Rescuing Remnants Preview: Setting the Stage for Josephine Workman’s Transformation into Silent Film Actor Princess Mona Darkfeather, 1882-1910

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This coming Sunday, the 12th, the Homestead is offering a virtual talk on the remarkable story of Josephine Marie Workman (1882-1977), who, for about five years from 1910 to 1915, was a popular star in early silent film under the stage name of Princess Mona Darkfeather. As the name clearly indicates, she performed mostly in roles as an “Indian maiden,” for several studios, including Bison and Kalem, and, while some studio promotion touted her as an authentic indigenous person, she was sometimes forthright, to a degree, in stating that she was from “an aristocratic Spanish family.”

Josephine actually likely had some Native American ancestry, particularly through her father Joseph (1833-1901), son of Homestead founders William Workman (1799-1876), a native of England, and Nicolasa Urioste (1802-1892), who was born and raised in Taos, New Mexico. While there was the Spanish pueblo there, it could be significant that, when Joseph, as well as his sister Antonia Margarita, were baptized, these sacraments were not conducted in San Fernando de Taos Church in the pueblo at the south end of the community, but in the church situated within the Indian pueblo. This may be an indicator that Nicolasa had at least some amount of Indigenous ancestry. There are a few other references from later that described Señora Workman as an Indian, as well, including family letters and reminiscences from a family whose matriarch, Venancia Peña Davis, a Luiseño Indian from northern San Diego County, was a close friend of Nicolasa.

A recent donation by Jon and Elaine Krebs of Joseph M. Workman at his nuptial and . . .

Josephine M. Belt on her wedding day in San Francisco, late 1869

Josephine’s mother, Josephine Belt (1850-1937), was the daughter of George Gordon Belt, who hailed from Maryland and Vibiana (Viviana) Asorca, was a native of Chile and, while nothing is known about her background in that country on the Pacific coast of South America, it is possible that she, too, had Indigenous ancestry, whether Mapuche, by far the most common, Aymara, Quechua, or other groups. Of course, it may be that Vibiana came from parents who were both Spanish colonists or migrants.

In any case, it may not be strictly true that Josephine lacked Native American ancestry, though her ancestors were not enrolled in any tribe, but it is clearly the case that, in her guise as Princess Mona Darkfeather, she appropriated an Indigenous persona that was very much a haphazard one based generally on the Native peoples of the United States and certainly not those from New Mexico or greater Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Herald, 16 June 1894.

Her parents married in late 1869 in San Francisco and Vibiana was raised in Stockton, where her father was an early settler arriving during the Gold Rush and a merchant. Joseph Workman, spent much of his youth living in Baltimore with his father’s sister, Agnes Workman Vickers, and it assumed this was done so that he could receive an education not possible in Mexican-era Los Angeles (his sister, typically for girls of that era, never had a formal education).

Sometime after Mrs. Vickers died in 1848 and prior to 1854, Joseph relocated to Boonville, Missouri to live with his uncle David Workman and his family, inclujding wife Nancy Hook and sons Thomas, Elijah, and William Henry. Because of his years spent with his relatives, Joseph became very close with them, especially with his cousins who were close to him in age.

Los Angeles Times, 18 August 1895.

It was in 1854 that the Missouri Workmans, with Joseph in tow, took the Oregon/California Trail overland to northern California and then sailed down the coast and were met at the rudimentary harbor at San Pedro by William Workman, who’d encouraged his brother to come west after an attempt to operate a store in Sacramento ended in a fire that destroyed seven-eighths of the city.

The reunification with Joseph, however, was short, as the 21-year old was sent immediately to the Central Valley to help manage cattle and horses owned by his father and brother-in-law F.P.F. Temple (Antonia Margarita’s husband) as part of their Gold Rush-era trade between Los Angeles and the mining regions of Tuolumne County.

Josephine Workman whistler The_Los_Angeles_Times_Tue__Sep_14__1897_
An early account of 15-year old Josephine Workman entertaining as a whistler at the Burbank Theatre, Times, 14 September 1897.

Joseph stayed in that area for fifteen years until his marriage to Josephine (recently donated photos by two branches of the Workman and Temple families include view of the couple and their wedding party shown here.) Almost immediately, the couple resettled on the Workman family’s half of the 49,000-acre Rancho La Puente with over 800 acres bordering the San Gabriel River on the west, Walnut Creek on the north and Valley Boulevard on the south given to Joseph by his father, though it took some coaxing from a friend (more on this in a future post!) to get William to turn the deed over to his son, for reasons that remain elusive, though it was said that the elder Workman stated that the land he gave to his son was for the grandchildren.

On this holding, Joseph planted crops and raised stock, including sheep, while a house was built near the banks of Walnut Creek. He and Josephine Belt had five children within a decade while living at the ranch, including Mary (1870), Agnes (1872), Lucille (1874), William J. (1876), and George (1879). When Joseph’s father and brother-in-law went through the terrible tragedy of the failure of their Temple and Workman bank and almost all of William Workman’s portion of La Puente was lost, Joseph kept his property intact.

Josephine Workman 1900 census
The 1900 federal census listing for Josephine Belt Workman at the Casa Loma Hotel in Los Angeles, including three young women “dress makers” and her 18-year old daughter Josephine, whose occupation was as a “Whistler.”

In 1881, however, it was decided to lease the ranch and the Workmans moved to Los Angeles, buying, for $800, a lot adjacent to Joseph’s cousin, William Henry Workman, founder of the community of Boyle Heights. The following year, architect Ezra F. Kysor (who is attributed with the design of the circa 1870 renovation of the Workman House at the Homestead) designed a residence, costing $4,000, for Joseph and Josephine.

On 13 January 1882, the couple welcomed their sixth child, Josephine (some sources list her birth year as 1883, but there was another daughter, Nellie, born that year and who died at age 2). She was raised in some affluence as the Workmans appeared to have had a decent passive income from leasing the La Puente property. By the end of the decade, about the time that the famed Boom of the Eighties was coming to a close, she began her school years, but her family’s situation would experience a drastic downturn by the time she became a teenager.

A possible reference to Josephine Workman Knoll performing in a play at the Grand Theatre in Los Angeles, Los Angeles Herald, 9 March 1908.

Joseph and Josephine began taking out loans, mortgaging the ranch at La Puente, in the early 1890s, though the reasons are not entirely clear. With the end of the boom and the arrival of the inevitable bust came hard economic times and this was compounded by the national Depression of 1893. There may have been personal reasons, perhaps money for their older daughters as they married during this period.

Whatever it was, the German-American Savings Bank foreclosed on a loan that went unpaid and the La Puente property was acquired by El Paso capitalist Oscar T. Bassett (there are online sources that state Bassett bought the ranch from Joseph, but this is not the case—he acquired it after the foreclosure). Because Josephine was the only of the Workman children to be considered a minor, she was to be specifically notified of her loss of any right to the ranch in the foreclosure and acquisition by Bassett, whose name later gave the La Puente-area unincorporated ommunity its name. More on that story in a future post, as well!

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Little Josephine Frances Knoll in an article that highlighted her, Los Angeles Times, 15 March 1908.

Almost immediately, Joseph and Josephine separated, though they did not divorce, and their house in Boyle Heights was also lost, though by sale or foreclosure is unknown. Joseph spent much of the last several years of his life living with some of his children and died in March 1901 at about age 67. Josephine, meanwhile, declared bankruptcy in 1896 and then began operating boarding houses, though some of these were accused by local press of being houses of ill fame or brothels, on Temple and New High streets, in the first years of the 20th century.

It is telling, perhaps, that the 1900 census recorded Mrs. Workman as a hotel keeper at 104 Los Angeles Street (where a Double Tree Hilton hotel complex is today) but that three of her boarders were women between 19 and 27 years of age and all with occupations as “dressmaker,” this often being a euphemism for “prostitute.” There were two men in what was the Casa Loma hotel including David Parton, who later married Mrs. Workman.

Josephine Knoll 1910 census
The 1910 federal census listing for Josephine Workman Knoll, age 28, and managing an apartment house, her 8-year old daughter Josephine Frances, a theater actress named Anna Marsh and another couple on Flower Street between 4th and 5th streets in Los Angeles. Later that year, as Princess Mona Darkfeather, Josephine would be well on her way to transformation as a popular early silent film star playing Indian maiden roles.

The younger Josephine, listed as born in January 1882, had the occupation of “whistler.” This might have been a precursor of sorts to her future career as whistling was a popular form of entertainment in vaudeville theaters and the like. The 14 September 1897 issue of the Los Angeles Times reviewed a play at the Burbank Theatre and added that “a new specialty was introduced last night, in which Miss Josephine Workman rendered two whistling solos. They were particularly good and met with merited applause.”

Whatever her entertainment ambitions were, Josephine wound up having a child, Josephine Frances, born in Nobember 1901, and married musician Harry Knoll in February 1906, though whether the girl as born out of wedlock to Knoll or someone else is unknown. The family resided on Flower Street between 4th and 5th, about where the Westin Bonaventure Hotel is now, until Harry died of liver cancer in early 1908.

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An early advertisement for a Princess Mona Darkfeather film, “An Indian’s Test,” ten days before Josephine’s daughter died of diptheria at age 9, Bennington [Vermont] Banner, 21 December 1910.

Tragedy struck again, when young Josephine, who, a couple of months after her father’s death, was highlighted in the Times as “a graceful little dancer and sweet singer” who “has often appeared in entertainments given for charitable purposes in the city” died of diptheria on New Year’s Eve 1910 at just age 9.

By this time, Josephine, despite all of these crushing personal calamities, was already transforming herself into Princess Mona Darkfeather with some of her earliest notices in newspapers coming just days before her daughter’s death in films for the Bison Studios. We’ll pick up the story from here with the talk this weekend, so, if this preview whetted your appetite to know more about Josephine Workman and her evolution into Princess Mona Darkfeather, please join us Sunday at 2 p.m. via Zoom to hear more.

[The discussion of Josephine’s possible Native American ancestry has been revised thanks to the input of Dr. Angela Aleiss, author of the forthcoming book Hollywood’s Native Americans: Stories of Identity and Resistance.]

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