Captured in Time: Nameless English Singing Girls upon Arrival in America in 1890

I Just Wanted to Figure out Who They Were, but Found Myself Ensnared in a Victorian Melodrama

Megan Smolenyak
12 min readMar 21, 2023

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English singing girls as seen in original photo and after colorization and enhancement (via MyHeritage and Photoshop)

No names were given, but the caption grabbed my attention: “English singing girls — imported by Italian padrone — ret’d by Britannic, Nov 19 1890.”

As part of my series about immigrants featured in the virtually unknown E.W. Austin collection of 1890–1892 photos, I’ve enjoyed writing about Percy Hemingway, Sultana Numeir, and the Lillicrap family, but this trio was nameless. Could I even figure out who they were?

Thinking the caption details might help, I dug into UK and Ireland, Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878–1960 looking for their ship, but there seemed to be a gap in the relevant time frame, so it had managed to escape the clutches of this database. And even if I had found it, would I have been able to pluck them out amid all the other passengers?

Now what? Well, it was a long shot, but maybe they made the papers. Consulting several online newspaper resources, I experimented with searches using words such as Italian, English, girls, and variations of singing, but even restricting them to November 1890 turned up too many possibilities, none of which jumped out. Then I added “Barge Office” (Ellis Island was being constructed so hadn’t opened yet), and was startled to turn up dozens of pertinent articles.

Not only had the girls’ tale of woe made the papers, it had done so across America and the Atlantic. Now I had the names of the girls in the photo: Jessie Mason, Sarah Wibrow, and Kate Murphy.

Excerpt from one of many articles about the girls, St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 13 November 1890 (Newspapers)

Reading the assorted accounts, I learned that these three teenagers, all from the vicinity of Plymouth, England, had come to America with an Italian man named “Jose Stephani” (I would eventually determine that his name was Giuseppe di Stefano) who sometimes went by Joseph Stevens (and yes, he repeatedly bounced back and forth between Italian and Anglicized versions of his name).

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Megan Smolenyak

Genealogical adventurer & storyteller who loves solving mysteries! You may not know me, but chances are you’ve seen my work. (www.MeganSmolenyak.com)