Washington was a bi-racial man who was an essential leader to the African-American community, founding the Tuskegee Institute, the National Negro Business League, and delivering the Atlanta Compromise speech in 1895. He believed in Blacks earning social rights and respect through "industry, thrift, intelligence, and property", contrasting with W.E.B. DuBois' more aggressive and demanding approach. Washington would often pacify white Southern leaders by assuring them that Blacks were fit to stay in a lower social rank, content to work laborious and agricultural jobs.
Like other characters who populate the world of Ragtime, the historical “Harry Houdini” came to America as a young immigrant. Son of a rabbi, Erich Weisz was born on March 24th, 1874 in Budapest, Hungary, and would rename himself Harry Houdini in 1894 in honor of the famous French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. His show would become the highest paid act in American vaudeville, featuring daring acts of escape and illusion. Through the years, his act escalated from escaping from handcuffs to straightjackets to nailed packing crates. Most famous was his escape from the “Chinese Water Torture chamber” which required him to hold his breath for 3 minutes while he got out of his restraints.
J.P. Morgan was a titan of the American business world in the late nineteenth and early 20th century. By the time of his death in 1913, Morgan had become one of the most influential financiers and bankers in U.S. history. Despite his enormous financial success, Morgan was heavily criticized during the “progressive era” for his ruthless pursuit of wealth. In the play, his monopolistic business practices stand in stark contrast to politics of Emma Goldman and “Younger Brother” who represent the working class Morgan was accused of oppressing.
Born in 1863, Henry Ford was one of the most influential American industrialists of the early 20th century, most famous for his creation of the Model T automobile which democratized car ownership in the U.S. Ford advanced a way of mass producing his cars by using an assembly line of specialized workers for maximum efficiency. In the musical Ragtime, Coalhouse Walker’s purchase of one of Ford’s automobile’s stands as a statement of his claim to participate in the American Dream. The relationship to this car –and to the dream it symbolized – ultimately becomes a catalyst for the tragic actions that unfold in the play.
Notorious for her activist political rhetoric, Goldman was a prominent figure in the development of the anarchist political philosophy in North America and Europe during the earlier parts of the Twentieth century. A Russian immigrant herself, Goldman joined the anarchist movement in 1889 and was at the prime of her anarchist involvement in 1906, where she also founded the anarchist journal Mother Earth. She lectured on women's rights and social issues, and was jailed numerous times mostly due to starting riots and inducing violent acts.
Born as Florence Evelyn Nesbit, the young American chorus girl and model was at the prime of her entertainment career at the top of the 20th century. Considered the Marilyn Monroe of this era, Nesbit began as a novice model in New York where she was known as the prominent source of income for her family, as early as age twelve. In 1901, she began exploring the realm of live performance by joining the chorus line of a popular show by the name of Florodora where she met Stanford White, another company member and notorious womanizer who immortalized her as The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing. Starting one of the most scandalous love triangles in history, White was murdered at the hands of her jealous husband, Harry Kendall Thaw.
White was an architect who designed various public projects in New York City, such as the second Madison Square Garden and the Washington Square Park Arch. He also designed homes for high-society families in the city, as well as in New Rochelle, New York. He was romantically involved with his chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit Thaw, until Ms. Thaw's husband Harry Kendall Thaw murdered White on Madison Square Garden's rooftop.
Thaw was an heir to his father's railroad fortune, and he carelessly spent it as he tried to attain the lavish party life of a socialite, allegedly coining the term "playboy". With exhibitions of sociopath behavior, Thaw's mental illness caused him to engage in dangerous activities, harming himself and others. Thaw is most well-known for murdering Stanford White, the lover of Thaw's wife, Evelyn Nesbit Thaw.
Admiral Robert E. Peary, US Navy (1856 – 1920) was an American explorer, most famous for his expeditions in pursuit of the North Pole, which Peary was credited with reaching in 1909. Peary embodied the American spirit of adventure in the age of Teddy Roosevelt, who said of his trip to the North Pole: 'Peary, I believe in you and if it is possible for men to get there, I know you'll do it.'
An African-American explorer best known for his expeditions with Robert Peary, Matthew Henson may have been the first person to reach the North Pole on a journey with five others in 1906. Though Peary had to be pulled by sled during the later part of the hike, Henson was neglected for his service and assistance on this expedition in particular, skeptically because of his race. Approximately thirty years later, Henson was awarded a duplicate silver medal given to Peary for their excursion to the North Pole in 1944. He spent the majority of his life after the climb working as a clerk in a federal customs house in New York.
In 1909, Whitman was elected New York County District Attorney. In this capacity, he secured representation of the District Attorney's staff in the city magistrate's office, and was active in suppressing arson offenders. He was re-nominated for District Attorney in 1913 and elected almost unanimously.
Although there has been no factual documentation, it has been said that during the transition from novel to stage, the Little Boy was given the name Edgar because of Edgar Cayce, "The Sleeping Prophet". E.L. Doctorow, the author of the novel Ragtime, alludes to Little Boy's psychic powers. He is also heard in the musical exclaiming "Warn the duke!" to Harry Houdini. It has been said that Cayce made a prediction to Houdini concerning the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Cayce suggested to Houdini that during Houdini's travels to Sarajevo, he should warn the Archduke of someone trying to assassinate him. If Houdini had warned the Archduke and he had not been shot, Cayce says the first world war could have been prevented.
Sources: Milwaukee Rep Ragtime Study Guide, ZACH Theatre's online public Dramaturgy resource center, Wikipedia