Posts Tagged With: Ford’s Theatre

Grave Thursday: Jacob Rittersbach

Each week we are highlighting the final resting place of someone related to the Lincoln assassination story. It may be the grave of someone whose name looms large in assassination literature, like a conspirator, or the grave of one of the many minor characters who crossed paths with history. Welcome to Grave Thursday.


Jacob Rittersbach

jacob-rittersbach-grave-1

Burial Location: Hampton National Cemetery, Hampton, Virginia

Connection to the Lincoln assassination:

Jake Rittersbach was a French immigrant who came to the United States with his family when he was eight years old. His family settled in Pennsylvania and, after the Civil War broke out, 21 year-old Jake joined the 124th Pennsylvania Infantry. He served in the army for a period of 9 months before he was discharged. After leaving the service, Rittersbach found his way to Washington, D.C. where he sought out a way to make a living using his knowledge of carpentry. As he looked for a job, he took up residence at a boardinghouse owned by a Mrs. Scott on the corner of 7th and H streets in D.C. One of Rittersbach’s fellow boarders at Mrs. Scott’s home was another carpenter by the name of Edman Spangler.

Spangler made his living as a carpenter and a scene shifter at Ford’s Theatre. After about a year and a half in Washington, Jake Rittersbach found himself working side-by-side with Spangler when he too was hired by the Ford brothers to work as a carpenter in their theater in March of 1865.

It would have been impossible for Rittersbach, a Union veteran, not to have quickly picked up on the pro-Southern sentiments of his fellow coworkers at Ford’s Theatre. Many of the others engaged in backstage work supported the Confederacy and were mourning the recent events. Rittersbach often found himself quarreling with Spangler about their differing political views. Yet, they continued to do their work together, nonetheless.

Like the other employees of Ford’s Theatre, Jake Rittersbach was present backstage when John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865. Rittersbach was situated right near Spangler on the stage left side (the side of the stage where the President’s box was located) when Booth fired the fatal shot. After Booth leapt to the stage and then made his way out the back door, both Spangler and Rittersbach followed in the direction of the commotion.

On the Stage 4 Frank Leslie's 5-20-1865

“That was John Booth!” declared Rittersbach. “Hush your mouth!” Spangler replied. “You don’t know whether it’s Booth or not.” In his reply, Spangler was speaking a likely truth. Rittersbach had been at Ford’s Theatre for such a short amount of time that he was not very familiar with John Wilkes Booth. It had only been earlier that day that Rittersbach had finally asked Spangler for the name of the actor he had seen around from time to time. Though Rittersbach ended up being correct in his identification of the assassin, in those hectic first moments, Spangler wanted only to protect a man he had known for years and worked alongside in the theater from being wrongfully accused. In the minutes after the assassination, Spangler grabbed his coat and exited out the same back door to search for John Wilkes Booth in hopes of proving this identification incorrect.

But, to Edman Spangler’s dismay, it was John Wilkes Booth who had shot Lincoln. This truth caused a lot of problems for the scene shifter who had known the Booth family since 1852 and who had done errands for John Wilkes, one of the few actors who treated stagehands with respect. Since the crime was committed at Ford’s Theatre and Spangler’s theatrical friendship was well known, Spangler was quickly identified as person of interest.

However, before Spangler found himself under arrest, Jake Rittersbach had already been laying the groundwork to incriminate him. Rittersbach spent the night of April 14-15 in the manager’s office of Ford’s Theatre. He was awakened in the morning by another stagehand named Louis Carland who was looking for Spangler. Rittersbach told his version of events to Carland but added that, upon claiming that it was John Booth who ran out the door, Spangler had slapped him in the mouth. Later, when back drop painter, James Lamb, reported to work, Rittersbach once again told him that Spangler had slapped him the night before. In the opinion of Tom Bogar, author of Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination, “Rittersbach appeared intent on making sure everyone knew what he had experienced, but was too new to Ford’s to perceive how each would receive the information.”

When Rittersbach left to take his breakfast at his boardinghouse on Saturday morning, he found Spangler there. After failing to find Booth, Spangler had spent the night at the home of two of the actors, John and Kate Evans. After a few minutes at breakfast, policemen arrived at Mrs. Scott’s and took both Spangler and Rittersbach in for questioning. Rittersbach was released quickly while Spangler had to endure almost four hours of questioning before he was released. After hearing rumors that Ford’s Theatre would be burned, Spangler, Rittersbach, Carland and some of the other employees decided to spend the night. On Sunday morning, Carland took Spangler to the home of the Gourlay family, a family of actors who had been in Our American Cousin on the 14th. Jeannie Gourlay was engaged to the Ford’s Theatre orchestra director, William Withers, and both had been near Booth’s path when he escaped. Carland asked Withers and Jeannie if either of them had seen Spangler slap Rittersbach as had been told to him. Though the couple had been nearby neither one claimed to have seen any sort of slap between the two men.

Spangler, however, seemed unaware that Rittersbach was making plans to implicate him. On Monday, Spangler took his supper at Mrs. Scott’s boardinghouse and found Rittersbach waiting in the doorway for him when he was leaving. He suggested the pair take a friendly walk. According to Bogar:

“[The walk] lasted about a half hour, the main topic of conversation being Rittersbach’s desire to get some of the reward money being offered. Did Spangler know of any information they could use? Rittersbach said that he, too, had given a statement at police headquarters on Saturday (although no evidence exists that he did). Spangler, as trusting as the animals he befriended seemed completely unaware that Rittersbach had already implicated him to others. Back at their boardinghouse around sunset, the two men parted ways (for good, as it turned out), and Spangler went upstairs to rest…”

Edman Spangler was arrested, for the final time, about two hours after his walk with Rittersbach. He was placed in irons and imprisoned in the Carroll annex of the Old Capitol Prison. Later, Spangler would be moved to the iron clad warships that housed Booth’s core group of conspirators.

spangler-manacled

If Rittersbach was hoping to get a piece of the reward money, it was in his best interest to continue to incriminate Spangler as an active party. Claiming that Spangler slapped him was a great way to cast suspicion. Perhaps Rittersbach hoped that, if Spangler was found to be an active conspirator in Booth’s plot, he would get some money out of his “assistance” to the authorities. It’s possible that Rittersbach had already laid the groundwork when he was briefly detained on Saturday. If this was Rittersbach’s plan, however, it seems that he changed his mind about it when he, himself was arrested. Jake Rittersbach was arrested one day after Spangler, Tuesday, April 18th. He was imprisoned in a communal room at the Old Capitol Prison and gave a brief statement. Despite the pains he had taken to inform others at Ford’s that he had identified Booth and that Spangler had apparently slapped him because of it, Rittersbach made no such claims in his statement. Rather, he told the prison superintendent that “he did not see [Booth’s] face and could not say who it was.”

So, we have this contradiction with Rittersbach. When the stakes were lower, Rittersbach told his fellow stagehands Carland and Lamb that he had identified Booth and that Spangler had slapped him. However, while under arrest, he denied having both recognized Booth and the slap. Perhaps protecting himself from any suspicion was worth more than trying to turn against Spangler. As the investigation continued and the authorities heard about Rittersbach’s prior statements to Carland and Lamb, they would take an active role to eliminate these contradictions.

A few years after the events, John T. Ford, who had also found himself locked up at the Old Capitol Prison, recounted an instance where significant pressure was put upon Rittersbach to re-implicate Spangler:

“Ritterspaugh [sic] – a witness- was brought before Colonel Lafayette C. Baker, at Baker’s office. Being questioned in regard to what happened on the stage, Ritterspaugh told that when Booth jumped from the box and ran across the stage, after firing the pistol, he (Ritterspaugh) said that that was Booth; and that Spangler turned and said: ‘Hush your mouth! You don’t know whether its Booth or not.’ Here Baker broke in on Ritterspaugh, saying: ‘By God, if you don’t testify to what you said to me before, I’ll put you among the rest, ‘ (meaning the prisoners.) ‘You said to me that Spangler, when you said ‘It’s Booth,’ said: ‘Don’t say which way he went.’

This bullying by Baker was perfectly calculated to shake Ritterspaugh’s nerves and cause him to think he believed he heard what he did not believe he heard.”

There may be some truth to Ford’s belief that Rittersbach was turned (perhaps rather easily based on his own actions before being arrested) against Spangler by the authorities. When Rittersbach was first put upon the stand by the prosecution at the trial of the conspirators on May 19th, he was not asked any questions about what happened at Ford’s Theatre on April 14th. Instead, the prosecution only used Rittersbach as witness regarding Spangler’s arrest and the government’s seizure of his belongings. It was not until May 30th that the prosecution recalled Rittersbach to the stand to testify about the events at Ford’s Theatre. In the trial transcript, right before Rittersbach is brought back, it gives the following statement:

“The Judge Advocate, stated that, since the examination of Jacob Ritterspaugh [sic] for the prosecution, facts had come to the knowledge of the Government not known at the time that witness was examined, and he proposed now to recall that witness for the purpose of examining him in relation to the accused, Edward [sic] Spangler; and he applied to the Commission for permission to re-examine that witness.”

In his new testimony, Rittersbach became the key witness against Spangler. He testified about Spangler having struck him after he identified Booth. Rittersbach also changed Spangler’s words, claiming that Spangler said, “Don’t say which way he went!” and “For God’s sake, shut up!” None of Rittersbach’s testimony was ever supported by Jeannie Gourlay who stood near Rittersbach and Spangler when the exchange was supposed to have occurred. In what may be the most telling piece of evidence of all, Rittersbach was released from prison on the very same day he gave his damning testimony.

While Spangler’s defense attorney, Thomas Ewing, did a noble job of poking holes in Rittersbach’s version of events, he could not completely undo the damage it had done to his client. Mainly due to Jacob Rittersbach, Edman Spangler was found guilty of aiding and abetting in John Wilkes Booth’s escape and was sentenced to 6 years of hard labor.

While Spangler was taken to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas to serve his prison sentence, Jake Rittersbach largely fell from view. John T. Ford invited most of his former workers to help him re-open Ford’s Theatre but that was prevented and the government purchased the building. Some of the stagehands found employment in Ford’s Holliday Street Theater in Baltimore but it is highly unlikely Rittersbach was ever offered a position given what he had done to Spangler.

Despite everything that had happened, Jacob Rittersbach stayed in D.C. for over 30 years working as a carpenter. After the death of his wife, Rittersbach moved to Ohio, where, in 1901, he finally tried to get some money from the government for the events of April 14, 1865. Rittersbach appealed to his Congressman, Representative Charles Grosvenor, not for any reward money for Spangler’s conviction, but for the loss of his tools that were stolen after the assassination:

rittersbachs-claim

Rep. Grosvenor was apparently unsuccessful in getting Rittersbach his reimbursement in 1901 as the Congressman introduced the same bill in 1903. It is unknown if the bill ever passed.

By 1913, Jake Rittersbach had returned to the east coast. On June 12th of that year, he was accepted into the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers located in Hampton, Virginia. He only stayed in the home for three months before asking to be discharged. He re-entered the home on April 5, 1914 and lived there for over four years before he was transferred to the National Home in Dayton, Ohio. He resided there until 1920 when he was transferred back to Hampton.

Jacob Rittersbach died at the Soldier’s Home in Hampton on June 28, 1926. While some of his former coworkers survived him, at 86, Rittersbach was the longest lived of those working at Ford’s Theatre on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. He was buried with a military stone in Hampton National Cemetery.

jacob-rittersbach-grave-2

GPS coordinates for Jacob Rittersbach’s grave: 37.018650, -76.334817

Most of the information in this post came from Thomas Bogar’s wonderful book, Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination: The Untold Story of the Actor’s and Stagehands at Ford’s Theatre. Please pick up a copy today to learn more about the many people who were working at Ford’s Theatre when their lives, and our history, changed forever.

backstage-at-the-lincoln-assassination-by-thomas-bogar

Categories: Grave Thursday, History | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Grave Thursday: Laura Keene

Each week we are highlighting the final resting place of someone related to the Lincoln assassination story. It may be the grave of someone whose name looms large in assassination literature, like a conspirator, or the grave of one of the many minor characters who crossed paths with history. Welcome to Grave Thursday.

dr-thomas-bogarI’m very pleased to announce that this week’s installment of Grave Thursday is the contribution of author and theatre historian, Dr. Thomas Bogar.

Dr. Bogar’s books include American Presidents Attend the Theatre and his most recent book Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination: The Untold Story of the Actors and Stagehands at Ford’s Theatre. Dr. Bogar was kind enough to share his own picture of Laura Keene’s grave and write about her for this week’s entry.


Laura Keene

laura-keene

Burial Location: Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York

laura-keenes-grave-thomas-bogar

Connection to the Lincoln assassination:

Laura Keene’s performance as Florence Trenchard in Our American Cousin was a major reason why President Lincoln chose to attend Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. He enjoyed the play’s folksy humor and knew that night was to be Keene’s benefit. (He made it a point to attend such events whenever he could, to boost box office revenue for the chosen performer.) He had seen her act the year before and admired her acting. Born in England in 1826, Keene came to America under the aegis of manager James Wallack in 1852 and became an immediate success in witty, polite comedies that showcased her natural elegance and refinement. Her strongest assets were her large, dark, expressive eyes, slender, graceful figure, lustrous auburn hair, and melodious voice. In an era of overwhelmingly male manage­ment, she succeeded for nearly a decade (1854–1863) managing theatres in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York, compiling an admirable record of artistic and financial success. Her productions were noteworthy for their taste and attention to detail.

That night, at the moment of the shot, she was donning her gloves offstage right for her next entrance. Her managerial instincts prompted her to stride to the footlights and call out repeatedly, “Order, gentlemen! Order! For God’s sake have presence of mind and keep your places and all will be well.” Then, led by a backstage route up and around and into the presidential box, she knelt at Lincoln’s side and cradled his head in her lap, bathing his face with water. After his death, she left Washington (against orders) with John Dyott and Harry Hawk en route to perform in Cincinnati, only to be arrested in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. From then on, her career and health (tuberculosis) entered a slow, irreversible decline. She toured in a lesser orbit to tepid reviews and poor box office. Bookings grew more difficult, and the towns and theatres grew smaller and dingier. Past the peak of her fame, she was unable to draw the crowds she had before and during the war. The constant travel was grueling, and she was sometimes ill for weeks at a time. Performing in tiny Tidioute, Pennsylvania, on the Fourth of July, 1873, she suffered a massive stroke. Few in the theatrical profession even learned of her death on November 4 at age 47 until after her interment, in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. Ultimately, the events of one night overshadowed all of her accomplish­ments; when she is remembered today, if at all, it is as “that actress who was performing at Ford’s Theatre when Lincoln was shot.”

GPS coordinates for Laura Keene’s grave: 40.647506, -73.992331


For more information about Laura Keene and the others working at Ford’s Theatre on the night of Lincoln’s assassination, please purchase your copy of Dr. Bogar’s book, Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination: The Untold Story of the Actors and Stagehands at Ford’s Theatre.

backstage-at-the-lincoln-assassination-by-thomas-bogar

The book is an amazing read and is filled with fascinating stories about the different employees and actors from America’s most (in)famous theater. My sincerest thanks go to Dr. Bogar for writing this post.

Categories: Grave Thursday, History | Tags: , , | 10 Comments

Grave Thursday: C. Dwight Hess

Each week we are highlighting the final resting place of someone related to the Lincoln assassination story. It may be the grave of someone whose name looms large in assassination literature, like a conspirator, or the grave of one of the many minor characters who crossed paths with history. Welcome to Grave Thursday.


C. Dwight Hess

C Dwight Hess

Burial Location: Westville Cemetery (Old Section), Westville, Indiana

c-dwight-hess-grave-6-25-2016

Connection to the Lincoln assassination:

C. Dwight Hess was the manager and co-owner of the National Theatre in Washington D.C. The theater, also known as Grover’s Theater after Hess’ co-owner, Leonard Grover, was the main theatrical competitor of Ford’s Theatre in Washington City. As the manager of the National Theatre, Hess was very familiar with the actor turned assassin John Wilkes Booth.

On April 13th, the day before Lincoln’s assassination, John Wilkes Booth paid a visit to the National Theatre where he found Hess running lines with the stage prompter George Wren. Booth barged into the office where Hess and Wren were speaking, sat himself down, and proceeded to converse with the two men. Hess and Wren broke from their rehearsal and entertained the young actor. During the conversation, Booth inquired with Hess whether he was going to participate in the Grand Illumination planned for that evening. Hess replied in the affirmative but that he was saving his best material in order to illuminate the next night, Friday, April 14th, the anniversary of the fall of Fort Sumter. After mentioning his plan to illuminate on Friday night, Booth then asked Hess, “Ain’t you going to invite the President out?” Hess replied that, yes, he was hoping to invite the Lincolns and even thanked Booth for reminding him to do so. After a bit more conversation, Booth departed and both Wren and Hess would comment that they thought it odd that Booth would mention the President given his known dissatisfaction with the Union government. Hess was not aware that Booth was laying the groundwork for a possible assassination right inside Hess’ own theater. C. Dwight Hess did send along an invitation to Mrs. Lincoln, inviting her and her husband to his planned illumination on Friday and for the theater’s performance of Aladdin! or the Wonderful Lamp. While Tad Lincoln would take up Hess’ offer, Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln would choose Ford’s Theatre for their entertainment on April 14th, and John Wilkes Booth’s plan would change venues because of it.

Hess would be present at his theater when the terrible news came in that the President Lincoln was assassinated over at Ford’s Theatre. His first thought after clearing the house was to send word to Leonard Grover who was not in D.C. at the time. Hess quickly dispatched a telegram to Grover which conveyed both his shock and relief:

hess-telegram-to-grover

Clarence Dwight Hess (who is also often recorded as Charles Dwight Hess) would later be a witness at the trial of the conspirators where he would testify about Booth’s visit to his theater on April 13th. After 1865, he continued in the theatrical business where he managed other theaters and even his own opera group which toured throughout Americas. In his later years, Hess retired to a small farm near Westville, Indiana. When he died on February 15, 1909, he was buried at the Westville Cemetery. Check out the Maps page for more details. For more information about Grover’s National Theatre and its connections to the Lincoln assassination story read the Grover’s Theatre and the Lincoln Assassination post.

GPS coordinates for C. Dwight Hess’ grave: 41.540153, -86.914445

Categories: Grave Thursday, History | Tags: , , , | 9 Comments

Do You See It?

151 years ago tonight, President Abraham Lincoln was fatally shot by John Wilkes Booth. This singular event changed the course of American history forever. While this website provides research and insight regarding Lincoln’s assassination every day of the year, the anniversary of April 14th gives the knowledge contained here greater perspective. The reality of the event and its aftermath take on a renewed life when the clock marks the exact moment of the fatal gunshot or the final breath of the Great Emancipator. For those fleeting minutes and seconds, history is no longer this abstract idea. Rather, on exact anniversaries such as tonight, history is very much in the present. The events of the past travel through time and connect us all together, but, like an eclipse, the connection only lasts for the briefest of moments before the alignment is gone.

I teach and learn about Lincoln’s assassination as a way to honor Lincoln, and though my methods often involved delving deeply into the lives of those who plotted his death, I do so with the hope that learning more about the men and women who caused this great national calamity might help me better appreciate and comprehend the complex nature of Lincoln’s life.

So, on this night, at this moment, while I do see John Wilkes Booth readying his derringer and waiting to strike, I also see the crowd at Ford’s Theatre. I see the happy faces stealing glances at their revered President as he sits in his box. Most of all, though, I see Abraham Lincoln in his last moments of consciousness. I see him holding Mary Todd’s hand and enjoying the play. I hear the line, “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal. You sockdologizing old man-trap.”

In that moment though, I don’t see John Wilkes Booth in the shadows firing his gun. I don’t see an assassin releasing all of his hate and anger at an unarmed man. Instead, I see the joy and happiness in Abraham Lincoln’s eyes as reacts to the play with a deep and full laugh.

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln is an event filled with horror and tragedy but for the briefest of seconds on its anniversary, I always see our 16th President, in his last moments,  engaging in a well deserved laugh.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Lincoln.

Categories: History | Tags: | 9 Comments

Assassination of Lincoln by Howard Hill

Yesterday, I posted about about Carl Bersch and his painting, Lincoln Borne by Loving Hands on the Fatal Night of April 14, 1865At the time of Lincoln’s assassination, Bersch was living across the street from Ford’s Theatre and made sketches of the chaotic scene after the assassination. He used those sketches to paint this eyewitness image of the event.

Borne by Loving Hands - Carl Bersch

While working on that post I came across another painting that shares the same subject matter. In 1872, artist Howard Hill painted his own version of the wounded President being carried across Tenth Street. His painting is called, Assassination of Lincoln, and it is currently owned by the Albany Institute of History and Art.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Howard Hill was not present in D.C. on the night of Lincoln’s assassination and therefore his painting is not based on eyewitness sketches like Carl Bersch’s painting. Still it is clear that Hill did his research and when composing this piece. Hill’s painting includes the detailed figure of not only the wounded Abraham Lincoln but also shows grief-stricken Mary Todd Lincoln.

Assassination of Lincoln by Howard Hill Mary Todd and Lincoln closeup

They are both followed by the figures of Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, the Lincolns’ guests at Ford’s Theatre that night.

Assassination of Lincoln by Howard Hill Rathbone and Harris closeup

While both Bersch’s painting and Hill’s painting show Lincoln being carried across the street to the Petersen boardinghouse where he would later die, the biggest differences between them are the secondary scenes they contain. In the darker corner of Bersch’s painting (which will hopefully be more visible in the restored painting) there is a small scene of celebration marking the end of the Civil War. In his letter home, Bersch mentions that his first sketches on April 14th captured the parades and jubilation that were occurring below his balcony. Bersch still used these sketches when completing his final painting and combined two these contrasting images, one of celebration and one of sorrow, into the single painting. Lincoln Borne by Loving Hands is not centered  on Lincoln but on the American flag, which continues to fly over everything, good and bad.

Hill’s painting, on the other hand, does seem to center more on the figure of Lincoln and the men carrying him. But our eyes are also drawn to the top right corner of the painting where a different scene is playing out. Hill depicts the horseback figures of David Herold and John Wilkes Booth fleeing from the tragic scene. Booth is riding away when he seems to look back at his handiwork. As he does this a legion of demons reach out to him as he effectively rides into their grasp and into hell.

Assassination of Lincoln by Howard Hill Booth closeup

David Herold follows Booth’s course, but his attention is drawn to a premonition of the gallows that he will face for his crime.

Assassination of Lincoln by Howard Hill Herold closeup

Strangely this gallows shows the execution of five people rather than the four that actually occurred. Perhaps one of the bodies is meant to symbolize Booth’s death as well.

Howard Hill’s Assassination of Lincoln shares a similar theme with Carl Bersch’s Lincoln Borne by Loving Hands but the compositions differ in their focus and details. The inclusion of the celebratory revelers and the focus on the American flag in Bersch’s painting evokes the prospect of hope in our darkest times, while Hill’s visions of doom for the assassins emphasizes the importance of justice. Taken together, these two paintings demonstrate the complex feelings that emerged after Lincoln’s assassination.


Additional facts about the artist, Howard Hill

Howard Hill was born in England in 1830. In 1851, he married his wife, Ann Patmore, in London. Hill always considered himself an artist and normally recorded himself as such on census records. However, to make ends meet, he would also work as a house painter, his father’s trade. In 1858, Hill brought his family over to America. The Hills would live in Yonkers, NY and Hoboken, NJ. Hill originally got a job with Currier and Ives as one of many nameless English artists who created the iconic prints that so captured the spirit of America. He left this job after a short while, likely unhappy with the day to day life as a menial worker. In his own paintings, Hill was very fond of painting birds. His most common images feature ducks and quails in scenic landscapes, but he also enjoyed painting farmyard scenes as well. In 1865, four of Hill’s bird paintings were exhibited at the National Academy of Design, which was a prestigious opportunity. Sadly, true success never found Hill. He continued to paint and sell his paintings to make ends meet. Hill apparently painted Assassination of Lincoln in 1872, which was a subject quite different from most of his work. Whether it was commissioned or a piece Hill completed on his own is unknown. It was owned by an American Legion Post in Albany before it was donated to the Albany Institute of History and Art in 1961. It’s ownership prior to the American Legion Post is unknown. When a financial depression began in 1873, Hill  took to visiting the homes of well to do farmers, offering to paint scenes of their farm and livestock. He also used his six children to help him create an assembly line of painters. Howard and each of his children would each complete a select part of a painting allowing him to effectively mass produce paintings to sell. Though financial difficulties caused Howard to drink more, he was instrumental in teaching all of his children the art of painting. In 1886, Howard lost his wife and artist son within a span of four months. This increased his depression and for the next year he lived the life of a vagrant, moving from boardinghouse to boardinghouse and trying to get painting commissions for money. Howard Hill eventually died on March 6, 1888, likely from a stroke. He was buried in an unmarked grave next to his wife in Yonkers.

Though Howard Hill never achieved fame for his work as a painter, it seems that he did pass on a considerable talent. Howard’s daughter, Mary Ann “Nancy” Hill, learned how to paint from her father and she would pass that love of painting down to her son. That boy, Howard Hill’s grandson, was the great American painter, Norman Rockwell. Though Rockwell never knew his grandfather (Hill died 6 years before Rockwell was born), he still felt his grandfather’s work influenced him. Rockwell was quoted as saying, “I’m sure all the detail in my grandfather’s pictures had something to do with the way I’ve always painted. Right from the beginning I always strived to capture everything I saw as completely as possible.”

Other work by Howard Hill

References:
Albany Institute of History and Art
The biographical information on Howard Hill comes from American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell by Deborah Solomon

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Lincoln Borne by Loving Hands on the Fatal Night of April 14, 1865

On the evening of April 14, 1865, a 30 year-old German artist by the name of Carl Bersch was enjoying the celebratory mood that permeated the city of Washington. With General Lee’s surrender to General Grant just a few days earlier, the Civil War was effectively over. Washington had just conducted a grand illumination the night before and it seemed people were still celebrating. From his rented room on Tenth street, Bersch observed the festivities and joy that occurred around him:

Carl Bersch's balcony is visible on the right-hand building in this drawing from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly 5/20/1865.

Carl Bersch’s balcony is visible on the right-hand building in this drawing from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly 5/20/1865.

“All Washington was celebrating, delirious with joy. Houses were lighted up and hung with bunting. Parades marched through the streets, waving flags and carrying many transparencies. Women with wide skirts, and wearing large poke bonnets, were about as numerous as men. President Lincoln was known to be at Ford’s Theater, so Tenth street was on the line of march. I observed no rowdyism, just a crowd of jubilant people, crazed with joy. The scene was so unusual and inspiring, that I stepped out upon the balcony in front of my windows, with my easel and sketch papers, determined to make a picture of the whole scene and transfer it to canvas. The very weirdness of the scene— aside from the historic nature of it— appealed to my artistic sense. Quickly, but very accurately, I made detailed drawings. I had more than an hour in which to do this.”

Sadly, however, a tragic act that occurred right across the street from Bersch’s residence would put an end to the jubilant atmosphere.

“Shortly after 10 o’clock a silence fell upon the surging crowd of revelers. The marching line halted. A loud cry came from a window of the theater, ‘President Lincoln has been shot; clear the street,’ soldiers and police attended to that. In the course of 10 or 15 minutes, out of the north door of the theater appeared a group of men, carrying the prostrate form of an injured man on an improvised stretcher. They stopped a few moments at the curb, hastily debating where to take the injured man to give him the best attention most quickly. They observed lights in the house, of William Petersen, my next door neighbor, and a young man, Willie Clark [sic], whom I know very well, standing on the topmost step of the winding stairs, leading to the Petersen house.  Clark [sic] was beckoning to those who had charge, to bring the injured man right in. This was done as quickly as the soldiers could make a pathway through the crowd.”

Bersch makes a mistake here in his letter written right after the assassination. The man who beckoned for the soldiers to bring Abraham Lincoln into the Petersen boarding house was not Willie Clark, but another boarder named Henry Safford. You can read more about Safford and about how Willie Clark was not even present at the Petersen House when Lincoln was there by clicking here.

Bersch goes on and notes how he was in the unique position to document this solemn occasion:

“My balcony being 12 or 14 feet above the sidewalk and street, I had a clear view of the scene, above the heads of the crowd. I recognized the lengthy form of the President by the flickering light of the torches, and one large gas lamp post on the sidewalk. The tarrying at the curb and the slow, careful manner in which he was carried across the street, gave me ample time to make an accurate sketch of that particular scene; make it the center and outstanding part of the large painting I shall make, using the sketches I made earlier in the evening, as an appropriate background. A fitting title for the picture would, I think, be ‘Lincoln Borne by Loving Hands on the Fatal Night of April 14, 1865.’ Altogether It was the most tragic and impressive scene I have ever witnessed. I am already busy with palette and brush and hope to transfer to canvas what may be one of the strangest pictures of all time.”

After finishing this letter to his family, Carl Bersch did complete his painting of Lincoln being carried across the street from Ford’s Theatre. The large format painting was kept by the family for many years. It was not until 1932 that Bersch’s daughter, Carrie Fischer, loaned the painting to the newly created Lincoln Museum inside of Ford’s Theatre. When the museum opened on February 12, 1932, the anniversary of Lincoln’s birthday, Bersch’s painting was publicly displayed for the first time.

Borne by Loving Hands - Carl Bersch

This painting hung in the Lincoln Museum for some time, and the Lincoln Museum even sold a postcard with the painting on it:

Borne by Loving Hands Postcard

It is not known how long Bersch’s painting was on display at Ford’s Theatre the first time. It was a loan and therefore subject to the will of Bersch’s descendants who were still the owners. The ownership of the painting passed from Carrie Fischer to her daughter Gerda Vey, upon Carrie’s death in 1955. Then, when Gerda died in 1977, she willed the painting to the White House. The White House decided against keeping it but transferred it to the National Park Service instead where it ended back up at Ford’s Theatre. It was on display at some time during the 1980’s – 1990’s but, eventually, it was put into storage.

Then came 2015, the 150th anniversary of the assassination of Lincoln. Increased interest in Lincoln’s assassination motivated the National Park Service to conduct restoration on the painting for the first time since 1980. A wonderful article appeared in the Washington Post detailing the efforts to conserve this painting:

HYATTSVILLE, MD - APRIL 8: The National Park Service museum has a painting by an eyewitness of Lincoln being carried from Ford's Theater after being shot, on April, 08, 2015 in Hyattsville, MD. Pictured, from left, Lyndon Novotny, materials handler, Bob Sonderman, Director & regional curator, and Laura Anderson, National Park Service museum curator for the National Mall. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

HYATTSVILLE, MD – APRIL 8:
The National Park Service museum has a painting by an eyewitness of Lincoln being carried from Ford’s Theater after being shot, on April, 08, 2015 in Hyattsville, MD. Pictured, from left, Lyndon Novotny, materials handler, Bob Sonderman, Director & regional curator, and Laura Anderson, National Park Service museum curator for the National Mall.
(Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Conserving Borne by Loving Hands WaPo 2015

Over the many years of display the painting had accumulated dirt and grime, darkening the colors and obscuring details. The article from October 2015, spoke of the future hope to put the painting back on display at Ford’s Theatre once the restoration of the piece was done.

It appears that the restoration process has been completed and currently the museum in the Ford’s Theatre basement is being  remodeled to make room for Carl Bersch’s painting. A tweet from Heather Hoagland, the Ford’s Theatre Society’s Exhibitions & Collections Manager, shows the work that is being done to prepare a place for this large, yet meaningful painting:

In the not too distant future, Carl Bersch’s “Lincoln Borne by Loving Hands” will return to the Ford’s Theatre Museum, eighty four years after its initial debut. It is a unique painting from an eyewitness to the events outside of Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865 and deserves to a be a fixture at Ford’s Theatre once again.


Additional facts about the artist, Carl Bersch

Carl Bersch was born on May 3, 1834 (year is disputed) in Zweibrücken, Germany which is located near the border with France. He originally studied theology at the University of Munich before taking up art. He came to America around 1861 and is said to have worked in Matthew Brady’s photography studio. He married his wife, Angelica Bode, in 1865. Together they had one child, Carrie. Bersch worked in Tennessee, Ohio, D.C., and Baltimore. He was a successful portrait artist in Baltimore and also briefly tried his hand at his own photography studio in the early 1880’s. Between artistic commissions he hired himself out as a German tutor. Bersch died on May 1, 1914 at the age of 80 and is buried with his wife, daughter, and granddaughter, in Baltimore’s Govans Presbyterian Churchyard.

Other work by Carl Bersch

Graves of the Bersch Family (from FindaGrave.com)

References:
Carl Bersch’s letter quoted in The Washington Star, April 16, 1932
“Lincoln assassination emerges in painting from 150 years of grime” from the Washington Post, October 5, 2015
The biographical material on Bersch comes from his obituary in the Baltimore Sun, May 3, 1914.

Categories: History | Tags: , , , , , | 10 Comments

Alice Gray: Successful Partnerships

This is the second installment in a series about actress, Alice Gray. Gray’s photograph was one of the five discovered upon the body of John Wilkes Booth when he was cornered and killed on April 26, 1865. Gray’s theatrical career has largely been forgotten with very little biographical material readily available about her. The following post was developed by consulting a variety of sources including digitized newspapers such as the Buffalo Courier, Baltimore Sun, New York Clipper and D.C.’s National Intelligencer. In all, it took several days’ worth of work to find and organize the material. This post is the second in a series about Alice Grey’s life, career, and connection to the Booth family. To read Part One entitled, Alice Gray: An Actress is Born, please click HERE.

Alice Gray

Part Two: Successful Partnerships

Research completed thus far has yet to solve the mystery of how Alice Gray became acquainted with theater owner John T. Ford. Alice had met many prominent actors and actresses during her run at the Metropolitan, Charleston, and Mobile Theatres. During that time she had acted side by side to both Edwin Booth and H. B. Phillips, two men who were very close to John T. Ford. Perhaps one of them told Ford about Gray’s acting abilities and encouraged him to seek her out. Or perhaps Gray reached out to Ford on her own and inquired about working for him. Regardless of how it happened, when the 1860-1861 theatrical season began, Alice Gray found herself employed by John T. Ford to be the leading stock actress at his Holliday Street Theatre.

In the year prior, John T. Ford had lavishly renovated the Holliday Street Theatre in Baltimore. The Holliday Street Theatre was the only theater Ford owned outright at this time, but he had prior experience leasing and managing other theaters. This was Gray’s first time in Baltimore but the public there quickly took a liking to her. The August 29th, the Baltimore Sun newspaper reported that, “Miss Gray sustained the part of Mrs. Haller last night with quite unexpected grace, talent and effect and received in this case no unmeaning tribute of a call before the curtain to receive the congratulations of the audience. She is a brilliant accession.”

While in Baltimore in the fall of 1860, Alice Gray became acquainted with another member of the Booth family, John Sleeper Clarke. Clarke had known the Booth family from childhood when he played with young Edwin and John Wilkes in Baltimore. Clarke had been a member of Edwin’s kiddie acting troupe that put on plays for the neighbor kids. Clarke followed the Booths into the acting profession but became a comedian rather than a tragedian. In 1859, John Sleeper Clarke married Asia Booth, the youngest Booth daughter. Clarke was a popular comedian for John T. Ford and would make frequent appearances in his theaters. These first performances with Clarke in September of 1860 would be the first of many for Gray.

The respect and approval Gray received from Baltimore audiences was no doubt gratifying to Gray, but once again she was called back to New York City’s stages by her friend, Edward Eddy. Eddy was performing an engagement at the New Bowery Theatre and must have requested Alice Gray by name to be his leading lady. Ford gave Gray permission to leave the Holliday Street Theatre to join Eddy for his engagement in New York.

Engraving of Edward Eddy in the role of Posthumus (click to see the full image)

Engraving of Edward Eddy in the role of Posthumus (click to see the full image)

1860 With Eddy in NY Alice Gray

Alice Gray eventually ended her engagement with Eddy early. Whether this was contracted by Ford when he allowed her to leave or whether she returned back to the Holliday Street Theatre before the end of Eddy’s New York engagement on her own is unknown. Regardless, the decision to depart New York early to return to Baltimore was well founded. That eminent star of the stage, Edwin Booth, was starting an engagement at the Holliday Street Theatre. It had been almost three years since Booth and Gray had performed together back in Buffalo and the young actor’s fame had only increased since then. Booth in Baltimore was more of a draw than Eddy in New York and so Gray took her place alongside him.

Edwin Booth circa 1860

1860 Performing with Edwin Alice Gray

Gray played Juliet to Edwin’s Romeo, Katherina to Edwin’s Petruchio and Desdemona to Edwin’s Othello. Ford no doubt witnessed these performances and felt contented that he had chosen his leading stock actress wisely. By the end of October of 1860, Edwin departed for his next engagement in Philadelphia. Gray continued to act at the Holliday Street Theatre for the remainder of the 1860-1861 season, regularly receiving advertised benefits.

It was while Gray was in Baltimore that the Civil War began. The conflict commenced on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces laid siege upon Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. The simmering cauldron of the secession crisis had finally boiled over due to the election of Abraham Lincoln. Working and residing in Baltimore, Alice Gray would have been acutely aware of the anti-Lincoln and anti-war feeling that permeated the city. On April 19, 1861, a deadly riot occurred in Baltimore, causing the first hostile deaths in the Civil War. The Sixth Massachusetts Militia was passing through Baltimore on their way to Washington, D.C. when they found themselves surrounded by anti-war and pro-Confederacy sympathizers who called themselves the National Volunteers. After some tense moments, members of the National Volunteers attacked some of the members of the Militia with rocks, bricks, and pistols. In response, the Militia fired at the mob. A melee broke out and ended only after the Sixth Massachusetts Militia left behind most of their supplies and made it to Camden Station. In the end, four soldiers with the Militia and 12 civilians with the mob were killed.

Baltimore Riot 1861 Harper's

The pro-Southern residents of Baltimore used this event as propaganda, comparing it to the 1770 Boston Massacre that helped spur the American Revolutionary War. However, the pro-Northern public decried the violence and bloodshed caused by the rebels in Baltimore and demanded swift action against them. The federal government responded quickly and showed Baltimore and the rest of Maryland in no uncertain terms that it would not be allowed to foment insurrection like this again. In May of 1861, General Benjamin Butler entered Baltimore with about 1,000 soldiers, occupied the city and declared martial law.

All of these events were likely troubling to Alice Gray. Gray had lived most of her life in western New York, which was a largely anti-slavery region. Her home of Buffalo, New York was filled with safe houses for the Underground Railroad and was a common meeting place for abolitionist societies. It is unlikely that Gray shared the same pro-slavery sympathies as many of those she was surrounded by in Baltimore. John T. Ford was largely anti-Lincoln, though he would become more pragmatic as the war continued. In March of 1861 however, Ford seized upon the fact that Lincoln had to slip through Baltimore incognito on his way to his own inauguration for fear of physical harm. He included the scene in a patriotic piece called “Uncle Sam’s Magic Lantern” in which the audience was presented with several scenes of America’s gloried past, present, and future. “The Flight of Abraham” was included as a scene along with “Our National Troubles,” demonstrating Ford’s pro-Confederate sympathies. Alice Gray no doubt played her assigned role in these “patriotic scenes.”

It is perhaps for these reasons that, when the 1861-1862 season commenced, Alice Gray did not stay at the Holliday Street Theatre with John Ford. Instead she made her way to Philadelphia where she was employed at the Walnut Street Theatre. The 1861-1862 theatrical season was a lean one for the entertainment industry. Many of the big British stars decided against visiting the United States with the Civil War raging. Even some American actors, like Edwin Booth, left the country for European tours of their own during this year. Audiences were smaller as the news from the war occupied everyone’s thoughts. At the Walnut Street Theatre, Alice Gray once again performed with John Sleeper Clarke when the comedian was engaged there for three weeks straight. She received little press during her time at the Walnut Street Theatre. One quick mention described her as a “handsome young actress, who evidently has not very much stage experience.” Such a review must have hurt the 26 year old actress who had been acting on the stage for almost 10 years at that point. When Gray’s season with the Walnut Street Theatre ended she decided to try her luck somewhere else.

It was during Gray’s time in Philadelphia that John Ford had decided to invest in a new theater. Ford may have disliked Lincoln and the war but he was an astute business man. Washington, D.C. was a growing city during the war with thousands of soldiers and private citizens coming to the nation’s capital. Ford believed he could succeed in establishing a new theater in this growing metropolis. In December of 1861, Ford signed a five year lease on the First Baptist Church of Washington. The parishioners of the First Baptist Church had merged their congregation with another church and were no longer using the edifice on Tenth Street. The church already had a raised platform on which the pulpit and choir would be situated and so Ford realized that the building could be remodeled fairly inexpensively to serve as a theater. At first Ford rented the church to a minstrel group, but then, in February of 1862, he began a $10,000 renovation on the building. The building reopened on March 19, 1862 under the name “Ford’s Atheneum.” Ford’s renovations had been done quickly so as to preempt the reopening of another of Washington’s theater’s, Leonard Grover’s New National Theater, which completed its renovations on April 21st.

Ford's Atheneum 1862

Ford’s Atheneum proved a considerable success from the start. With his connections, Ford was able to attract first rate stars despite the war. The stationed soldiers and citizens of Washington proved devout theater goers. Even President and Mrs. Lincoln attended an operatic performance at Ford’s on May 28, 1862.

When the 1862-1863 theatrical season opened, Ford renamed the building “Ford’s New Theatre” and looked forward to another prosperous year. The theater opened with an engagement by John Sleeper Clarke and it’s possible that Ford missed his former leading actress. When Gray had departed for Philadelphia, Ford had replaced her at the Holliday Street Theatre with actress Annie Graham. Graham was brought down to Ford’s New Theatre for a few performances with John Sleeper Clarke, but it doesn’t seem like they had the same chemistry (or marketability) as Clarke and Gray once had. It appears that Ford reached out to Gray with an offer to be his leading stock actress again. Perhaps this time he promised she would act in his new D.C. theater and therefore not have to relive the unpleasant scenes in Baltimore.

Gray had spent the summer and fall months of 1862 up in Montreal, Canada. The Theatre Royal was famous for “importing” American talent during the summer months. This was also a wise way for American performers to keep a steady paycheck between seasons. Alice Gray played to good crowds but as fall gave way to winter, an engagement down in D.C. likely looked more hospitable to her.

Whether John T. Ford originally intended for Gray to perform at his new D.C. theater or whether he wanted her back at his Baltimore establishment we may never know for sure because on the evening of December 30, 1862, cruel fate made the decision for him. Under the stage of Ford’s New Theatre in D.C. a fire was started by a faulty gas meter. While there was no loss of life from the severe blaze that followed, the fire completely consumed the inside of the theater. Ford lost over $20,000 in the inferno but the outside walls of the theater survived. While other theater owners might have given up and left the capital, Ford decided to rebuild his theater and make it bigger and more grand than had ever been seen in D.C. before. Ford would spend the next eight months raising money for and constructed his new theater. In the mean time, at the Holliday Street Theatre in Baltimore, the show must go on.

Alice Gray made her return to the Holliday Street Theatre in January of 1863 with great fanfare in the press:
1863 Return to Baltimore 1 Alice Gray 1863 Return to Baltimore 2 Alice Gray 1863 Return to Baltimore 3 Alice Gray

Gray acted alongside John Sleeper Clarke again, with Ford highly advertising their partnership. In this way, Gray replaced her own replacement, Annie Graham, who was assigned smaller female roles when Gray came back. Gray and Clarke performed together at the Holliday Street Theatre throughout Clarke’s engagement which ended on February 14th. Clarke himself must have realized that he and Gray had good chemistry together. They had performed several long engagements with each other since 1860 and the results had been paying off in the box office. When Clarke went off to his next engagement in nearby D.C., he brought Alice Gray with him.

Clarke was scheduled to make his debut at the Washington Theatre on February 23, 1863. The Washington Theatre was a slightly rundown edifice that only had intermittent productions when there was a lessee. The building lacked a full time manager/owner and was instead leased out to different individuals who staged their own shows at their own expense. It was essentially a rental theater, and hardly a five star establishment. However, John T. Ford had proven with his Atheneum that theaters were a sound business in war-time Washington. With that establishment burnt, the only other theaters of note were Grover’s New National Theater, the Washington Theatre, and Grover’s Canterbury Hall – a far seedier establishment which only catered to men. Until Ford completed his construction on his new theater, the only real places to act in Washington were the New National Theater or the Washington Theatre.

On the Saturday before Clarke’s engagement began, the managers of the Washington Theatre gave Alice Gray a headlining performance of her own.

1863 Solo in Washington Alice Gray

This was Alice’s first appearance in D.C. and the papers did a nice job of advertising it:
1863 First time in Washington

Aside from her summer engagements in Cleveland and Montreal, this was Alice Gray’s first time being the “sole attraction” for a performance. For once she was not playing second fiddle to a visiting star or receiving the assistance of other stars for her benefit. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Richard III, “She was herself alone.” Gray likely reveled this chance, even if it was only for one night. She had a good reputation in nearby Baltimore and a good solo performance here would help her establish herself as a star quality actor to the Washington public. The next day, Gray’s performance was described as a “decided sensation” but was sadly overshadowed by her anticipated debut with Clarke, who took much of the press. Clarke was scheduled to make his debut alongside Gray in Our American Cousin on February 23rd. However, when the curtain rose, Clarke was markedly absent. An advertisement in the next day’s newspaper announced that Gray would appear alongside a different comedian, C. B. Bishop, with the following note from the management:

“The Managers regret exceedingly the disappointment to their patrons last evening in not being able to present the popular Comedian, Mr. J. S. CLARKE, in his celebrated characters, and beg to assure them that the severe domestic affliction which compelled his absence will only defer his first appearance for a night or two.”

In all, Clarke would be absent from the stage until Thursday, February 26th. The “severe domestic affliction” that prevented Clarke from performing during that time was a death in the family. Mary Devlin Booth, the wife of Edwin Booth, died on the morning of February 21st. Clarke and his wife Asia (who, coincidentally, had never cared for Mary Devlin) rushed to Edwin’s side at his time of need. They were also joined by John Wilkes Booth, who had left his upcoming engagement in Philadelphia to be with his brother. Clarke and the rest of the Booth’s attended Mary’s funeral and burial at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Mary Devlin Booth, Edwin Booth's first wife

Mary Devlin Booth, wife of Edwin Booth

Alice Gray had continued to perform at the Washington Theatre without Clarke: “During Mr. Clarke’s temporary absence they have introduced a young and beautiful actress, Miss Alice Gray, who has made a decided sensation in every character she has appeared in.” When Clarke returned to town, he and Gray once again began their successful partnership. Clarke’s absence for a few days increased his appeal and so Clarke and Gray performed to full houses for the rest of his engagement. However, when Clarke left for his next engagement in Philadelphia in mid March, Gray did not join him. Instead, she returned to Ford’s Holliday Street Theatre to act alongside a new member of the Booth family. This young, handsome actor would make an indelible mark on Alice Gray and, in a couple years, would alter the course of American history.


This concludes part two of the series about Alice Gray’s life, career and connection to the Booth family. The third installment, “Alice Gray and John Wilkes Booth,” will be posted soon.

References:
Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination by Thomas Bogar
Additional research graciously provided by Thomas Bogar
Restoration of Ford’s Theatre by George J. Olszewski
American Tragedian: The Life of Edwin Booth by Dr. Daniel Watermeier
Edwin Booth: A Biography and Performance History by Arthur Bloom
John Wilkes Booth: Day by Day by Arthur Loux
Images of America: Ford’s Theatre by Brian Anderson for the Ford’s Theatre Society
Ford’s Theatre Society
Ancestry.com
Library of Congress
Newspaper extracts from: University of Illinois (free), FultonHistory.com (free), GenealogyBank.com (subscription)

Categories: History | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Alice Gray: An Actress is Born

As John Wilkes Booth was running from the authorities after assassinating President Abraham Lincoln, he carried with him a total of five carte-de-visite photographs. These photographs were placed safely in a wallet like pocket of Booth’s diary as he struggled through swamp and stream, darkness and dawn, for 12 long days. When Booth was finally cornered and killed on April 26, 1865, these photographs were removed from his dying body. A previous post highlighted how the process of identifying these ladies was a slow one that did not even commence until several years after the assassination. In the end, the women of Booth’s wallet were determined to be Lucy Hale, his fiancée, and four actress friends, Effie Germon, Helen Western, Fanny Brown, and Alice Gray.

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Though these actresses were each talented and respected during their careers, they have largely become footnotes to history. Their photographic presence on the body of the assassin has become the defining moment of their entire lives. For one of these actresses in particular, very little exists about her life outside of John Wilkes Booth. While Fanny Brown may have been dubbed “The Mysterious Beauty,” the truly mysterious and unknown beauty in Booth’s possession was Alice Gray.

While there is some biographical information readily available about Effie Germon, Helen Western, and Fanny Brown, the fourth actress in Booth’s pocket is a bit more elusive. The Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection, which contains copies of Booth’s CDVs, had this to say about Alice Gray when they highlighted the photographs in a post on their blog:

“Little is known about Alice Grey.  In 1858 she toured with Barry Sullivan and performed at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia in the early 1860s.  She appeared as Juliet opposite John Wilkes Booth as Romeo in Baltimore in 1863.  By 1865, she was a leading lady in the company at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, where she again played opposite Booth in a production of The Apostate on March 18.  She was not at the theater the night of Lincoln’s assassination.”

With so little known about Alice Gray, an in depth search was enacted to discover more about the life and career of this forgotten lady.  The following biographical sketch was developed by consulting a variety of sources including digitized newspapers such as the Buffalo Courier, Baltimore Sun, New York Clipper and D.C.’s National Intelligencer. Further information was discovered using creative searches on Ancestry.com and in cemetery records. In all, it took several days’ worth of work to find and organize the material. This post is the first in a series about Alice Grey’s life, career, and connection to the Booth family. To read part two, Successful Partnerships click HERE.

Alice Gray

Part One: An Actress is Born

In order to find out about Alice Gray’s beginning, it was first necessary to look at her end. Initially, the only information found about her birth came from her later obituaries.  According to most of the obituaries, Alice Gray was born in Boston in 1833 to Irish parents. The more detailed obituaries also stated that she commenced her acting career when she was 16 years old by performing in the Federal Street Theatre in Boston. Numerous genealogical searches were conducted with this information to try and find out more about Alice Gray’s family. All were fruitless until one final obituary contained the partially blurred name of a brother in Cincinnati. The brother’s true name was discovered by searching an old Cincinnati directory, which led to his burial record, which gave the incorrect name of his father (which wasted a lot of time looking for and led me back dejectedly to the brother’s burial record) and correct name of his mother, which led me to Alice’s mother, which led me to the true identity of Alice Gray.

Alice Gray’s true name was Alice Dehan. According to census records, she was born in New York between June 16 – July 31, 1835. Her parents were Patrick and Ann Dehan who were both immigrants from Ireland.

1850 Census Alice Gray

I have been unable to find a record of the family living in Boston, but in the 1870 census Alice’s brother John gives his birthplace as Boston. This is a contradiction to the 1850 and 1860 censuses which give his birthplace as New York, however. If the family did live in Boston, it was for a short time. By 1850, the family was living in Livingston County, New York, near Buffalo. Alice’s father, Patrick, was a laborer and likely worked on the expansion of the Erie Canal. Patrick died sometime between 1850 and 1860, leaving his wife and two children without a means of support. It appears that it was after the death of her father that Alice, then around 16 years of age, began her career as an actress. She chose the stage name of Alice Gray and would be billed as such for the rest of life.

Metropolitan Theater advertisement 1855Since her family had settled near Buffalo, NY, it was appropriate for Alice to commence her career in that city. She was able to acquire a position at the recently opened Metropolitan Theatre.

A theater historian in Buffalo later recalled, “When she came to the Metropolitan Theatre in 1851 or ’52, she could neither read nor write, but she was naturally bright and advanced rapidly.” Alice must have started with minor roles as her name did not receive billing very often in the early years. If she was learning the craft it is likely that she merely acted in walk on roles and silent characters. It was not until 1854, that Alice’s name began to make appearances in the advertisements for the Metropolitan Theatre performances. Over the next few years she stayed at the Metropolitan, honing her craft and receiving larger and larger roles. In 1856 she met and acted alongside a visiting star named Mr. Edward Eddy. Though Eddy’s engagement at the Metropolitan was short, Gray made an impression on him. In the upcoming years, Eddy would keep in touch with Gray and provide her with further acting opportunities. By 1857, Alice Gray had graduated to the main stock actress for the Metropolitan Theatre, in which she was responsible for playing the leading female roles opposite the visiting stars.Edwin Booth circa 1860

In November of 1857, a young, 24 year-old star billed as, “The Wonder of the Age” made his first appearance at the Metropolitan Theatre. The noted star who was greeted with such fan fare was Edwin Booth. Though the weather was poor during Booth’s time in Buffalo, the theater was packed every night. This was not only good for Edwin, but also for Alice Gray who ably played alongside Booth as his female counterpart. The increased crowd at the Metropolitan allowed more of Buffalo’s theater patrons to see how much Alice Gray’s abilities had progressed over the last few years. These performances with a member off the Booth family would be the first of many for Alice Gray. In a few short years she would become extremely familiar with practically all acting members of the Booth family.

After Edwin departed Buffalo, the very next performance at the Metropolitan Theatre was a benefit in Alice Gray’s honor. Her performances with Edwin had clearly garnered her some more attention. The newspapers, in describing her benefit, gave kind, but realistic descriptions of Gray’s abilities:

“…the merit of of Miss Gray as an actress deserves to be substantially recognized. The steady improvement she has made since her first appearance in Buffalo, is acknowledged by all. She personates the leading female characters acceptably; is uniformly accurate in the text, and evinces care and study in the business of the stage. Her many friends should encourage and reward her efforts by their presence this evening.”

Gray was undoubtedly becoming a better actress, but had not yet achieved the talent of a star. She continued with the Metropolitan Theatre for the remainder of the 1857-1858 season with a small break in March of 1858 where she performed briefly at the Bowery Theatre in New York City. At that time, the Bowery Theatre was being leased by her friend Edward Eddy. The chance to act in New York City and possibly become a star performer on those elite stages was the dream of many actresses. While Alice Gray acted ably alongside Eddy and even received a benefit in her honor one night, once Eddy was finished leasing out the Bowery Theatre, Gray’s first foray in New York City was over.  While she had not been “discovered” by the New York City patrons, this experience would help her in the future. She returned home to Buffalo.

When the theatrical season of 1858-1859 was advertised, Alice Gray was given top billing as the leading lady of the Metropolitan Theatre once more. However, when the season debuted on September 20, 1858 and Gray took the stage for the first time as Lady Teazle in School for Scandal, she found herself faced with an agitated audience:

1858 Hissed from the stage Alice Gray

Gray must have been traumatized by this sudden betrayal of the audience. The same people who had supported her growth over the last few years were now hissing her from the stage. A newspaper from a few days later explained the reason:

1858 reason for hiss Alice Gray

As reported, Alice Gray had apparently made some enemies in the Buffalo theatrical world. The business then was just as cut-throat as it is today (if not more so). Perhaps the other actresses were jealous of Gray’s recent debut in New York City due to the generosity and assistance of Edward Eddy. Whatever the reason, the scheme against Alice Gray worked as planned. Whether by her own choice or the decision of the manager, Gray did not appear at the Metropolitan Theatre for the rest of the 1858 season. Coincidentally, she was replaced at first with “Mrs. J. B. Booth”. This was Clementina DeBar Booth, the first wife of Junius Brutus Booth, Jr. Though Mr. and Mrs. Booth were divorced due to Junius running off to California with another woman in 1851, Clementina kept the name and used it professionally. Not long after this, the gossip reported in the above article came to fruition when the manager of the Metropolitan Theatre had his own wife take over some of the main female roles.

After being shunned from the Metropolitan Theatre, Alice Gray made her way back to New York City, where she had briefly performed in March. At that point, her friend Edward Eddy had leased the Broadway Theatre for the season. Though the season had already begun and Eddy already had his stock company, he hired Alice Gray. She acted at the Broadway Theatre with the rest of the stock actors until the end of the season. She received very little press during her time at the Broadway Theatre and without good press and attention, it was practically impossible for a supernumerary to make it as a star. During the next season, Alice began to travel outside her home state of New York, perhaps hoping that good word of mouth from audiences in smaller cities would help her establish herself the next time she acted in New York City.

The beginning of the 1859 season found Alice in Charleston, South Carolina. She was the lead stock actress for the Charleston Theatre, an establishment which promised its public a diverse selection of entertainment. The theatrical portion of the season only lasted until November 12, 1859, which was a benefit performance for Henry B. Phillips, a Charleston native. Phillips was a well known actor who had toured the eastern states. He was also known for helping to coach novice actors and teach them the proper points and recitations.  In a few short years, H.B. Phillips would be hired by John T. Ford to be the acting manager of Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. In that capacity, Phillips sole job would be to train inexperienced actors on how not to make fools of themselves. For his benefit performance, Phillips choose two pieces, The Poor Gentleman, in which Alice Gray was billed as his leading lady, and the very popular comedy of the day, Our American Cousin. This would be Alice Gray’s first experience with the play, Our American Cousin, but, due to the events connected with it in the future, this performance would hardly be the most memorable. After the Phillips’ benefit in Charleston, the whole theatrical company traveled to Mobile, Alabama. In the mean time, the Charleston Theatre opened to an opera troupe while advertising its next, diverse entertainment offering to the public, stating that a “troupe of learned monkeys, goats, and dogs, will present themselves,” in the week to come.

Alice Gray found a welcoming audience in Mobile and her abilities were praised when she was given a benefit performance there:

1860 Nice review Alice Gray

The company stayed in Mobile until late March of 1860, when the Charleston Theatre reopened (hopefully after they cleaned up the mess from the “learned” monkeys, goats, and dogs) for theatrical events.  The headlining star for the reopening was none other than Edwin Booth. Though there were no advertisements billing him as the “The Wonder of the Age” as there were in Buffalo more than two years ago, he was nevertheless warmly welcomed by the Charleston public. Booth played at the Charleston Theatre until April 4th, likely teaming up once again with Alice Gray as his leading lady. Not long after his departure, however, Alice became sick. An article in the April 14th edition of the New York Clipper reported that Alice had “been quite ill” and “confined to her room for more than a week”. She recovered from her illness and finished up the rest of the season in Charleston but this would not be the first time that illness and other personal matters would preclude Alice from performing.

During the summer of 1860, Alice Gray made extra money by taking a little more than a week long summer engagement at Cleveland’s Academy of Music. For most performers, summers were the dry times. Most theaters closed down or engaged cheaper entertainments for the few patrons who would visit during the hot months. The few theaters that did engage actors at this time, however, generally did a wonderful job advertising them. Alice Gray received star billing in the Cleveland newspapers for her brief run with her name in the largest type size that she would ever see in her career:

1860 Star billing Alice Gray

As Alice Gray performed as a star in Cleveland, back home in Buffalo the census taker was knocking at her mother’s door for the 1860 census. Despite her almost year long absence in the South and Midwest, Alice’s mother included her daughter as a member of the household. Ann Dehan gave the census taker her daughter’s real name, Alice Dehan, and set in stone what she was going to be for the rest of her life: a “Theater Actress”.

1860 Census Alice Gray


This concludes part one of the series about Alice Gray’s life, career and connection to the Booth family. To read the second installment, “Successful Partnerships,” click HERE.

References:
Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination by Thomas Bogar
Additional research graciously provided by Thomas Bogar
American Tragedian: The Life of Edwin Booth by Dr. Daniel Watermeier
Edwin Booth: A Biography and Performance History by Arthur Bloom
John Wilkes Booth: Day by Day by Arthur Loux
Images of America: Ford’s Theatre by Brian Anderson for the Ford’s Theatre Society
Ford’s Theatre Society
Ancestry.com
Library of Congress
Newspaper extracts from: University of Illinois (free), FultonHistory.com (free), GenealogyBank.com (subscription)

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