Mattie Lee Price, the Forgotten Georgia Wonder
By Donna Lee Dicksson
Bartow County’s own Magnetic Wonder
“Mattie Lee Price” (1869-1899) of Bartow County, Georgia, was just fourteen when she became the second of the Georgia Wonder girls to come out of Georgia during the winter of 1883–1884.[i] The Georgia wonder girls were pre-vaudeville acts in which the young women performed feats of strength, usually pitted against men. They used fulcrum and leverage techniques to lift heavy men in chairs, twist hickory sticks out of strong men’s hands, and other feats of strength. There were variations of the act that included balance tests. Lula Hurst of Polk County, Georgia, who was fifteen at the time she began her act, started the phenomenon. She gave a magical demonstration at her father’s farm in late December 1883.[ii] She was usually billed as “Lulu” Hurst. Dixie Haygood, using the stage name of Annie Abbot, was also a famous Georgia stage magician who performed an almost identical act. Her career began in early 1885.
The Launch of Mattie’s stage career:
Mattie Lee Price gave her first public appearance in late January 1884 at the historical Stilesboro Academy in the village of Stilesboro, Georgia, about thirteen miles southwest of Cartersville.[iii] Since Lula Hurst only lived a few miles away from Mattie Lee Price, it is assumed that she saw Lula perform and was able to imitate the act immediately.
A stock company was formed in Cartersville, Georgia to promote Mattie and put her on tour. The company consisted of Mr. Patillo, Col. A. P. Wofford, and Mr. Dock Cunyus. Mattie’s father, George Washington Price, contracted his daughter’s act with the company for $10,000 per year.[iv]
Mr. Harris of the Harris Mammoth Museum in Cincinnati sued the stock company that held Mattie under contract in June of 1884 in the Common Pleas Court of Hamilton County, Ohio, ”’Harris v. Cumyns.”’[v] Mattie’s stage act had been so lucrative for the Harris Museum that Mr. Harris wanted to extend her contract, however that was impossible as Mattie was already scheduled to do another show in a different town. Angry, Mr. Harris sued the stock company asserting that they had not delivered the “authentic” Georgia Wonder, Lula Hurst. This lawsuit was used as an example of perhaps the first lawsuit of its kind where an act did not deliver what was promised. Since no official outcome has been uncovered, it is conceivable that the matter was dropped.
The Cartersville stock company sold the remainder of Mattie’s contract to a famous entertainment man, R.E.J. Miles of Cincinnati. After this lawsuit and the breakup of the “stock company,” Mattie’s name was never again found in the Cartersville, Georgia newspaper.
Mattie Lee Price was illiterate and had never ridden a train prior to her Georgia Wonder debut. During 1884, she was on stage in Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Utah, Kansas, New York, Illinois, and Maryland. She traveled with her father and one or another male manager. No female chaperone was ever mentioned.
When the contract with R.E.J. Miles expired in early 1885, Mattie and her father returned to Georgia and toured the south giving demonstrations. Mattie Lee Price married Samuel Wise on 28 November 1885 in Madison, Florida. Three more husbands were in her future, William W. White in 1888, Louis Barella in 1894, and Louis Aronson, date unknown.
Mattie Lee Price in Europe
During late 1891 and early 1892, Mattie Lee Price was in the Republic of Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales giving demonstrations. Annie Abbott (AKA Dixie Haygood) was also in Europe presenting an almost identical act. Many “magnetic” and “electric” girls were showing off their skills in innumerable locations both in Europe and the North American continent at the time. (Lula Hurst had married her fiancé in February of 1887, left the stage and never returned.)
Return to North America
In the spring of 1892, Mattie and her husband W.W. White returned to the United States. Mattie Lee Price worked in various dime museums and opera houses and joined circuses during summer months. Mattie was one of the featured performers at the opening of The Robinson’s Musee in Toronto, Canada in 1891. After the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago ended in 1893, she was on the same venue as Harry Houdini at the Kohl & Middleton’s South Clark Street dime museum in Chicago.[vi] Harry Houdini wrote about Mattie Lee Price and her effective marketing manager/husband, W.W. White in his books, ”Harry Houdini for Kids: His Life and Adventures” and ”Miracle Mongers and Their Methods.” Houdini stated that she was possibly the best of all the magnetic girls.[vii] And, while he understood the principles of her act, he still admired her for she was very small and her feats of strength were very impressive.
Known as Gaza
In early 1894, Mattie Lee Price began using “GAZA” or “Mysterious GAZA” instead of her real name. Mr. Brigg, an engineer from England, challenged Mattie Lee Price’s act at Frank Hall’s Casino in Chicago, Illinois in January 1894.[viii] He proclaimed her act to be one of physics rather than one of magical, magnetic, or electrical power A contest between Mr. Brigg and Mattie Lee Price was arranged where Mr. Brigg used demonstrations, drawings, and a stereopticon to convince the audience that they could use these same physical forces to better harness their horses and more efficiently pull loads.
Soon after the Brigg affair, Mattie was advertised with the Walter L. Main Circus in 1894 and billed as “Gaza the strong woman.” She was a featured act on a lithographic poster printed to promote her. Part of the advertisement reads: “The Magnetic Wonder a Human Magnet of Strength and Weight the phenomenon of the 19th century, lifting hundreds of pounds of dead weight by just placing her hands on it, twisting bars of iron, resisting as much force as can push on a 12 foot pole by simply placing her hands at one end. It cannot be justly pictured, no words adequate to describe it.”
In 1895 Mattie was with the Barnum and Bailey Circus as part of the concert, or after-the-show-show. She was listed as “Mattie Lee Price, The Mysterious Gaza. The Georgia Wonder.” During the summer of 1897 Mattie Lee Price was with the Great Wallace Shows Cincinnati, Ohio and billed as “Gaza the Magnetic Girl
Mattie was with The Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth in London, England in 1898. She was with the summer traveling show and then appeared in the sideshow at Olympia. She is represented 8th from the left on the raised stages (along the back wall) shown on the “Peerless Prodigies of Physical Phenomena” poster from that year.[ix]
March 11, 1899, Mattie Lee Price passed away at number 81 Hammersmith Road, Fulham District, London, England. She had miscarried and died from sepsis. She is buried in the old Fulham Burial Ground in England in an unmarked grave. Many members of the freak department attended her funeral. The funeral took place on 13 March at the Old Burial Ground on Fulham Palace Road.[x]
Mattie Lee Price was born on 19 May 1869 somewhere in the vicinity of Rome, Georgia.[xi] Her father was George Washington Price and her mother, Rhoda P. McAbee. Mattie’s parents were married in Floyd County, Georgia in 1868.[xii] Mattie’s mother and two siblings died in some unknown incident about 1874, probably in Arkansas.[xiii] Elizabeth Penland became Mattie’s stepmother.
Mattie Lee Price had two children, Jeanette (1886) and Charles (1889). They were with her in England when she died in 1899 having newly arrived by boat from New York.[xiv] After the death of their mother, the children were left as orphans and recorded as “boarders” on a farm in Lena, Wisconsin in the 1900 Federal Census.
Mattie Lee Price was the youngest of the Georgia Wonders that mesmerized the public in 1884. She was often described as very thin with gray eyes and as having hair of three distinct colors.[xv] Houdini wrote she was, “barely ninety pounds, and had the sickly look of a ‘consumptive.’” And, “yet this weakling was able to perform feats requiring super human strength and endurance from either good spirits or the devil himself.”[xvi]
Behind the rediscovery of Mattie Lee Price
My name is Donna Lee Dicksson and I am the great granddaughter of Mattie Lee Price. For over one hundred years our ancestor was an enigma. She died young leaving my grandmother (Jeanette) an orphan. We were told she had run away from the Indian reservation to join the circus and that she was an acrobat that rode white horses. Since we didn’t know her name, it took us until 2012 to uncover the truth and begin real research. She worked hard all of her short life and left a legacy that everyone had forgotten, until now.
There is a Wikipedia page for Mattie now and a book titled, “Mattie Lee Price, the Forgotten Georgia Wonder.” The book is available in both e-book and print edition. Hooray for Bartow County! Hooray for Mattie Lee Price, who is no longer forgotten.
The Georgia Encyclopedia barely mentions Mattie Lee Price, but they do mention her. Warren Raymond has another photo of Mattie on his website.
The Walter L. Main Circus can be found at this website.
[i] “Georgia Wonder” Phenomenon|url = http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/georgia-wonder-phenomenon|website = New Georgia Encyclopedia|accessdate = 2016-01-20
[ii] Georgia by Wire. Specials to the Constitution. Cedartown December 27, the Atlanta Constitution, Sat 29 Dec 1883 p. 2, col. 3
[iii] The ”Atlanta Constitution”, 1 February 1884, p. 2, col. 1
[iv] The Cartersville American (Cartersville, GA) “A Peculiar Stock Company,” 5 February 1884
[v] Weekly Law Bulletin, Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio, 16 June 1884, Vol. XI, Weekly Law; Carl Gustave John; p. 301
[vi] ”The Daily Inter Ocean” (Chicago, Illinois) 22 October 1893, sec. 3, p. 25, col. 4
[vii] Harry Houdini, Miracle Mongers and Their Methods|date=1920|page=230|url=https://books.google.com/books?id=l0u-YrUcJeMC|accessdate=2016-01-13
[viii] ”Daily Inter Ocean”, Chicago, Il, 1 March 1894, p. 7, col. 1
[ix] ”Daily News”, “Freaks in Revolt” (London, England. 7 Jan 1899, p. 8, col. 4
[x] Four Years in Europe, Barnum & Bailey: The Greatest Show on Earth in the Old World, Harvey L. Watkins, p.22, 1901
[xi] The ”Athens Banner-Watchman”, 13 October 1885, p. 3, col. 4
[xii] Georgia, County Marriages, 1785–1950,” index and images, FamilySearch https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/KXJ5-GKB: accessed 30 January 2015
[xiii] The St. Louis Medical Journal, “Invisible, Intangible, Yet Real.” October 1884. p.440
[xiv] Ancestry.com. ”UK, Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960” [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2008
[xv] The ”Athens Banner-Watchman”, 13 Oct 1885, p. 3, col. 4
[xvi] ”The Secret Life of Houdini”, Kalush and Sloman, pp. 27–28, 2006
Georgia Wonder” Phenomenon|url = http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/georgia-wonder-phenomenon|website = New Georgia Encyclopedia|accessdate = 2016-01-20 Georgia by Wire. Specials to the Constitution. Cedartown December 27, the Atlanta Constitution, Sat 29 Dec 1883 p. 2, col. 3  The ”Atlanta Constitution”, 1 February 1884, p. 2, col. 1  The Cartersville American (Cartersville, GA) “A Peculiar Stock Company,” 5 February 1884  Weekly Law Bulletin, Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio, 16 June 1884, Vol. XI, Weekly Law; Carl Gustave John; p. 301  ”The Daily Inter Ocean” (Chicago, Illinois) 22 October 1893, sec. 3, p. 25, col. 4  Harry Houdini, Miracle Mongers and Their Methods|date=1920|page=230|url=https://books.google.com/books?id=l0u-YrUcJeMC|accessdate=2016-01-13  ”Daily Inter Ocean”, Chicago, Il, 1 March 1894, p. 7, col. 1  ”Daily News”, “Freaks in Revolt” (London, England. 7 Jan 1899, p. 8, col. 4  Four Years in Europe, Barnum & Bailey: The Greatest Show on Earth in the Old World, Harvey L. Watkins, p.22, 1901  The ”Athens Banner-Watchman”, 13 October 1885, p. 3, col. 4  Georgia, County Marriages, 1785–1950,” index and images, FamilySearch https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/KXJ5-GKB: accessed 30 January 2015  The St. Louis Medical Journal, “Invisible, Intangible, Yet Real.” October 1884. p.440  Ancestry.com. ”UK, Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960” [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2008  The ”Athens Banner-Watchman”, 13 Oct 1885, p. 3, col. 4  ”The Secret Life of Houdini”, Kalush and Sloman, pp. 27–28, 2006