Lyric theaters, two thriving vaudeville houses. The reports vary.

He saw a little girl, about 5 years old, perform on stage for about three minutes. He returned to Toronto after the performance and never saw the girl again.

But he thought of her, writing three wills that left his money to Miss Babe. A witness to one of the wills said the money was for "Miss Babe, Little Burlesque Girl," that her real name was "Willie Coughlin" and that she sang and danced in "an Indian burlesque." The first two wills - in 1921 and 1922 - said the girl's name was Willie Coughlin, the witness, J.M. McWhinney of Toronto, swore in a deposition.

Detroit attorney Harvey B. Wilds said he had drawn up Wright's first two wills and the little girl was identified as Wallie Coughlin. The last will, in 1925, identified her only as Miss Babe.

Toward the end of his life, Wright was described as a short, stout, florid-faced man with thinning gray hair. He was almost a recluse, his neighbors said. Sometimes he would go away for days at a time. He always had plenty of money, they said, but spent it sparingly. He lived by himself in a nine-room house on Seaton Street in Toronto.

The only sounds ever heard by neighbors were faint strains of a record playing, always "She's My Baby. She's My Beautiful Doll."

By the time he died in January 1938 at the age of 65, he had managed to whittle his $50,000 estate down to $12,521. The Canada Trust Co., executors of the estate, began an international search for Miss Babe, who by that time would have been about 25.

If she was not found within three years, the will stipulated, the money would go to the Sherbourne Methodist Church of Toronto, the church Wright's parents had attended.

The Toronto Daily Star began a crusade to find Miss Babe. At least 27 newspapers across Canada and the United States carried the story, which also ran on a coast-to-coast radio broadcast, the Toronto Globe and Mail reported in 1941.

Initially, eight women stepped forward claiming to be Miss Babe. That number dwindled to three.

Wright's cousin, Charles Barkworth, contested the will, claiming Wright wasn't of sound mind when he wrote it. The church also was interested in the money, although it admitted Wright had never stepped inside its doors.

Fort Wayne apparently first heard of the story after a lawyer representing one of the original eight Miss Babes wrote The News-Sentinel in March 1938, asking for the names of all the vaudeville theaters in Fort Wayne in April 1918.

The Toronto attorney was trying to discover whether a "Miss Babe Rochester" was playing in town at that time. The News-Sentinel answered the letter. There was no "Miss Babe Rochester" listed among any of the vaudeville house ads that ran during April 1918.

The paper received another letter from the attorney that April, asking if all the burlesque houses could also be listed. The only ads the paper ran at the time for live entertainment theaters were for the Lyric, the Palace and the Majestic.

In July 1938, The News-Sentinel received a letter from Mrs. W.R. Chagnon, of Windsor, Canada, a former vaudeville performer who insisted she knew Miss Babe and was trying to help find her.

''In 1918," she wrote the newspaper, "a little theatrical company played your city during the month of April. During their engagement they played a farce-comedy or vaudeville act in which there were Indian characters. A little white girl was kidnapped by the Indians and rescued by Buffalo Bill at the end of the play (either Buffalo Bill or Texas Rangers). That was the plot of the little play and I think the name of the company was 'The Conkling Family' or 'The Conkling Comedy Co.' Manager's name - Will E. Conkling."

Chagnon said the little girl was known as "Miss Babe Hamilton," and that she was living in McKenzie, Tenn. That Miss Babe became one of the original eight claimants to the money, although she was not one of the final three.

Curiously, none of the stories at the time noted the similarity in the manager's name, "Will E. Conkling," and the name of the little girl as identified by the witness to the will: "Willie Coughlin."

The News-Sentinel also received a letter in December 1940 from Morris Lieberman, a Rochester, N.Y., attorney representing Edith Collins Stewart of Ithaca, N.Y. She reportedly had appeared in Fort Wayne as "Baby Edith," and even claimed to have met Mr. Wright after one of her performances here.

''Now Mrs. Stewart is in poor financial condition," the attorney wrote, "and if we could establish her right to the legacy it would certainly be a Godsend to her and her family."

By the spring of 1941, three Miss Babes remained in the running: Stewart; Dorothy Olive Newman, a nightclub singer from New York City; and Dorothy Marguerite Willet of Los Angeles.

Also still seeking a piece of the action was Wright's cousin - Charles Barkworth, now representing four other relatives of the dead plumber - and the Methodist church.

The Toronto court first ruled Wright was of sound mind when he wrote his will. After 3 1/2 days of evidence, Justice J. Keiller McKay concluded, "There is no doubt that the conduct of the testator, William J. Wright, was peculiar and eccentric, but I cannot find from the evidence that this conduct was the result of mental derangement." At this point a remarkable compromise was reached among the remaining contestants, after Barkworth's attorney threatened to take the fight to the Supreme Court of Canada. The extended struggle would have undoubtedly eaten up what was left of Wright's legacy.

Facing that loss, the combatants settled on this unique dispersal:

The Sherbourne Methodist Church would receive 40 percent.

Barkworth and any relatives he represented would receive 12 1/2 percent.

Dorothy Olive Newman, the New York nightclub entertainer, would get 17 1/2 percent plus $200.

Dorothy Marguerite Willet of Los Angeles and Edith Collins Stewart of Ithaca, N.Y., would each receive 15 percent, less $100.

Nothing in the remaining records explains how this unique compromise was reached or how Dorothy Newman proved she was at least 2 1/2 percentage points more Miss Babe than the other two finalists. One attorney estimated court costs would eat up a third of the remaining $12,521. That would leave about $8,264 to split among the claimants.

The church would receive about $3,305; Barkworth and company, $1,033; Dorothy Newman, $1,646; and Willet and Stewart, $1,140 each.

The compromise settlement came on April 3, 1941, a little less than 23 years after Wright first saw, as The News-Sentinel wrote, that "twinkling little star on the worm-eaten stage on that eventful spring evening back in 1918."

--Oct. 7, 1994

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