I have always called these gals ” The Sanderson Sisters” because of my love of the film Hocus Pocus, but in reality they were the Sutherland Sisters.
In the late 19th century, though, the most startling, erotic thing you could do as a stage performer is let down your Rapunzel-esque floor-length hair. In fact, according to their biographer, the first real celebrity models in the United States were known as the Seven Sutherland Sisters, who had 37 feet of hair among them. Sarah, Victoria, Isabella, Grace, Naomi, Dora, and Mary Sutherland sang and played instruments—but no one really cared about that. No, the crowd came to ogle their magical, mythical, uber-feminine hair.
Flaunting all that awesome hair onstage wasn’t quite enough to launch the Sutherlands from abject poverty to riches, so the sisters’ father, the Rev. Fletcher Sutherland, concocted a patent hair-growing tonic. Because Victorian women coveted the sister’s luscious locks, the cash came flooding in. The family grew rich beyond its wildest imaginations, as the sisters knocked serious political issues off the newspapers’ front page with their outrageous celebrity antics. By the mid-1880s, none of the sisters could walk down the street, their flowing tresses dragging behind them like dress trains, without being mobbed by starstruck fans.
There’s a new house, a modest modern one, where once stood the mansion of the Seven Sutherland Sisters. The showplace of the countryside, built on the Ridge Rd. northwest of Lockport, in 1893 with the hair tonic dollars of the Seven Sisters “with the longest hair in the world,” burned to the ground early on the evening of Jan. 24, 1938. Only two of the sisters were living then. Seven years before the fire, Grace and Mary had been forced to leave the farm on which Sutherlands had lived for 122 years. Their fortunes had gone into a tailspin, the hair tonic million had long been spent and for four poverty-pinched years, the last two sisters lived drably in the mansion where once all seven had lived so grandly.
The house had risen in all its Victorian elegance in the heyday of the Seven Sisters’ fame and wealth. They spared no expense when they built the ornate wooden pile on the family acres they called “Sutherland Farm.” It was the talk of the fruit country, that house with its 14 rooms, its term bedrooms, one for each sister; its seven hallways, its marble bathrooms with running water, novelty at the rime; its black walnut woodwork, its inlaid hardwood floors, its massive chandeliers and its three furnaces.
A life-size portrait of the Seven Sisters, in color and in all the splendor of their trailing tresses, adorned the wall of the higb-ceilinged living room. Once the roomy third story attic was crammed with Saratoga trunks, containing bottles of the hair grower. Expressmen at Lockport dreaded the sight of those trunks. They were inordinately heavy. In the old days there were spacious lawns and barns and stables for the numerous Sutherland pets. The main barn, unpainted for years, is still there. The stately oak trees which once shaded the front lawn are gone, victims of the fire. Gone too is the summer bouse where once the sisters, scantily clad and with their great masses of hair piled high upon their heads under towels, sunned themselves.
No trace is left of the cinder path where once the sisters rode their high-wheeled bicycles in bathing suits to the dismay of some of their prissy neighbors. This was Sutherland mansion on Ridge Road north west of Lockport where sisters “with the longest hair in the world” lived. It burned in 1938. their pets were buried, each in its casket with its individual name plate and each in a marked grave, long since yielded to the plow. Others tend the gardens where once the sisters flitted about, each wearing a cloth mask to protect features and treasured locks from the sun.
One by one the sisters passed on until only two were left. Naomi died in 1893 and Victoria in 1902 when the golden tide was running high. Isabella went in 1914, when the family fortunes were beginning to slump. Dora ran the Canadian business and kept the hair tonic sales going in Alberta until the bobbed hair craze which swept the States hit the prairies, too. She was killed in an automobile accident in Winnipeg in 1919. But she had her eccentricities among them 17 pet cats.
After her death the house was mostly unoccupied for eight years. Henry Bailey, and his children spent some summers there. In 1927 Grace and Mary retutned to the mansion, living only in the upstairs rooms. They were old ladies and there was that same year Sara died still with the famous locks at 73. Their tresses had lost their value and neighbours called her “the sensible one.” There was no gold in the family. She was the family balance wheel. Old neighbours recall the pitiful circumstances of the two sisters in their last stay in the big house. Mary was ill. She had “strange notions” and there were bars at the windows of her room. Sometimes there wasn’t enough to eat but Grace was proud and still held her head high and told her neighbours she wanted no gifts of food.
In 1932 the place was sold to the Cecil Carpenters of Lockport, who were restoring it to much of its oldtime elegance when fire leveled it. Mary lived until 1939. Some of her last days were in a sanitarium, some in the Niagara County Infirmary. Grace died in Buffalo in 1946. She was well over 90, the last of a fabulous sisterhood, which lives on in the lore of the fruit country. One afternoon when the apple blossoms were shedding their fragrance on the air, Clarence O. Lewis of Lockport, Niagara County historian, who has collected a mass of data on the Seven Sisters, drove out to Mike Gorman’s place on the McClew Rd. in the town of Newfane. Michael Gorman and his wife are getting along in years but their memories of the sisters were still alive.
They lived on a farm diagonally across the road from the Sutherlands. In those days Sara was the only permanent occupant of the residence. Grace and Mary, who “lived around” in Lockport and Buffalo, were there occasionally. The wheel of fortune was no longer spinning for the family but they tried to keep up appearances. Gorman was hired sometimes by Sara to drive the family carriage, usually to meet trains when one of the clan came home for a visit. He remembers when big Dora landed one day at Lockport wearing a muskrat coat so heavy it was hard for him to lift her.
Mrs. Gorman sometimes helped out at the mansion, especially when Sara had guests or there was one of the family’s extraordinary funerals. She well remembers the nearly two weeks that young Fletcher Bailey was laid out in the house before his aunts would bury him.The house was full of cats. Sara knew every one by name. One day a Gorman son caught one of them in a trap he had set for rats. The animal was so badly hurt it had to be shot. Mike told the boy to bury it and say nothing, hoping Sara It was a vain hope. The next week a newspaper advertisement appeared, offering a reward for the return of the missing pet. Sara was grief-stricken when a favorite horse was burned to death in a Lockport Mery stable fire. The animal was 15 years old and had been raised on the farm from a colt. Its carcass was identified by the gold-plated shoes it wore. So Sara had the horse’s remains hauled home. A carpenter made a casket and the animal was buried ceremoniously in the pet cemetery. – Mike Gorman still has one of those horseshoes but most of the gold plating has rubbed off.
There is an undocumented tale that a pet dog belonging to a Sutherland sister had its own bed and that at the head of the bed was a bell which the animal rang when he wanted attention. But there’s no fiction about the seven dolls. Each belonged to a particular sister and the hair of each doll came from the head of its owner. The dolls stood nearly 3 feet high. The seven dolls went with the Seven Sisters on tour and were part of the hair tonic sales ballyhoo. The maids who combed the seven magnificent heads of human hair also had to look after the seven dolls. The doll which had been Sara’s is now owned by Mrs. Thomas Buckley of North Tonawanda, the Gorman’s daughter. Sara gave it to Mrs. Gorman before she died. For all their almost incredible eccentricities, the Seven Sutherland Sisters are revealed as a warm-hearted, impulsive, open-handed lot. Shyness may have accounted in part for their clannishness. They loved their own so much they were loath to commit their bodies to the earth. They loved their pets in life and honored them in death. They made a fortune and they spent it grandly. They held their heads high to the last. They were colorful and different and will be remembered forever.
Chicago, Illinois16 Aug 1908, Sun • Page 34
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