by Paul R. Spitzzeri
About a year ago, after a very interesting lecture by Cari Beauchamp regarding women in the early motion picture industry, a post on this blog was published about Josephine Marie Workman (1883-1977), a granddaughter of William and Nicolasa Workman.
Using the stage name “Princess Mona Darkfeather,” she performed in 69 one-reel films and one full-length movie from 1909, when the industry began in greater Los Angeles, until 1917, when she retired. Obviously, her name tells you all you need to know about the roles she played, though, while some sources talk about her as a white woman playing Indians, it is actually more nuanced than that.
After all, Josephine’s maternal grandmother, Vibiana Asorca Belt, hailed from Chile and there is strong likelihood that there was native ancestry in her background. Then, her paternal grandmother Nicolasa Workman, who was born in Taos, New Mexico, where a famed Indian pueblo is located, almost certainly had native blood, as well.
Of course, Josephine, born and raised in Boyle Heights and downtown Los Angeles, was not raised in a native environment, so there was clearly a great deal of appropriation. This is especially true, given that she stated in some interviews that she had a connection to Indians of the Midwestern plains regions!
After her 1917 retirement from the film industry, Princess Mona went on the road and did some type of live performance in theaters on the west coast, but not long after that the character was laid aside. Known as Josephine or Mona Akley, because her film director and cinematographer husband, Frank Montgomery was Frank Akley before he got into the business, her only public presence after her career ended, involved an interesting land dispute.
When Josephine was twelve years old, her father, Joseph M. Workman, lost his 800+ acre share of Rancho La Puente, given to him by his father, William, in 1870, to foreclosure. Times were tough in the 1890s as a national depression and local drought wreaked havoc. Joseph moved his family to Boyle Heights in 1881 and leased his ranch out, but his borrowing money from a Los Angeles bank was what did him in. The new owner of the Joseph Workman ranch was an El Paso businessman, O.T. Bassett. That’s why the area is known as the unincorporated county area of Bassett today.
In the late 1910s and early 1920s, Josephine took Bassett’s son to court, claiming that, because she was the only minor in her family and was not legally notified of her lost inheritance with the ranch, she was entitled to compensation or land. Even though the claim was nearly a quarter century after the fact, she actually won a verdict at the superior court level. However, Bassett appealed and the case eventually went his way. That legal battle deserves its own post, so, someday . . .
Josephine lived until 1977, living in obscurity after Frank (Akley) Montgomery died in the mid-Forties and remained in their Silver Lake home until she passed at the age of 94. Sadly, she was a ward of the State of California and her assets and possessions, including any of her film memorabilia, were presumably sold or discarded.
Over twenty years ago, her great-nephew, Douglas Neilson, began researching his family history and became vitally interested in his aunt, whom he remembered visiting once and seeing film-related material under her bed. He began to collect what he could find of Princess Mona-related memorabilia, as did us here at the Homestead. Eventually, Doug donated his artifacts to the museum, including photographs, postcards, a lantern slide of a film still, and other materials.
Within the last week, a donation to the museum was received and it is a great photograph by Walter Hemenway, known as a photographer of movie actors, of Princess Mona Darkfeather in her Indian costume, including a beaded headdress and fringed blouse, and with her long dark hair in a ponytail.
The photo is pasted down onto a piece of thin cardboard, at the bottom of which is an inscription in the actress’ hand, reading simply, “Your friend / Princess Mona Darkfeather.” While it is great to have a sample of her handwriting in the gift to a fan, what is even more cool is what is on the reverse of the photo.
There is a stamp that is a pictorial form of the actress’ name. At the left is a profile of an Indian’s head with hair at the back forming the “M” and then the rest of the first name “Mona” and the first four words of the last name “Dark . . .” blending into a feather. At the bottom is a peace pipe, the smoke from which forms the head.
Artifacts often arrive with hidden or unnoticed surprises and this one certainly had that. It’s not at all surprising to have an autographed, inscribed photo of a celebrity, but the stamp on the back is something quite unusual and unique. This remarkable artifact is a great addition to our collection of Princess Mona Darkfeather objects.