Sometimes mysteries are better left unsolved

By Thomas Robinson

The group of glass plate negatives that I’m working to identify now is the work of a photographer who ran a photo tent in a traveling circus. Most photographs taken at circus photo-booths are direct positives, such as Polaroids, and for those there are no negatives. Back then, direct positives were called tintypes.  Negatives would be taken only if a dozen or more prints were wanted.  The glass plate negative collection contains, as one might imagine of a circus, a lot of random images, as well as actors in the circus and events, and there are a few wagon repair shops. This portrait was obviously taken to make souvenir cards for the snake charmer woman to sell at her tent.

Good clues abound within the images; the lettered signs appearing on the photographer’s backdrops stated the year and location. They indicate that the circus travelled along the Oregon Coast in 1909 from Brookings to Seaside, and then on to Portland.

Online newspaper archives that are electronically searchable provide research tools to historians that were previously unimaginable. I use the University of Oregon and Multnomah County Library historical newspaper resources every day to identify photographs. I’ve become used to expecting the unexpected, but sometimes the information I find is so far from what I conceived logical, that I regret even looking for it in the first place.

It wasn’t hard to compile a list of all the circus companies that toured Oregon in 1909, which were less than a half-dozen. Only one of them was home-grown, and that was Professor Miller’s. His carnival arrived in Portland for a ten-day stay in June, 1909, and the Oregonian review identified “Zena the snake charmer”

Further information was forthcoming, but as I mentioned, it was not what I had thought it might be. The next mention of her in the press was her obituary, which appeared two years and two months later, in August 1911.

The obituary identified Zena as Grace Moreland, who was born and raised in Tillamook. She was twenty years old at the time she suicided at the Iberia hotel in Boise, Idaho.

According to the circus director, Professor Miller, in comments he said to the press following her death, she had been with the circus for three years. She had a boyfriend whom she was engaged to marry, J. W. O’Donnell.

Newspaper accounts said he was the balloonist who operated the hot-air balloon rides. When the circus arrived at Weiser, Idaho, in June, 1911, at a spot next to the Snake river, something went wrong in the balloon and he attempted to parachute out. The parachute ropes became entangled in his neck and he landed in the Snake river and drowned. His body was found the next day in Huntington, Oregon, 22 miles downstream. Grace Moreland fainted upon hearing the news of her fiancé’s death. Professor Miller said “they were like brother and sister”.

Two months after the death of her fiancé,  Grace Moreland attended a dance at the White City in Boise, Idaho, and subsequently went to her hotel room and took a fatal dose of chloroform. She left a few letters and was found clutching the bottle of poison. It was left to the Boise coroner to administrate her personal effects; which primarily were 22 snakes.

This is an amazing story of an Oregon woman. According to newspapers, she had no family members left excepting a grandmother in Portland. Grace Moreland led an itinerant and independent lifestyle a decade before women had the right to vote. I admire the fortitude, entrepreneurship, and independence of Grace Moreland.


From the same collection of negatives, Carnival Balloon on Cascade Ave, Marshfield (now called Coos Bay), Oregon 1909.

Sources of information: Daily East Oregonian, Saturday August 19, 1911, page 5, col. 3; La Grande Evening Observer, Thursday, August 17, 1911, pg. 6, col. 1-3; Lake County Examiner, August 31, 1911, pg. 6, col. 4; The Morning Oregonian, Thursday August 17, 1911, pg. 2, col. 3; and Friday July 16, 1909, pg. 11, col. 2.

112 thoughts on “Sometimes mysteries are better left unsolved”

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