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The Boers Come To Brooklyn

May 2024
4min read

At a place called Paardeberg on the Modder River in the Orange Free State, General Piet Cronjé was in trouble. The sixty-year-old Boer farmer had fought fiercely and well against the British; now he was one of the most famous military figures in the world, but time had run out for him. His five thousand weary burghers were outnumbered five to one and hemmed in by British artillery. On February 27, 1900, after a ten-day siege, General Cronjé surrendered to Lord Roberts. In time the war petered out, but Cronje’s career was not over. A few summers later the old Boer was relighting his battles twice a day in a huge amphitheatre, to the great enthusiasm of American audiences.

The inspiration of this curious spectacle was Captain Alfred W. Lewis, a Canadian scout who had served with the British during the war. Lewis knew that America had been fascinated by the distant struggle, and now that the St. Louis World’s Fair was coming up, he had an idea. He approached a group of St. Louis businessmen, among them C. W., Wall, the head of America’s largest wholesale-drug business, and convinced them that with their backing he could go to South Africa, recruit a number of veterans, bring them over here, and set up a Boer War show at the fair.

Lewis had no trouble raising his paramilitary force. British veterans were delighted to go to America, see the fair, and run no risk of getting shot, all at their regular soldier’s pay of five shillings a day. Many of the defeated Boers had time on their hands and joined up. In his greatest coup Lewis got Cronjé to join the troupe. Then he found that his backers had not come through, and he was out of money. He must have been an extremely persuasive man, for he talked the captain of the ship he had chartered into carrying his seven hundred sometime soldiers across the Atlantic on credit. When they reached America, the backers bailed them out, and Lewis set up shop on one of the seven hills that ringed the fairgrounds.

The show was a success from the start. Its only serious rival was the Philippine exhibit, but once the Filipino natives were forbidden to roast dogs alive and eat them, interest waned and the war was the hit of the fair.

It did so well that William Aloysius Brady began to notice it. Brady was a New York showman, and one of the best. He could handle anything from legitimate dramas to prize fights (he had managed Jim Corbett in his momentous battle with John L. Sullivan). It was Orlando Harriman—the brother of E. H. Harriman—who first brought the Boer War show to Brady’s attention. Harriman had an option on some swampland between the Brighton Beach Hotel and the Manhattan Beach Hotel on Coney Island, the most famous amusement resort in America. He approached Brady and asked his help in securing the rights to the Boer War at the closing of the fair. Through a marvellously complicated combination of financial juggling and near-swindle, Brady got title to the land without putting down a dollar. Then he went west to buy the war.

He ran into trouble. C. W. Wall, the drug magnate, had so enjoyed being part of a theatrical enterprise that.he had decided to retain rights to the show and take it on tour once the fair shut down.

Wall held on all through the fall and winter of 1904, taking the troupe through the South, playing to apathetic audiences while the soldiers fretted and grumbled ahout their poor food and nonexistent pay. At last he ran out of money and enthusiasm in a southern tank town and conceded defeat. Brady immediately wired funds to bring the soldiers to Coney Island and started construction on the newly filled-in swampland. A thousand men sawed and hammered in the winter weather, building a grandstand to seat twelve thousand people that faced a fourteen-acre battlefield. Fifty-eight artists painted hundreds of yards of canvas, while metalsmiths built huge zinc basins that, pumped full of water, would represent the Modder River.

The soldiers got there in early spring. Through the ancient prerogatives of rank, the officers arrived in Pullman cars, but their men had ridden straight up from the South in boxcars, living in rows of hammocks, twenty to a car. “They were,” said Brady, “the sorriest-looking crew in Christendom … chilly, starved, dirty, dismal—and fighting mad.” Lewis had set up a neat military camp for them, and they were able to bathe in the ocean. But the weather was still wintry; darkness came down early, a storm blew in from the sea, and the wide, empty streets flanked by the gaunt and fantastic amusement parks depressed the men. It was never hard to get drunk on Coney, though, and soon the troops found a tiny bar open at the Brighton Beach Inn; the first few days were a nightmare for Brady.

The men eventually settled down amid the muddy chaos of the construction, and Brady started beefing up his show. There was competition—down the beach imported Russian and Japanese troops were drilling where another military entrepreneur was putting the finishing touches on Port Arthur, a stronghold in the recent Russo-Japanese War. But in the end Brady had the best show.

As in St. Louis, the show was an instant success. It began with a few British scouts riding into an ambush and promptly burst into a full-scale battle, with artillery booming and recoiling, horses falling, gallant companies of British and Boer soldiers discharging rifles in each other’s faces, flags and cannon taken and retaken, and, finally, the mournful charade of Cronjé's surrender to a nattily dressed surrogate Lord Roberts.

The Boer War made money, but not enough to cover the soldiers’ salaries, which had been piling up during the unhappy southern tour. Sometime in August the show began to disintegrate.

General Cronjé stayed on to the end. Brady was kind enough not to subject him to the embarrassment of meeting people after each show—something he had to do in St. Louis—and built him a small cottage in the back of the stadium where the curious could not seek him out. There he sat on the porch with his wife and smoked his pipe, a calm, pleasant, tired old man whose job was done. When the show was over, he sailed for Holland and spent his last days there.

Many of the soldiers headed for livelier fields. There was enough trouble in South America at the time to provide employment for any number of mercenaries. “I’ll bet,” said Brady, “there are little Latin-looking girls and boys in Guatemala and San Salvador today whose names are Smith and Dykgraaf because their papas were hornswoggled into coming over to fight the Boer War for the delectation of the St. Louis World’s Fair.”

R.F.S.

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