Born Ellen Callahan, "Water Queen" Dolly Adams was the foremost of the theatrical mermaids who appeared on U.S. stages in the in the wake of the Civil War. She "for several years appeared before the public in scaly tights and floated in a tank of water while she smoked cigarettes and ate all sorts of things." The eating was performed under water.
During her performing career, Adams appeared in a scaled body suit resembling a fish skin, swimming underwater in an open topped glass tank. She only appeared in San Francisco and New York, and in New York only at the Aquariam at Broadway and 34th Street, a venue which became Harrigan's Theatre in the mid-1880s, or at Bunnell's Museum at 9th and Broadway. Her shapely figure, lustrous blonde hair, and extraordinary lung capacity allowing her to remain under water for three minutes made her a popular attraction. The sale of photographs made her name in a multitude of towns and cities where she never appeared.
Adams' shapeliness and adventurous personality made her the "favorite of many millionaires" on both the East and West Coasts. She prevented one of these well-heeled suitors, Col. William H. Gilbert, from departing on an expedition to the artic in summer of 1886 by having him arrested for filching a $1,000 railroad bond from her. But the suit was a ruse to keep him from heading into perilous regions.
Later in 1886 the ill effects of a protracted binge of drinking had newspapers reporting her at death's door, but she recovered, returned to California, and there bewitched a Chinese official who married her and took her to China. There she died of spinal paralysis in 1888. The return of the embalmbed body of the "woman fish" to the land of her nativity was national news. David S. Shields/ALS