Exploring the world of Wairarapa's history

Chasing Winetta


Working on a community archive, you find yourself stumbling over all sorts of odd stories hidden in the papers of local families.

Among the places that such records are discovered are old photograph albums.

Many families kept collections of small card-sized photographs (the technical name is cartes-de-visite) which featured family and friends but also contained images of prominent people, and those who would today be called celebrities.

The cards from one local farming family’s album were produced mostly in Wellington and Wanganui, but many other New Zealand towns also appear.   There was also a smattering of cards from overseas – Australia, the Unites States, and Great Britain.

Many of the photographs had annotations, indicating who the subjects were, and we have fun finding out more about the people portrayed and the photographers.

In the album was an image taken by Napoleon Sarony, America’s most famous photographer of celebrities. Canadian born, his studio in Union Square, New York, attracted the likes of Nikola Tesla and Oscar Wilde.

A name was recorded on the reverse of the image in our album – Winetta Montague, a name we were not familiar with, but it turned out to be the stage name of a “Boston stage actress”.  She was born Laleah Burpee Bigelow in 1851.  At a young age she married Boston merchant Arnold Taylor but fell in love with the famed actor Walter Montgomery. The two wed bigamously on both counts, and following a tempestuous scene several days after they wed, Walter dies of gunshot wounds, apparently self-inflicted.

Winetta returned to the stage, sometimes playing Hamlet in Montgomery’s clothes. After a series of discreditable adventures, she died of pneumonia, in great poverty, at New York, in 1877.


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