Turnbull, Julia Anne (1822–1887)

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Turnbull, Julia Anne (1822–1887)

American ballet dancer and actress. Born on June 18, 1822, in Montreal, Canada; died of tuberculosis on September 11, 1887, in Brooklyn, New York; daughter of John D. Turnbull (an actor and playwright) and his actress wife (name unknown); studied ballet with French dancer Mme LeComte and LeComte's brother, Jules Martin, and with James Sylvain.

Julia Anne Turnbull was born in 1822 in Montreal, Canada. Her Scottish father John D. Turnbull was an actor and playwright, and her New York-born mother (name unknown) was also on the stage. When Julia was three years old, the family moved to Albany, New York, where she made her stage debut as an actress with her sisters Emily and Caroline . At age six, she appeared in The Wandering Boys in Albany, playing the part of Justin. In this important early performance, she shared the stage with Louisa Lane Drew , who later became a celebrated actress. Turnbull became a regular player in the stock company at the Park Theater in New York City, simultaneously studying ballet with French dancer Mme Le Comte and LeComte's brother, Jules Martin. In June 1839, she debuted in her first leading dance role in The Sisters at the Bowery Theater, co-starring with Mary Ann Lee (c. 1824–1899), who was later the first American to dance Giselle.

In 1840, when the great Viennese ballet dancer Fanny Elssler toured the United States, she chose Turnbull as a soloist in her company. Turnbull danced roles second only to Elssler's, and continued to study ballet with Elssler's partner, James Sylvain. When Elssler returned to Europe, Turnbull launched her own solo tour, returning to the Bowery Theater in 1847, where she joined the stock company and had a great hit as the star of The Naiad Queen. In the same year, she danced Giselle, for which she received rave reviews. Turnbull was one of the earliest American women to dance the classic title roles of Giselle and Esmeralda. During the 1840s, her popularity equaled or surpassed that of the European ballet stars who toured the United States.

In August 1848, a rivalry between Turnbull and Italian dancer Giovanna Ciocca resulted in a riot at the Bowery Theater. Although favored by the audience, Turnbull eventually left the company and continued to dance with great success, assuming more acting roles and earning accolades for these as well. She retired from the stage in 1857 and lived quietly in Brooklyn for the next 30 years. She did some dressmaking, and eventually died of tuberculosis and was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Kelly Winters , freelance writer

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Turnbull, Julia Anne (1822–1887)

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