In the early 1900’s, Eva Alexander Brister toured with Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show, and then with the John Robinson Circus, as a magician, snake charmer, and lion tamer. According to historian Jacob S. Dorman, she was the first Black woman lion tamer in America.
Eva Alexander was born in northern Kentucky around 1875. In 1898, in New York, she married a stage magician named James Hammond, who had been born in West Africa. They toured together until his death in Cincinnati on July 23, 1900. Less than a month later, still in Cincinnati, she married Walter Brister. On the marriage license, she listed her profession as “magician.”
Walter Brister was an African American bandleader from Kentuucky. By the time he married Eva Alexander Hammond, he was touring with a magic act in which he called himself “Armmah Sotanki.” In public, he claimed to be to be Sinhalese (from Ceylon, now Sri Lanka). As other African American performers also discovered, claiming to be an aristocrat from India or Ceylon could get you better treatment from white people: for example, on a train, you might not have to ride in the Jim Crow car.
Eva and Walter Brister began touring together as “The Sotankis, Royal Hindoo Wonder Workers.” Gradually, it was Eva, “Princess Sotanki,” who became the headliner, “assisted by Armmah.” Sotanki performed illusions including levitation, making a mango tree grow, and making a small boy disappear from inside a woven basket. She also performed the “sacred Indian snake dance” during which she handled “a number of live reptiles of immense size.”
In 1900, the Sotankis toured with Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show, and in 1902, they toured with the John Robinson circus, which had its winter quarters in Terrace Park, Ohio, just east of Cincinnati. This time, the tour program lists Princess Sotanki as a “Lion Tamer” (today of course we would say trainer).
In 1907, newspapers reported that Princess Sotanki, on the road with Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show in St. Louis, had married someone giving his name only as “Pesumba,” and who was “head man of the Sinhalese” accompanying the show.
For some years, Princess Sotanki toured in vaudeville, returning to Cincinnati after her tours. In 1914, she was performing at the Pekin Theater in Cincinnati. She was fined $10 for disorderly conduct after she used her 10-foot-long boa constrictor to frighten a man who was talking loudly outside, underneath her window. In 1919, in Cincinnati, she married Adam Allen. On the marriage certificate, she listed her profession as “snake charmer.” In 1929, Adam Allen died, and Eva later married John Wardell.
Eva Alexander Hammond Brister Pesumba Allen Wardell died of pneumonia in Cincinnati on November 17, 1939. She was buried in St. Joseph’s (New) Cemetery, Section 5, Row 95, Grave 18. There is no grave marker.