M.B. "Doc" Marcell: Official Photographer of the First Calgary Stampede

By Seiler, Robert M. | American Review of Canadian Studies, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

M.B. "Doc" Marcell: Official Photographer of the First Calgary Stampede


Seiler, Robert M., American Review of Canadian Studies


This paper grows out of my ongoing interest in the Calgary Stampede, the world's most extravagant celebration of cowboy culture. I build on two papers that focus on how Calgarians exploit the symbolic resources at their disposal, including the image of the cowboy, to construct their regional and municipal identities (Seiler and Seiler). Many historians, such as James Gray and Donna Livingstone, have written about the achievements of Guy Weadick, the American-born vaudeville entertainer who organised the first Calgary Stampede in 1912, but few (save for Donald Smith) have written anything insightful about the accomplishments of M.B. "Doc" Marcell, the American-born adventurer who photographed this important event. To some extent, historians of western Canada have demonstrated a bias in favor of the linguistic mode, almost blind to the richness of symbolic thought in other modes of communication, especially the iconic (Gross 190). Here, I initiate the process of remedying this unfortunate situation, by way of highlighting the important role Marcell played in documenting the event and suggesting that, working in the tradition epitomized by the pictures of such western artists as Frederic Remington, Charlie Russell, and Edward Borein, Marcell played a significant role in popularizing an image of the "Wild West" in general and of the Canadian West in particular.

Context

Reconstructing the career of Marcus Belmont Marcell (1869-1939) has been no easy task, in part because he moved often and employed a number of names.(1) He was born Milward Belmont Davis, and spent his first six years in Louisville, Kentucky, where his father, Charles Wellington Davis (1844-1916) worked as a photographer. In 1874, the family moved to Athens, Georgia, where Davis acquired two photography galleries, including the Premium Gallery, which was located directly across the street from the University of Georgia. During this period, Davis earned great fame as a "photographic artist," and his pictures--oil, watercolor, and crayon portraits and grand landscapes--won competitions at the Georgia State Fair. In 1878, he expanded his business, opening a branch gallery in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Marcell's mother, Mrs. Ada W. Davis (her maiden was Belmont) died suddenly on August 12, 1875, her twenty-first birthday. Five years later, Charles Davis married 19-year-old Emma Vonderleith from Athens, Georgia. They had three girls: Mamie, Lily, and Carolina. In 1887, Davis left Emma and the three girls, and with Marcell (who was 18) returned north to Cincinnati, Ohio.

Clearly, Marcell grew tip with photography in his blood. He did not get on with his father, and by 1888, he had left home. Initially, he made a living as an itinerant photographer, going from door to door, encouraging parents to let him photograph their children sitting on the pony he used as a prop. In June 1889, Marcell married Eva May Forbes, and the couple moved to Dennison, Texas, where he operated a portrait studio. Edward Forbes Davis (later Marcell), their only child, was born in Dennison on February 11, 1890. Shortly afterwards, the couple separated.

Marcell pursued a number of interests (cf. De Shon). During the period 1896-98, he worked in New York as a journalist, writing for William Randolph Hearst's newspaper, The New York Journal. It is thought that, in 1898, he travelled to Cuba to report on Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders, who took part in the Spanish-American War. Later, during the period 1902-09, he travelled across the United States and Canada, operating a scheme called the "Mysterious Mr. Raffles." Apparently, he would visit a town or a city for a period of time, selling tickets which entitled the holder to win a large prize, that is, if that person identified the "stranger" who walked the streets of the community. Presumably, this person (a collaborator) wore a disguise of some sort. Legend has it that this project earned him no less than $750,000. …

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