Sarah Kirby threw down the newspaper and paced across the room, only to turn and race back to the crumpled pages. She picked them up, smoothed them out, and once again read the diatribe against her penned by John Hambleton. Sarah was stricken with grief at the suicide of Hambleton’s wife. That the actor should blame her for his wife’s untimely death and publish his accusations in the San Francisco newspapers increased her distress. Her fingers whitened, and the edges of the page crumpled as she saw herself likened to a snake squeezing the life from its victim. Hambleton wrote of his dead wife’s devotion: “For six years of struggling hardship through poverty and sickness she was at my side night and day, with the same watchful attention as a mother to an infant, until, with the last two months a change had taken place, like a black cloud over shadowing the bright sun. She gradually lost all affection for me, riveting her attention on a female friend who, like a fascinating serpent, attracted her prey until within her coils. In silence I observed this at first, and deemed it trifling, until I saw the plot thicken.”
Sarah crushed the flimsy copy of the Evening Picayune again. She must counter this ugly story or lose her reputation in the city. Not for this had she struggled to attain a pinnacle of success as both an actress and a theater manager. As a manager of a company of actors–one of very few women managers-bad publicity could cost her everything.
A genuine pioneer of theater in California, Sarah Kirby had made her debut in Boston but arrived in the brawling new territory within a year of the first rush of Argonauts heading for the sparkling, gold-laced streams of the Sierra. Rowe’s Amphitheater in San Francisco saw her first performance as Pauline in The Lady of Lyons. Two months later she appeared at the Tehama Theater, which she had opened and co-managed in Sacramento. By August 1850, she was a full-fledged manager, producing plays at a theater in Stockton, and in September she was back at the Tehama in Sacramento.
Sarah was the widow of J. Hudson Kirby, also an actor. Sarah’s debut on February 21, 1850, was under her stage name, Mrs. J. Hudson Kirby. Although she performed under the name Mrs. Kirby, she was during that time married to Jacob Wingard, who died shortly thereafter in San Francisco following a fall from a horse.
The events of January 1851 threatened everything she had built in the past year. Sarah recognized the precarious position she was in after the suicide of Mrs. Hambleton and the ravings of John Hambleton in the newspapers. The Hambletons had been popular on the stage from the time of their arrival from Australia, and John Hambleton was considered one of the best comedians in the city. If readers believed Hambleton’s newspaper articles, public sentiment could likely turn against Sarah, so she decided to set the record straight. Her account of the tragedy was published in the San Francisco Daily Alta California on January 16, 1851, the day after Hambleton’s letter appeared in the Picayune and two days after the death of her friend: “Mrs. Hambleton made me her confidante, and in her statements to me at that time she represented that her husband treated her unkindly, harshly, and by acts and language abused her to a cruel extent. About one month ago she stated to me that she had been cruelly beaten by her husband, and showed me the marks of violence upon her neck, where the marks of her husband’s fingers were made when he nearly choked her to death; the skin was removed by the nails of his fingers as she extricated herself from his grasp; her head was much bruised, as she stated, from him knocking her down; and if Mrs. Smith, the landlady, had not taken him off he would have killed her.”
Theater people often lived as dramatically as the plays they appeared in, and, while some notoriety might help fill the house, Sarah knew too much infamy could turn the public away from even the best plays presented by the finest performers. Despite the harrowing tale she’d been told and the physical evidence of abuse, Sarah’s newspaper account of the events said Sarah had advised Mrs. Hambleton to return to her husband.
Other newspapers contributed another angle to the tale. Having appeared frequently onstage with the very popular Hambletons, Henry Coad had apparently formed a close friendship with the battered Mrs. Hambleton. The Daily Alta California first mentioned Coad in the story that explained why the Jenny Lind Theater had been dark on the evening of January 14. The newspaper announced that the “favorite actress,” Mrs. Hambleton, had committed suicide by drinking poison at her residence. Details were supplied in the story that followed: “It appears that the alliance between Mr. and Mrs. Hambleton was not of a happy character, and that the latter had conceived an ardent attachment to a member of the company, Mr. Coad, who returned it with equal ardor. They had, however, determined from prudential reasons to refrain from meeting each other or conversing until some opportunity should occur when they could unite their destinies.
The uneasy situation had continued for some days, the newspaper reported, until Mr. Hambleton jealously accused his wife of betraying her vows. If she would tell him who it was, Hambleton reportedly had assured his wife that he would consent to a separation so that she and her lover could go their own way. Apparently believing this, she told him it was Coad, who was called to their rooms at The Bell, a rooming house where all three lived. There, Hambleton threatened to blow out his rival’s brains or kill them both unless Coad departed immediately. The young man did so.
Sarah knew the agonies that the third party in this triangle was suffering. If she had advised her friend to flee with the young actor who had befriended her, would that have prevented the tragedy or only led the jealous husband to commit greater harm? The newspaper account related, “Mrs. H., probably under the impression that [Coad] had deserted her, and been trifling with her affections merely, immediately swallowed a very large dose of some powerful corrosive poison. Medical aid was sent for as soon as it was discovered, but in about ten minutes she died. As soon as the fact that the object of his affections had poisoned herself was made known to Coad, he purchased a quantity of what he supposed was the same kind of compound, and attempted to poison himself. An emetic was administered soon after, and at last accounts he was doing well, although suffering severely.”
The funeral cortege had barely passed the doors of the Parker House and the darkened Jenny Lind Theater before a new bombshell hit the papers. John Hambleton’s accusation against Sarah Kirby was printed in the Evening Picayune, complete with details of his wife’s terrible death, his actions, and a final finger pointing at the woman he blamed for the whole thing: “I therefore, from my heart, attribute the cause of insanity to the evil counsels of Mrs. Kirby, and forgive the young man Coad, whose every action I have most acutely, though silently watched; for he was a victim as well as my poor wife.”
Sarah could not let that indictment stand. Many people would not read between the lines and understand that Hambleton’s obsessive watching of his wife’s every move was as diabolically inclined as it had been, nor would they understand that his poor wife had suffered the violence that Hambleton had not meted out to Coad. If Sarah Kirby were to retain her standing, and her lease on the Jenny Lind, she would have to convince the world that she was not to blame.
Sarah recognized that even in rambunctious California a serious actress and theater manager absolutely had to exhibit an exceptional character or risk alienating theater patrons. Rip-roaring Frisco was taking steps toward a more civilized image. The editor of the Golden Era magazine offered a blunt warning about the danger of corruption from the stage. He uncompromisingly suggested that “all persons of the theatrical profession” should have to provide a certificate of good character before being allowed to perform before the public.
In the short amount of time she’d spent in the area, Sarah had acquired a reputation for hard work and for providing the best theater fare in the city. This was reflected in an opinion in the Daily Alta California: “Since she has been with us in this city, she has spared neither time, labor nor expense in presenting for the public a series of dramatical entertainments characterized by discriminating taste and sterling ability. Sarah’s skill as an actress was the cornerstone for the theater company she created. As manager, Sarah made all the decisions. She hired and paid for the theater, designed sets, chose costumes, and selected actors. The problems of her actors became her own. Her “good character” at a time when women in the theater were often considered one step up from prostitutes was essential to her success–as well as the paychecks and reputations of those in her troupe.”
California took its theater seriously, according to witnesses like Frank Marryat, an Englishman who traveled extensively and wrote of his adventures. “Perhaps in no other community so limited could one find so many well-informed and clever men–men of all nations, who have added the advantages of traveling to natural abilities and a liberal education,” Marryat wrote of the gold miners arriving by the thousands from all over the world. There was a level of sophistication and unexpectedly puritan point of view when it came to serious drama that threatened Sarah and her company of actors.
Late in the week of the tragedy, other witnesses told their stories to the press, corroborating Sarah’s version of the events that had ended in death for her friend and near death for another fine actor in her company.
The true test of public reaction to the scandal occurred a few days later when Sarah appeared at the Jenny Lind. Tension among the troupe was high. No one could predict what would happen when the curtain rose. The Daily Alta California reported that friends of Mr. Hambleton were expected to create such a disturbance that Sarah Kirby would be unable to perform: “The theater was filled soon after the doors were open, and upon the appearance of Mrs. Kirby in the character of Florinda in The Apostate, she was received in the most generous and hearty manner.
An attempt by half a dozen people to hiss and boo the actress was quelled soon after it began. Following the final act, the same newspaper reported that the audience rewarded her with applause long and deep and unanimous. “She made a few appropriate remarks, which coming from her heart, found a channel to the hearts of the audience, and when she retired [for the evening] she received a regular storm of cheers. This was right, and we have now a higher respect for the American heart than we had before, if that is possible.”
The newspaper also pointed out that the scandal had threatened the viability of the troupe. The loss of three performers meant that two other women in the company had to play men’s parts. The performance, however, passed the test of San Francisco’s theater critics and the public.
Having confirmed her respectability, Sarah continued to produce plays and present her customary roles. She appeared in a number of Shakespeare’s most popular plays and acted in the light comedy that often completed an evening’s entertainment.
Back in Sacramento that spring, Sarah opened the Tehama Theater for a benefit for local fire companies, all manned by unpaid volunteers. The Sacramento Daily Union praised theater managers James Stark and Sarah Kirby: “We have never known the managers of a theater exhibit a greater disposition to contribute to the advancement of charitable objects, or those measures which in our city cannot be sustained except by private donation.”
She and the leading man in her troupe were married in June 1851 in Sacramento. Sarah and James Stark, a handsome man with an established reputation as an actor, completed their theatrical engagement on the evening of their wedding, then took a “matrimonial tour” to Marysville, a major center for miners headed for the gold-laced foothills some thirty miles away. James was described by fellow actor Walter Leman as “an admirable actor . . . a man of kind and generous feelings.”
Sarah’s newest husband, her third, had come to San Francisco late in 1850 and immediately established a reputation as a fine Shakespearean actor. James was especially successful with his role in King Lear, which was frequently lauded in newspapers. As a couple, Sarah Kirby Stark and James Stark were also recognized as “the first to render the theater in California an institution worthy of the support of an intellectual and refined public.”
As an accomplished performer, Sarah played tragedy and comedy with equal expertise. She was praised in the Daily Alta California for her contributions to theater in her first years in California. “She is our pioneer actress, and for the three years during which California has sprung almost from a wilderness to a proud State, she has labored incessantly to raise the drama to its present position among us.”
Still she was careful of her reputation. In 1852, more than a year after the Hambleton affair that had so tested her courage she played a man’s role in The Iron Chest. A woman in trousers almost guaranteed a full house, yet Sarah was not comfortable, and some laughter from the front rows threw her off stride. At the conclusion of the play, her husband appeared and apologized for an uneven performance, caused, he said, “by the novelty of her dress.” According to the San Francisco Herald: “The audience immediately responded with hearty denials and chanted for the appearance of Sarah, who, when the tumult subsided, explained that necessity alone had induced her to take the part and wear the infamous trousers, there being no male actor available.
Over the next decade and more, Sarah continued to perform in theaters throughout California and in other western states. Sometimes she and her husband appeared together; sometimes they played roles in separate venues in disparate locations.
In Shakespeare’s last, great tragedy, Richard III, both James and Sarah were recognized for their skills after a performance in Nevada City in 1857. According to a critic in the Nevada Journal, “Mrs. Stark, it is superfluous to say, rendered most thrillingly the character of the Duchess of York–one so difficult that Shakespeare has often doubted if such a character could have existed in life.”
Sarah returned to San Francisco several times, always bringing plays the public and critics applauded. Her company was praised by newspapers for the quality of the players, the dramas and comedies that were staged, and for the respectable lifestyle of its manager. Part of that was attributable to the benefits that she held to raise money for things like a hospital and churches. James, however, found the lure of the gold mines irresistible. He made a comfortable income as a miner, and when he died he left behind a quartz mill bearing his name in the remote canyon between Aurora and Bodie, California.
Once again she was a widow, but James Stark’s success at gold mining left Sarah comfortably well off. All was not well, however. According to a lawsuit, Sarah was soon victimized in a property transaction. The property Sarah reportedly conveyed to her niece and husband carried a condition that they care for the aging actress as a member of the family. The San Francisco Call published a story in 1883 that detailed an action Sarah filed to recover title to the home on the corner of Twenty-fourth Street and San Jose Avenue. The report says that for many years Sarah had been an invalid, dependent upon the $75 monthly rent from the house. She had, reported the newspaper, “on two different occasions dislocated her hip, which has rendered her weak in body and mind, dependent and lonely and greatly in need of a home, kind care, and attention and society such as only relatives can bestow.” The relatives in question apparently consigned her to a back room, and, when she felt compelled to leave, she was told never to return, even to remove her belongings.
She may have been “lonely” in May when the property changed hands, but by September she was married again, to another actor, Charles Thorne, whom she had initially met years before. According to old newspapers, the two veterans toured Australia and the Orient and “did a good business.”
Sarah died in December 1898. She had returned to San Francisco after Thorne’s death, and the San Francisco Chronicle published a short piece noting that she was “a woman well known here in the early days as an actress of considerable ability.”