The real-life drama of the Lady Elgin, on stage
On Sept. 8, 1860, the steamer Lady Elgin, en route from Chicago to Milwaukee, sank with great loss of life.
On Wednesday — Sept. 8, 2010 — two Milwaukee theater veterans will remember with the premiere of a new play, A Wind Rising: The Lady Elgin Story. The play, in the form of four monologues and a prologue, addresses not just the sinking, but also the extraordinary political events surrounding it.
“The Lady Elgin provides a snapshot of the psyche of Milwaukee and the nation on the brink of civil war,” said Edward Morgan, co-author of the piece with John Kishline.
In a joint interview, the two explained how the Lady Elgin would never have gone down that fateful Sept. 8, were it not for a chain of events that began with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. That federal law required all jurisdictions to apprehend runaway slaves and return them to their southern owners. It caused outrage and even riots in such abolitionist hotbeds as Massachusetts and Wisconsin. In 1854, angry abolitionists, urged on by Racine newspaper editor Sherman Booth, stormed the Milwaukee jail and rescued Joshua Glover, a runaway who was about to be sent back to Missouri.
Randall approached Garrett Barry, a life-long military man and the commander of the state’s militia in Milwaukee, to sound him out on the subject of secession. Barry — whose Irish Union Guard was famed for its military discipline — told Randall that he would certainly suppress any move to secede. Randall responded by confiscating the militia’s weapons, which the State of Wisconsin owned. Which is how Barry, a pillar of Irish Milwaukee, and hundreds of his men and supporters came to drown in the Lady Elgin disaster.
Randall and his men took the boat to Chicago to march in a parade for Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s opponent in the presidential election. Their appearance was a fund-raiser for the candidate and themselves, but the Union Guard was to be paid in guns. Their drill work was the hit of the parade; crates of firearms were loaded onto the Lady Elgin for the return trip. A storm and a collision with a lumber schooner, the Augusta, 1o miles off Winnetka, Ill., sent those guns to the bottom of the lake. (One hundred sixty survived, but the number of fatalities is a point of some dispute. Kishline and Morgan, who spent a year and a half researching every aspect of the piece, believe that about 400 died, most of them Irish Milwaukeeans.) Barry’s body washed ashore just after Lincoln was elected, when all talk of Wisconsin seceding had ceased.
“Rumors abounded that Randall was behind the sinking, but none of them were true,” Kishline said.
The militia, renamed in Barry’s honor, fought on the Union side in the Civil War.
So how do you make a play out of all that?
“Five people — a German immigrant reporter, a young Irish woman, a Milwaukee Irishman, and a sailor on the Augusta — tell their stories,” Kishline said.
“It’s a monologue play,” Morgan said. “The action is in your mind.”
Morgan and Kishline originally wrote the piece for Pier Wisconsin/Discovery World, where it was never produced. The 150th anniversary of the sinking seemed an apt time for them to revive A Wind Rising on their own, as the first production of the newly formed Damned Theater. Morgan, former associate artistic director at the Milwaukee Rep, is directing. Kishline, an experienced actor best known for his long association with Theater X, the German reporter who tries to make sense of it all. The cast also comprises Georgina McKee, Sherrick Robinson, Jonathan Wainwright and Peter J. Woods.
Their venue could not be more appropriate to the subject matter. They will play at Best Place, the newly re-opened tavern in the Pabst Brewery complex on the west end of downtown Milwaukee. It was remade as a 19th-century German beer hall in the 1940s, but the building went up as a schoolhouse in 1858. Pabst took it over not long after that. Frederick Pabst once had his office there. Before he got into the beer business, Pabst was a Great Lakes captain.
A Wind Rising runs at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, Sept. 8-11, at Best Place Tavern at the Historic Pabst Brewery, 901 W. Juneau Ave. The Damned Theater’s suggested donation is $10, at the door.