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Magic of the mind: The Mercedes story

Pioneer Park Historical Complex

Many talented and intriguing personalities have called northern Wisconsin home throughout history, from the naturalist Sam Campbell to actress Joan Valerie, and baseball player Cy Williams. But this musically magical couple stands apart from the rest.

The year is 1915. Mr. Mercedes walks through the sold-out crowd in the Orpheum Theater and stops at an audience member’s seat. On the stage is a white-gowned Nellie Stantone, seated at a beautiful grand piano, and blindfolded. Mr. Mercedes speaks quietly with the selected audience member and asks them to put in mind a song – any song they could think of – but to not speak of it aloud. In a moment’s time, Mademoiselle Stantone begins to play the very song, thought only in the mind of the audience participant, on her keys of Ivory. The song is heard throughout the theater, but unseen is the telepathic ability between Mercedes and Stantone. Mr. Mercedes is able to read the song choice from the audience member’s thought alone and transfer it to the stage where it traveled through the fingers of Miss Stantone. Mr. Mercedes follows the music with the song title as the crowd sits astonished. This act continues until the crowd is utterly convinced that the couple possesses abilities of the supernatural variety.

These stars of early 1900s Vaudeville grew up in poor immigrant homes. They were neighbors in the ghettos of Chicago. Born Joseph Howard, Mr. Mercedes worked the hard life of a factory laborer. It was a tragedy for a young man inclined toward the life of a gifted artist, for he was a violin prodigy. Joe befriended Nellie Stantone in his youth. As they got older, the couple became romantically involved and Nellie would accompany Joe’s violin as a pianist.

All was well until Joe’s finger was smashed in a machine in an accident at work. He contracted blood poisoning from the incident and laid in a daze at his girlfriend’s home for weeks as the infection took hold. Stuck in a feverish stupor, his mind returned to a single song time and again. In a moment of clarity, Joe asked Nellie to play this song. Without Joe mentioning its name, she began to play ‘Ave Maria’ by Schubert on the piano. Revived by this strange occurrence, and in time, Joe regained his health.

In the months to follow, Joe and Nellie would practice this newfound mental ability they shared. Nellie’s parents were horrified at this development. They thought Joe had their daughter under a trance and blamed the ability on the devil. Nellie’s parents packed up their home and moved to Michigan. After a severe beating for practicing the art of the occult, Joe ran away and followed Nellie to Michigan where he sold newspapers on the street. Then, when the two came of age, they started a show of their mysterious ability.

What began as a small act making $150 a week quickly grew into a world-renowned Vaudeville act. Their show took them all over the country and the world. They visited places like London, Paris, and other major cities in Europe, bringing in $1,000 a week. That’s almost $30 thousand dollars a week by today’s mark.

In a famous showing in Madison, they performed their demonstration for some of the top psychological minds of the nation. The couple, separated by several city blocks, were able to reproduce the feat. Later, the pair gave another successful performance in Pennsylvania, separated by 63 miles. This phenomenon could neither be denied nor explained by the professionals and audiences that witnessed it. During their career, Nellie was said to have had a song repertoire of over twenty-five thousand numbers.

A stage accident eventually left Nellie injured and the couple retired from show business. They moved to the Northwoods of Wisconsin, first to a home on Blue Lake, south of Minocqua. Then the couple lived in a modest house on Lincoln Street in Rhinelander. For many years, the home was a periwinkle purple color. It has been repainted in recent times, covering the paint and history it once held.

Mr. Mercedes and his darling wife Nellie turned their focus toward marketing their new home of northern Wisconsin. They operated an office out of Chicago and worked on commissions given by all the top resorts and tourist industry businesses that benefited from the Mercedes’ work. Joe famously coined the moniker “Heart O’ the Lakes” region, which was used as an advertising slogan for this area for many years. Their work had a way of bringing the communities of Northern Wisconsin together in a shared vision. Joe dabbled in other types of showmanship, like operating a Circus Sideshow Museum on the lot adjacent to their home, which would later be the site of Rhinelander’s Kentucky Fried Chicken, and subsequently Arby’s. Both are gone now. Joe and Nellie’s work in tourism boosting was well known in its own right and just as important as their earlier traveling stage act.

The marvelous couple gave only one public showing of their famous Vaudeville act in the Northwoods. It was performed for a parks playground equipment fundraiser held by Rhinelander newspaper man Jack Corey. Mere days before the show, they were called away to attend a funeral out of the area. Mr. Mercedes directed Jack only to provide a piano on a stage. No other preparations were made. They returned the day of and performed to a crowd in awe of the spectacle.

Due to the relationship Jack built with Joe and Nellie, he was invited to a private performance toward the end of their lives. After the show, Jack was invited to stay for a while as Joe went outside to assist cars leaving the property. Jack the skeptic took advantage of his time alone to lift up rugs and search for clues as to how the act was accomplished. None were discovered.

Joe and Nellie died some years after, and now rest in a Rhinelander cemetery, forever keeping the secret of the special gift they shared together as Rhinelander’s magic couple.

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Kerry Bloedorn joined WXPR in 2022 as the host of A Northwoods Moment in History. A local historian, Director of Pioneer Park Historical Complex for the City of Rhinelander and writer for The New North Magazine, he loves digging into the past and sharing his passion for history with the Northwoods community.