It’s pretty easy to hoax people. We all want to be deceived, but only up to a point. Some hoaxes are fun and pleasant, others malicious and unpleasant. We’d like a way to tell the difference (Robert Carroll).

Oct 30, 2019

The Woman Who Never Laughed

Basically that was the premise of a stunt at the Hammerstein Victorian Theatre in New York in 1907. The theatre offered $1,000.00 to anyone who could get Sober Sue to crack a smile. During the intermission of whatever show happened to be playing at the time, Sober Sue would appear on stage and you could tell your best jokes and funniest stories trying to get her to laugh.

All summer long, people tried and couldn't do it. Word got out and even the professional comedians showed up. Some of the biggest stars of the day would come on stage and give it their best and true to her name Sober Sue just wouldn't crack a smile.

This of course lured many folks to try their damnedest to make her laugh. That is a lot of money for those times especially. The audiences even tried to come on stage and make her laugh to no avail. People it seemed grew frustrated with her.

They tried everything including making funny faces or telling their best jokes right to her face. She didn’t even giggle. Word of this spread across the city and eventually further. Professional comedians were up to the challenge and came here from far and wide, trying to make her laugh out loud.

Crowds got bigger, not for the stage show, but for the intermission to see if anybody could get Sue to even smile. So the offer was extended into the fall and finally as winter approached they took the sign down and the offer came to an end.

Various theories circulated regarding Sober Sue’s emotionless face. Some theorized that she was partially blind or deaf, but the truth was finally revealed in winter of 1907 – it was impossible for Sue to smile or laugh because her facial muscles were paralyzed. Later it turned out that the vaudeville scam was pulled by Willie Hammerstein who managed Paradise Roof Garden. Willie Hammerstein paid Sober Sue $20 a week, which was not that bad at the time. For the venue owner, shows produced a great deal of profit as he managed to lure top-rank comedians into performing for free. But after the truth has been revealed, Willie was condemned and the comedians never forgave him.

A lot of details about Sober Sue are still unknown and there are no photographs of her left. It is believed that Sue’s actual name was Susan Kelly and that she suffered from Mobius Syndrome. The syndrome is a rare condition characterized by weakness or paralysis of multiple cranial nerves, however, these are nothing more than mere speculations. Nevertheless, Sober Sue did leave us a legacy – her name would continue to be used in show business as a metaphor for particularly tough audiences. For example, some reviews of comedies would call the show so funny, that “it could make even Sober Sue laugh.”


Hard facts on the original Sober Sue are hard, if not impossible, to come by. We don't even know for sure if she really had facial paralysis or if it was merely a fictional anecdote. However, we do know that throughout history, other ladies took on the name and act of the original Sober Sue.

In the October 1943 edition of Time Magazine, another Sober Sue made headlines. According to the magazine, "In Philadelphia, when her boyfriend was charged with evading the draft, Susan Cole, once billed by carnivals as Sober Sue, the Mirthless Marvel ($100 if you can make her laugh), muttered, 'The way I feel ... I could raise the ante to $500.'"

Then, in 1947, the Chester Times wrote a long anecdote about Sober Sue ending up 500 miles from her desired destination at a stranger's dinner table. "She telephoned her friends in Chester, and when they came for her, she didn't smile her goodbyes to Mr. and Mrs. Patton (the benevolent strangers)," it reads. "In Sue's business, a smiling face doesn't pay -- it pays off."

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