Did Billie Ritchie Really Die From An Ostrich Attack?

In his day, British music hall veteran Billie Ritchie was a popular film comedian with a mighty suspicious resemblance to Charlie Chaplin. Today, he might be best known as the hi-larious answer to a trivia question: Which obscure silent film comedian was kicked to death by an ostrich? Why, poor Billie of course!  (Or maybe it was several ostriches–or maybe they bit him–the trivia question varies.)

Billie Ritchie ostriche pics picgoer July 10 '15

This was taken years before the supposed attack, btw. Pictures and the Picturegoer, July 10 1915.

But maybe, like me, you’re wondering precisely how an ostrich-related injury could lead to someone’s death–a full two years after the fact, mind you. (Didn’t know about that time frame? Yup, it’s true.) And maybe you’re suspicious that the details about the ostriches vary so much–was the unfortunate Billie kicked or mauled by the savage birds? And how many birds were there? One or more than one? Since this is obviously is one of the most debated questions of the modern age, let us examine it more closely.

Billie Ritchie’s legacy has been overshadowed by his thunderously obvious resemblance to Chaplin, and indeed, it’s possible he was meant to be L K-O’s answer to the famed comedian. Ritchie was a member of Fred Karno’s pantomime company (just like Chaplin–and Stan Laurel, for that matter) and then spent a few years appearing in U.S. musical revues. In 1914 Henry “Pathe” Lehrman offered him a chance to appear in his Lehrman Knock-Out comedies, and thus Ritchie became one of L K-O’s most familiar stars.

Image result for billie ritchie

And today’s most familiar cause of the question: “Hey, isn’t that Charlie Chaplin?”

Lehrman, a former director at Mack Sennett’s studio, had created L K-O with the intention of making zany slapstick comedies just as laugh-at-loud funny as the Keystones. Since Chaplinmania had begun taking over the globe in 1914, he may very well have meant Ritchie to be L K-O’s rival to the beloved star. After all, Ritchie’s look seems too similar to be a coincidence, and while he did have his own comedic style and distinctly nasty type of character, it’s hard not to be reminded of Charlie whenever he struts onto the screen.

Image result for film fun billie ritchie

Let’s just say the comparisons were always obvious.

How much of Ritchie was imitating Chaplin and how much of Chaplin’s inspiration may or may not have come from Ritchie’s Karno days (I’m skeptical) is worthy of its own article, but enough with all that–what about the ostrich(es)?!

Apparently, Billie had been injured on set more than once, the first time being around 1918. Lehrman’s actors and extras were no strangers to accidents–when it came to filming stunts, the director was so indifferent to life and limb that some extras refused to work for him. Ritchie attempted to perform a stunt (exactly what it was is unknown) and ended up with internal injuries that left him bedridden for several months. And after recovering around 1919, the fatal ostrich attack happened–talk about not catching a break.

Billie Ritchie ad ostriches Univ Weekly '15

Foreshadowing. Universal Weekly, May 11, 1915.

Some sources refer to a single ostrich either kicking or biting the unfortunate Ritchie, and some mention several ostriches. It seems to me that all it would take is just one of the giant birds knocking over Ritchie and stomping on him to re-trigger old injuries–although maybe ostriches like to gang up sometimes, I wouldn’t know. In the interests of super duper serious research, I looked up YouTube videos of ostrich attacks and they seem to favor a) charging, b) knocking Enemy Bipeds down, and c) chomping. Billie Ritchie the slapstick comedian’s “ostrich attack” strikes us as funny today, but it certainly wasn’t at the time–let’s just say they can be aggressive birds.

The idea that Ritchie’s ostrich-related injuries would linger for nearly two years and eventually cause his death on July 6, 1921 is strangely vague, even in that era before modern medicine. This idea became widespread almost instantly–here’s one of the many newspaper clippings:

Billie Ritchie dies ostriches The Beatrice Daily Express NB July 8 '21 -

The Beatrice Daily Express, Beatrice, Nebraska, July 8 1921.

Other clippings say an ostrich “escaped from its pen” and attacked Ritchie. But in any case–drumroll–it simply wasn’t true. Ritchie’s health was indeed poor for a long time before his demise and the injuries certainly didn’t help, but according to his death certificate the ultimate cause of his death was stomach cancer (noted as “carcinoma of the stomach”). We can see how his former internal injuries could’ve caused some confusion, although it’s interesting how quickly the ostrich incident was circulated. (Was suffering from cancer kept more quiet back in the day?)

Image result for billie ritchie

Billie sans makeup.

Billie Ritchie’s grand niece Lisa Robins is the keeper of Ritchie’s old scrapbooks and photos, and can apparently confirm that his family had been aware of Ritchie’s stomach cancer. She has also shared an anecdote almost as memorable as the ostrich story, if you ask me:

When I visited [Ritchie’s daughter Wyn] she showed me the family albums…She spoke of Billie playing the cello and she would often listen to him play. Then on the day of the funeral she heard a very loud noise coming from the music room. When she went to see what had happened she stated that the cello was laying on the floor with a split from top to bottom.

Was this incident just a coincidence? Perhaps. And I’ll close this post by saying, heck, maybe Ritchie’s resemblence to Chaplin was just a coincidence too…!

Image result for billie ritchie

The Universal Weekly ad, info on Ritchie’s death certificate and Lisa Robins quote are from the fine book Mr. Suicide: Henry “Pathe” Lehrman and the Birth of Silent Comedy by Thomas Reeder. 

Other Sources:

Massa, Steve. Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy. Albany, Georgia: BearManor Media, 2017.

http://lantern.mediahist.org/

https://www.newspapers.com/

7 thoughts on “Did Billie Ritchie Really Die From An Ostrich Attack?

  1. Thank you for entertaining my comment:
    My Great-Grandfather had Stomach Cancer – and had surgery around 1925.
    He lost 1/3 of his stomach, I’m told, and likely some of his intestine – to Cancer – but that wasn’t what killed him!

    He was the second or third longest survivor of this type of operation in the US. He lived to his late 60s, and enjoyed pretty good health. Luck, good physical condition, and excellent medical care. He was certainly bedridden for months (with internal “injury.”)

    I’m thinking it would have been harder than hell to explain what was happening to his fan base. Cancer is often a long, painful process. And Public perception of Cancer – any type of it – as a death sentence in that day.

    So – Enter the Ostrich/es! Considering the hooha I’ve read from Agents back then – this story would certainly “fill the bill.”

    *Groan*. Sorry.

    • Hello Kay! Thanks for leaving a comment, but I confess that I’m confused. It’s always been documented that Billie Ritchie died on July 6, 1921, at age 42. There’s a death certificate, newspaper clippings announcing his death, etc. It seems pretty set in stone. I know quite a few film historians who would be mighty interested to know otherwise!

  2. A very entertaining and funny (and fascinating!) read about a comedian I don’t know! Thank you!

    Either way, my heart goes out to him. 😦

    • Mine too–here he literally spent his life on the stage and then the screen, and is chiefly remembered for two things: being too much like Chaplin, and the ostrich story. A double whammy!

  3. The costume that Ritchie and Chaplin used was a staple of the English music hall for decades. There is an 1859 painting of an actor using this costume. “Tramp” characterizations were rife in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s vaudeville. I suspect this was because “tramp” costumes were inexpensive. W.C. Fields was a “tramp juggler”. Ritchie had claimed publicly he had used the costume before Chaplin. To my knowledge, Chaplin never refuted Ritchie’s assertion at that time.
    It is evident to me that Chaplin falsely claimed to have invented the costume in his 1964 autobiography. By then Ritchie and George Robey were long dead and forgotten.
    When you see a Billie Ritchie film it is clearly evident he is not imitating Chaplin. More of Ritchie’s work is emerging and in some of the later discoveries like FATHER WAS A LOAFER, Ritchie is genuinely funny.
    Ritche was never signed with a movie studio. Ritchie had a personal contract with Henry Lehrman. When Ritchie was on his deathbed Lehrman promised to provide for his wife and child, a promise Lehrman did not keep. Ritchie’s family were left destitute but they were saved by a film comedian who gave them long term work at his studio. That comedian was Charlie Chaplin.
    Jack Duffy was injured by ostriches but not too seriously.

    • I’ve heard that there’s a 19th c. painting or photo that shows a man with a Chaplin-like outfit and mustache–I think I’ve seen a photo of it somewhere, too. Personally, while tramps were obviously popular stock characters, I’d like to see more evidence than a single 1850s picture to prove that Chaplin’s specific look (small ‘stache, tight cutaway coat, derby, hair, etc) was indeed a long-standing trend. Some photos from the 1900s music halls, for instance.

      As far as Ritchie’s claims, I could be wrong but I think he mentioned them in interviews in 1916, well into Chaplinmania and at a time when Chaplin imitators were common. That timing seems a little suspicious, although it would always be interesting to find out more about Ritchie’s past. It doesn’t surprise me, though, that the real Charlie wouldn’t respond to Ritchie specifically when there was already so much in his life to contend with!

      Ritchie certainly was a talented comedian in his own right, it’s always fun to explore the work of these overlooked folks!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s