I’m constantly on the lookout for unusual graves and the stories behind them. On a recent trawl of regional stateside cemeteries, I came across a rather odd shoe shaped headstone. Looking closer, the laced brogue had a cartoon likeness of a sailor boy and a dog. Oh yes. This was going to be good.
William Edmond Ansley was born in Magnolia, Columbia County, Arkansas in 1891 and lived with a form of dwarfism. By the age of 17, he weighed 40lbs and was 42 inches tall – and was quickly known as the smallest man in the world.
In 1910, he took up employment with the Brown Shoe Company, depicting Buster throughout tours of the US. Wearing a blonde wig, short trousers and joined by a Boston terrier (not a pit bull as in the films!), he travelled around 50,000 miles a year by train. Reportedly, his stage routine included the line “Hi, I’m Buster Brown; I live in a shoe. This is my dog, he lives there too!”
Several accounts of William’s life remark that he was also a ‘Knights Templar’ – a claim for which I can find no further substantiation, but enjoy nonetheless.
For 27 years, William travelled the country promoting the shoe business and quickly becoming the accepted model for all Buster Brown depictions.
William died in Gainesville, Texas in 1972 aged 80 and was buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Oklahoma. I’m unsure if William’s grave was unmarked for many years after his death, but the distinctive shoe grave was only installed in 2006 following a donation on the part of the stonemasons. Rather charmingly, the last line of his epitaph reads ‘He was quite a character.’
But who was Buster Brown? Buster Brown (so-names after emerging variety star and would-be comic icon, Buster Keaton) was a comic strip character created by Richard F. Outcault in 1902. He quickly became an American staple and was adopted as the mascot of the Brown Shoe Company in 1904. Buster, Mary Jane and his dog Tige were featured in the New York Herald in 1902 before Outcault left a few years later and took his designs to other newspapers. As with all successful creative pursuits, a hefty court battle waged between Outcault and his employers and both parties ran their own comic strips until 1923 and 1911 respectively.
Buster is an angelic-looking city child with a bowl cut, a pretty girlfriend and a dog. Despite his charming looks, Buster is a cheeky trickster, breaking windows, playing jokes or switching outfits with his girlfriend. His ‘cross-dressing’ adventures seem rather relevant to contemporary gender politics, but we’ll leave the social commentary for someone far more qualified than I.
Buster’s trusty sidekick is the American Pit Bull Terrier, Tige who speaks quite freely with Buster, but whose magical talking ability goes unnoticed by all others. Tige was a particularly popular character and even enjoyed his own spin off novel in 1905 titled ‘Tige: His Story’. But how did Buster become a national icon?
In 1904, Oucault visited the St Louis World Fair and sold licences to use the Buster Brown character to over 200 companies, including the Brown Shoe Company. The Brown Shoe Company took the Buster brand to heart and ran with it. They were soon hiring live actors to promote their footwear in tours of the United States. These actors would be of small stature and would be accompanied by a dog – together, they’d perform in theatres, department stores and, of course, shoe shops, until 1930. After this period, Buster Brown continued life in comic books, with the Brown Shoe Company producing their own comics to be distributed through their own stores.
Subsequently, Browns used the character of Mary Jane to promote their line of girl’s strap shoes, and lo, the ‘Mary Jane’ term was born!
As the decades progressed, Buster Brown’s proto-Dennis the Menace character was depicted on stage, on the radio, in television, and – most importantly for us, in film. Of course, I must tell you that the promotional shots for the 1905 Broadway production are genuinely terrifying. There’s a man in that dog suit. A living man. Horrifying.
Between 1925 and 1929, a variety of ‘two-reelers’ (short films) were produced for Universal Pictures where Buster was played by Arthur Trimble and the dog was thankfully played by a real dog. Not a man in a suit.
In some of these films, Tige was played by ‘Pal the Wonder Dog’ who went on to greater success with the Little Rascals comedies. I looked into Pal’s life a little further because who doesn’t love a wonder dog? Pal later became known as ‘Pete the Pup’ (a far less exciting name), a name which was then passed down to one of his puppies who would become his successor.
Pal was one of the first animal stars in cinema and, after Hollywood makeup artist Max Factor (that one!) added the distinct circle around his eye, he became one of the most recognisable dogs ever. Pal quite cruelly died from poisoning in 1930, but I’m sure he was the best boy in his short and wonderful life. For all my searching, I can’t find the culprit, but its generally believed that he was poisoned by someone who held a grudge against his owner, Harry.
But back to William. William’s obituary in the New York Times (Sept 28th 1972) reads as follows:
HUGO, Okla., Sept. 27 (AP) —Edmond Ansley, who travelled the country for 27 years in the costume of the comic strip character Buster Brown to promote Buster Brown shoes for children, died last night in a Gainesville (Tex.) hospital, apparently of a heart attack. He was 84 years old.
Mr. Ansley, a 4‐foot 2‐inch midget, was the original Buster Brown, hired by the Brown Shoe Company when he was 22.
As Buster Brown, Mr. Ansley appeared in a blond wig, red suit and hat, blue tie, knickers and a white shirt with what became known as a Buster Brown, collar. He said of it that it would “choke you to death.” A series of five Boston terriers named Tige appeared with him.
So many little people of William’s generation were forced to go down the route of freak shows and exploitation of their stature rather than fall into destitution, and we can only hope that William enjoyed his work. In the Mt. Olivet cemetery where William’s grave can be found is a designated area known as “Showman’s Rest” marked with miniature elephant statues.
Here, graves to elephant trainers, clowns and trapeze artists can be found. Hardly a surprise from a city that bills itself as “Circus City USA” As a performer and showman himself, William is in very good company.
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