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Women Of The West: Laura Keene

Laura Keene, one of the most popular entertainers in the world was enveloped in controversy and headed for bankruptcy...

July 07, 2020

More than 150 years have passed since President Abraham Lincoln was shot and killed at Ford’s Theatre.  Tragedy ensued for many people with Lincoln that night in April 1865.  For example, Lincoln’s guest Major Henry Rathbone was cut savagely with the knife John Wilkes Booth unsheathed after emptying his Derringer at Lincoln.

Laura Keene, the star of the play Our American Cousin which President Lincoln and his entourage were watching when he was assassinated, suffered greatly as well.  After her leading role at the slaying, Miss Keene’s career was a chain of setbacks.  According to the actress’s memoirs she held the president’s head in her lap as he drew his last breath. She wrote that her “dress was soaked with Lincoln’s blood.”  From that point on patrons who came to her performances were more interested in seeing the blood-stained dress than they were the productions.  Laura Keene, one of the most popular entertainers in the world was enveloped in controversy and headed for bankruptcy.

Mary Todd Lincoln screamed.  Clara Harris, seated in the balcony adjacent to President Abraham Lincoln’s wife, jumped out of her seat and rushed to the hysterical woman’s side.  “He needs water!”  Harris cried out to the audience at Ford’s Theatre staring up at her in stunned silence.  “The President’s been murdered!”  The full, ghastly truth of the announcement washed over the congregation, and the scene that ensued was as tumultuous and as terrible as one of Dante’s pictures of hell.  Some women fainted, others uttered piercing shrieks and cries for vengeance, and unmeaning shouts for help burst from the mouth of men.  Beautiful, dark-haired actress, Laura Keene hurried out from the wings dressed in a striking, maroon colored gown under which was a hoop skirt and number of petticoats that made the garment sway as she raced to a spot center stage.  She paused for a moment before the footlights to entreat the audience to be calm.  “For God’s sake, have presence of mind, and keep your places, and all will be well.”  Laura’s voice was a brief voice of reason in a chaotic scene.  Few could bring their panic under control.  Mary Lincoln was in shock and sat on her knees beside her mortally wounded husband rocking back and forth.  She cradled her arms in her hands and sobbed uncontrollably.

Laura ordered the gas lights around the theatre turned up.  Patrons bolted toward the building’s exits.  As they poured out into the streets, they told passersby what had occurred.  Crowds began to gather, and there were just as many people coming back into the theatre as were trying to leave.  Laura stepped down off the stage and began fighting against the current of people pressing all around her.  Word began to pass through the frantic group that John Wilkes Booth was responsible for shooting the President.  Sharp words were exchanged between the individuals coming in and going out the building.  Insane grief began to course through the theatre, and ugly suppositions started to form.  “An actor did this!”  Laura wrote in her memoirs about what people were saying at the event.  “The management must have been in on the plot!  Burn the damn theatre!  Burn it now!”  Laura disregarded the remarks and somehow worked her way to the rear box where Mr. Lincoln was and stepped inside.

According to the biography of Laura Keene by Vernanne Bryan, when the actress entered the President’s box he was laying on the floor.  “At first glance it was as if he had only fallen and his usual black, unruly hair had simply become more tousled from the fall,” Bryan reported what Laura witnessed.  “But upon closer scrutiny, the picture became distorted and took on the shadowy quality of the non-rational, for under his great head, seeping slowly across the floor in a crimson pool, came his life’s blood.”  Doctor Charles Leale was attending to President Lincoln while Laura was there and told other physicians on the scene that Mr. Lincoln’s wounds were fatal.  “It is impossible for him to recover,” he is noted telling his colleagues.

Laura turned to Mrs. Lincoln who was crying and unable to speak and then asked the doctor if she could hold the President until he could be moved.  Gently, Laura knelt down and lifted Mr. Lincoln’s wounded head onto her lap.  A bowl of water was brought to her, and she bathed his brow.

The locality of the wound was initially thought to have been in his chest.  It was not until after the neck and shoulders had been bared and no mark discovered and Laura’s dress was stained with blood that it was revealed where the ball had penetrated.

As soon as the confusion and the crowd were partially overcome, the President was moved to a home across the street from the theatre.  Laura remained on the floor for a moment watching for members from Thompson’s Battery C, Pennsylvania’s Light Artillery maneuver Mr. Lincoln’s lanky frame into the home where he would later be pronounced dead.  At the urging of army guards who were summoned to the scene, Laura picked herself up and escorted the shocked, wide-eyed Mary to the boarding house where her husband lay.  Laura stayed with the President’s wife until the carriage came to escort his body away.

Laura Keene was considered by many familiar with her work as an actress and theatre manager to be the greatest woman ever connected with the American stage.  In spite of her pioneering efforts in the field, she would be more closely identified with Ford’s Theatre and Lincoln’s assassination than anything she ever did in the profession.

The incomparable Laura Keene was born in Paris in 1826.  Her parents, who named their daughter Mary Frances, were well-read and believed their children needed a well-rounded education.  Laura and her brothers and sisters were exposed to art, literature, and music, and encouraged to try their hand at each.  Laura, a dark-haired beauty with large, honey-brown eyes had a talent for painting but was particularly intrigued with the theatre.  She couldn’t resist stopping outside the window of the local playhouse and listening to the actors perform.  From an early age, she knew she was destined for the stage.

Laura’s aunt, an accomplished, retired actress with ties to the London theatrical scene, saw massive potential in her niece’s natural talent for acting and helped her secure a job as a stock player at a theatre.  The entry level position gave Laura the opportunity to hone her skills portraying a variety of utilitarian parts, small roles as a townsperson, household staff, innkeeper, etc.  She earned $6 a week at the start.  As Laura proved herself to be a steady and serviceable player, she was allowed to take on more difficult roles.  Her salary increased to $30 a week in a short nine months.  She made her London debut on October 28, 1851.  Her performance in The Lady of Lyons at the Olympic Theatre was well received.

One year after her initial performance in London, Laura was enroute to the United States.  She had aspirations of managing a theatre of her own and was persuaded by her colleagues that in America she would have a chance to achieve her goal.  Laura made her New York debut on September 20, 1852, at Wallack’s Theatre.  Critics praised the sweet “English” sound of her speech and were enamored with her classic beauty and aristocratic manner.

Laura was then cast in a series of plays that drew more people to the theatre.  Soon the audience was demanding to see only Laura in lead roles and particularly in comedies.  She had exceptional timing and excelled in comic performances.  Laura signed on for a second season with the New York company, but tucked in the back of her mind was the idea of leasing and managing her own group.

On Christmas Eve 1853, Laura Keene’s dream of running a theatre came true.  She assumed responsibility of operating the Charles Street Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland.  When the lights came up on the presentation, Laura became the first notable woman in America to manage a theatre and a production.

Laura focused on securing quality actors for her stock company.  She selected people who were equally good at performing comedy or dramas.  She secured skilled costume and wardrobe designers, artists who could create the backdrops and scenery, and detail oriented builders who could construct sets.  Not only did Laura select the plays, cast, and crew, but she also performed in the productions as well.  Her schedule was grueling.  Between December 24, 1853, and February 23, 1854, she produced thirty-four different plays.  Laura’s health suffered under the pressure of managing so many projects, and, on February 25, 1854, she announced she would be leaving Baltimore and heading west.

The Gold Rush had loosed a flood gate of humanity onto the wild frontier.  Hundreds of hopeful prospectors lined the creek beds and mountainsides from San Francisco to Sacramento.  Entertainment was at a premium in the mining camps and gold towns; Laura planned to tap into the need for talent in the region and make a tidy profit doing so.  On April 6, 1854, Laura debuted at the Metropolitan Theatre in San Francisco and was then hired by the theatre manage her own production company.  Her contract guaranteed she would be paid $30,000 a year.

On stage Laura was poised and in control; behind the scenes, however, she had difficulties with the brooding and temperamental twenty- year-old actor playing opposite her named Edwin Booth.  Edwin was one of four children born into a theatrical family.  His father, Junius Brutus Booth, was a well-trained, gifted thespian.  Edwin was talented, but his moody personality and bouts of insecurity over his future on stage exasperated Laura.

Laura decided to take a break from working with Edwin and tour the mining towns in productions without the actor.  She performed in Sacramento, Marysville, and Stockton.  Theatrical critics at the Sacramento Daily Union newspaper called her acting “superior” and referred to her as “accomplished and refined.”

Laura’s travels through the gold country ended back in San Francisco where she became sole manager and lessee of the Union Theatre.  The theatre prospered under her tutelage.  In late July 1854 she traveled to Australia with Edwin Booth.  Gold had been discovered in the country in 1850, and by 1854 thousands had invaded it hoping to find the Mother Lode.  Edwin heard performers could earn a small fortune as a part of reparatory theatre companies in Australia.   Edwin persuaded Laura to join him and another accomplished actor, Dave Anderson, in the venture.

Laura and Edwin reconciled their differences enroute to Sydney.  It took more than two months to reach Australia, and the actors became intertwined during the journey.  For a brief moment in time, Edwin was not only Laura’s lover but confidant as well.  In years to come, she would regret any involvement she had with him.  Edwin was extremely competitive and used the ideas Laura had for producing particular plays as his own.

Laura returned to San Francisco on March 21, 1855.  Her first performance in California after her tour through Australia was on March 27, 1855, at the Sacramento Theatre.  The show ran for five nights only, and, once the final curtain came down, Laura hurried back to San Francisco to appear at the American Theatre in a series of fan favorite plays.

A decidedly pleased audience cheered the actress’ performances at the American Theatre.  After only a couple of weeks, Laura was not only performing but also managing the playhouse.  Laura was given the official title of directoress at the American Theatre in June 1855.  In September 1855, residents in the city of San Francisco hailed Laura as “the actress of all work” and credited her with “revitalizing theatre in the Gold Country.”  The community at large was broken hearted when Laura made the announcement that she would be vacating her position at the American Theatre and returning to the East Coast.

News that Laura Keene was making her way to New York reached the papers in the city and numerous fans eagerly looked forward to her arrival.  Shortly after her arrived in New York she purchased the Metropolitan Theatre on Broadway and began making the facility ready for the opening.

Critics and audiences were pleased to see Laura on stage, but competing male theatre managers proved to be a challenge for her.  They spoke out against a woman being in a position of director and stage manager.  They resented her presence in the field, and, with every successful production Laura achieved, their hostility grew.

For seven seasons, a time period from November 1856 to 1863, Laura presented shows that entertained and excited audiences.  She made a serious effort to produce original plays.  One of her favorites was penned by Tom Taylor, an English dramatist and magazine editor who wrote more than one hundred plays in his career.  The play was entitled Our American Cousin.  Laura believed so strongly in the potential of Taylor’s three act play that she ordered a copyright on the material and claimed ownership rights and even gave the play its name.

In January 1863, Laura hired a stock company to tour America.  She accompanied them and starred in productions performed in Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington.  Our American Cousin was the highlight of the repertoire.  The play is the story of a gullible English baronet who entrusts his financial affairs to an unscrupulous family advisor.  Laura cast the country’s most popular and gifted actors in the lead roles.

In February 1865, John Thompson Ford, owner of Ford’s Theater in Washington, invited Laura and her troupe to perform at his playhouse the second week of April.

On Friday, April 14, 1865, Laura attended an early mass before heading to the playhouse to begin the day’s rehearsal and prepare for the night’s show.  Among the many actors who came and went from the theatre that day was John Wilkes Booth.  He, too, was an actor though many believed his brother Edwin to have possessed the true talent for theatre.  John Wilkes Booth had been employed at Ford’s Theatre and frequently dropped by to check to see if any mail had been delivered there for him.  He was such a regular at the theatre no one thought his presence there to be out of the ordinary.  He roamed about the playhouse at will, inspecting the sets, costumes, box corridors, and discussing the performances with fellow thespians.  On the 14th of April, John Wilkes Booth sat in the rehearsal for Our American Cousin.  He memorized the actors’ parts and recited them aloud as he mulled over a plan he had for President Lincoln.  President Lincoln was a man he had been vocal about disliking.

At 10:15 p.m. on April 15, 1865, John Wilkes Booth stood in the back of the theatre surveying the audience.  They were laughing and having a good time watching the play.  No one noticed him walking down the hall to the stage box and closing the door quietly behind him.  He quickly barred the door to prevent anyone from following him.  In the darkness between the door he had just entered and the door of his destination, he drew his pistol.  He heard the lines on stage and knew he had about two minutes.

When John Wilkes Booth heard one of the lead actors say, “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh?  Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal – you sock-dologizing old man-trap,” he pushed open the door to President Lincoln’s box and stood directly behind him.  John Wilkes Booth fired the gun at the same time the crowd burst into laughter.

The afternoon after President Lincoln was shot and killed Laura began packing to leave the city.  She wanted as much distance between herself and the horrifying event as possible.  She pleaded with her husband to collect the sets, costumes, and scenery from the production and send them to Cincinnati where their next performance was to be held.  The frightful calamity of the murder had shaken the usually composed actress and director to her core.  All Laura wanted was for her life to return to normal, but law enforcement had other plans.

On April 17, 1865, Laura Keene was arrested at the train depot.  According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “she was bound for Cincinnati, accompanied by two actors named John Dyott and Harry Hacock.”  Many who worked at Ford’s Theatre on the night of the assassination were arrested and held for questioning.  John Wilkes Booth was an actor with ties to the theatre and everyone associated with him or the performance of Our American Cousin was a suspect.  The authorities even considered that Laura might have helped plan the shooting.

“She said she had given bail to appear in Washington,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, “and had left owing to the excitement at the affair at the theatre.  The whole three [meaning Laura and the two actors with her] are held by the military as a mere matter of precaution until the facts can be ascertained from Washington, when she will probably be discharged with apologies.”

On April 19, 1865, Laura was released by order of the Secretary of  War.  She cancelled all future showings of Our American Cousin and replaced it with a play entitled She Stoops to Conquer.  She then traveled to Cincinnati where she and her company were scheduled to perform.

Laura struggled to lose herself in her work.  About the time she thought the fog had lifted, someone, usually a fellow actress or a bold audience member, would ask her about the dress stained with President Lincoln’s blood.  Often fans would tug and pull at her clothes thinking the garment she was wearing was what she had on when she held the President’s head in her lap.

After much consideration Laura decided to ship the dress back to the designer in Chicago for him to dispose of however he wanted.  Laura’s touring season was cut short and she retreated to a remote and private residence in Riverside Lawn in Massachusetts.  She returned to the stage in the fall of 1869.

On November 4, 1873, after more than twenty years in the theatre, Laura passed away.  News of her death was printed in papers from New York to London.   According to the November 13, 1874, edition of the Decatur Republican, “her loss will be deeply felt in the profession and also by the general theatre going public to whom her name is as familiar as a household word.”

Eleven months prior to Laura’s passing she had sold Our American Cousin to actor E. A. Southern for $2,690.00.  For this he received the rights for the United States and Canada plus the original manuscript.

Our American Cousin was performed numerous times between 1865 and 1872.  Laura often wrote letters to theatre managers protesting the use of material that she owned.  She was most outraged with Edwin Booth when he produced his own version of the play a mere seven months after his brother had assassinated President Lincoln.

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