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March 17, 2017

Leota Fodrea

Leota Fodrea

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

A few weeks ago, I did a post about the Noblesville playwright John Wise and the productions of his plays.  I mentioned that one of the reasons for the initial success of the plays was the woman who played the lead – Leota Fodrea.  She had short, but interesting life and had a great impact on the community.

She was born July 1, 1877, the daughter of County Recorder Levi Fodrea and his wife Martha.  Her siblings were Lutitia, Theodosia, William, Theresa, and Viola.  Her family was among the founding members of the First Friends Church.

She graduated from Noblesville High School in May of 1897 and appeared in in Wise’s play in November of that year. At 20, she was younger than the male lead (who was 29), but she was still considered the best part of the show.

Noblesville Democrat, November 5, 1897:

“Miss Leota Fodrea in the leading role, that of “Vivian Vane”, was the main feature of the play.  Mr. Wise is to be congratulated on upon securing her to take the part.  He experienced much difficulty in securing a person competent to carry and to do justice to this particular cast.  Miss Fodrea rehearsed the part and her work from the start so pleased the author that at once assigned her the leading role.  Miss Fodrea’s nature and general manner is not of such as this character requires, being that of an inexperienced country girl, it therefore became her duty to throw into the cast real genuine acting, and that of a finished nature to carry it successfully, and we will voice the sentiment of all when we say she did this admirably.  Her actions of the shy, timid, country girl were fine and her character work was of a very high order and her songs were well received.  She had to personate one with a wandering mind, which is unquestionably a difficult thing to do.  Her work and lines throughout the play was exceedingly heavy and hard for an amateur, but she was capable of doing all that was required of her, and did the work in a manner that brought credit to herself and honor to the company.”

Noblesville Ledger, November 5, 1897:

“The work of Miss Leota Fodrea as Vivian Vane, the innocent country girl who falls in love with Gerald Wayne (C. W. Kraft), a deceiving city chap, was excellent.  It was by far the most difficult part in the cast and Miss Fodrea acquitted herself splendidly.  Although it was her first appearance on the stage, she seemed perfectly at home and won scores of deserved compliments.”

We don’t know if she did any further stage work.  Instead she became a teacher in 1902.  However, that was after a year of high drama in real life.

Her brother William had a rival in romance named John Seay.  Seay was employed at the Model Mill and on December 22, 1901, an unknown person fired a shotgun through window while he worked, hitting him in the head and neck, and killing him.  William Fodrea was charged, and after several delays the trial started in May.  Leota was called as character witness in June.

Indianapolis News, June 13, 1902:

“If he is acquitted, Fodrea can thank his little sister Leota for it more than anyone else.  Just before the defense closed its case, she was called to testify. …

The sister was called as a witness.  When the white face, with its big staring eyes, and the frail white form faced the great crowd in the court-room, there was an unusual scene.

Women wiped their eyes.  The eyes of two or three of the jurors became moist, and some of them hid their faces behind their fans.

Even big Ralph Kane, the attorney for the state, shifted uneasily and was misty about the eyes as the witness, in her childish, prattling way – a woman in years, but a child in experience – told how she and Will played together when children; how he used to run away to a machine shop and work and how she would go with him.

She told of the dolls he made her, the mechanical toys he constructed and engines he built.  Everyone in the room realized that the delicate sister was pleading for her brother and it had effect at the time.”

Whether it was her testimony or the fact that the key witness against him was one of the town’s more notorious prostitutes, William was acquitted on June 14th.

Cincinnati Enquirer, June 15, 1902:

“Miss Leota Fodrea, a sister to the defendant, whose devotion to her brother during the trial attracted much attention, was not in the courtroom when the verdict was read, but she ran two squares to the courthouse and fell exhausted in the arms of the defendant.”

Life returned to normal for the Fodrea family.  William was known for his mechanical work, receiving several patents, and being a partner in the first and only car company in Hamilton County.

Third Ward School where Leota taught.

Leota began teaching in Arcadia, then came to the Third Ward School, where she taught first and third grade.  She was able to visit the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904.  In 1907, she began teaching at First Ward School and became engaged to John Bart.  Tragically, this would come to nothing.

She contracted pneumonia on May 1 and died on May 4th, 1907.   There was a large funeral, for which the schools were let out early and all the city teachers attended together.  The county school superintendent was the main speaker.  There were many floral arrangements from teachers, each ward school, and the school board.  A decoration on the casket was a large plume purchased by John Bart for her wedding hat.  She was buried in his family plot in Crownland.   The First Ward teachers wrote a tribute to her that was published in the papers and which read in part:

She had a true independence of character; a strong individuality unassociated with pride or haughtiness.  She was tender-hearted and sympathetic and the cry of a child found a quick response in her tender sympathies.  To this must be added her sweet and cheerful disposition.  She was always on the lookout for the roses in the hedges and gathering the pleasant things from the bitter.

As a teacher she was a most agreeable and pleasant worker.  She was unchangingly true and loyal to her associates.  She never failed in the hour of trial and no storm was ever wild enough, no danger dark enough, or calumny black enough to drive her from the post of duty and those whom she loved.