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