The Face on the Barroom Floor

What do you call it when two events, totally unrelated in time and place, come together in a surprising way?  The word escapes me.  But here’s the story of one such pairing.

1872, Joe Smith’s Saloon in Manhattan is where the first event supposedly took place.  Nobody knows whether the story is true, but it was used as the basis of a poem written by John Henry Titus, about a man who stumbles into the bar with a tale of how he lost Madeline, the love of his life, when she ran off with another man.  Claiming to have been a famous artist, he offers to draw a portrait of his beloved on the floor for the price of a drink.  The other patrons take him up on his offer.  He finishes the portrait and falls dead across the beautiful face.

In 1887 another poet, Hugh Antoine D’Arcy, adapted and wrote a new version of the poem titled “The Face on the Floor.”   This version was published in the New York Dispatch and became quite popular.  Someone else set a similar poem to music and published the song.  To avoid copyright conflicts, they titled it “The Face on the Barroom Floor.”  Over time, D’Arcy’s poem came to be known by the title of the song (much to Mr. D’Arcy’s displeasure).  The entire poem is quite long, but here are the last couple of verses as a sample.

“Say, boys, if you give me just another whiskey I’ll be glad,
And I’ll draw right here a picture of the face that drove me mad.
Give me that piece of chalk with which you mark the baseball score —
You shall see the lovely Madeline upon the barroom floor.”

Another drink, and with chalk in hand, the vagabond began
To sketch a face that well might buy the soul of any man.
Then, as he placed another lock upon the shapely head,
With a fearful shriek, he leaped and fell across the picture — dead

Segue to the second event—Central City, Colorado, 1939.  The gold mining boom town from the mid 1800’s was still a popular tourist attraction.  Artist Herndon Davis had been commissioned to do a series of paintings for the Central City Opera House and also for the Teller House hotel where he was staying.  Alas, things didn’t go well for him.  Davis got into a violent argument with the director of the project and was fired.

A hotel busboy, Joe Libby, suggested that the artist “give them something to remember him by.”  That night Libby smuggled Davis into the hotel bar.  By candlelight, the artist painted a face (thought to be the face of his wife) on the barroom floor.

Davis never signed his work, but the bar’s owners chose to capitalize on it.  They advertised the painting as the one from the poem, and people flocked to see it.  It is there to this day, as Central City’s most popular attraction.

I was unable to find a copyright-free image for this blog.  But here’s a link to the face and the entire poem.

This book, one of my best, is also set in Central City, after the Civil War. 

Sarah Parker had tried to escape her past in a dusty mining town. But any hope of redemption was lost once Donovan Cole arrived, carrying battle-seared memories and a bellyful of hate—all for the woman she’d been during a time she’d hoped to forget!  

“The Angel of Miner’s Gulch,” they called her. Fallen angel, more likely, Donovan swore. For the “sainted” Miss Sarah had been a lying, coldhearted Yankee spy who knew how to capture a man and make him her own—forever!




Here’s a link to the Kindle edition

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14 thoughts on “The Face on the Barroom Floor”

  1. Elizabeth, the stories of both “faces on the floor” are enthralling. The first one where the man dies after finishing the painting almost sounds a bit like an Edgar Allen Poe poem. They get the mind spinning with possible tales.

    And how have I missed LYDIA?! I’m off to Amazon right now to get a copy, it sounds amazing.


  2. You’re the early bird this morning, Kirsten. The poem does have a dark, Poe-ish quality. The poem’s also been attributed to Robert W. Service, but most sources denty this.
    Hope you enjoy Lydia. It’s one of my favorites. And thanks for stopping by.

  3. Love the these stories and may just have to checkout Cental City next trip to Colorado this next week. First have to find Central City on the map and see how far it is from Deckers.

    I, too, missed Lydia somehow. Must have it.

  4. Hope you make it to Central City, Connie. I did a lot of reading about the place but have never been there. LYDIA is an oldie but a goodie, written before the days of internet research, which might explain a possible boo-boo on my part. Don’t remember for sure, but I may have mentioned the painting, not knowing how recent it was. If anybody reads the book and finds it, I apologize in advance. Thanks for visiting today.

  5. Hi back, everybody. My internet’s been down. Just spent 40 minutes on hold for Tech Support, only to find out it was a server problem, not my system. It just came back on, about 10 minutes after I hung up the phone. Arrrggghhh!

  6. Thanks for stopping by, Charlene, Margaret and Karen.

    Thanks for your comment about the cover, Charlene. That one’s another Pino. He was the greatest–and they were all paintings, not retouched photos!

    You’ve been writing about as long as I have, Margaret. We can share memories about running to the library, shuffling through the card catalogue, crossing fingers we’d find what we needed. The internet makes fact-checking and research so easy!

    And thanks for stopping to say hi,Karen. I’d heard of the face, but never knew the whole story (or stories) till I researched this blog.

  7. Forgot to mention, there’s even an opera about the face. It was commissioned by the Central City Opera in 1978 and has been widely performed–it’s a shorty, only 30 minutes.

    The story was also the subject of at least one movie back in the day.

  8. Hi Elizabeth, great cover and story. I had me a bit of a shiver LOL. The face is a new one for me, and I loved the tale! We hope to get to Colorado next spring, and will definitely get Central City on the itinerary. Can’t wait to read about Lydia. Great name, by the way. xoxox

  9. Thanks, Tanya. Hope you get to see the face (I have yet to see it). In any case, Central City has a fascinating history.
    Lydia was my heroine’s spy name–the name the hero knew.

  10. I think the word you were looking for was serendipity.
    Thank you for the link to the poem and picture. Mr. Davis was a talented artist. His portrait of the lady is lovely

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