A Little Farm in Massachusetts
On Thursday, March 14, 1895, a farmhouse in Billerica, Massachusetts, caught fire in the middle of the night and burned down. The owner of the farm had moved to California. The owner's daughter and her husband, who lived in the house, were unhurt, but the house was a total loss.
That farmhouse, known as Hillside farm, was once the home of Texas Jack and his wife, Giuseppina Morlacchi. To be more precise, the house and the farm both belonged to Giuseppina. And to be 100% accurate, the house was deeded to Giuseppina's sister Angelina.
The following comes from The American Careers of Rita Sangalli, Giuseppina Morlacchi, and Maria Bonfanti: Nineteenth-Century Ballerinas by Barbara Mackin Barker:
Morlacchi was different in many ways from most of the dancers then performing in America. Most of those dancers were based in New York, while Morlacchi preferred Boston. She had wisely and carefully saved during her first two years in America and had looked for a place where she could settle her family. In December of 1869, she found it, a forty-acre farm in Billerica, a community on the outskirts of Boston. In the name of her sister, Angelina (who would make her permanent home on the farm while Morlacchi toured the country with her dance troupe), the ballerina made a $6,000 down payment and assumed a $1,700 mortgage. The girls' father, Antonio Morlacchi, then seventy-two years old, came from Italy to stay with them.
By 1870 Morlacchi had established a pattern which she was to maintain, with slight variations, throughout her career as a performer. During the theatrical season, from fall to early summer, she toured, either as a guest artist or with her own "combination."^ Summers were spent in Billerica, Massachusetts, with her family and 2 members of her company. It is difficult to know what attracted Morlacchi initially to this community of small, self-sustaining farms and the summer homes of well-to-do Bostonians. It was not an Italian community; in fact, the population was almost entirely of 3 Irish, English and Scottish stock. The twenty-mile trip into Boston would have been a difficult commute for nightly performances, requiring at least three hours traveling each way. Perhaps mere chance led Morlacchi to Billerica, something as simple as a drive in the country on a free afternoon.
One wonders what the summer folk and Yankee farmers thought of a bevy of exotic foreign dancing girls invading their quiet town each summer. Morlacchi and her entourage apparently did not retire completely from public view. The dancer and her sister, Angelina, would occasionally dress as dandies in waistcoats, top hats, and tails and take a carriage ride through town. An engraving published in The Sporting Times and Theatrical News in 1870 shows them chatting with two blushing town girls^ (Plate XXXVII).
Unlike her contemporaries, Bonfanti and Sangalli, for whom New York served as base, Morlacchi operated out of Boston. From there she made tours along circuits of theatres in the Mid-West and South, and along the East Coast. She rarely played New York. It is significant that Morlacchi avoided what was, even then, the most important center of theatre in the United States. The ballerina seems to have preferred the smaller cities where she had the opportunity to choreograph, shape her own company and expand her range as a performer.
Morlacchi spent as much time as she could on the farm. Theatre managers who wanted to book engagements had to go to her. When John Stetson, of the Adelphi and Howard Athenaeum, made the trip to Billerica he "found her in a calico dress, straw hat, etc., hoe in hand, hoeing potatoes. There, in the midst of the potato field, surrounded by the beauties of nature, he succeeded in engaging her to open at the Adelphi on the 20th of August." Morlacchi stopped working while the terms of the contract were agreed upon, then finished her digging and invited Stetson and his companion to be her dinner guests. Among other things, the story goes, they were served the potatoes.
The incident in the potato field may have been just another press release, the handiwork of Morlacchi's manager John M. Burke; but there did seem to be something that set Morlacchi apart from her contemporaries. Perhaps it was a sense of balance between the simplicity of her country life and her hectic theatrical schedule. The farm provided a refuge from the relentless obsession that kept her peers, including Bonfanti and Sangalli, performing month after month, year after year, with little rest to gather their strength. It also gave Morlacchi independence so that she was not ruled by the whims of the managers or the public. Because of this freedom, Morlacchi was able to be selective about the engagements she accepted and to become the champion of the ballet girl, a cause which she espoused for the rest of her life.