Eva Evans had just buried her thieving fiancé, and her one-armed father was in jail waiting trial, when she performed in a blood-and-thunder melodrama about the two outlaws.
On July 29, 1893, the San Francisco Examiner previewed a planned theatrical about outlaws Christopher Evans and John Sontag, whose exploits included dynamiting a Southern Pacific train in Collis, California, a year earlier and riding off with between $10,000 and $15,000 in coins. “Mrs. Christopher Evans, wife of the notorious bandit,” the Examiner reported, “and Miss Eva Evans, the much-exploited daughter, are going on the stage. They will appear in a tragical melodrama setting forth facts and incidents connected with the Collis train robbery and the various bloody battles engaged in by the robbers before they were shot into subjection and death.”
When a reporter asked Eva Evans, then 17, if the prospect of appearing in front of a packed theater in Evans and Sontag: The Visalia Bandits frightened her, she poohpoohed the notion. “That’s nothing to frighten anybody,” she replied. “Why, it can’t be anything compared to going through the scenes in reality.”
Eva was not only the daughter of Christopher Evans (see “Gunfighters and Lawmen” in this issue) but also the fiancée of John Sontag, Evans’ partner in a rash of train robberies in the San Joaquin Valley. The duo had been captured during a shootout on June 11, 1893, at Stone Corral, in the rugged hills outside Visalia, Calif., culminating a massive 11-month manhunt that had been a source of lurid public fascination. Newspapers devoted entire front pages to an initial skirmish with lawmen at Evans’ Visalia home, a deadly gunfight with posse men at a mountain cabin and especially the final showdown at Stone Corral. Amid the violence, the romance between Eva and John also found its way into newsprint. Accounts told of Eva’s bedside visit to Sontag’s jail cell, ending with a sad kiss farewell to the feverish forehead of her lover as he died from gunshot wounds. Heart wrenching and tragic, press accounts of these scenes only served to whet the public’s appetite for more. It wasn’t surprising that sooner or later a dramatist would bring the story to life in the theater.
It didn’t take long. Sontag had only been six feet under for several weeks and Christopher Evans, who lost an arm to amputation because of his injuries, was in jail awaiting trial when Evans and Sontag: The Visalia Bandits was conceived. The man who authored the play and made arrangements to cast Evans’ wife Molly and daughter Eva in it was an actor-turned-dramatist/producer named Richard Cullen White. A stage-struck city that since its earliest days had supported numerous theaters, San Francisco in the 1890s was truly an actor’s town and White was generally known among the local players. He achieved some small fame a few years earlier with his dramatization of Rider Haggard’s popular novel She. Although that production hadn’t made much money, the number of column inches devoted to
White’s latest venture was evidence that his latest idea was a real winner. White first approached Molly Evans when she came to San Francisco in early July to find an attorney for her husband, who had been indicted for the murder of lawmen Vic Wilson and Andy McGinnis during a gunfight at Jim Young’s mountain cabin the previous fall. In the purple prose of the press, Chris was “languishing, maimed and moody, in the Fresno jail awaiting trial for his life with charges enough hanging over him to crush a dozen men.” White sent Chris Evans a letter, via Molly, requesting permission for his family’s participation. The theatrical producer claimed that the Evans family would receive “one-half of the net profits,” but Eva later remembered the agreement was for “twenty-five percent of net receipts.” Regardless of the exact details, the need to pay attorney’s fees was overwhelming motivation for Chris to agree to the deal.
Did Chris Evans have concerns about his 17-year-old daughter appearing on stage? The acting profession in the late 19th century still carried a negative stigma, many believing it morally corrupting. Just how carefully Evans, from his jail cell, considered the idea of allowing his cherished daughter—the oldest of his seven children—to participate in the melodrama is unknown.
Molly’s apprehension was centered on a fear that people would laugh at her utter failure as an actor. Eva, on the other had, saw the opportunity as positive and thrilling: “Is there any girl who has recited ‘Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight’ but thinks she is destined to be an actress?” she told one newspaper. “Hadn’t I recited ‘Osler Joe’ so well that I shocked my small world as much as Mrs. James Brown Potter did hers?”
And so it was agreed: 17-year-old Eva Evans, along with her mother, Molly, would star in R.C. White’s drama of real life.
Negative reaction to the play surfaced almost immediately upon its announcement. The Bakersfield Echo “Evans gang not in jail were going on stage to act in a so-called play.” The paper accused the editorialized that the portion of the San Francisco Examiner, which from the start “has championed the cause of the outlaws and done all it could to create sympathy for them,” of being “a partner in the theatrical enterprise, as it gives columns of space to it which in any other cause would be charged for at about a dollar a line.”
The fact that the Examiner devoted ample space to announcing the play wasn’t so much evidence that the paper’s publisher, William Randolph Hearst, had a stake in the production as that he had a stake in keeping the Evans and Sontag story alive. It helped sell newspapers, and that was his greatest concern.
In early September 1893, Molly and Eva arrived in San Francisco, where they began rehearsals at the National Theatre. Formerly a boxing venue known as the Wigwam, the National didn’t boast the reputation of the Tivoli Opera House, or the grandeur of the Baldwin Theatre. Still, the site of her upcoming theatrical debut was impressive to the country-born Eva.
Hearst continued to highlight the upcoming production now that Molly and Eva were on board. Two lengthy articles appeared in the Examiner during the final weeks of rehearsal. Perhaps the Bakersfield paper was right—White could not have bought such great publicity.
Sex and romance sells—both White and Hearst realized that— and much was made of the costume Eva would wear in a scene where she rides to the mountains to see Chris and John. “Eva Evans in Pantaloons,” one headline declared. During Victorian times, the opportunity to see a young woman’s posterior curves clearly delineated by trousers was titillating. Proof that Eva’s appearance in pants added sex appeal was evidenced by a reporter for the Sacramento Bee, who admitted that he “went to the Evans and Sontag play with the sweet thought that I would there see how a beautiful maiden with the bloom of virginal innocence…would look clad in trousers and astraddle of a horse.”
R.C. White had his work cut out for him, transforming this country diamond-in-the-rough into the gilded city’s latest sex symbol. One gets a sense from an interview in the Examiner that Eva was having a grand old time:
Miss Evans was asked to pose in one or two of her dramatic positions for the instruction of an Examiner sketch artist.
“But we don’t know how,” she demurred. “I’m not very dramatic, and, though we’ve both got our lines, Mr. White will have to show us how to act.”
“Take your inspiration from the lines,” said White. “Strike a position, so, at the point where you dismount from your horse in Dark Canyon, and look up to the rocks of Fort Defiance. You remember where you say ‘Father! John! Where are you?’”
“But I haven’t any boy’s clothes to pose in.”
Here Miss Evans rose and dropped at once into the position indicated by Mr. White, and retained a steady pose while being sketched. White looked at her with pride.
“She’ll do,” he said laconically.
“Like the Roar of Battle” was the headline in the Examiner on September 19, 1893. “It was opening night of the new melodrama, ‘Evans and Sontag, or the Visalia Bandits’ and the fact that the wife and daughter of Chris Evans were to take leading parts was sufficient to pack the theatre until it seemed as if the walls would bulge out and split at the corners.” San Francisco’s three leading dailies all devoted considerable space to reviewing the play. The Call proclaimed that the play went on without “interruption or drag” and that Eva made “a successful debut.” The Chronicle called it a “wild and woolly night with Evans and Sontag” and proclaimed it was a “great night for outlaws and the management of the theatre.”
The actual play was at best a fanciful interpretation of events in Eva’s life and at worst exploitative and blatantly deceptive propaganda. It claimed the real train robbers at Collis were actually disgruntled settlers from Mussel Slough (site of a land dispute with the Southern Pacific Railroad years earlier). It featured a villain named Wily Smooth, an obvious dig at railroad detective Will Smith, a nemesis of Evans and Sontag. It even explained his persecution of Sontag as part of a romantic rivalry, Eva having spurned Wily Smooth’s amorous advances. In the tradition of “blood-and-thunder” melodrama, the production was described as “three or four solid hours of gunpowder and red fire.” One columnist claimed it was “as easily understood from the outside of the theatre as from the front row, for it consists almost entirely of repeated volleys of blank cartridges, followed by howls of approval from the gallery.”
Even Eva, many years later, would admit “it was the rankest melodrama.” But at the time the self-described country girl, appearing on stage in San Francisco at the same time Mrs. John Drew was playing the Baldwin, wasn’t conscious of the cheapness of the play. Eva remained the focus of much of the press coverage after the play opened. Most of the reviews of her performance in the San Francisco papers were complimentary, although they were perhaps more generous in consideration of her youth and lack of experience on the stage. Her greatest booster, the Examiner, wrote that “Eva Evans is a self-possessed little body, and after her excusable nervousness wore off she put a great deal of spirit into her lines and seemed to enter into her part with real enjoyment and a good deal of appropriation.” The paper noted that when Eva directed her invective at the villain Wily Smooth and expressed the hatred she had imbibed for the blood-sucking railroad corporation, “the audience greeted each verbal upper cut with approval and made it evident that they were thoroughly in harmony with her anti-railroad sentiment.” The reviewer then went on to describe a transformation that occurred as the play progressed:
The applause that had been fairly hurled at [Eva] since the beginning of the play seemed to spur her on and she played [her scenes] with a real dramatic ability. When it is remembered that she is only sixteen [sic] and up to a week or so ago was totally ignorant of anything connected with the stage, her work was really surprising.
Behind the scenes, Eva Evans all but ran the piece. She was as excited and happy as a girl at her first ball, and she was genuinely triumphant over her success. She could not keep still a minute and was all over the place at once, talking, laughing and even dancing with delight.
“I’m not a bit nervous now,” said Eva last night about the middle of the play, “but I tell you it made me sick when the curtain rose and I thought of going on before all those people.
“I don’t know much about acting, but I really like it very much indeed. I think I would gladly become an actress—that is if there were money in it.”
Then she fled into her dressing room and audibly requested someone to help her find her trousers.
Miss Eva Evans, the famous California train robber’s daughter, had become a star.
Author Jay O’Connell grew up in Three Rivers, Calif., and now lives in the Los Angeles area. This article is adapted from his 2008 book Train Robber’s Daughter: The Melodramatic Life of Eva Evans, 1876-1970 (Raven River Press). Also suggested for further reading: California Desperadoes: Stories of Early California Outlaws in Their Own Words, by William B. Secrest; and Evans and Sontag: The Famous Outlaws of California, by Hu Maxwell.
Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.