Contributed by Rainer Lotz.
Josephine Morcashani, [Josephine Laura Fanny Highsmith] singer and entertainer, was born on 28 January 1870 at 26 Caledonia Street, Islington, London, the first child of John Steer, cab driver and his wife Mary Jane Augusta, nee Banbury, whose father and brother were cab drivers. Possibly educated in Hampstead, she was married 24 August 1891 at St Paul’s, Hyson Green, Nottingham to Joseph Henry Highsmith, a ‘comedian’ also aged 22. Highsmith had been born in Wilmington, North Carolina, in September 1869, the son of a horsedealer and drayman. Her American husband’s work as an entertainer influenced her, and he may have identified the unique quality in her voice, for she sang as a baritone. He was described as a ‘comedian and vocalist’ on the birth registration of their son Joseph John Augustus Highsmith, born in Edmonton, Middlesex on 29 December 1894. Four years later she was working as ‘Morcashani, singer and dancer’ in Berlin, and used that name throughout her professional career.
Her husband may have worked with her, but he was never advertised. The entertainment press gave Miss Morcashani several descriptions, stemming in part from her dark complexion. In May 1898 in Leipzig she was billed as an Australian singer, and reviewed as ‘the favourite singer and dancer of the black prince Menelik [emperor of Ethiopia]’ with ‘curly Negro hair’ and a yellow complexion. She danced and sang one serious and two comic songs. In August 1898 in Bochum her ‘phenomenal strong voice’ was noted, and in Ghent (Belgium) in December she was noted as a serious singer and a comedian. In eastern Germany’s Magdeburg in January 1899 she was an Australian ‘baritone vocalist’, and at the end of that year in Hamburg she was singing in both German and English, a ‘serio-eccentric baritone singer’ from Australia. She had performed in Stockholm, Copenhagen, Danzig, Antwerp and Amsterdam too. The antipodean female baritone worked Denmark in early 1900, and toured to Munich, Zurich, Berlin ‘the creole, in her funny nigger songs’, to Budapest and Vienna by January 1902 where she was ‘Die Australierin Marcaschani (La Belle Creole)’.
Contemporary photographs show her dressed in full female costume – in April 1902 a Berlin performance was by a ‘voluptuous creole eccentric singer and dancer’. She sang in English and German, getting much applause from comedy songs. She was in London on the same bill as the famed Little Tich in August 1902, in Holloway (north London) in March 1903, then Swansea, and was in Leeds in January 1904. She then sailed to New York but was in Paris in March 1904. Wolverhampton, Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow saw her before she again went to Budapest, Vienna and Berlin, returning to Britain’s Empire circuit – Hackney, Holloway and New Cross in December 1904, Stratford, Swansea and Liverpool, then Dublin and Belfast in October 1905 before a two month spell at the Tivoli, Cape Town (31 January to 3 April 1906). She had been touring, singing in her baritone voice, and dancing for ten years. She was in Russia in 1907, and made two if not three short films (soundtracks on discs) in Berlin in 1908, and spent six months of 1909 in South America. She worked with an alleged ‘Sioux Indian’ (who seems to have been of African descent) in Germany and England in 1913, and was in Berlin when war was declared in August 1914.
She took a U.S. passport from the embassy, producing her marriage certificate that showed her husband was American. The officials noted she was a ‘Negress’. They also issued a passport for her son. He remained in Germany working as a cinema projectionist, obtaining another U.S. passport in January 1915. In December he joined the British army, served in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, was wounded in 1916, and discharged unfit. In October his father, ‘vocalist’ was issued with his passport in Bradford. Joseph Henry Highsmith had started a second family with Ann Frances ‘Fanny’ Hindle of Lancashire, and had two children by 1915 (one born in Bradford, as were three more between 1916 and 1925). He registered Frances as his wife, and the four children, at the U.S. consulate in Bradford in February 1918. He died ‘music hall artist’ aged 55 in Bradford on 30 March 1926.
Miss Morcashani worked, often with Arabella Fields, in neutral Holland 1915-1921, having star billing in Rotterdam in February 1921 to mark her twenty-fifth anniversary as a performer. She then worked in Vienna, with other performers of African descent including Harry Wellmon and Abbey Mitchell. Her date of death and her African roots have yet to be ascertained.