MONMOUTH, Ill. — If asked to name a 19th-century Monmouth native who performed in Paris as a renowned serpentine dancer, one might answer Loie Fuller, but that would be incorrect.
Fuller — the celebrated dancing star of the Exposition Universelle of 1900 — was not born in Monmouth and only lived in the Maple City for two years. The other flamboyant dancer from Monmouth was just as graceful and inventive as Fuller and wore equally elaborate gowns, but possessed one major difference — this artist was a man.
Born in 1864 to a middle-class Monmouth painter and his seamstress wife, Warren Bunker was one of nine children. From an early age, he demonstrated that he not only inherited the artistic talents of both parents, but also possessed a creative streak that defied the norms of a Victorian Midwest town. His ever-evolving resume would include the following diverse occupations: snake charmer, Circassian prince, female impersonator, man milliner, fire and serpentine dancer, clairvoyant, palm reader, costume designer and vaudeville impresario. Those talents would lead him around the world — performing for royalty and befriending Hollywood stars.
The death of his father when Warren was just 5 may have influenced his early development, as he became close to his mother and learned to sew at an early age. By 16, he had quit school and was working as a cigar maker. The first indication of his unusual talent emerged shortly thereafter when he won a satin-lined chinchilla overcoat for designing the winning costume at Davenport, Iowa masquerade in 1885.
In 1887, Warren, who changed the spelling of his last name to “Bunkerr,” took out an ad in the New York Clipper, describing himself as the “champion amateur female-impersonator of the world,” seeking a positon with a sideshow or circus as “Almolette the Circassian,” noting he had “the most elegant wardrobe and make-up ever produced.”
In January 1888, the Keokuk Gate City published the following note: “Warren Bunkerr, the costumer of Monmouth, Ill., represented a female Hindoo snake charmer at the masquerade last evening. It was a deceptive costume. A Main street clerk became quite infatuated with him and was very solicitous about making a date. When Mr. Bunkerr unmasked, the deeply chagrinned counter-hopper left the hall.”
Later that season, Bunkerr had changed his stage name to Zelldo, Circassian Prince, and was booked for three weeks in Columbus, Ohio. In 1889, he billed himself as Prince Zelldo, the Wonderful Snake Charmer, who worked with cobras, boas and anacondas, and wore magnificent jeweled costumes, performing in such far-flung locales as St. Joseph, Mo., and Harlem, N.Y.
By age 27, Bunkerr was touring the south, performing as a snake charmer at museums in New Orleans and St. Louis. Using Monmouth as his home base, over the next few years he would tour widely, including an 1894 trip to Europe, where he performed before Queen Victoria.
The Monmouth Review reported upon his return that he spent five weeks in Paris, two weeks of which he danced in two opera houses almost every night, going from one to the other. It added that during his time in Paris he was employed in some of the most fashionable millinery establishments and turned out patterns that were sent to New York.
In 1895, Bunkerr took out an ad in the New York Clipper that included his photograph and billed himself as “the only person in the world doing sensational dancing in a monster den of living serpents.” Later that year, it was announced he would perform in Atlanta, and then Mexico. In October, his Egyptian King snake gave birth to 33 babies, but none survived Monmouth’s cold weather.
In the meantime, Bunkerr had opened a millinery store on the south side of the Public Square, which he advertised as “The Finest Store in Monmouth.” In 1897, he moved to new quarters at 106 East Broadway and announced he would make a tour through Illinois and Iowa in a theatrical troupe under his own management. The following February, he appeared as a female impersonator in Burlington, Iowa, wearing a gown costing $5,000, with a train 40 feet long.
When illness caused his store to be closed due to a financial judgement in July 1898, Bunkerr headed to Colorado Springs for the sake of his health, but while there advertised himself as a “wonderful fortune-teller.” By September, he was back in Monmouth, and in December sold his snakes to a Cincinnati museum, deciding to focus his talents on dancing.
In 1901, Bunkerr claimed to have patented a fire dance, which he asserted was witnessed by 50,000 spectators the night of Monmouth’s Fourth of July celebration. “The Great Bunkerr” opened his next tour in 1902, carrying 12 all-star acts, which included jugglers, acrobatic clowns, a contortionist and a barrel jumper. By November , he announced he was organizing a high-class vaudeville company with his brother George as advance man. It would include a dance illustrating the eruption of Mt. Pelee.
In 1903, Bunker was invited by an Irish booking agent to tour South Africa and the British colonies, but it’s uncertain that he did so, as he was performing in Houston, Texas that winter. In 1904, he returned to Texas in a specially built gypsy van.
A large ad in 1908 showed that Bunkerr had settled in Alexandria, Louisiana, and was billing himself as Zelldo Bunker — The Marvel,” a clairvoyant. The ad likely employs a degree of hyperbole, as it implies Queen Victoria had bestowed upon him the Order of the Garter, and that he had read the palms of numerous celebrities of the day, including Mark Twain, Frank Leslie and the Prince of Wales. The ad states that he was raised by Angeline, a daughter of Chief Seattle, who lived to be over 100 years old and was one of the world’s greatest mind readers.
By 1909, Bunkerr had either suffered a recurring bout with poor health or his business was on the ropes. He published several public notices the Alexandria newspaper that he was going out of business and was offering his entire stock of elegant spring millinery at actual cost. Everything to be sold by June 1.
In August, the Associated Press released a story from San Antonio, Texas, stating that an investigation had started “into the mysterious disappearance of Zelldo Warren Bunker, an impersonator known over all vaudeville circuits.” He had been last seen on Aug. 16 “in his shirt sleeves and carrying a pistol. He bid his friends here goodbye and left letters making disposition of his property. He is said to have been driven crazy and heart broken by some love affair.”
Whether or not that disappearance had been a ruse (perhaps to avoid creditors?), by the following April, Bunkerr was living with his sister Lesta Whaley in Joplin, Mo. and working as a clairvoyant. Then, in July 1911, the Alexandria, La., paper published a notice that he had written to the city clerk there in regard to a license for conducting a palmist and clairvoyant business there. The paper noted that “Shortly after Mr. Bunkerr left this city three years ago news was received here that he had been killed…”
It does not appear that Bunkerr ever returned to Louisiana. Instead, by February 1912, he had reestablished himself in Monmouth, advertising as a clairvoyant palmist who also rented costumes and made over ladies’ old hats. His beloved family home had been sold following the death of his mother mother in 1907, so he took up quarters at 111 North First St. In May, he moved his business to 415 North Main St.
In 1913, Bunkerr took to the vaudeville stage again, headlining in Vancouver, B.C., as “the Great Bunkerr, the classic novelty dancer, featuring ‘The Dream of the Witch’ and the ‘Shower of Butterflies’,” but by March 1914, he was back in Monmouth at a new location — 208 East First Ave.
In June, the Monmouth Daily Atlas carried an ad touting the “Extraordinary Arrival of New York’s most famous Clairvoyant and palmist,” Prof. R. Allen, offering “advice on all affairs of life, such as health, love, courtship, marriage, divorce, lawsuits, etc. Lost or stolen articles, locates oil wells, mines, hidden treasures.” Interestingly, Professor Allen’s readings were to be conducted at the address now occupied by Bunkerr. Whether this was a new Bunkerr persona, or perhaps a visiting friend, is a subject for speculation.
In August 1916, Bunkerr applied for a passport to visit Hawaii, China, Japan, Manila, the Philippines, South Africa, Australia and Java. Ever eager to reinvent himself, he solemnly swore to the Bureau of Citizenship that he was born in 1873, after having declared on his 1894 passport that he was born in 1864. But he was well-practiced at deceiving the government. In previous censuses, he reported that his father was born in both New York and France. In the 1930 census, he would assert that his father had been born in India and his mother was an American Indian.
In January 1917, Monmouth’s other famous showman, magician Will Nicol, returned from a trip to the Orient and reported having run into Bunkerr on a pier in Hong Kong. Bunkerr informed him that his company had just finished an engagement in Shanghai and was on its way to a carnival in Manila. While in China, Nicol said, “he trimmed a few hats for some of the vain Chinese and these were received so favorably that he was urged to remain and establish a millinery store in the city.”
After having talked for some time, Nicol took Bunkerr to the roof of a building where he had a large python in captivity. Although warned by Nicol that the snake was dangerous and that natives handling the snake typically pinned its head to the floor, Bunkerr nonchalantly opened the box, dragged the snake out and opened its mouth, giving Nicol some instructions about its care and feeding. The natives stood in awe at his abilities as a snake charmer.
Bunkerr must have impressed the Great Nicola, for after returning to Monmouth in October 1917, he joined Nicola’s company as the mind reader Prince Zelldo, who answered audience questions that had been written and sealed in envelopes. A 1918 review in a North Carolina newspaper said the act “was one of the best things in the show.” The advent of motion pictures, however, would soon dim the lights of vaudeville, and after the tour Bunkerr retired to Monmouth to run his millinery store.
The Illinois centennial celebration in 1918 would provide at least one more opportunity for Bunkerr to exhibit his dancing skills. On Sept. 13, he was a special attraction at Weir’s Fruit Farm near Gladstone, Ill. During the day, he told fortunes, with the proceeds donated to the Red Cross’s war efforts. That night, he performed his famous Indian Dance of Death in a pow-wow assisted by about 100 Indians.
In 1922, Bunkerr was still running his Monmouth millinery shop, announcing an “Early Easter display of New York and Chicago pattern hats, just the same goods from the wholesale house as other millinery stores buy of, but I haven’t got plate glass display windows, a lot of nice looking expensive salesladies to pay.” He offered 500 hats from $2 to $10, which he could sell for half price.
Perhaps the millinery business began to lose its customer base by the 1920s, for by 1925, Bunkerr had moved to Marshalltown, Iowa, where he lived with his brother Zack and advertised himself as a costumer. The following year found him listed in the San Diego city directory as Prince Zelldo, a medium. Then, in 1927, a listing for Prince Zelldo showed up in the San Antonio, Texas, city directory.
The 1930 federal census lists Zelldo Bunker, occupation of “needle work,” living in Los Angeles, Calif. Although he was 66, he gave his age as 43, and also asserted he had been born in India. During this period of his life, Bunkerr worked as a costume designer and did spiritual readings for his numerous movie star friends, which in earlier days had included Rudolph Valentino.
As age began to take its toll, Bunkerr again moved in with his sister Lesta — his one surviving sibling — who had located in Long Beach, Calif. There, he became a member of the Psychic Science Spiritualist Church. In 1936, he visited Monmouth one last time, staying for about a month.
In early 1937, Bunkerr contracted double pneumonia at Long Beach and died Jan. 29 at age 73. His ashes were buried in Los Angeles.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.