The Amazing Seven Sutherland Sisters and Their "Niagara of Curls"
In 1882 the Barnum and Bailey Circus signed a new act for the sideshow. It was called the Seven Sutherland Sisters. The girls — Sarah, Victoria, Isabella, Grace, Naomi, Mary, and Dora — who ranged in age from 18 to 36, would file on stage in white gowns, their dark hair glimmering in the gas lights, and sing a selection of songs. The remarkable bass voice of Naomi was prominent in their rich harmony.
The music was not the chief attraction. The climax of the act came at the finale, when the sisters would turn in unison. letting their voluminous tresses — a collective total of 36½, feet of hair — spill down their backs, over the crest of the stage. and into the orchestra pit. A gasp of amazement and delight would sound through the audience, followed by thunderous applause,
The act was a hit, but it was only the start of the saga of the Sutherland Sisters a story more bizarre than any fiction writer could imagine.
The Sutherland girls were the offspring of a ne’er-do-well Vermonter. Fletcher Sutherland, and his wife Mary, a student of music. Two of the daughters are listed on census records as adopted, and local speculation held that they were born to Martha Brink, Mary’s sister, who lived in the Sutherland house. Martha cared for the Sutherland children after her sister died in 1867.
Raised in poverty and shunned by local society, the Sutherland sisters shared two assets — musical talent and rich, thick hair, which was said to be enhanced in its length and beauty by the use of a foul-smelling ointment brewed by their mother.
Their musical abilities were what led Fletcher Sutherland to introduce his daughters to the world of the circus, but it was their hair that would make them rich, Naomi married J. Henry Bailey, nephew of the co-owner of the circus, in 1885, and Bailey, knowing there were more bald men than music lovers, took over the management of the sisters’ act. He started selling hair ointment, which Fletcher concocted from his late wife’s formula, using the Sutherland Sisters as his promotional tools.
The Seven Sutherland Sisters’ Hair Grower and its related products — scalp cleaners anti-dandruff potions, and hair coloring — made millions, thanks to the grueling promotional tours featuring a “Niagara of Curls.” The sisters were able to build an ornate Victorian mansion on the site of their grandfather’s log cabin in western New York state and supply each of the seven bedrooms with running water in marble bathrooms. To ensure a ready supply of water, a huge tank was installed on top of the mansion and it was refilled daily by workmen.
The money, which also flowed in like water, seemed to amplify the family’s eccentricities. Pets were treated like royalty, with winter and summer wardrobes, and grand funerals and obituaries in the local newspapers. The carriage horses were shod in gold. The sisters sponsored many a gala social for the neighbors, often including fireworks.