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Joseph (Joe) Simms (c. 1859–c. 1945)

by Deirdre O'Connell

This article was published:

Joseph (Joe) Simms (c. 1859–c. 1945), entertainer, temperance advocate, and international traveller, was probably born in New South Wales. The year of his birth is uncertain as he reported conflicting dates over his lifetime and documentary evidence is fragmentary. He described himself as an Aboriginal man from Sydney or New South Wales, but his Country and family connections are unclear, and he is not remembered in contemporary Simms family oral histories. It seems he grew up around the Hunter Valley, probably Maitland on Wonnarua/Wanaruah (Wanarruwa) Country. Later he would recall that his parents came from ‘the hills of Australia’ (Lexington Herald 1920, 35) and that their ‘mother tongue’ was ‘Aboriginal’ (NARA 1920).

Simms grew up in the aftermath of invasion, a period marked by the establishment of new settler—colonial towns, rapid pastoral expansion, colonial violence, the introduction of European diseases and alcohol, and a devastating decline in Aboriginal populations. Remembering this time, he related what he saw as the effects of colonisation: ‘the English pushed the aborigines [sic] aside and more or less ignored them and in despair they decided on a policy of race suicide that has markedly reduced their number’ (Lexington Dispatch 1942, 9). His comments about ‘race suicide’—a late nineteenth-century eugenics concept about the relationship between alcohol consumption and reduced reproduction—reflected the influence of evangelical ascetism, contemporary scientific thinking, and the temperance movement.

By the early 1880s Simms had left Australia, reportedly travelling through France, Germany, and Britain. In London he heard the orations of Joseph C. Price, an African American minister, college educator, temperance speaker, and leading figure in the African Methodist Episcopalian Zion Church, who preached a brand of Christianity grounded in ideas of racial uplift. Price promoted natural rights philosophy and active citizenship, denounced systems of white supremacy, and embraced educational and moral self-development. Around 1883 Simms followed Price to the United States of America, and for a time joined him at the Zion Wesley Institute (later Livingston College) in North Carolina.

Simms recalled making ‘occasional visits back to my people’ (Lexington Dispatch 1942, 1A) and possibly visited Aboriginal missions, such as Maloga, located on the banks of the Murray River, New South Wales, that were influenced by the ideas and practices of the Methodist Church and temperance movement in the mid-1880s. The Fisk Jubilee Singers, a like-minded African American choir, visited Maloga in 1886.

Continuing his world travels in the late 1880s, Simms seems to have journeyed through China, Japan, and India. He undertook what he called a ‘deep study’ of the religious and spiritual customs of each region, including the glass-eating practices of Hindu and Muslim ascetics or fakirs. Later he would comment that, ‘while he did not profess to any’ religion, he thought Brahmanism was ‘the best’ (Lexington Herald 1920, 35) of those he had studied.

In 1890 Simms returned to the United States and soon after launched a career as an itinerant entertainer and lecturer, performing his solo show mostly in Methodist and Baptist churches that were respectable alternatives to theatres. His earliest recorded performance was in Decatur, Illinois, in November 1891, and from there he travelled to Alabama and Indiana (1891–92), and Ohio, Michigan, South Carolina, and Tennessee (1893–96).

Billed as the ‘Long-Haired Australian Wonder,’ he often performed a variety-style show, mixing physical feats such as ‘glass eating,’ ‘breaking rocks with the naked fist,’ and ‘swallowing knife blades,’ with his skills as a ‘conversationalist,’ telling ‘rare anecdotes and stories of travel in all parts of the world,’ playing piano and singing ‘with pathos, sentiment and expression’ (Baltimore Sun 1898, 4). By 1898 he had made his way from the south-east to the north-east of the United States, touring Washington, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. The following year he refined his stage act and began performing almost exclusively at Black Church events, establishing himself as a ‘real genius, pianist, organist, elocutionist, humourist and singer’ (Trenton Evening Times 1900, 6). President William McKinley reputedly wrote him a recommendation after watching him perform.

Between 1902 and 1906 Simms may have returned to Australia. However, the ‘Funny Man from Australia’ (Baltimore Sun 1912, 20) was back in the United States by 1908, touring in Pennsylvania, New York, and South Carolina. At the time of the 1920 United States census, he was living in Lexington, Kentucky, the census taker noting that he was ‘well educated, has written several essays on philosophy, and is now engaged in preparation of a book on phychology [sic]’ (Lexington Herald 1920, 35).

By the mid-1920s Simms had devised a new tour program, performing recitations and African American folk songs, ‘dialect stories,’ and spiritual songs. For the final years of his career, he spoke on topics such as spiritualism, health, folk tales, the Gospel, and Aboriginal culture and history, while still entertaining audiences with humour and song. Several observers noted his youthful appearance. In his sixties he did ‘not look to be over 25’ (Lexington Herald 1920, 35); two decades later he looked ‘distinguished’ (Lexington Dispatch 1942, 1A) but not old. His last documented performance was in North Carolina in 1942, where he announced his plan to return to Australia to ‘be gathered to his fathers’ (Lexington Dispatch 1942, 1A). What happened to him after this and when or where he passed away is unknown.

Simms left a faint and uneven imprint on the historical record, but what survives points to a remarkable life of travel, particularly across the United States where he lived for most of his life. A travelling showman, student of world religions and traditional practices, and self-proclaimed philosopher, he drew on Brahminism and African American models of racial uplift to promote a system of clean living and good health to resist the impact of settler colonialism.

 

Deirdre O’Connell is of Irish descent. She was born on Dharawal land and was living on Darug and Gundungurra land when she wrote this article. While researching Joe Simms’s life story, she looked for any family connections and consulted members of the Simms family of La Perouse.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Baltimore Sun. ‘The Funny Man from Australia.’ 21 July 1912, 20
  • Baltimore Sun. ‘The Long-Haired Australian Wonder.’ 12 October 1898, 4
  • Lexington Dispatch (North Carolina, USA). ‘Joe Simms Tells About His Native Australian Race.’ 4 June 1942, 1A
  • Lexington Herald (Kentucky, USA). ‘Good Record Made in Taking Census.’ 11 January 1920, 35
  • National Archives and Records Administration. Fourteenth Census of the United States, 1920. Roll T625_568. Lexington Ward 5, Fayette, Kentucky. Enumeration District 70, Line 47, Joe Simms
  • Trenton Evening Times (New Jersey, USA). ‘Colored Entertainer.’ 23 November 1900, 6

Additional Resources

Citation details

Deirdre O'Connell, 'Simms, Joseph (Joe) (c. 1859–c. 1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/simms-joseph-joe-33155/text41359, published online 2024, accessed online 13 July 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Birth

c. 1859
New South Wales, Australia

Death

c. 1945 (aged ~ 86)

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Occupation