On her 80th birthday, Annabelle Whitford was on top of the world. She'd received jams, jellies, flowers, phone calls and telegrams from well-wishers across the country, and had entertained several photographers and reporters who had come to call, all within her small Chicago apartment. It was quite the change from the birthday Whitford thought she would have just a day prior, when the recently widowed former Follies girl felt as though she had been forgotten by the rest of the world. She felt lonely and hopeless, despite being, at one time, one of the best-known dancers in the country.
Annabelle Moore Whitford was born July 6, 1878 to Amanda Moore in Chicago, Illinois. Annabelle's biological father was out of the picture, but it didn't really matter. She and her mother were inseparable, and by the time she was in her teens, her mother had remarried. According to Annabelle, she was on stage by the time she was 11, and began to make a name for herself as a dancer. Her signature dances soon became the Serpentine, the Butterfly and the Sun Dances, and she soon became so well known (particularly in New York), that she was invited by Thomas Edison to be one of his first subjects to be recorded with the Kinetoscope. Edison's films of her dances became so popular, that she was invited back to the Black Maria to record new performances to make up for the prints that had worn out. Thanks to her growing popularity, she was also chosen to perform at the World's Columbian Exposition (aka the Chicago World's Fair) just months shy of her 15th birthday.
Although her performance at the fair would help boost her popularity even further, she soon found herself in the midst of one of the highest profile scandals to hit 19th century New York. In December 1896, Annabelle said she was approached by agent James H. Phipps to perform at a bachelor party being held by Herbert Seeley, grandson of P.T. Barnum, for his brother. Although Annabelle initially accepted the offer, Phipps told her to dance for the men without her tights. She was insulted, and although he later said she could wear her tights, she refused and told her stepfather, theatrical agent William S. Moore, about the incident. He reported the incident to the police who then raided the banquet where "muscle" dancer Ashea Wabe was performing. Although she wasn't nude at the time of her arrest, Wabe later admitted that she'd been asked to perform nude and that she fully intended to. The trial that resulted from the raid stemmed from public indecency, but because of the stature of the men involved, there was backlash against the police and Annabelle's stepfather. Annabelle herself testified during the trial, and had her testimony refuted by others, but her stepfather ultimately paid the price. On January 17, 1897, Moore died of pneumonia at just the age of 52. His doctor claimed that the notoriety the trial had brought him hastened his death.
In the end, the scandal did little to hurt Annabelle's career. She returned to the stage, pursued drama for a couple of years, and then made the transition into musical comedy where she again began to make a name for herself. She appeared in productions like The Sprightly Romance of Marsac and The Sleeping Beauty and the Beast, before joining Eddie Foy in a production of Mr. Bluebeard in 1903. Although the show was well-received, its run ended in tragedy. On December 30, the company was preparing to end its run at the beautiful Iroquois Theatre in Chicago. The theater was packed well beyond capacity -- 2,000 audience members were estimated in attendance and many of them were children. At the beginning of the second act, an arc light shorted out, causing a curtain to catch fire. A stagehand attempted to douse the fire, but it was no use. The scenery and stage were soon in flames. Foy remained on stage trying to calm patrons as they attempted to escape. Some patrons were trampled by fellow audience members, doors failed to open, and other patrons were trapped in dead ends. Annabelle escaped, but was injured and admitted to a local hospital. Others were not so lucky. An estimated 575 people died the day of the blaze with dozens more dying in the following days. It was an event that Annabelle would never forget, and she would often participate in memorial services marking the anniversary of the tragedy in later years.