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20 October 2020

Edgar Wales Burnham (1841 – 1918) forgotten musician

Burnham, originally known as Ellen – her mother’s name - was born in Woodstock, Vermont.  The family moved to Lawrenceville, New York in 1850, and then to Brodhead, Wisconsin in 1857.  

The father, Milo Burnham, a physician, established a medical practice, and also, as many physicians did at that time, operated a drug store.  He became a deacon of the town’s newly established First Congregational Church.  Dr Burnham, a “radical temperance man” refused completely to sell any liquor.  

Ellen, then 16, was a promising musician and organised classes in addition to horse-back riding and working in her father’s drugstore.  At age 18, she became engaged to LW Powell who had come to Brodhead as school principal, but had resigned and founded the town’s only newspaper, The Reporter.   They were married in the Congregational Church in February 1860.  Mrs Powell quickly learned the newspaper trade and the printer’s trade.  

In April 1861, as the US Civil War started, Powell volunteered for the 7th Wisconsin regiment and was was ordered to Washington.  Mrs Powell accompanied her husband.   Her somewhat masculine appearance was noted by a government detective who decided that she was a man, and therefore must be a spy. He followed her on the same train to Chicago and arrested her on an overnight stay.  Telegrams were sent to and from the Governor of Wisconsisn and Mr Powell before she was released.   Mr Powell arrived and escorted his wife back to Brodhead.   

However they had to face up to Ellen’s increasing virilization.  Ellen left alone for Chicago, while Mr Powell visited the local tailor and had a suit made.   That was then shipped to Chicago.   Powell informed Dr Burnham that Ellen was not a woman and was now wearing male attire.   An examination with a  doctor in Chicago was arranged which confirmed what Powell had said.   Finally Dr Burnham was permitted to examine his child, who was now to be known as Edgar.  

A divorce of the Powells was effected.  A position for Edgar became available at a drug wholesaler in Chicago.  Edgar was regarded as a good-looking man.  He was the organist at two churches and became engaged to the daughter of his landlady.  

In 1863 Edgar returned to Brodhead and again worked in his father’s drug store while maintaining his relationship with the fiancée in Chicago.   The drug store was popular as townsfolk flocked to see the handsome young man with an interesting past.  The Chicago engagement being over, Edgar  courted and married one of his former music students, a Miss Gertrude Everett, against the wishes of her parents.  

In 1864, Dr Burnham sold up his properties in Brodhead and moved to Waterloo, Iowa, 165 miles / 266 km west, taking his family and Edgar's wife with him.   Edgar worked again in the family drug store. Edgar had commissioned a pipe organ, an 8-stop instrument in a 9-foot case with gilded front pipes.  When it arrived in Waterloo, it was installed in the First Congregational Church where Edgar both performed and taught.   

In late 1867 someone in Waterloo, having heard something about Edgar’s past, wrote to the editor of the La Cross, Wisconsin Democrat seeking more information.  That editor published a version of Edgar’s life in January 1868.  This account contained errors such as claiming that the Powells had a child, and was republished in other newspapers in the next few weeks. In response, the editor of the Brodhead Independent published a longer and more reliable account 1 February.

Edgar taught, performed, conducted, served as church organist and eventually organized the Iowa State Conservatory of Music. He also joined the staff of the Iowa Normal School in nearby Cedar Falls (now the University of Northern Iowa) as a professor of music.  


In 1877 his father Dr Burnham financed the building of the Burnham Opera House in Waterloo which seated 1,000 people.  Edgar also became the manager of the opera house, an event organizer and the manager of a performing troupe, the Burnham Novelty Company, that featured his wife’s singing.  

While the troupe was in Minneapolis-St Paul, someone remembered the press stories from 1868, and they were retold in the St Paul Pioneer-Press in March 1882, and repeated in other papers.   The company folded later that year.  

Dr and Mrs Burnham retired and moved to Chicago.   In 1885 the opera house was sold, and Edgar and Gertrude also moved to Chicago, and then a few years later to San Diego, California, where Gertrude died age 44 in 1891.  

Edgar remarried to Teresa, an Irish woman with three children, and moved his new family back to Chicago.  His father died in 1893, and his mother six years after that.  The Waterloo Opera House was destroyed by fire in 1906. The marriage with Teresa endured.   Edgar died in 1918.  Teresa, 20 years younger, never remarried, and stayed in Chicago until her death age 87 in 1946.   

  • “HE, SHE, OR IT: A Correct Account of the Mysterious Female Man: Truth Stranger Than Fiction“. The Brodhead (Wis.) Independent, Feb. 1, 1868. Online.
  • “A Most Strange Chapter”. Vermont Transcript, Feb 7, 1868.  Online.   Online
  • “A Remarkable Case”. St Paul Pioneer Press, March 14, 1882.  Online
  • “A Strange Metamorphosis”. Dubuque Times, Mar 28, 1882.  Online.
  • “Edgar W Burnham (Obituary)”. The Waterloo Times-Tribune, May 10, 1918.  Online.
  • Frank D Myers. “The curious case of Ellen/Edgar Burnham (Part 1)”.   Lucas Countyan,  December 07, 2015.   Online.
  • Frank D Myers. “The curious case of Ellen/Edgar Burnham (Part 2)”.   Lucas Countyan,  December 08, 2015.   Online.

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The Wikipedia page for Waterloo, Iowa lists around 60 notable residents, but does not include Dr Milo Burnham who financed the building of their Opera House, nor Edgar who organized the Iowa State Conservatory of Music.

The Obituary says that Edgar met his second wife in Chicago, but Myers says San Diego.   I have gone with the second.

Despite lacking a modern understanding of what happened to his body, and despite being outed twice, it seems that Edgar had a good life.

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