Mysterious 19th Century Russian 'Nobleman' Taught Piano in Northwest Arkansas

Dec 18, 2018

The Russian piano teacher active in Northwest Arkansas and Northeast Oklahoma at the end of the 19th century claimed to be a descendant of the Russian House of Dolgorukov.
Credit (courtesy wikipedia.org)

This is the story of a mysterious man, a pianist and music teacher by profession, who showed up in the small Northwest Arkansas town of Cincinnati in Washington County in the 1870s. He went by the name of Edwin Dolgoruki—sometimes reported as “G. Dolgoruki,” but usually as Edwin. But to this day no one is sure of who the man was, where he actually came from, or what was his real story.

One of the first 20th-century print references to Mr. Dolgoruki appeared in the “Ozark Moon” column, written anonymously by a correspondent calling himself “Uncle Walt,” in the September 17, 1938 edition of the Fayetteville Northwest Arkansas Times newspaper.  Uncle Walt writes of a man who, and I quote, “was quite obviously a foreigner and his courtly manner, linguistic ability and musical talent stamped him as a man who had been of some importance in his native land.” Uncle Walt’s column suggests Dolgoruki simply showed up one day in the early 1870s in northwest Arkansas, and was befriended by a Professor Welch, who heard Dolgoruki playing a piano piece by Anton Rubinstein—and very well at that.  “I ought to know how to play Rubinstein, for I studied under him!” said Dolgoruki.  Welch apparently induced the supposed Russian immigrant to teach music in the Cincinnati area and at nearby Cane Hill College, one of Arkansas’s first institutes of higher learning.

Brooks Blevins, Professor of Ozarks Studies at Missouri State University, has found primary historical sources referencing Dolgaruki dating back to the 1870s. “In doing research for my books on the Ozarks, I kept coming across this guy.” The earliest reference to Dolgaruki Blevins has found was in a collection of 19th-century letters in the University of Arkansas Special Collections department. “This young woman is writing a letter to a cousin of her about this Christmas event that she’s attended.”  In those days it was common for small towns to have community Christmas trees where people could leave presents for each other.  “And she talks about being surprised that someone had left something on the tree for her.  And she said, ‘I don’t know who left it, unless it was Professor Dolgoruki’—she spelled it ‘Dolgoriki.’ But it was the guy. This was in 1877.” 

Returning to the “Uncle Walt” newspaper column from 1938, supposedly Dolgoruki, who had been quite reluctant to talk about his origins or his past, revealed to Professor Welch, “in a sudden burst of confidence,” various bits of information that led Welch to believe Dolgoruki was indeed the son of a Russian nobleman, possibly through what was known as a “morganatic” marriage, a union of two people of unequal social rank whereby neither the wife nor any offspring ever receive any of the husband’s titles and royal privileges.

But as Brooks Blevins points out, there is simply no historical record of an “Edwin” Dolgoruki in that family’s recorded history.  And the life story Dolgoruki started telling was pretty far-fetched.  According to Blevins, “You’ve basically got two possibilities here. One is that he actually was telling the truth and that he was part of the Dolgorukov family, and that he was, as he suggested, exiled to Siberia as a young man because of his republican political principles.  It’s kind of a ‘Shawshank’ sort of story—that he spends five years as basically a prison miner in Siberia, and he then gets out of the country, he goes to China, makes his way eventually to South America, he says, and then to the United States.”  In fact, one of the stories was that Dolgoruki was sentenced to work in a Siberian salt mine, and he escaped in a salt barrel!  I mentioned that one to Brooks Blevins, who admitted, “Okay I haven’t seen that one! But that’s even better—that’s even more ‘Shawshank!’  But, you either believe his story, or... we also know that there were plenty of stories of impostors—especially in those days, when it was much easier to do this.  Either way, it’s a really fascinating story, whether he was real or fake.”

Eventually, after he played a concert in Fayetteville, news reporters from Springfield to New York started snooping around. And Dolgoruki disappeared suddenly from Northwest Arkansas... only to show up again in the early 1880s in nearby Cherokee Nation, Tahlequah, Oklahoma. That, according to Gina Olaya on the website “Anadisgoi—The Official Cherokee Nation Newsroom” (http://anadisgoi.com/more/blogs/1975-russian-prince).

Brooks Blevins at Missouri State University recently decided to do more snooping himself.  He reasoned, “This guy obviously existed—whoever he was—and he should show up in Census records, right?”

Checking the 1880 U.S. Census records for Washington County, Arkansas, Blevins found nothing even close to “Dolgoruki.” “But,” he says, “there was a Russian-born music teacher under the name ‘Francis Morgan’! He was married, he had an 8-month-old son.  So whoever ‘Francis Morgan’ was, I would guess, is probably whoever this ‘Prince Dolgoruki’ character was.”

So, was he really a Russian noble in exile who improbably made his way to the Arkansas Ozarks, or, as Brooks Blevins wonders aloud, was he “an American who was on the lam from some sort of crime somewhere back East?”  It’s still a mystery to this day—but a fascinating one.