Bouncing Bess and the Spook Priestess Swindler

Duluth’s most-trusting saloonkeeper disappears

Originally published May 2015
A sketch of George Sherwood c. 1885. (Image: Zenith City Press)
A sketch of George Sherwood c. 1895. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Of all Duluth’s saloons in the plank-and-mud 1870s, Captain George W. Sherwood’s place was supposedly one of the most raucous. Early Duluth storyteller Jerome Cooley claims in his self-published Recollections of Early Duluth that it was a hangout for all the toughs and boat hands, where one could at any time be subject to a fight. He mentions one particular razor fight at Sherwood’s involving an alleged card cheat and a crew of Chicago “negroes” who came off the steamer Peerless while it was docked in Duluth harbor. According to Cooley, Sherwood was an “all around rounder” who left Buffalo, New York, in a tug for Duluth to “escape a woman he was keeping there.” The woman discovered Sherwood’s destination and took the next boat for Duluth. Reading between Cooley’s lines, Sherwood’s admirer supposedly worked as a prostitute in Buffalo and her identity was exposed to Duluthians by a Great Lakes captain:

 “One day a boat captain in George’s place saw the woman and said, ‘How in hell did Bouncing Bess get here?’ George said the woman was his wife but the captain said, ‘I don’t care a damn, you can’t fool me about her. That’s Bouncing Bess. I’ve been to her place in Buffalo too often to be fooled.’”

Cooley then goes on to say that the woman “reformed and finally got converted, and lived a noble and exemplary life.”

Both Sherwood and his wife Emeline were long dead when Cooley so blithely cast his aspersions upon their place of business and their characters. Historians know that Cooley had a habit of favoring a good story over boring facts. 

There is no evidence elsewhere that the Sherwoods were anything but law-abiding citizens, not in stories in the local press of the day nor in the written recollections of other Duluth pioneers. The captain was a native of New York who moved to Buffalo as a young man and eventually served eleven years as sheriff. There, he became friends with a young lawyer named Grover Cleveland, who was elected sheriff after Sherwood’s departure for Duluth. Cleveland went on to become the mayor of Buffalo, the governor of New York, and finally President of the United States. Apparently, the Erie County sheriff’s department at the time was known for graft and corruption, and Cleveland did not make much effort to change that. Whether Sherwood himself was dirty in any way is unknown. After Cleveland became president, the Sherwoods visited him in the White House.

At any rate, the Sherwoods originally came to Duluth in 1869. For a few years the captain ran a freight and passenger yacht around the head of the lake and eventually opened a restaurant and saloon at 105 East Superior Street. He was locally famous for his singing voice, and so in demand that even pro-temperance folks begged him to perform at their events—which led to some sly jokes at their hypocrisy in the local rags. Mrs. Sherwood was a shrewd businesswoman in her own right, and owned quite a bit of real estate, acting as landlady at a handful of rooming houses downtown.

The Peerless, whose crew started a razor fight in George Sherman's saloon in 1877. (Image: Great Lakes vessel Index)
The Peerless, whose crew fought amongst themselves in George Sherwood’s Superior Street saloon in July, 1877. (Image: Great Lakes vessel Index)

A rosy 1895 Duluth News Tribune reminiscence directly contradicts Cooley’s later recollections. In the article, Sherwood’s saloon is remembered “for the excellent quality of his goods—liquid and solid—and it is said that though he did the most prosperous business of the kind in town his doors were never darkened by any of the tougher elements in society.” He reportedly kept the saloon’s liquor in a cupboard that hung on the wall of the front room, and if you wanted a drink you had to “come to the box” to be served. No matter how fat your wallet, no one was permitted to drink at the tables or sitting down. When the proprietor went fishing, the cupboard ran on the honor system. The saloon also housed a raven—which was reportedly stolen sometime in 1873—and a five-toed rooster.

Students of Duluth’s historical racial dynamics might be familiar with a long-standing suspicion of presumed hooligans from Chicago, but Cooley’s mention of that attitude in nascent Duluth has only one existing corroboration: a very oblique mention in the Duluth Minnesotian-Herald on July 14, 1877. “Capt. J. McLeod, at present First Mate of the Peerless, had, last Wednesday, a difference of opinion with some negroes employed on the same steamer. His arguments were convincing.” Whether razors actually were employed or the boat hands were Chicago hooligans remains a mystery.

While we may never know exactly what went on inside Sherwood’s saloon, we do know the Sherwoods had a much more interesting encounter with Chicago’s criminal element in their sunset years.

Those People from Chicago

Joining a nationwide trend, the Sherwoods, particularly Emeline, became interested in spiritualism. (The root of their particular interest may stem from their grief at the early loss of their only son.) Mrs. Sherwood traveled to Chicago in the early 1890s to a “spiritualist camp meeting” and became friendly with a forty-year-old “trance medium” named Jennie Moore. At the time, Mrs. Sherwood was a rich woman and an obviously attractive mark. She invited the medium to visit Duluth, and Moore gave séances in the Sherwood home. These séances became a gathering place for Duluth’s spiritualists.

This sojourn came at an opportune time for Jennie Moore. In fact, it is probable that the sympathetic Mrs. Sherwood was helping the medium escape “religious persecution” by the Chicago police.

In the first half of 1892, Moore and a female partner were repeatedly arrested for various offenses. The Chicago Daily Inter Ocean called Mrs. Moore the “spook priestess,” a plumber’s wife by day and medium by night. The newspaper reported that, in her court appearance, Moore was “richly clad in furs and satin,” had “dodged all the important questions,” and claimed to have been conversant with the spirit world since she was a young girl in Minnesota.

Moore was reported to the police by one of her clients, who accused her of being a fake. According to testimony, she would gather her audience in a darkened room lit by a single blue light. At one end of the room was a cabinet. In a trance, Moore would enter the cabinet and “materialize” as a spirit. Several of her devoted followers claimed to have seen her transform into their dead loved ones. They were especially convinced of the genuineness of this experience because the “spirits” sometimes spoke in foreign languages.

The Sherwood monument in Duluth's Forest Hill Cemetery. Emeilia is buried beneath it, but George is not. (Image: Heidi Bakk-Hansen)
The Sherwood monument in Duluth’s Forest Hill Cemetery. Emeline is buried beneath it, but George is not. (Image: Heidi Bakk-Hansen)

The first time the police arrested Moore, it was in a sting operation during a gathering. An audience member was talking with his “dead daughter”—a ghostly figure in the cabinet—when she suddenly said, “The armed men with stars are here; you had better be careful; the officers will get you.” The plain-clothed officers sprung at the cabinet, but some members of the audience tackled them, which was apparently enough of a diversion for Moore to escape from the cabinet. When the lights came on, she had mysteriously reappeared amongst the audience, and though the detectives searched high and low, they could not find any evidence of the masks, whiskers, or costumes that would serve as evidence of her fraud.

In the end, Moore was let go on a technicality: the arrest warrant was issued on a Sunday, which was apparently against the law. Soon after, she was re-arrested on the charge of “keeping a place of amusement without a license.” As this trial dragged on, she was quoted:

“Three petty lawyers who want a little cheap notoriety are responsible for all this trouble, but they have had their trouble for nothing. Why, there is no fraud about my business as they allege. I run a legitimate spirit hall, and nobody can say anything to the contrary. There were no wigs or other paraphernalia found in my cabinet when the police burst it in and furthermore we made no resistance until they did that.”

In this second trial, witnesses reported that they could recognize Moore’s own features in the “materialized spirits” in the cabinet. Moore’s main defense was that the meeting was a religious gathering, but one of the witnesses said, “It was no more religious than a brace faro game. Why it was the rankest show of the kind I have ever seen. The whiskers worn by Mrs. Moore didn’t fit her and kept coming part way off when she nodded her head!” She was convicted and fined $200.

In 1893, Mrs. Sherwood became ill and went to Chicago to stay with Moore for “treatment.” She fairly well recovered and returned to Duluth, but not before the medium warned her she would die in two months. When Sherwood relapsed, Moore came to Duluth to nurse her. Moore’s patroness was soon dead, purportedly within the two-month deadline.

Afterward, some of Emeline’s family members contacted Mr. Sherwood to retrieve some letters of sentimental value, but the widower told them that immediately upon Mrs. Sherwood’s death, he and Mrs. Moore had sat up all night burning her personal papers, except those that were “necessary.” Though these relatives had been told there was a more recent will, only one from 1881 was found, and it left her husband her entire fortune, around $100,000 (akin to $2.6 million in today’s money).

In the years after Emeline’s death, the Sherwood home at 309 West Second Street continued to host Jennie Moore’s séances. While the medium made visits to San Francisco, where she advertised herself as “Rev. Jennie Moore, whose fame as a materializing medium astounded the courts of Chicago,” Moore and her husband essentially moved in with George.

A postcard showing the Free Cliff Museum in Santa Cruz, California, owned and operated by Jennie and John A. Moore after the couple moved to California from Duluth with George W. Sherwood circa 1900. Sherwood's fortune financed the venture, but it was not a long-standing success. (Image: Public Domain)
A postcard showing the Free Cliff Museum in Santa Cruz, California, owned and operated by Jennie and John A. Moore after the couple moved to California from Duluth with George W. Sherwood circa 1900. Sherwood’s fortune financed the venture, but it was not a long-standing success. (Image: Public Domain)

During the séances, the dead Mrs. Sherwood would supposedly “materialize” in the cabinet to give her husband direction regarding his business affairs. Soon, mortgages were taken out on the Sherwood properties and Mrs. Moore became the sole owner of the Sherwood residence. In 1900, “Emeline” told the captain to sell all his worldly goods and leave Duluth at once, which he did, moving to Santa Cruz, California, with Moore and her husband. The remaining real estate was sold very quickly at severe losses.

Before he left town, Sherwood told his extended family that if he died in California, he didn’t want his body returned to Duluth, despite the expensive family monument waiting for him at Forest Hill Cemetery. In late May 1902, Sherwood’s family in Duluth was suddenly notified that an unknown man and woman had presented themselves at a San Francisco bank with a will declaring them the beneficiaries of the remaining $14,000 in Sherwood’s account. Sherwood’s family was surprised that they’d received no notice of the old man’s death, but in the end didn’t dispute the Moores’ claim, magnanimously declaring that “the care Mrs. Moore gave him was a boon to him” in his lonely old age.

Captain George W. Sherwood would have been 72 years old. Despite extensive searches, no obituary notice or official California death record appears to exist telling where, when, and how he died.

Duluth’s most-trusting saloonkeeper disappears

2 Responses to Bouncing Bess and the Spook Priestess Swindler

  1. Spiritualism was rampant in Europe at that time too. Of course it lasted well into the 20th Century — if not most of it — in Duluth. The First Spiritualist Church on east Ninth Street (on the curve where Ninth becomes Eighth) is now occupied by another, more traditional, faith group. This is a fascinating piece. Kudos to Heidi. Warrants a trip for Forest Hill where, atop the cemetery’s hill, there’s a lot of Duluth history and some great tombstones like the Sherwood one pictured.

  2. Reading this puts me in mind of The Dain Curse, Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel that has a mysterious cult of California spiritualists brainwashing and ripping off their followers. As you say, it was a nationwide trend at the time.

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