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Unraveling the Secrets of a Silver Keyed Bugle by E. G. Wright

By Sabine K. Klaus
Joe R. and Joella F. Utley Curator of Brass Instruments

Left side of NMM 7060. Keyed Bugle by E. G. Wright, Boston, ca. 1858-1860.

Some instruments conceal the secret of their story for a long time, some forever, despite the best research efforts of the curators who are responsible for them. A beautiful silver bugle with eleven keys in high E-flat (NMM 7060) in the Joe R. and Joella F. Utley Collection, though, has now given up its secrets. This keyed bugle is engraved with the name of the maker and also the workshop which commissioned its manufacture:  Made by / E. G. WRIGHT, / FOR / Allen & Co. / Boston. Elbridge G. Wright (1811–1871) was the foremost maker of silver keyed bugles in Boston throughout the 1850s, and the firm Allen Manufacturers & Co. is listed in the Boston city directories between 1858 and 1860. This determines the time-frame for the making of this keyed bugle to some point within these two years, but it bears no specific date. The bugle is kept in a handsome, custom-fitted case of cherry wood, and both instrument and case bear a reference to a former owner:  Thos B. Harris / Xenia, Ohio. On the instrument, the owner's name and location are delicately engraved on an applied silver tag at the bell, while the case bears a stamped, oval, nickel-brass badge.

Owner's name on case badge Owner's name on bell plaque

Many of the fifteen or so surviving silver keyed bugles by E. G. Wright are engraved with the names of the original owners and thereby offer a unique witness to mid-nineteenth-century American band history. These precious instruments were often presented as trophies to outstanding musicians, bandleaders, and keyed bugle soloists by appreciative townspeople to honor their accomplishments. Some of these recipients were professional musicians, others ordinary craftsmen, shoe makers, foundry workers, engineers or merchants, excelling in music in their spare time. Unravelling their life stories is a fascinating but sometimes daunting task.

Rediscovering the life of Thomas B. Harris proved to be a particularly difficult endeavor and for years he remained just a name without a story. Robert Eliason in his article, "Bugles Beyond Compare" (Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society 2005), discusses mid-nineteenth-century American presentation keyed bugles and states: "Unfortunately, nothing has been found so far about Thomas B. Harris."

The difficulties in discovering the life story of Thomas B. Harris lay in the misleading location inscribed on the instrument. No Thomas Harris is found in Xenia, Ohio, in the 1860s census records, when the bugle was brand new. However, the 1870 U.S. census lists an engineer—not a musician—of that name in that location, born in Virginia ca. 1838, aged 32, married with three daughters and of mixed race. In the 1860 census, we find the same Thomas Harris, but living in Chillicothe, Ohio, not in Xenia. The town of Chillicothe in Scioto Valley was founded in 1796, and it was the State Capital of Ohio in the early nineteenth century. The Scioto Valley was a destination for former slaves from Virginia and North Carolina, as well as for people of African descent born of free parents. Therefore, it makes perfect sense to find the Virginia-born, Thomas B. Harris there. Music-making had reached a particularly high standard among the African-American population of Chillicothe by the mid-nineteenth century, as described by James M. Trotter in his book, Music and Some Highly Musical People (published in New York in 1881). Trotter devotes a whole section to the activities of African-American musicians in Chillicothe. Two bands existed in this town in the 1850s:  the Scioto-Valley Brass Band, organized in 1855 and the Roberts Band, founded in 1857. The directors of the Roberts Band were Thomas Harris and William Davis. In 1859, the best musicians from both bands were combined to form the Union-Valley Brass Band. Thomas Harris became one of their leaders. Trotter praises Thomas Harris as a superior E-flat cornet player, a good bugler, and a very good performer on the clarinet, confirming that he was not only an engineer, but also an excellent musician.

Thanks to Trotter’s descriptions and the U.S. census records, we now know the main stages of Harris’ life and his talents as a musician, but why his keyed bugle is inscribed with the Xenia address, although it was made while he lived in Chillicothe, remained an unanswered question. This led to the thought that perhaps the name tag now found on the instrument might not be original, but rather, a later addition with an updated address. The manner in which the tag is engraved does not match E. G. Wright’s style and the fact that on most of his keyed bugles the owner’s names are directly incised into the bell, not onto an applied tag. This is the case, for example, on the keyed bugle that belonged to Ira W. Wales (NMM 4893, see below) and on another instrument that belonged to David Chase (NMM 7059), both also made by E. G. Wright.

The technique of engraving removes metal, leaving behind a thinner material that can be easily penetrated by x-ray beams. An x-ray image would thus reveal an engraved inscription underneath, if the present name tag was not original. Thanks to Joella Utley’s contacts in the radiation oncology department at Spartanburg Regional Hospital, we investigated the signature area with x-rays, and to our astonishment this examination indeed revealed another engraving underneath the present name tag. It is directly engraved on the bell in the style of E. G. Wright’s signatures and is undoubtedly, therefore, a reference to the original owner (see x-ray below). Surprisingly, the x-rays uncovered not Harris’ name with the old Chillicothe address, as expected, but that of a Mr. Davis. Subsequently, even more questions emerged.  The first initial of Davis’s name is clearly a "J," but the middle initial is somewhat obscured by solder that floated into the engraving when Harris’s name tag was affixed. At first glance it looks like a "K," but a comparison with other engravings of that letter on keyed bugles by Wright (for example, on a bugle owned by Aaron Kimball Litch in the instrument museum Schloß Kremsegg in Austria) rendered this an unconvincing conclusion. Comparing the middle initial with the "W"s in Ira W. Wales' inscription on NMM 4893 (right), makes it more likely that it is a slightly obscured "W" (see drawing below). This conjecture is strongly supported by circumstantial evidence:  Harris’s co-director of the Roberts Band was William Davis and it is most likely that he was the original owner of this keyed bugle.

Bell engraving on keyed bugle by Wright presented to Ira W. Wales

NMM 4893. Keyed bugle in E-flat by Elbridge G. Wright, Boston, 1852. Presented to Ira W. Wales. Ex coll.: Robert M. Hazen, Washington, D.C. Arne B. and Jeanne F. Larson Endowment Fund, 1990.

X-ray X-ray

A comparison of remnants of the middle inital with a "W" found on Ira W. Wales' keyed bugle (above), suggests that it is a "W" obscured by solder. X-ray image by David Vassy.

Several people with the name “William Davis” lived in Chillicothe, Ohio, during the time in question. The 1850 census lists the laborer William Davis, of mixed race, aged 23, and born in Iowa in ca. 1827. The 1860 census reports a William Davis, born in Virginia in ca. 1834; his race is given as “black,” his occupation also as a laborer. This person would have been of the same age and ethnic origin as Harris and he may well have been the William Davis who originally owned NMM 7060. According to Civil War service records, a William J. Davis, private, musician, is recorded as having served in the second Maryland Infantry regiment, Company G, fighting on the Union side. Nothing else is known about William Davis. Perhaps he died in the Civil War, thus leaving his precious keyed bugle to his co-bandleader, Thomas Harris, who took it with him when he moved to Xenia, where he died on April 26, 1911.

The discovery that this presentation keyed bugle belonged to two African-American bandleaders in Ohio adds a hitherto unknown dimension to our knowledge of the dissemination of this instrument type. All other known presentation keyed bugles by E. G. Wright belonged to white musicians in the North, predominantly in New England. It is known, however, that in the antebellum period, African-American bands often entertained the urban population, particularly in the South, but also in the North. The most famous example is Francis Johnson (1792–1844), the first African-American keyed bugle star. Two more names can now be added:  Thomas Harris and William Davis, the directors of the Roberts Band of Chillicothe, Ohio.

Additional Images of Keyed Bugle

Left side of keyed bugle Leadpipe

Left: Left side of the bugle.      Right: Engraved leadpipe

NMM 7060. Keyed bugle by Elbridge G. Wright, Boston, ca. 1858-1860. Click here to see a detailed description of the instrument. Joe R. and Joella F. Utley Collection, 1999.

Return to NMM Newsletter Index (March 2010)

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