Harmon’s Histories: Annie Pixley delighted global audiences until mysterious death

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

In society circles, they were known as Mr. and Mrs. Robert Fulford.

To the general public, however, Mrs. Fulford was known by her stage name, Annie Pixley.

The actress/comedienne’s national tours, spanning the late 1870s through the late 1880s, often included Helena, Butte and other Montana cities.

She was best known for the 1879 production of “M’Liss, Child of the Sierras,” a play based on a Bret Harte short story.

Pixley was a person of great “personal beauty and personal worth,” of whom the Boston Herald declared: “The breath of scandal has never touched.”

However, one of her later productions called “A Deacon’s Daughter” drew the wrath of the McMinnville, Tennessee’s Southern Standard newspaper.

They termed her play a “corrupt and demoralizing … detestable, trashy and sacrilegious” offering, “utterly devoid of moral or instruction,” with nothing to “commend it to a cultivated taste.”

The show dealt with the “troubles and complexities of a young girl who has adopted the stage, and who tries to conceal her vocation from her New England and Puritanical parents,” according to a St. Paul Daily Globe newspaper review.

Despite the controversy, she played to “crowded houses” nationwide. During an engagement in San Francisco, a couple of gold miners were so enamored with the actress and her performance they sent her a gold nugget weighing more than an ounce.

“Miss Pixley had it attached to an ornamental clasp and cherishes it as one of the most valued of her possessions,” wrote the Los Angeles Herald

On the “Montana circuit” of her national tours, she appeared at Ming’s Opera House in Helena and the Grand Opera House in Butte among other locations.

The Fulfords often stayed at lodgings run by Butte promoter John Maguire, a personal friend of the Fulfords.

The Anaconda Standard, at one point, reported “Annie Pixley has made a comfortable sum of $80,000 (in one) season.”

The only controversy on the Montana tours was a spat between Helena and Bozeman when Pixley stayed in Helena for a second, unscheduled performance in 1888, resulting in the cancellation of the Bozeman engagement. 

Her management claimed it was a matter of train schedules, but the word in Helena was she was so popular the town convinced her to stay another day.

In 1893, the Fulfords sailed for England and Germany for a summer vacation while, back home, plans were being made for another American tour, including many Montana cities..

But on November 9th, word was received from London that Miss Annie Pixley had died of “brain fever,” an 18th century reference to a disease with symptoms consistent with meningitis or encephalitis, but unknown at the time.

Annie Pixley

The New York Times reported her death had “not been altogether unanticipated” by her “devoted circle of friends in America … she had been the victim of a spasmodically disturbed nervous system, amounting at times to a dangerous form of hysteria.”

Many speculated that she had never recovered from the recent deaths of her only child, a 12-year-old, as well as a “favorite cousin,” both while she had been away on one of her many tours.

Since those deaths, she had “grown weak and depressed, as she had grown stout to an unwholesome and unbeautiful degree, and (had) subsided into a hopeless melancholia.”

Her body was cremated, and almost immediately Annie’s mother began “hinting at all kinds of dark deeds,” suggesting the cremation was done to hide a crime.

Pixley’s nurse was said to have “administered certain powders to her” causing her death in a scheme with Robert Fulford to “take possession of her estate, valued from $300,000 to $400,000,” (about $2.2 million in today’s dollars).

Pixley had substantial real estate holdings at the time of her death, including a “$50,000 mortgage on the Park Theater in Philadelphia, and another of $100,000 on some large iron works” outside that city.

Fulford, upon hearing the rumors when he returned to the U. S., said: “It is the most absurd rubbish on earth … the idea of charging me with seeking to get rid of my wife is nothing short of silly on the face of it.”

In a front page article in the February 12, 1894 Anaconda Standard newspaper, he was quoted as telling reporters, “My wife and I lived together 21 years … happily and without separation. Her death was a serious blow to me.

“The assertion on the part of the Pixleys that all the deeds and mortgages belonging to Miss Pixley are in my name is certainly true. It was through my management that she made her fortune. 

“She left everything to me, to be disposed of as I thought best. It was never intended that Mrs. Pixley, her mother, should be left unprovided for. I have taken care of the whole family more than 20 years. 

“Mrs. Pixley has got me in a nice little scrape by her ill-advised talking, and it is a poor way to set about obtaining what she alleges is due her. Of course, I shall continue to look out for my mother-in-law.”

The Pixley family asserted, while they had no proof “upon which to base a prosecution of Mr. Fulford,” they didn’t believe Annie’s brain was affected in any way and questioned her medical treatment, saying “Annie did not like him (the doctor chosen by Fulford) and begged that she be permitted to see another physician.”

They also asserted that because all of Annie’s money was deposited under Fulford’s name, that Annie had to “go to her husband for every dollar she wanted to spend.”

In the end, Robert Fulford settled with Pixleys, giving the actress’s mother $15,000 and an “allowance for the remainder of her life, while the sisters received $10,000 and an allowance.”

Fulford then sailed for England, and press accounts of the matter dwindled and died.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.