Falling down the Alice of Old Vincennes digital rabbit hole

“Alice of Old Vincennes” float, 1929

I know that I promised around the New Year not to buy any more books.  I’ve held to that promise, and have been pestering my subject-area librarian at Baa Ram U. with requests, as well as drawing heavily on our in-state library exchange system.  It’s been fantastic to read, enjoy, and return the books I’ve been reading!

However, as I warned you, I might make an exception for books I find in used book shops and old junk stores, and I’m afraid that last Sunday I did buy a book, Alice of Old Vincennes by Maurice Thompson (Indianapolis:  The Bowen-Merrell Company, 1900), which was a popular smash and among the top ten best-selling books of 1900 and 1901.  I paid all of $4.50 for my first edition copy, although you can pay eight or nine times more for it online.  (I love my old junk store haunts here in Northern Colorado!)

Who cares about some musty historical novel from the last century?  I bought the book because it is a story built around the capture of Fort Vincennes (now Vincennes, Indiana) from the British in 1779 during the War of the American Revolution.  Vincennes was originally a French fort, and the book purports to tell the story of a beautiful but willlful orphaned teenager named Alice who was adopted by a prominent French family at Vincennes.  Of course, SPOILER ALERT, she turns out to have been originally an Anglo-American girl who as a child was taken captive by Indians before she was “rescued” by the French family that raised her.  In short, it’s a typical turn-of-the-twentieth-century set-piece of Colonial Revival romanticism that portrays the French and Indian presence in the Old Northwest as a charming but doomed relict of the past, and it comes complete with the dashing young Anglo-American military hero ready to sweep Alice off her feet and return her to life among English- speaking Protestants.

Why are you still reading this post?  This is a post not so much about Alice of Old Vincennes as it is about the amazing power of the internets to elucidate and explain what otherwise would have been a long-forgotten historical novel that would interest few of us as a literary novel.  I am not accustomed to such a digitally rich environment when I pursue my own research on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  I’m sure you twentieth century historians of the U.S. and Western Europe are accustomed to this kind of proliferation of sources and information, but I felt like I was falling down the Alice rabbit hole when I discovered the novel’s amazing online presence, given the fact that it’s a pretty bad historical novel of its period.  (I’m sure it would interest none of us as a literary novel, with passages like this:)

Alice Rousillon was tall, lithe, strongly knit, with an almost perfect figure, judging by what the master sculptors carved for the form of Venus, and her face was comely and winning, if not absolutely beautiful; but the time and the place were vigorously indicated by her dress, which was of coarse stuff and simply designed.  Plainly she was a child of the American wilderness, a daughter of old Vincennes on the Wabash in the time that tried men’s souls (4).

Srsly, “the times that tried men’s souls.”  Thomas Paine is spinning in his grave!  As if that weren’t bad enough, Alice is introduced to us as she is cruelly teasing a “sturdy little hunchback” who’s clearly of limited intelligence (5).  This scene is meant to communicate to us that Alice is high-spirited and athletic, rather than a willful bully taking advantage of a disabled acquaintance.  But apparently, the book-buying public of 1900 didn’t mind.

It turns out that Alice of Old Vincennes became a pop-culture phenomenon:  it was turned into a Broadway show that played at the Garden Theater in New York City in 1901 and 1902, starring Miss Virginia Harned, and it was also the basis for a popular song, “Alice of Old Vincennes (I Love You).”  See the advertisement in a trade newspaper here; click here for a 1914 recording; and see the sheet music for piano here.  Apparently, someone even thought it was a good idea to put Alice on a can of tomatoes, as you can see here at left (courtesy of the Wabash Valley Visions and Voices digital memory project.  Incredible!)

Postcard of “Alice’s Home”

The book and cultural phenomenon of Alice was also embraced by the town of Vincennes as a hook to bring tourists to town.  According to the Indiana State Museum, author Maurice Thompson’s birthplace is still among the museum’s historic buildings, and Vincennes worked hard to capitalize on Alice’s popularity:  “The nickname for Vincennes became ‘Alicetown.’ At one time, there were two different places claiming to be the site of her home, even though she was a fictional character. There was an Alice Hotel, an Alice Park, an Alice movie theater, an Alice Restaurant and an Alice Soda Shop. Finally, the Vincennes Lincoln High School named their sports teams the Vincennes Alices, a name that they still proudly bear.”  I love the idea of the high school teams being called the Alices.  (The Thompson House now “serves as the gift shop for the Territorial Capitol State Historic Site.”)

“Alice of Old Vincennes” float, 1929

Vincennes really milked its Alice connection.  Nearly thirty years after the novel’s publication, the public library’s contribution to the George Rogers Clark Sesquicentennial Parade on February 25, 1929 was a float featuring a life-sized “Alice” (actually library employee Marie Lucier) stepping gracefully out of the pages of a giant copy of Maurice Thompson’s novel.  (Once again, thanks to Wabash Valley Visions & Voices for the photos of Marie Lucier as Alice on the parade float seen here at left and also at the top of the post on the right.)

The legend of Alice lives on into the present, too, in Vincennes, where Vincennes Unviersity speech and theater professor James Spurrier collaborated with a colleague, Laurel Smith, and composer Jay Kerr to produce a new musical based on the book in 2010.

I don’t know what to make of all of this.  I was just fascinated that Alice had such a tremendous digital presence!  I’m sure those of you who think more deeply and in more complex ways about digital history have ideas to share, so please, take it away!

22 thoughts on “Falling down the Alice of Old Vincennes digital rabbit hole

  1. I just love how “Alice” looks just like the Disney Snow White on that float! And the film didn’t come out ’til 37 … someone could go poking around the connections there too, eh?


  2. I read that years and years ago. You’re right that Alice isn’t that appealing a heroine for current sensibilities – she’s very much something of the old appeal on racial and religious identities as well as outdated ideas about how to deal with disabled individuals. (Both aspects which leave me more than a little disquieted in retrospect. But having grown up on the banks of the Wabash, the book did have that local appeal that a bored eleven year old will grasp if nothing else of interest comes along.)

    I also love how all of this merchandising and celebration you’ve found shows us something about the historical society. Too many modern pundits claim that pop cultural interest in this or that fictional character being taken up by contemporary society is a sign of our horrible decline. Katniss from The Hunger Games showing up on snack packaging? Not shocking but rather in line with a century-old cultural practice.


  3. I had heard about this book but had never read it. Who knew it was the Harry Potter of its day in everything except having an actual theme park? Thanks, Historiann, from all who love a dusty and forgotten book.


  4. So. This town had an “Alice(s) Restaurant.” And a proto-Andy Warhol, turning out pop art. This *is* a cultural hearth. I can’t help wondering if the women’s teams at V. Lincoln High have the wry wit to call themselves the “Lady Alices?” On the question of proliferation of sources and information, after aeons working in the roughly 1660-1780s chron-hole, I’ve moved into a project that starts in the late Revolutionary era and then just spills out like an overturned washtub into the nineteenth century, and I’ve been flat-out stupefied by the density of relevant information available, compared with what I’m used to. My intention has been (and continues to be) after this one is over to go back to something “colonial,” but occasionally I find myself wondering what it would be like to go back to the relatively thinner archival gruel of coloniality?

    I hope this “dashing Anglo-American military hero” is not the same cad as the author of the _Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America_ and _The Emigrants_, who went missing in the Ohio Valley at just about exactly the time (and not for the last time, either) that Vincennes fell to the Americanos. This sounds like his m.o. You say “ready” to sweep her off her feet. She says no, right?


  5. Bizarre is the new normal, mediocre is the new excellence and Rockefeller Republican is the new socialist. I am not surprised that an old and not a great book has some life left a century later. People listen to the terribly negligible 56th symphony by Haydn or some forgettable piece that lasts 50 minutes. There tons of forgettable and expensive paintings in museums all over.


  6. Lord-eee! I just googled it, and Facebook says they *are* the Lady Alices!!! There’s an interesting piece in the NYT Sports pages today about the relative cultural contraction of support for high school basketball in Indiana. Towns are closing 9,000 seat high school gyms, people are enrolling their kids in traveling soccer programs, and industrial towns are imploding demographically. Football has gained more cultural purchase in Hoosierville. A Republican state legislator is even trying to force the past to come back with a law that would compel schools to compete state-wide despite size differences (a new take on “class warfare” and an ironic increase in the power of the state) so there can be a sequel to “Hoosiers” in the next century or so.

    This is happening most extensively in the northern de-industrializing part of the state, where the departure of the auto industry still reverberates. This may give more space to the Ohio and Wabash Valleys. So I’m thinking: if anyone wants to organize a “Historiann in the Heartland” road trip this time a year to follow the Lady Alices on their way to state finals in ‘Naptown, I’ll be glad to drive one of the (school) buses!


  7. I might add that the book is well-known among the re-enactors who gather at Vincennes each year for the “Spirit of Vincennes Rendezvous,” which includes a generous contingent re-enacting the various French communities that still existed in Michigan and Indiana (who most decidedly do not think of the French presence a “doomed relic of the past”). Most make fun of it for its extremely purple prose.


  8. Charles–thanks! I think I have seen some of those reenactors, or their cousins, about a decade ago or more at Fort St. Clair in Eaton, OH. I’ve been to a number of reenactor events in southern Michigan where the old fur trade/French and Potawatomie days are represented. (This was at the Walker Tavern, just south of Brooklyn, MI a few years ago.)

    Indyanna: too funny about the “Lady Alices.” Why aren’t the boys’ teams called the “Boy Alices,” or the “Guy Alices?” By rights they oughtta be.


  9. Yeah, the whole “Lady” thing in women’s sports is weird, and the boys’ presumptive appropriation of “THE name,” even when it’s conventionally gendered female, with the girls’ being shouldered into the “distaff” version (whatever THAT term means), may be the ultimate gesture of Title 9 symbolic denial/defiance. Although now that Alice Cooper has become an evening d.j. more than a music maker, married for thirty-seven years to the same woman he informs us a couple of nights ago, who knows what anything signifies? At a previous place where I taught the town had two high schools, one of which was mascotted as the “Trojans.” The girls’ teams totally-tossed the “Lady” thing on that snickery deal and instead called themselves the “Women of Troy.” Bravo.


  10. Wow! That b’way database is awesome (and turned up the fact that in the 1900-1901 season, my great-grandmother acted in a broadway play called “A Gentleman of France”, which looks as if it participated in the same historical drama fixation.

    Growing up, I loved all the “Little Girl of..” and “X Twins” books (which I found in libraries that were off the beaten track), all of whom, of course were White and Protestant. But I loved to read them….As I recall, most were set some time in the 17th- 18th C


  11. The Little Maid of….books were a huge hit with me when I was a kid. I had been wanting to re-read them recently and couldn’t remember the names, only the fact that there were, I thought, books set in every American colony. That didn’t ring a bell with any of the children’s librarians I consulted, but last year I discovered “A Little Maid of Provincetown” at the gift shop in the Pilgrim monument there. My child self didn’t mind the lousy prose and not-at-all-politically-correct world view, I guess.


  12. I fell into the Alice rabbit hole recently, and enjoyed your post immensely.

    A few extra fun tidbits I found:

    (1) Radio station “WAOV” in Vincennes stands for “Alice of Old Vincennes” (the station was permitted in 1940, they would say “We’re Alice of Old Vincennes” as a catchphrase).

    (2) The stage version of Alice was written by Edward Everett Rose, whose big job for about a decade was churning out plays as fast as possible from best selling books. By the time of Alice, reviewers were tiring of his schtick, the NY Times declaring “the mills of Edward E. Rose, dramatizer, are not like those of the famous proverb, for they grind rapidly and not exceeding fine.”

    (3) In the Broadway play, Captain Farnsworth was played by a young Cecil B. DeMille.

    (4) After Thompson died, it was claimed that Alice was based on Mary Shannon Buntin, a Vincennes resident whose family was killed by Indians, and raised by a Frenchman said to be the basis for Gaspard Roussillon. The claims all seem to derive from the speculation of a local oldster and retired judge. But Mary was born around 1775 (died 1840), so she could have only been a source of inspiration at best, though it was claimed many events in the book were somehow based on her life. And totally unconnected by the internets yet, here is the same Mary’s gravestone in Vincennes: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSmid=46933520&GRid=94422384&df=90&


  13. Pingback: Looking Back: Alice of Old Vincennes on Stage and Gary organizes a pageant | Marking Hoosier History

  14. Stumbled across this blog post doing research. Vincennes native here.

    Ask locals and you won’t get consensus on the school nickname being the Alices. Some say because of the book (and I agree), and others argue it was when the boys basketball team won state finals for the first time and radio newscasters said the “came out of Wonderland.” Word is, the school board never voted to change us from the Buccaneers to the Alices. A minor contingency SWEAR a local madam named Alice financially supported the school’s athletics in the Great Depression, so they named the team after her. This has led to confusion of people thinking the character from Alice of Old Vincennes was a prostitute.

    And yes, they are the Lady Alices. No one has batted an eye about it. Vincennes Lincoln (named for the president–all schools here are named to local, Indiana, or Revolutionary Ware history), has an odd mascot too–Big A. It’s a green blobby humanoid with a cute face and a top hat. We love him.


  15. Sorting through old collectibles from my families storage I found a note that read: “Alice of Old Vincennes, page #224.” Can you find any writings of value on that page? This is the only connection that I can imagine…I was named Alice, after an aunt, by my father Maurice. Coincidence?


  16. Maurice Thompson’s birthplace is part of the Territory Capitol State Hsitoric Site, corner of 1st and Harrison Streets, Vincennes.
    Come by and find out about the French in Vincennes!


  17. Pingback: Book collections: his, mine, and yours? Also, my plans for a home office rethink. | Historiann

  18. The renowned Buckeye land speculator and part-time gender anthropologist, John Cleves Symmes, who was known colloquially along the Big Miami River as “the Judge,” had this to say about Vincennes. “The men here are barely once removed from the Indians, and yet they are the greatest slaves to their wives in the world. they milk the cows–cook for the family–fetch and carry and in a word do everything that is done indoors and out, washing their linen excepted, while the women spend their time walking about, sitting at their doors, or nursing their children from morning to night, and if one might judge from the contrast I am led to suppose that through the night the men are obliged to observe an humble distance.

    Source: Symmes to Robert Morris, June 22, 1790, Correspondence of John Cleves Symmes, p. 290.


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