The Man Who Brought Vaudeville To Ohio

July 2, 2010

The actor Robert Trist is credited with bringing vaudeville to Ohio. His show at the Orpheum in Columbus ran from 1919 to 1931 and would attract audiences from as far away as Findlay. Once he had the means, Trist employed two striking assistants, Flo and Grace. People said he slept with both of them at the same time. He would try to do that, but in truth he only ever slept with Flo.

Trist became the most famous entertainer in central Ohio. With fame came an insatiable appetite for sex with strangers. While on the road he would often bed a woman or two in every town. There was a rumor that he had both syphilis and crabs but according to Grace’s diary, “he only has syphilis but he deserves crabs too.” Grace also wrote, “I believe the only reason he hired me and Flo is because he needs a woman to rub his shoulders and tell him he is talented when he is in one of his moods. If only his admirers knew that their hero was such a lecherous baby.”

Halloween, 1934. Trist performs at the Golden Lamb Inn in Lebanon. After the after party, Trist, Flo and Grace drink in the hotel’s lobby. Grace goes to bed. The next morning, Flo and Trist are missing. Cops are called. The bellhop tells the cops that Flo and Trist had gone out to the porch to get some fresh air. The cops go out to the porch to find Flo slumped and bloody in a rocking chair with a letter opener through her neck. She’d also been stabbed in the cheek and raped. Trist drives south in his Packard. He stops for gas and food in Mason. He’s recognized by a gas station attendant and apprehended. After a brief trial he is hanged in a meadow that would later become Kings Island Theme Park. The hanging draws the largest crowd of his career. Robert Trist was the last man to be legally hanged in Ohio and he is now remembered more for the hanging than for the vaudeville.*

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*Seamus Moloney, “Trist and the Columbus Connection,” Encyclopedia of Vaudeville, Vol. 3: The Later Years, Phillip Minch, ed., (Philadelphia 1962), p. 97. For more on Trist, Kieth Drury’s Bright Lights of Ohio, (New York 2009), is recommended. There has been talk of Gregory James’ unfinished Fordham doctoral thesis which paints Trist as a more nuanced, empathetic character and not solely a lustful madman. James has unearthed correspondence and journal entries which show that Flo[rence] Knots and Trist had likely been lovers for years before the murder and that the affair was kept secret at the urgings of Trist’s agent, Rory O’Coole. James posits that O’Coole wanted to maintain Trist’s persona as a perpetual bachelor because while on tour O’Coole would arrange for Trist to entertain wealthy female fans. But was O’Coole truly Trist’s pimp? Further research is needed.

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