Marie Shannon

ca. 1906
On Sunday, July 18, 1909, the vaudeville juvenile quartet the “Four Shannons” left Louisville on the way to their next performance in Owensboro, KY. As the train pulled out of the station two young girls sprang from their car to the platform and ran through the waiting room to a local theatrical boarding house. The escapees were Elizabeth Shannon, age 17, and her older sister Marie, age 22. Two days later Elizabeth, considered a minor, was arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct preferred by her mother. Over the next two days, the case played out in court with allegations of cruelty on the part of the mother and wildness and disobedience on the part of the daughter. Faced with spending time in juvenile detention until her 18th birthday, Elizabeth relented and returned with her mother to Owensboro. Marie declared she would have nothing further to do with her mother and left for Chicago to find work for the rest of the season. So, began the career of Marie Shannon – Handcuff Queen.

Margaret (Marie) Shannon was born about 1887 into a showbusiness family. Her mother and father had toured America, Canada, and Mexico as a very successful song and dance team. By the late 1890’s they formed their four children, Marie, Evelyn, Elizabeth, and George, into a song and dance quartet billed as the "Four Shannons". They later added their youngest son, Charles, first with little dance bits as a toddler and then part of the full company when Marie left. They constantly toured, headlining in both small and large vaudeville circuits across America and Canada.  

In Chicago, Marie teamed up with Cruze (or Cruse), who must have had a magic background. They developed an escape act and by the spring of 1910 took it on the road as “Shannon and Cruze”. In April they played for three days at the Happy Hour Theater in McKinney, Texas. Billed as the “Phenomenal Shannon & Cruze”, the featured escapes included the “Russian Transport Chain Escape”, “$10,000 Casket Escape”, “tied with 350 Feet of Rope”, and “Haudinies (sic) Paper Bag Escape”. To publicize the show Marie drove a four-horse carriage blindfolded around the city and found an item hidden by a committee of local citizens. Cruze also escaped from the courthouse vault in less than sixty seconds. The pair had done a lot of preparation and rehearsing since Marie left the Four Shannons just nine months ago.

For the 1910 season, Shannon and Cruze toured the Ted Sparks’ Vaudeville Circuit, which covered small-town theaters in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. Shannon also began to be called Lady Raffles in some advertisements. By February 1911 the team was being billed as Lady Raffles and the Phenomenal Cruze. The stage name was based on the fictional British character Arthur J. Raffles, a gentleman thief who appeared in short stories and a novel by E. W. Hornung between 1898 and 1909.

Kentucky Advocate, March 2, 1911

The basic structure of the act was now well established. Marie performed all the escapes, most were done inside a cabinet. She would do this sequence of stunts: Put on a jacket while her hands were tied behind her back and then take it off again. Escape from a pair of handcuffs and then from nine pairs of handcuffs and a thumb cuff, leaving the cabinet with all the handcuffs locked together in a chain. Remove the nine handcuffs again, with only her hands covered with a coat. Have “nippers”, single cuffs with a handle attached, placed on each wrist, then enter the cabinet while two volunteers stood on each side holding the handles and release herself. She also challenged any law enforcement officer or audience member to provide handcuffs she could not escape from. Featured escapes included a straitjacket, packing crate, and casket. To add variety and mystery Marie also performed a version of the “magnetic lady” act, increasing her weight so that she could not be picked up by a male volunteer.


Ogden Standard, November 13, 1911

The summer of 1911 found Marie reuniting with her siblings to tour Michigan resorts. The company consisted of the “Original Four Shannons”, with Marie also doing her escape act and Cruze performing magic. Frank Merritt, a comedian, was also part of the company. After a successful summer, the Shannons and Cruze continued to tour together. Adding two other specialty acts they formed a vaudeville company and toured the Midwest during the fall of 1911. The company split up in November after performing in Utah. Marie and Cruze then formed the “Cruze Musical Comedy Company”. Cruze formed a partnership with a San Francisco theatrical repertory company headed by the comedic actor T. J. Beeson. This company of 25 specialized in musical comedies, with a host of pretty girls. Marie would perform her escape act as part of the vaudeville portion of the show. The company was contracted to play an indefinite run at the Orion Theater in Butte, Montana under the management of Cruze. This lasted until early January 1912 when Cruze left the partnership and he and Marie returned to the vaudeville stage. Marie was now billed as the “Original Girl Raffles”.

Natchez Democrat, Aug 15, 1912
That summer in Natchez Mississippi they worked with a local newspaper on a very successful publicity stunt, which was repeated in other cities. Marie drew on her long experience on the stage as she played a true “Raffles”, able to fool any detective. She would walk around various parts of town at designated times in disguise. The first person to touch her on the shoulder with the latest edition of the Natchez Democrat and shout “You are the Original Girl Raffles of the Natchez Democrat at the Baker Grand Theater this week” would win a $50 prize. The contest lasted for four days. Each day the newspaper featured on its front page an interview with Marie detailing her travels and a long description of the crowds pursuing her. There were close calls, embarrassing wrong identifications, misleading rumors and general chaos. By the last day, the main streets were packed with people carrying a copy of the newspaper, all intent on finding Marie.  She was finally caught on the last day of the contest. While she was being driven to her declared destination, a man recognized her and tried to block the car. As it swerved around him at high speed, the man jumped onto the running boards and touched her with the paper while reciting the required phrase. He was declared the winner, though he did injure himself in the process.

They also did a variation on this stunt in other cities. They advertised in the local paper that “The Original Girl Raffles” would enter the theater’s front door, and anyone recognizing her and calling out her name would win a $10 gold piece.  I suspect that there were not a lot of winners.

Shannon and Cruze kept touring the South and Midwest through Spring 1913. They then joined her two sisters, who had just finished a tour, at the Shannon’s family summer home in Paw Paw Lake, Michigan. It was announced that the Shannon sisters were going to prepare a new big act for the next season. During the summer they also played local towns, with the three sisters singing, Marie doing escapes and Cruze doing comedy magic. 

In the Fall of 1913 Marie, as predicted, put aside the escape act for good and joined her sisters once again. They toured as the “Shannon Sisters” into the 1920s. After this, there are no reports of her career on or off the stage. In 1954 Marie and her brother Charles retired to Saranac Lake, New York, the site of the former National Vaudeville Artists Hospital (Will Rogers Memorial Hospital) and home to many former vaudeville performers. Where and when she passed away is not known.

References
Courier-Journal, July 21-23, 1909, Louisville, Kentucky
Long Island Star-Journal, August 23, 1951, Long Island City, New York
Evening Chronicle, October 5, 1909, Charlotte, North Carolina
Daily Courier, April 13-14, 1910, McKinney, Texas
Daily Courier, April 18, 1910, McKinney, Texas
New York Clipper, October 29, 1910, New York, New York
Leavenworth Times, September 3, 1910, Leavenworth, Texas
Leavenworth Times, November 24-25, 1910, Leavenworth, Texas
Washington Daily Herald, February 21, 1911, Washington Court House, Ohio
Kentucky Advocate, March 2, 1911, Danville, Kentucky
Sphinx, September 1911, Kansas City, Missouri
Evening Standard, November 13, 1911, Ogden, Utah
Anaconda Standard, December 17, 1911, Anaconda, Montana
Anaconda Standard, January 11, 1912, Anaconda, Montana
Detroit Free Press, May 26, 1912, Detroit, Michigan
Natchez Democrat, August 11, 1912, Natchez, Mississippi
Natchez Democrat, August 13-18, 1912, Natchez, Mississippi
Republic, May 7, 1913, Columbus, Indiana
New York Clipper, June 7, 1913, New York, New York
New York Clipper, June 21, 1913, New York, New York
Elkart Truth, July 31, 1913, Elkart, Indiana
Jackson Citizen Patriot, October 11, 1913, Jackson, Michigan
Arizona Republic, June 23, 1922, Phoenix, Arizona
Variety, June 5, 1954, New York, New York
(references are in order they were first used)

Gary Hunt Copyright 2018

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