Frederick Garibaldi Rogers broke down as he presented evidence at the inquest into the death of his estranged wife, Minnie Kate. Once so in love, Frederick would have done anything for her before she’d descended into alcohol and drug abuse, dying alone at the age of 53. What caused this performer, once described as a public idol, to commit suicide?
A Somerset farmer’s daughter, Minnie had far more glamorous aspirations in life and in 1898 sought professional engagements as Mademoiselle Ladora, “Queen of Fire”. Described as “divinely tall”, she was strikingly beautiful and used technology to create illusions that were projected onto her diaphanous dresses, creating a shimmering kaleidoscopic effect. For this she employed an Edison-Rodgers Electrograph (used to generate the white light required in magic lantern shows) operated by her husband.
By the 1890s skirt dancing had become hugely popular thanks to pioneers such as Kate Vaughan, Letty Lind, Loie Fuller and Ladora became known as the original Flame Dancer (not to be confused with Loie Fuller’s ‘Fire Dance’) as she twirled and weaved about the stage surrounded by a blazing ‘inferno’. Her ‘La Danse Illuminata’ featured fluttering butterflies, silvery moonlight, flowers and public figures that were projected onto her translucent skirts as she twirled “in the sheen of gold and silver”.
The effect was very pretty and enchanting to watch. The Electrograph was a high tech bit of kit in those days with Ladora boldly claiming “Where we go others cannot follow. We challenge the world for a finer and smarter worked show”. Other popular routines were her interpretations of the ‘She’ and ‘Flame of Life’ characters from Rider Haggard’s novels, described as both “original and sensational”.
Touring the north of England from 1898-1901 her reputation grew and she gravitated south to London, performing at the Tivoli on the same bills as music hall royalty Marie Lloyd and Joe Elvin in 1902. At the Islington Empire, Ladora elicited feverish applause for projecting General Redvers Buller’s portrait during her performance (described as one of the most triumphant on the programme). As Ladora, she added ‘La Papillon’ and ‘The Spirit of the Storm’ repertoires and later performed on the same bill as Little Tich in 1903.
Could Ladora have made it as a superstar in her own right? Probably not. While reviews of her performances were favourable and her routines inventive, the self-proclaimed Queen of Fire sensationally quit dancing altogether in 1903. It later transpired at her inquest that Ladora wasn’t all sweetness and light: her temper was volcanic and she was prone to storming offstage mid-performance in fits of pique.
In the following years, Ladora descended into chronic alcoholism and drug addiction which had a catastrophic effect on her mental health. Her temper worsened and she became increasingly jealous, accusing her husband of affairs with the female clientele at his car dealership. She caused, in his words, “all kinds of trouble” and the couple’s relationship soured horribly.
Frederick was crushed on discovering a letter to his wife from an army officer that clearly indicated their relationship was sexual. Worse still, he arrived home early one day to discover his wife enjoying the company of another man in her bedroom. He waited outside with a loaded gun for an hour, listening, but opted instead to address the pair calmly after which the other man left. Relaying this betrayal at the inquest, Frederick burst into tears and sobbed:
“My wife was a magnificent woman when she was alright. I would willingly have returned to her if only she’d gone straight. When I had plenty of money I denied her nothing. I bought her a houseboat on the Thames but she would not go and look at it. I gave her a yacht but she went on it once. She was always one of the best dressed women in London”.
The pair separated, with Frederick living on Upper Westbourne Terrace and Ladora in Blandford Mews (now known as Broadstone Place) near Baker Street. To her neighbours she was just a well-attired middle aged lady who’d “come down in the world” but one who still loved animals and fed the pigeons from her window daily.
Any desire to reconcile on Frederick’s part was extinguished after his wife’s letters to him became increasingly abusive and delusional and in January 1925, Ladora’s daughter received a worrying letter from her mother suggesting suicide and so called the police. At the same time Ladora’s neighbours noticed, despite the abundance of bread crusts left outside her windows, that the famished pigeons refused to land anywhere near the sills to eat them. As police officers climbed a ladder to reach her apartment window, they were hit by the overpowering smell of gas. On entering they found Ladora dead on the floor. A nearby letter in her handwriting read:
“Jan 14 – I suppose the end of my life. The usual thing – temporary insanity. They always screen the man who is to blame”.
Verdict: suicide while of unsound mind.
At her funeral in Paddington Old Cemetery the lone mourner was her long-suffering husband, who dropped a bunch of white flowers onto her coffin as it was lowered into the earth. Despite his wife’s dependency and mental health issues, not to mention the heartbreak she’d caused him, part of Frederick clearly never stopped loving his wife. She lies in an unmarked common grave; the fire that illuminated her life and career extinguished into obscurity.