Though it can’t be known for sure if this is Stella Murphy, it is a photo of a performer from the Turkish exhibit where Stella worked at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Image credit: James A. Watkins, Columbian Exposition

Beautiful Mystery Maiden, Murphy…

Perhaps no one in Indianapolis remembers Stella Murphy now, but she holds a unique claim to fame.*

Born in Michigan in the late 1870s to James and Alice Murphy, Stella dreamed of rising above her hardscrabble existence. By the mid 1880s, Stella’s family had moved to Indianapolis and Stella, though still quite young, hoped to find a way to augment the family income.

Stella’s first brush with notoriety was reported in a November 1886 Chicago Times article entitled, “Rescued by a Friend.”  In fact, the story may have “gone national,” as it was common in those days for smaller newspapers to copy, verbatim, interesting stories from major city newspapers. Evidence does indicate the story was repeated in papers as far away as Louisiana.

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St. Martinsville (Louisiana) Weekly Messenger, November 13, 1886

“By a chance meeting with a friend on the train which was bringing them to the city [Chicago], Stella Murphy and Frankie Freeman, young and prepossessing girls from Indianapolis, were saved from the wiles of a procuress of this city and sent back to their homes rejoicing at the narrow escape from a shame and ruin. They remained in town long enough to see the woman who had induced them to leave home started on her way to the penitentiary and will doubtless long remember the escapade which came to near ending disastrously for their future happiness…”

The upshot of the story is that an alleged madam named May Scott, masquerading as a seamstress, attempted to lure Stella and her cousin right off an Indianapolis street, to an “unsavory address” in Chicago, under the pretense of becoming dressmakers. The girls, hoping to ease their families’ financial burden by finding jobs to support themselves, boarded a train headed for the Windy City. On the way, Stella and Frankie encountered a male friend who, recognizing the nefarious address, alerted the girls to the ruse. Authorities were notified and May Scott was thrown in jail.

Stella and Frankie returned home unharmed, and a bit wiser. Or perhaps not. One would think that Stella had used up her allotted “15 minutes of fame,” during the May Scott escapade, but it appears that was not to be the case.

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1893 World’s Fair poster. Image credit: James A. Watkins, Columbian Exposition

Fast forward to May 1, 1893. On that day, the gates at the Columbian Exposition–a.k.a. the Chicago World’s Fair– were thrown open. Over the next six months, more than 26 million visitors would flock to the 600-acre fairgrounds and 200+ buildings full of art, food, entertainment and technological wizardry from around the globe. The fair–ostensibly meant to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the New World–served as a showcase for a fully rebuilt and vibrant Chicago, a mere two decades after its devastating fire.

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Indianapolis Daily News, October 1893. 

Judging by the amount of daily ‘World’s Fair’ coverage in the local papers, Indianapolis residents were utterly obsessed by the event. Though in a neighboring state, there was no lack of Hoosier enthusiasm for Chicago’s Columbian Exposition. Special “fair trains” ran, fully-packed with passengers, for the entire six month span of the fair. The price per round trip ticket: $3.50.

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Indianapolis Daily News, September 1893. 

It was on one of these trains that Stella, now a beautiful, creamy-skinned, auburn-haired young woman, made her way once again to the Windy City in hopes of a glamorous job at the fair. Initially, Stella had to settle for a waitressing position in the city, but she visited the fair as frequently as possible in the hopes of finding something more exciting.

The Columbian Exposition opened up a world of innovation and adventure for Stella and thousands of her fellow Hoosiers who, once inside the gates, witnessed the introduction of many new products including: Vaseline, Cracker Jack, Aunt Jemima, Juicy Fruit Gum, Quaker Oats, Cream of Wheat, Shredded Wheat, the Hamburger, and Chili Con Carne –not to mention hula dancers and Ragtime music. The fair’s Beer Gardens were open only to men, and the Machinery Hall was pronounced in the Indianapolis papers to be “the loudest thing on this planet—beyond human endurance.” The largest telescope in the world, measuring 65 feet in length, was on display, as was a 65 foot tall replica of the Lady Liberty.

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1893 Chicago World’s Fair… the “Disneyland” of the time. Image credit: James A. Watkins, Columbian Exposition

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A view of the World’s Fair must have been beyond the wildest imagination of most Hoosiers in 1893.

A great many countries sponsored pavilions that showcased the best aspects of their cultures. A very popular attraction on the Midway were the Turkish and Egyptian belly dancers. Even more popular with men were the “naughty girls” who danced the Hoochie-Coochie at the Algerian exhibit. Before long, Stella caught the eye of the manager of the Turkish theater within the Ottoman Empire Pavilion. He was charmed by this striking and ambitious young lady and hired her for the duration of the fair to sing and dance.

Alas, when the fair ended, so did the job. Not wanting to return home to poverty after the excitement of living amongst world wonders, Stella asked her manager what she ought to do. His reply: travel back with him to Istanbul.

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A mosque announced the Ottoman presence on the World’s Fair Midway. The domes and minarets of the Turkish exhibits became iconic symbols of the fair’s Midway.

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At the center of the village was a Turkish restaurant in a building with a tiered façade — architectural features which repeated the themes of the main Ottoman pavilion.

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Dances from various cultures scandalized (and excited) the 1893 audience.

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In addition to dance and theatrical performances, an “Oriental wedding ceremony” was acted out daily.

Stella did just that. Reliable accounts of her adventures after she left American shores are few. According to a 1971 Indianapolis Star article, Stella got a job in the imperial city, singing in a little bistro where her purported beauty attracted a young nobleman named Hassa Pasha. Pasha proposed marriage but because he already had a number of wives, Stella demurred. Eventually, swayed by expensive gifts and impassioned promises, Stella agreed. And yet the marriage never occurred.

Enter: Emperor Abdul Hamid.

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Emperor Abdul Hamid (1842-1918) who ruled as Ottoman sultan from 1876-1909. Image credit: Encyclopedia Brittanica

Hamid, having heard of a great American beauty, visited the bistro where Stella performed. He was enchanted. According to lore, weeks later, Stella joined the Ottoman Emperor’s “59 other wives” as a member of his garden harem.

What happened to Stella after she disappeared behind the high walls of the palace? No one knows for sure. Research does not, at this time, reveal proof of a marriage to Hamid. When his empire collapsed less than two decades later, there was no word of the fate of the Beautiful Hoosier — *the only Indianapolis girl ever to join a sultan’s harem.

Are you a member of Stella’s family (or the Sultan’s)? Stranger things have happened in the HI forums! If you know more about Stella’s fate, or have records of the continuation of her story, please comment in the space below.