The Sutherland Sisters

1880’s Entertainers

All born between 1845 and 1865, the sisters and one brother lived with their parents on a turkey farm in Cambria, New York. As children, their mother Mary would coat her daughter’s hair with a horrific smelling ointment claiming that it would make the girl’s hair grow long and strong, which would later become the hair tonic that made the family a fortune, but the mother wouldn’t live to see it. 

One place where the sisters shined was in church where it became apparent that they all had a talent for singing and playing musical instruments. Once their mother died in 1867 the girl’s father Fletcher Sutherland began to look into ways to make money off of their musical talents. The children would perform at fairs and churches around the state. 

By 1880, after dropping their brother from the act, the Sutherland Sisters made their broadway debut, but audiences didn’t flock to enjoy their musical talents, they came to marvel at their combined 37 feet of hair. At the time, the longer the women’s hair, the more attractive and feminine they were thought to be. At the end of their musical act, the sisters would loosen their tresses and let their hair fall down their backs to thrill the viewers. 

In 1882, Fletcher patented the Seven Sutherland Sisters’ Hair Grower tonic, and sales took off after sister Naomi married Harry Bailey, related to the Baileys of Barnum and Bailey, and the sisters joined “The greatest show on earth”. 

After making millions of dollars off of the tonic, the Sisters returned to their Cambria property and built an opulent mansion. But after the flapper bob haircuts became the next new trend in the early 1900’s, the sisters popularity dwindled and they quickly burned through all their fortune. 

Naomi barely got to enjoy the mansion they built, she died before age 40 in 1893

Victoria, ever the beauty, finally married a 19-year-old man when she was 50. This outraged her sisters, and she was ostracized from her family for the rest of her short life. She passed away in 1902 at age 53, at her residence in New York City. Upon her death, her husband had her buried in Forest Lawn, rather than with her family in Lockport.  

In 1892, Isabella married Frederick Castelmaine. When Castelmaine died in 1896, Isabella had a 1,400-pound hermetically sealed casket with a glass top built for him. The casket remained in the mansion on Ridge Road for two weeks after he died and the sisters would play and sing his favorite songs and talk to him. Finally his casket was placed in a mausoleum in Glenwood Cemetery. At night, Isabella, dressed in white and carrying a lantern, would walk from her High Street home that she moved into after her husbands death, to Glenwood Cemetery, lean against the mausoleum and weep. The sight of her at night, in white, carrying a lantern, conveyed the image of a ghost to many of the children in the area. She remained another much younger man, Alonzo Swain. Isabella died in 1914.

When the bandleader Sarah died in 1919, the family, once again, kept her body on display in the home, and resisted burying her.

The last three women Dora, Mary, and Grace, headed to Los Angeles in 1919 in Dora was killed in a car accident during their trip. 

After Dora's death, Grace and Mary, the two remaining sisters, returned to Cambria and lived in the mansion. In 1931 they were living in one room heated by a small stove and were on the verge of starvation when they were forced against their will to move to the Niagara County Infirmary.

In 1932 Naomi's son, Harry Bailey, had them released and they moved into his home in Buffalo.

Mary, who had mental problems all her life, became worse and was put in the State Mental Hospital in Buffalo. She died there in 1939.

Grace, who was nearly blind, was committed to the Erie County Home in 1945 and died there in 1946. Thus the sad tale of poverty to riches and back to poverty was ended.

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