Tillie Maude O'Dell, Beaufort girl, Broadway actress

When families die out in a particular community, contributions of native sons (and daughters) get lost to time. An example for us to rectify this National Women's History Month is the life story of Maude O'Dell (spelling varies), a woman of considerable stage presence and enduring historical mystery.

Doing a little research leaves me with more questions than answers but with additional information to share with you.

In our Local History and Nature web pages of "Famous Beaufortonians", we find Matilda C. Odell, a.k.a. "Tillie" Maude Odell Doremus.

Here's what the entry written by Dennis Adams, Information Service Coordinator, says:

"Tillie" Maude Odell Doremus (1870 -1937): The stage career of Beaufort's best-known actress spanned almost forty years (half of that time was with the Shuberts in New York). Doremus appeared for 400 nights in The Prisoner of Zenda, her first real success. She went on to appear in The Student Prince, Show Boat and Tobacco Road (in the role of Sister Bessie Rice). Maude Odell Doremus was found dead in her dressing room just before the curtain was to go up on a performance of Tobacco Road. The cause of death was a heart attack. According to former Beaufort resident Brent Breedin, Ms. Doremus owned what was then known as the Edward Barnwell House (1405 Bay Street in Beaufort), which was bought soon after her death by sheriff James Edwin McTeer.

To see her stage credits sheet, click here to access the Internet Broadway Database.

Tobacco Road ran for a total of 3182 performances in the Forrest Theatre. Odell acted the role of Sister Bessie Rice from opening night on December 3, 1933 until her death backstage on February 27, 1937 awaiting her cue for Act 2.

(The Forrest Theatre is located at 230 W. 49th St., New York, NY. In 1945, it was renamed the Coronet Theatre; it became the Eugene O'Neill Theatre in 1959.)

The Internet Movie Database lists three films for Maude O'Dell: Dare Devil O'Dare (1934); and two silent black and white films from 1915 Gambier's Advocate and Niobe. (That's about all I could find out for free. To access the IMDB deeper requires a fee.)

You can view 14 images of our Beaufort Native Daughter Maude Odell in the digital Billy Rose Theatre Collection, an archive of almost 5 million items documenting the theatrical arts.

Please note: I discovered in the course of this research that there was an English model named "Maude Odell" at approximately the same time. Lots of the Google hits refer to the English model.

Now that we have access to the Ancestry Library Edition, I can dig a little deeper while sitting at my desk:

Her birth year is given variously as 1870, 1872, 1874, the month variously as August or November, depending on the source.

Because South Carolina didn't require registrations of births until 1915, there isn't a birth certificate to clarify the issue. Because O'dell is buried in the St. Peter's Catholic Church churchyard on Carteret Street, she was likely a lifelong Roman Catholic. Is there was a baptismal record at St. Peter's?

Between 1830 and 1900, the official enumeration date for the collection of federal census data was June 1st. So starting with the earliest birth year of record, I searched the 1870 census for her name. I found James,a baker, and Alice, whose housekeeping in the Odell household. There is a child, Benjamin Odell, aged 4 living with them.

Tillie first appears in the 1880 census as a 9 year old girl, living with her father, James, still a baker by trade, his wife, Alice, a confectioness, and son, Benjamin C, aged 14. The Odells have two boarders: Levi Wenstein, a music teacher from Georgia; and, Lizzie Botume, a teacher most closely associated with the "Old Fort" Plantation Freedman's school. (Elizabeth Botume wrote First days amongst the contrabands which we have in the BDC). A mulatto man, aged 20, Benjamin Johnson is listed as the family's servant.

If "Tillie Maude" is 9 in the 1880 census taken on 8 June (the enumerator dated that particular page), then she would have been born sometime between 2 June 1870 and 31 May 1871. Official registration date was June 1 as stated above.

The 1890 Federal Census was burned in a 1921 fire at the Smithsonian Institution where it was being stored. Thus, 20 years elapse between the 1880 census and 1900 census. A lot can happen in 20 years.

The next federal census, that of 1900, shows Tillie's occupation as "Actress." She is listed as 25 years old. Her month of birth is "August." Her year of birth is "1874." She is living in the Sea Island Hotel with her parents, James and Alice, and her younger brother, also a James. He's 18 years old.

I don't know what happened to brother Benjamin C. listed in 1880. Only 5 years older than Tillie Maude, and living in the James and Alice Odell household in 1880, she had to have known him! Where was he? There are several possibilities. In 1900, if alive, he should have been about 34 years of age. It may be that he set up his own household in the meantime. He could have moved away. He could have died. Since he's not the focus of this entry, I'm just going to let that unresolved issue rest.

Interestingly, Tillie Maude has gone from being 9 years old in 1880 to being only 25 years old in 1900. I assure you it's a definite closed numeral "9" and not a malformed numeral "4" in the 1880 census. Somewhere along the way, she's gotten 4 years younger in 20 years! However, such adjustments to age is not uncommon in census records, particularly among those of female gender.

Another discrepancy -- In James F.'s (the brother) death certificate, their father's name is listed as "John." In the 1870, 1880, and 1900 censuses, the head of household and husband of Alice is definitely "James" (the elder).

Maud got married around 1902. (Notice the change in spelling). She is listed in the 1910 census as "Maud O. Doremus," a married woman for 8 years, but she's living in the household of her widowed mother, Alice Odell, in a Hotel on Bay Street (the razed Sea Island Hotel -- upon which the current Sea Island Hotel sits). Her brother, James F., is employed as the hotel clerk.

How curious -- Alice is shown as the mother of two children, both of whom are still living. [The 1910 census asked how many children a woman had delivered and how many still survived.] What about Benjamin C. O'dell listed in as a son of James O'dell in 1880? [The relationship is described in terms of the relationship to the head of household.] Was he perhaps Alice's stepson?

Alice's husband, James, must have died between June 2, 1900 and May 31, 1910 - before South Carolina required the registration of deaths. There isn't a tombstone for him in the St. Peter's Churchyard cemetery nor do we have an obituary on file for James, the father. This might be another question for extant church records.

In the 1920 census, she is listed as "Muade O. Doremus,[sic]" aged 46, "Stage Actress", a lodger in the household with "stage actor," and married man, Leo Donnelly, at 129 48th Street. (No one else is listed within Donnelly's household.) In the same building, James, now age 36, lives alone. He is employed as a Hotel Manager.

Hard as I've tried, I cannot seem to find the right James O'dell and/or Maud(e) Doremus, Maud(e) Odell, M Odell, M Doremus, etc., in the 1930 census.

Leo Donnelly, birthplace Pennsylvania, about the right age in 1930, aged 52, a theatrical actor, has married a woman 20 years his junior, Enda, a literary agent. There is no sign of Maude in their apartment building.

Using what I know from other sources, she owned the house at 1405 Bay Street here in Beaufort. Trying a different approach, I went through the images of the 1930 federal census for Beaufort Town, ward-by-ward, image-by-image and still didn't find a listing for her. I found her mother's brother, John H. Clancy, on Bay Street. He's listed as the owner of the property, no street number, and aged 75. (Given that the census is only a quick snapshot of where a person was on a particular date, I wonder if she was abroad on April 1, 1930?)

Her body lies in the St. Peter's Catholic Churchyard on Carteret Street.

In the March 8, 1937 New York Times column on estate matters, subsection "Maude Odell's Estate $5000", James Odell, of 129 48th Street, was her sole beneficiary. James resided at 129 48th Street for no less than 17 years (1920 - 1937 when he inherits Maude's estate).

Her brother didn't have long to enjoy her estate. He died only 3 months later, on May 27th. His death certificate, available through the Ancestry Library Edition database in all of our branch libraries, indicates that he died of alcohol poisoning. He lies adjacent to his mother and sister in St. Peter's Churchyard cemetery.

An aside about New York Vital Records:

New York doesn't have its death certificates digitized in the ALE database, nor could I see how to access them online for free. When Maude presumably married, sometime around 1902, in New York, church records were the standard Matrimonial registration document. At this point, I don't know the name of her husband, the actual date or site of the ceremony. And, yes, I had to look up this information. The Red Book is great! Key take-away: Each state does registrations of births, marriages, and deaths different. There is no one standard rule that applies across all states over all years.

Bottom line: Although I cannot uncover all the details of Maude Odell's life from resources supplied by the Beaufort County Library system, I think that you will agree that the resources in the Beaufort District Collection on local history and the sources made available to library customers through Ancestry Library Edition did allow me to got me a lot farther along the research path than just the Google search.

I did all this research in fits-and-starts around customers, programs, phone calls, and other duties in less than 4 hours.

Visit us to see the vast array of materials of permanent research value that we steward here in the Beaufort District Collection.

About the Author

Grace Cordial has been responsible for the day-to-day operation of the Beaufort District Collection at the Beaufort County Library since 1999.  The Beaufort District Collection exists to acquire, preserve, maintain and make accessible a research collection of permanent value which records the history, culture, and environment of our part of the South Carolina lowcountry.  Besides the research room, Cordial manages the “Virtual BDC:” the BDC web pages, the Online Obituary Index, two digital collections, a new BDC.BCL Facebook page, and the Connections blog.  
 
Among her duties is to coordinate or present programs about local history, Gullah culture, and our coastal environment, including occasional instructional sessions about how to perform historical and/or genealogical research.