Minerva: Don't Ever Mess with a Handcuff Queen

“Minerva is the only woman before the public today who juggles with the handcuffs as though they were gold bracelets and comes out of a locked up straight jacket as if she were wriggling out of a silk negligee.” Cumberland Evening Times, July 13, 1908

Minerva learn the intricacies of being an escape artist from her husband, William van Dorn. He had toured for a number of years as part of the escape act “Vano and Arno”. After he married Minerva in 1903 she was quickly added to the act. They toured as the “Vanos” until they went their separate ways in 1906. By this time Minerva had become the principal performer of the escape act and her husband had developed an act using liquid air.
In the summer of 1908, Minerva was finding success touring summer theaters and amusement parks in the eastern states. She was contracted to play a week at Merryland Park in Cumberland, Maryland for the princely sum of $75. Arriving early, she met with the park manager who complained of poor attendance and hoped that Minerva would do some publicity stunts to draw in the crowds. Of course this was to be at no additional fee. Being the trooper she was, Minerva agreed.  So on a Monday evening we find her standing on the famous Blue Bridge with a pair of handcuffs tightly clasped around her lily-white wrists. The shores of the Potomac River were crammed with more than 2,000 people and hundreds more watched from boats in the river. She lightly sprang to the railing and poised for a moment before jumping into the cold water below. Arising to the surface she shook her blond head and yelled out “Look, chief, the cuffs are off!” Minerva was picked up by a waiting boat and taken back to Merryland Park just in time for her first performance.  The park manager had gotten the publicity he wanted and then some.

 Minerva performed the typical escape act of the time. This included escaping from handcuffs, both her own and any brought by the audience, and from a straight jacket done in full view of the audience. By all accounts her performance at the Merryland Park was a success. Though, the park manager did ask her to shorten it up a bit as it drew people away from the dance hall and other paying attractions.

On Wednesday, the park manager came to Minerva’s hotel and got into an argument with her and her assistant. The manager using what was described as insulting language made an offensive proposal to Minerva. She would not stand for this and threatened him with arrest if he continued. As she walked away the manager shouted “I’ll fix you for this.”
On Thursday evening she appeared at the park to do her show, but was told to collect her money and get out. However, she was offered only a half week of pay. Refusing this, Minerva showed up each night until the end of the week ready to perform. At the end of the week the park manager still refused to pay her and furthermore stated that Merryland Park was all powerful and it was no use to sue.
However, he should have realized who he was dealing with; this was someone that makes a living jumping handcuffed off bridges! So the following week we find Minerva in court suing Merryland Park for her remaining salary of $50. That day the judge found before him a petite young lady in a fashionable dress with her blond hair done up, not at all what one would expect of an escape artist. Minerva was the only witness for the plaintiff. The defense called four witnesses and while never questioning the contract, did contend that Minerva did not do all of the work demanded of her. The judge took all of this under advisement and as one would expect decided that Minerva was owed the $50. The park’s lawyer’s immediately appealed the decision.

Needing funds Minerva had to get back on the road. She already had several offers and accepted engagements in the Washington, DC area playing Luna Park and the Lyric Theater. Minerva received great reviews and did a handcuffed bridge jump into the Potomac River.
On October 6, 1908 the Maryland Circuit Court announced that the Merryland Park case had been settled. By this time Minerva was just beginning her successful tour of the British Isles with her “death defying water trick.” Once again on this tour another manager tried to get the best of her, and quickly found out that you do not mess with an escape artist. Especially one of the female variety. But that is another story.
The Evening Times, Cumberland, Maryland, July 11, 1908 to July 25, 1908 and October 6, 1908
Washington Times, Washington, DC, August 9, 1908
Minerva photograph from the Egyptian Hall collection
Gary Hunt Copyright 2017


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