by Paul R. Spitzzeri
A great deal of attention is being given these days to the role of ethnicity in film, including such questions about whether there are enough diverse characters and whether people of one ethnic group should be playing roles that call for those of another. Along with gender representation, the matter of ethnic diversity is continuing to evolve in the movie industry as it is in society broadly.
Over a century ago, these simply were not considerations openly debated or discussed in Hollywood, largely because whites were dominant in the population at large and within the industry. So, when Josephine Marie Workman (1882-1977) took on the persona of Princess Mona Darkfeather in dozens of films between 1909 and 1917, there was no significant critique of her acting as an Indian.
In fact, she was simultaneously described in media accounts as a “real Indian” and as a member of a “Spanish aristocratic family,” though there were also reports that she was made an honorary member of Indian tribes, lived with natives for a period, spoke a number of languages and other likely falsehoods. It was accepted practice for publicity departments of studios to create biographies of stars that left aside accuracy for the sake of burnishing the image of the actor.
Actually, Josephine was not from an “aristocratic Spanish family” either. Her parents were Josephine Belt, a native of Stockton, whose mother was Chilean and whose father was American, and José Manuel Workman, the son of Homestead owners, British native William and Nicolasa Workman, who hailed from Taos, New Mexico. Both of Josephine’s grandmothers were not only of Spanish descent, but likely had native ancestry, as well, particularly Nicolasa Workman, whose hometown had and is now a significant Indian community.
As noted here before, Josephine was born in Boyle Heights, the subdivision of Los Angeles east of the Los Angeles River, founded by her cousin, William H. Workman (in fact, her family lived next door to him). She lived in a large home and enjoyed a comfortable childhood existence, thanks to the proceeds from her father’s ranch of over 800 acres on Rancho La Puente. The property was exempted from the loan to the Temple and Workman bank obtained from Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who then foreclosed and took possession of some 18,000 acres of the Workman share of La Puente.
A down economy and personal financial problems, however, led to the loss of Joseph Workman’s ranch to foreclosure in 1895 and he and Josephine Belt separated. The younger Josephine lived with her mother and, in the 1900 census, the 18-year old was listed as a “whistler,” meaning she performed in theaters in whistling performances that foreshadowed her future career.
It was not known until very recently that Josephine married musician Martin Knoll and had a daughter, also named Josephine. Tragically, the young girl, who appeared to have been a performer at her tender age, died at age 9 and was followed shortly after by her father. It was around this time, in 1909 or 1910, that Josephine Workman Knoll began her acting career, said by some sources to have originated because she answered an advertisement seeking a woman to play an ethnic character.
The film industry was then in its infancy in Los Angeles and Josephine launched her career in studios based in Edendale, now Silver Lake, northwest of downtown Los Angeles. Her character of Princess Mona Darkfeather became widely popular and her association with actor and director Frank Montgomery (born Frank Akley) led to marriage in 1912.
It was in 1913 and 1914 that Princess Mona Darkfeather was at the apex of her career, making dozens of short two-reel films that were screened throughout the United States (and, presumably, overseas). Articles about her routinely appeared in newspapers all over the country, with that mix of totally fabrication of her Indian identity and the semi-accurate attribution of her Latino ancestry appearing at the same time (though in varied papers in different places.)
Her career slowed markedly from 1915, perhaps because of oversaturation of the character, changing tastes, Mona’s age (she was trying to play Indian maidens as she approached her mid-thirties) or a combination of these and other factors. She made her last film in 1917, though she did some live appearances in character in theaters in the western United States and her films were occasionally shown through much of the 1920s.
Meanwhile, she filed suit in the late 1910s challenging the legality of the foreclosure over her father’s ranch, which was acquired by El Paso businessman Oscar T. Bassett and then left to his son, Charles. Claiming that she was not properly notified, as a minor (she was 14 when the foreclosure took place) of the proceedings, Josephine secured a stunning victory in Los Angeles Superior Court and stood to reap a major windfall of well over $100,000. An appeal to the state supreme court, however, overturned the lower court ruling and the matter ended.
In 1928, Mona, as she was known, and Frank Montgomery divorced and she married twice subsequently, living a quiet and obscure life in the South Bay area and in Monrovia, though she and Frank reconciled and remarried at the end of 1937. The couple lived in Silver Lake, where their careers in film started, with Montgomery working as a camera operator and in other crew roles. He died in 1944, while Mona lived for over thirty years beyond that.
Finally, at age 95, long forgotten as an actress and without contact with her family, she died in the same home where she’d lived for forty years. Sadly, she was a ward of the State of California and her possessions, including memorabilia from her long-faded movie career vanished. The sad circumstances of her end included being buried in an unmarked grave at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City.
Thanks to her great-nephew Douglas Neilson, however, her resting place now has a simple marker and over the years Doug also developed a small collection of artifacts related to Mona’s career. The Homestead has also acquired some objects from her film days, as well, and, a few years ago, Doug donated his collection to the museum.
The latest addition to the Homestead’s holdings on Princess Mona Darkfeather is a remarkable and rare lobby card, which would be displayed in a movie theater to promote current and upcoming features, of the actress in a scene from the film The Oath of Conchita, which was released on 1 September 1913, during her heyday.
The film starred Mona in her usual Indian maiden persona, but it was advertised as a “Spanish-Indian romance,” because its plot, according to a synopsis in the fan magazine Motion Picture World involved a Catholic missionary answering the call
“to preach to the wilder tribes” in a mountain village “where he teaches the Indians kindly ways and good deeds.”
Mona starts as the title character, who is so taken with the priest’s work that she “is prevailed on to accompany him down to the mission to be instructed.” Yet, the spiritual clashes with the feelings of the heart as “Conchita awaken[s] forbidden love in the padre’s heart.” Fortunately for the tortured cleric, “Ricardo, a Spanish grandee” arrives just in time and “woos and wins Conchita and marries her.” Then comes “El Sombriado, the black one from the mountains” who was raised with Conchita and has nursed “a life-long love” for the maiden. He kills Ricardo and Conchita “takes her oath of vengeance” and seeks out her husband’s murderer, followed by the priest.
The missionary is captured by El Sombriado, but is released by Conchita, who is then attacked by “the black one.” In the struggle, an old cross, weakend by years and exposure to the elements, breaks and the arm hits El Sombriado on the head, killing the evil Indian in what is accounted a divine retribution. Conchita, satisfied with fulfilling her oath, returns to her Indian home in the mountains. Obviously, there is a good deal of stereotyping and stock character portrayals that just wouldn’t fly today, but The Oath of Conchita probably thrilled a lot of people when it played in theaters 105 years ago!