Scandalous Facts About May Yohé, The Cursed Songstress

November 24, 2023 | Alicia B.

Scandalous Facts About May Yohé, The Cursed Songstress

One woman, one hundred lives. May Yohé became a star, a scandal maker, a future Duchess, a war hero, a pauper, a suspected criminal, and everything in between. She loved life. But it didn’t love her back.

1. She Had The Craziest Life

Pennsylvania native May Yohé was born in 1866, but she made the world her playground. While May became a music star, she’s more famous for her off stage performances. These include doomed romances, secret marriages, endless scandals, abandoned children, crazy careers, and a cursed diamond. Just to name a few. And May started young.

Grayscale Portrait Photo of the American musical theatre actress May Yohé, wearing black dress and a hatEdward Ledger, Wikimedia Commons

2. She Courted Scandal

The 19-year-old rising star’s voice was angelic, but her behavior was devilish. She’d just moved from her hometown to Chicago to pursue her musical theater dreams. May drew attention—but not always for the right reasons. Enter, Edward Shaw. He was 30-years-old, rich, and married. By spending time together, May and Edward already walked a fine line. One day, they crossed it.

Grayscale Portrait Photo of the American musical theatre actress May Yohé as The Belle of CairoAlfred Ellis, Wikimedia Commons

3. She Was A Homewrecker

Despite their differences, Edward and May shared a hobby: homewrecking. When May failed to show up two days in a row, her theater bosses were clueless. Turns out, she skipped work to go on a weekend trip with him. A week later, Edward’s wife Jessie filed for divorce due to his abandonment and adultery. She even called out May. But the two lovers had a ridiculous excuse.

Grayscale Portrait Photo of the American musical theatre actress May Yohé, wearing white dressHayman Seleg Mendelssohn, Wikimedia Commons

4. She Didn’t Fool Anyone

According to May, she was only on the train to say goodbye to Edward. That is, until it departed while she was still on board. Edward and May could deny the affair, but Jessie had the receipts. Turns out, a train conductor caught them spending the night in the same bed. 

This public and embarrassing ordeal would’ve taught most people a lesson… if they had any shame. May didn’t. 

Grayscale Portrait Photo of the American musical theatre actress May Yohé, wearing a sailors uniform and a hat, leaning on a tableAlfred Ellis, Wikimedia Commons

5. She Moved On 

May moved onto bigger cities, bigger stages, and bigger messes. This includes a relationship with Tom Williams, a rich athlete, who was so bad May’s mom dragged her to Australia. A newspaper caught wind of this, and reported on May dumping him. Tom stormed into the paper’s office to express his anger. With a club. 

Not that this stopped newspapers from following May’s misadventures in love.

Grayscale Portrait Photo of the American musical theatre actress May Yohé as Phyllis in The Lady Slavey, wearing white maid dressAlfred Ellis, Wikimedia Commons

6. She Had A Big Reputation

May’s career, reputation, and scandals all grew once she returned. Some rumors, like a secret marriage to a gorgeous actor, were flattering. Other rumors, like secret marriages to senior senators, weren’t. It’s no wonder she earned the nickname “Madcap May”. But when May went to London looking for an international breakout, she found her real husband.

 Photo of ,the primary of the two Thames embankments, London, England, the lesser one facing this, not shown, at the time without the National Theatre and London Eye was only notable for Lambeth Palace and the newly completed building of London County HallLibrary of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

7. She Met Her Husband

27-year-old May went to London to make her mark on theater, but ended up also making an impression on Francis Hope. He was charming, sophisticated, kind, and interested in her. Francis knew just how to court her: by moving fast, flattering her ego, and blowing his cash. His gifts included jewels, and most importantly, investing in her career. But Francis had a secret identity that May was about to discover.

Grayscale Portrait Photo of Henry Francis Hope Pelham-Clinton-Hope, 8th Duke of Newcastle-under-Lyne, wearing a black suit, facing the cameraBain, Wikimedia Commons

8. She Discovered A Secret Identity

Francis lied to May, and she only found out when valet accidentally called him “Your Lordship”. Turns out, Francis Hope was Lord Hope: the brother and heir of the Duke of Newcastle. This was the furthest thing from a turn off, so May became his mistress. Their romance was a sweet "lover's dream” that was about to get a lot sweeter.

Grayscale Portrait Photo of the American musical theatre actress May Yohé as The Belle of CairoAlfred Ellis, Wikimedia Commons

9. She Was Kinda Married

When newspapers reported on Francis and May’s marriage a year later, they denied it. But where there’s smoke, there’s fire: May later confessed there was truth to it. Turns out, Francis asked her to marry him. Well, sort of. He proposed a five-month probationary marriage before the real deal. When May and Francis announced their real engagement, no one took it well. 

Grayscale Portrait Photo of the American musical theatre actress May Yohé, wearing a white wedding dressUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

10. She Had An Unforgettable Past

May could run from her past, but she couldn’t hide. The British newspapers discovered the rumors that she’d already been married multiple times, and went wild. This, on top of their already unflattering coverage of her. The idea of a British aristocrat marrying an American performer was scandalous–and they let her know. 

It’s no wonder that Francis’ posh family wanted to break them up. Desperately.

Grayscale Portrait Photo of the American musical theatre actress May Yohé, wearing a  black dressGilbert Dalziel, Wikimedia Commons

11. She Was A Nightmare In Law

If May and Francis married, she could become the Duchess of Newcastle. This was a dream for May, but a nightmare for her future family. In response, his family all but declared war on her. They defamed May in newspapers. Their private investigation tore her past apart. They even offered Francis a fortune, about $30 million today, to dump her. Their spendthrift son shocked them. 

Grayscale Portrait Photo of the American musical theatre actress May Yohé from the Actors and Actresses series, wearing a black dressAllen & Ginter, CC0, Wikimedia Commons

12. She Had An Uncharacteristic Wedding

Francis chose love. Two years after meeting, they married at the Registry Office with only a few friends in attendance. The short and simple wedding was out of character. But May couldn’t have been happier. After all, knew she was still “on the way to becoming one of the proudest and richest duchesses in the British Empire”. She was completely wrong.

Front stairs Entry of Westminster Registry OfficeLewis Clarke, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

13. She Married A Poor Man

May’s lady of leisure dreams slipped away like sand. Francis was already a big spender before marriage, but May knew and loved that. What she didn’t know was that he also filed for bankruptcy. It’s almost impressive how Francis squandered his inheritance in seven years. Now he’d married a woman who also couldn’t resist the finer things. They were a match made in disaster. 

Grayscale Portrait Photo of the American musical theatre actress May Yohé as Dick Whittington in Dandy Dick Whittington,  wearing a black suit and a hat, sitting on a chairAlfred Ellis, Wikimedia Commons

14. She Couldn’t Stop Spending

To fund their lifestyles, Francis sold everything he could until only crumbs remained. May dreamed of being a lady of the manor, but ended up a breadwinner. It didn’t help that her career took a hit at the same time. And that whatever she earned, they outspent it. The newlyweds resorted to begging and borrowing. 

Maybe May could live with this if they were still in love. But they weren’t.

Grayscale Portrait Photo of the American musical theatre actress May Yohé, leaning on a chair, with her back turned to the camera, wearing a dress with flowersKinney Brothers Company, CC0, Wikimedia Commons

15. She Was Falling Out Of Love

After five years of marriage, the honeymoon phase was a distant memory. Money can break the best of couples—and they were far from that. While May hustled to provide, Francis couldn’t stop spending. On top of that, he was distant and unromantic. Everyone noticed. The papers reported that they’d separated. 

A month later, May and Francis fired back in a huge—and expensive—way.

Grayscale Portrait Photo of the American musical theatre actress May Yohé, wearing light colored dress and a floral hat, facing the cameraUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

16. She Tried To Save Her Marriage

In 1900, May and Francis scraped together the funds to embark on a grand tour of the world. To Mary, this was a second honeymoon and an attempt to save their marriage. But Francis was more interested in avoiding his creditors and worried family. Their marriage was on the brink—and that was before Colonel Putnam Bradlee Strong boarded the same ship.

Grayscale Portrait Photo of Putnam Bradlee Strong, wearing a black uniformUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

17. She Was Courted

May confessed, “I never have known a woman who, after being thrown in Captain Strong’s company for a while, did not fall in with him”—and she knew that she wasn’t the exception. Putnam, in front of an oblivious Francis, courted and verbally seduced her. May couldn’t resist one of the American military’s most popular and handsome men. Not that she wanted to.

Grayscale Portrait Photo of the American musical theatre actress May Yohé, wearing white dress and a white hatLafayette photography studio, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

18. She Fell For Another Man

There’s clueless, and there’s Francis. He became friends with Putnam by the time they got to England. When Francis couldn’t accompany May on a Paris trip, he encouraged Putnam to go in his place. We can only imagine what they got up to in the City of Love. Even worse, Francis couldn’t be with May during her New York job. With the husband away, May and Putnam got to play.

Grayscale Photo of Eiffel Tower and park in ParisUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

19. She Knew Her Marriage Was Over

Throughout the many low points of their marriage, May must’ve wondered whether they were done. But in New York, she knew. When pneumonia landed her in the hospital, Francis was too busy to visit. And by busy, I mean he was fishing in Florida. In contrast, Putnam visited May with a huge bouquet. This incident wasn’t just a health scare. It was a wake up call.

Grayscale Photo of the streets of New York CitySvenska Biografteatern, Wikimedia Commons

20. She Cheated On Her Husband

What started as an affair turned into a serious love–May and Putnam even moved in together. As oblivious as Francis was, even he became suspicious when he finally visited May. Having to stay in a hotel instead of their apartment was a pretty big clue. After years of misery and stress, May had enough: “Out you go or out I go”. Message received.

The Plaza Hotel and Grand Army Plaza of Central Park, in New York CityEwing Galloway, Wikimedia Commons

21. She Dumped Her Husband

Francis returned to London, while May returned to plotting. Whenever newspapers asked her about their split, May referred them to her lawyer. He told the press that his clients just had a misunderstanding and would eventually reconcile. He insisted that a permanent breakup, and certainly not divorce, wasn’t on the table. 

May backed him up by announcing her return to England—only to run away with her lover.

Grayscale Photo of London Bridge in LondonPostcard LL, Wikimedia Commons

22. She Escaped Her Husband

Turns out, May lied to everyone so she could get her finances and career in order. Afterwards, she threw caution to the wind and ran away with Putnam to California. They even checked into a hotel as husband and wife. Everything was going according to plan…until the scandal broke. They dug themselves into a hole. Now they had to lay in it.

Panorama Photo of Los AngelesUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

23. She Became Notorious

Even May and Putnam couldn’t charm their way out of this one. When the media broke this scandal, it spread like wildfire. The hotel management discovered their true identities and kicked them out. But it got even worse for Putnam. He torpoded his reputation, and resigned. Once again, May became the nightmare of another lover’s rich and influential family.

King Edward Hotel on Los Angeles Street NW corner of 5th St, Los Angeles, at or shortly after openingUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

24. She Angered Powerful People

The Strong family desperately tried to destroy the romance, and even allegedly dragged President Roosevelt into the fray. They wanted the higher ups to not only reject Putnam’s resignation, but force him to serve in the Philippines. Basically, get him as far from May as possible. Once again, May emerged victorious. They ran away to Japan together. But May would discover that her victory was hollow.

Grayscale Portrait Photo of Theodore Roosevelt, showing head and shouldersPach Bros, Wikimedia Commons

25. She Ran Away With Her Lover

May and Putnam spent months in Japan on a pseudo honeymoon—even if she was still married to another man. Divorce in England was complicated, and May didn’t want to waste any more time. After all, Putnam was “everything a sweetheart-husband should be” and everything Francis wasn’t. But May learned the hard way that her men had matching red flags.

Grayscale Photo of Tokyo, JapanBaltzerFranz, Wikimedia Commons

26. She Was Used

May married a man from a wealthy family, but still ended up the breadwinner. Again. While May and Putnam lived in a Japanese palace, they were closer to paupers than princess and prince. Putnam, like Francis, couldn’t resist blowing through her money. May, high on love, gave him everything. Even if that meant pawning off all her valuables. However, their affair took an even darker turn.

Grayscale Photo of Japanese Palace surrounded with treesUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

27. She Was Spiralling 

May and Putnam’s debt wasn’t the only thing to grow—their drinking, waistlines, moodiness, and idleness soon followed. Japan had been heaven to them, but May knew that it had an expiration date. It was time to come back down to Earth. So they packed their belongings up and headed home. On the way, they finally received good news.

Grayscale photo of a Japanese beautiful park with a lake and a bridge in front and a treesInternet Archive Book Images, Wikimedia Commons

28. She Finally Got Divorced

At 36 years old and after 8 years of “marriage”, May and Francis finally divorced. At this point, Francis had lost his foot in a hunting accident, went bankrupt, and had an 18-year-old second cousin fiancée.  May once commented “It was because I got tired of Hope that I became Strong”. Now, she could turn her quip into her reality. May got what she wanted—but it wasn’t what she imagined. 

Grayscale Portrait Photo of the American musical theatre actress May Yohé, wearing a white dress, sitting and leaning on a chair,University of Washington, Wikimedia Commons

29. She Was Blindsided

There are betrayals, and there’s what Putnam did. He sent her a note confessing that he’d taken all of her jewels and ended his life. May had a servant search for him with the message that “all would be forgiven if he returned”. The Strong family even hired a detective agency. Then, the press found out. It was about to get even messier. 

beaded bracelet and a box with a handwritten letterPexels, Vennzi

30. She Had A Missing Lover

Neither Putnam’s lover or family believed he actually ended his life. But they still worried about his whereabouts, especially as days passed. May even cooperated with the press and pleaded for his return. But she also embarrassed them, by revealing details like Putnam mooching off her. But May cared about his return more than pride, money, or jewelry. This didn’t last.

Photo of Diamond floral JewelryBapon5243, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

31. She Was Betrayed

May ignored the scandalous rumors swirling around her—until one pushed her over the edge. Specifically, it was one where a witness caught Putnam with another woman. May had just finished talking about her forgiveness when she found out. She transformed in an instant and branded him “a coward and worse”. May wanted revenge.

Grayscale Portrait Photo of the American musical theatre actress May Yohé, wearing a white dress and a pearl necklaceUniversity of Washington, Wikimedia Commons

32. She Wanted Revenge

To make matters worse, May finally visited her safe and screamed, “He left me nothing. All my jewels are gone”. She beelined to the nearby station. They issued an arrest warrant and organized a 24 officer manhunt. The Strong family, desperate to protect Putnam, negotiated with May. In return for dropping the charges, they’d pay her back. But still May couldn’t move on. 

Grayscale Photo Police Officers standing next to each otherBain News Service, Wikimedia Commons

33. She Hunted Him Down

While May recovered many of her pawned jewels, it wasn’t even about gems or money anymore. It was about justice. When May discovered that Putnam was in London, she boarded a ship the same day. Rumors about her vengeance spread, so Putnam switched hotels to evade her. But one day, he gave up and sent May another life changing letter.

Grayscale Photo London Tower BridgeTekniska museet, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

34. She Was Blindsided Again

Putnam wrote to May begging for forgiveness, declaring his love, and hinting that he’d end his life unless they reunited. Once again, he knew exactly which buttons to push. And just like that, her fury evaporated. She declared “He can have everything I have got if he will only come back”. May and Putnam reconciled—but she wasn’t the same woman.

Grayscale Photo of Manchester London Road stationOld Postcard, Wikimedia Commons

35. She Issued An Ultimatum

After the couple arrived in Argentina, they learned that May and Francis’ divorce was finally official. Putnam had no excuses not to marry her, but boy did he try. May vowed to have his friends duel him for dishonoring her. The choice was his: marry or die. A week later, they married. But May should’ve been careful about what she wished for.

View of Buenos Aires' Paseo de Julio now Avenida Leandro N., Wikimedia Commons

36. She Lost Everything

After failing to make it in Argentina, May and Putnam returned to New York, only to find their downfall waiting. May’s career became a commercial and critical flop. At the same time, she struggled with drinking and married life. In desperation, May had Putnam join her on stage. Nothing worked. May was losing her voice, career, money, looks, and husband.

Old Mulberry Street in New York CityLibrary of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

37. She Went From Riches to Rags

When May confessed “I realize that I have made a terrible fool of myself. I have lost everything," she was right. May went from an international stardom to 10-cent shows. Her second divorce was just the cherry on top. But she refused to give up. As May entered her 40s, single and broke, she declared “I just have to begin all over again”. She stuck to her word.

Grayscale Portrait Photo of the American musical theatre actress May Yohé As Little Christopher ColombusThe "Graphic" Office, Wikimedia Commons

38. She Still Scandalized

After divorcing  Putnam, May moved on to new men and new scandals. While May’s career faltered, the rumor mill circling her flourished. These include countless rumors about affairs, secret marriages, and even a secret child given up for adoption. But May refused to just be a victim. 

She took advantage of the press by staging her disappearance to increase her bookings. This boom led to a tour in South Africa and her next great romance. 

May Yohé advertisement 1921 for the The Hope Diamond Mystery movieWoodland Daily Democrat, Wikimedia Commons

39. She Found Love Again

Enter, Captain John Addey Smuts. He was a handsome military man and 9 years her junior. But most importantly, he was the polar opposite of Francis and Putnam. John was disciplined and firm—exactly what May thought she needed. May eventually returned to New York and notified the press of their engagement, but refused to identify her future husband. 

Then, she returned to South Africa to start a new life.

Grayscale Photo of Pearl and State Street in New York CityHenry Bellagnome from Troy, Wikimedia Commons

40. She Started A New Life

It took a few men and a few weddings, but May finally got her fairytale nuptials. On top of that, it looked like a fairytale ending was on the horizon. She and John planned to travel. Thanks to her successful inn, they could actually afford to. Then WWI broke out. When John joined the fray, May followed. What she did next blew everyone away.

Britain invented the tank in the Great War, and other countries soon copied our designHulton Archive, Getty Images

41. She Became A Hero

May’s life just took its most unexpected twist so far: She didn’t just join John on the frontlines as a wife, she became a war nurse. This was the furthest situation from her past life of show business, fame, and luxury. But she served skillfully, loyalty, and happily. And that wasn't all.

Grayscale Photo of improvised hospital during the First World WarUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

42. She Had A Soft Side

May's nursing exposed a tender side to her that nobody saw coming. While John called her his "little trooper," one reporter went so far as to write, "May Yohé has regained her own soul. She has paid nobly for the sins of her past". Of course, just when she settled into her new life, disaster struck.

Grayscale photo of a nurse and medical officer attending a patient outside a tentSee page for author, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

43. She Stepped Up

John became an invalid after suffering one too many injuries. As he recovered throughout Asia, they scraped by in unexpected places like rubber plantations. As John became sicker, they became poorer. He even found himself behind bars for failing to pay a bill. Meanwhile, May found herself with no choice but to become the breadwinner. It was her third—and worst—time.

Grayscale Photo of Qingdao depicting the first world warBundesarchiv, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

44. She Shocked Everyone

When May and John finally made it to the US, they found more poverty and disappointment. May quietly cycled through the most unglamorous jobs, including chicken farmer—until she was exposed. As May worked as a scrubwoman, she ran into a show producer who’d worked with her in a past life. He did a double take and yelled “My god, Maysie, is this a farce comedy or what?” 

When the media discovered that life had reduced May Yohé—a star, Lady Francis Hope, a future duchess—into a scrubwoman, they didn’t hold back. In response, May insisted she just wanted a quiet life now. She didn’t love drama anymore. But it still loved her.

Grayscale Photo of a chicken farm with wooden cases for chickenMarvinBikolano, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

45. She Became A Suspect

May just couldn’t catch a break: She suffered countless injuries in her later life. But some don’t think it’s just bad luck. They suggest John got physical with her—and brutally so. But if he did, she got her revenge. When May called the authorities to their rented room, they discovered John with a serious gunshot wound to his chest. 

They also discovered the note: “I am going to shoot myself because I have been unkind to my wife”. No one believed John harmed himself since everything pointed to May. But he refused to cooperate, so the officers moved on. But May couldn’t, as life continued to pummel her. 

handwritten note with a old Fountain penPetar Milošević, CC BY-SA 4.0 Wikimedia Commons

46. She Had Courtroom Drama

Throughout May’s life, many claimed to be her secret child. All of them failed...except for one. Robert Thomas took his 69-year-old alleged mother to court. Robert claimed his parents, May and Putnam, put him up for adoption. If Robert won, he could inherit May’s ex-husband’s family fortune. 

May emerged victorious, but there’s only so much even the strongest women can take before snapping.

Grayscale Photo of Jury box in courtroom at small courthouse with wooden chairsehrlif, Shutterstock

47. She Lost Her Mind

At this point, May was taking losses from every direction. This included her career, her wealth, her voice, her looks, her health, and her past loves. At 71, she could add her sanity to the list. During a bus journey, May screamed that outlaws had boarded the bus. She leapt from the bus to escape. 

Officers took her into custody, but once again, they had to let her go. Life wasn’t finished with May yet. 

Grayscale phhoto of Yellow Coach bus in the streets New YorkUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

48. She Lost Her Identity

As if life hadn’t taken enough from May, it took her citizenship too. When the impoverished 72-year-old applied for a job, a background check revealed that she lost her American citizenship when she married her first husband, Francis Hope. 44 years ago. 

Since May proudly identified as American—and desperately needed money—she took on her government. She won. But her misfortune still begs the question: Why did so many bad things happen to one woman? The blame may also lay with Francis.

Ad for the American film serial The Hope Diamond Mystery (1921) with May Yohe and Grace DarmondKosmik Films Inc, Wikimedia Commons

49. She Wore A Cursed Diamond 

Turns out, Francis inherited more than a fancy name and a fortune to squander. He once owned the Hope Diamond—a jewel as beautiful as it is cursed. According to legends, the gem curses any of its wearers. And boy did the necklace have a long list of unlucky women attached to it. May wore the necklace at least twice. Well that’d explain a lot. 

The Hope Diamond, one of the largest of all blue diamonds, 45.52 carats, exhibited at the National MuseumUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

50. She Left Her Mark

For a woman with such a loud life, May’s end was quiet. She passed in her sleep at 72. She lived through the Naughty Nineties, the Roaring Twenties, and the Great Depression. It wasn’t always happy, but May always lived her life to the fullest. And then some. Her adventures—and misadventures—ensure we’ll remember her forever. 

Oh, and because many think May’s ghost haunts the hotel she grew up in. That helps too.

Grayscale Portrait Photo of the American musical theatre actress May Yohé, wearing extravagant dressUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

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