Posts Tagged With: Clarke

New Gallery – Asia Booth Clarke

Asia Booth Clarke 1

Asia Frigga Booth was the youngest daughter of Junius Brutus Booth and Mary Ann Holmes.  She was born on the Booth family farm in Harford County, MD, on November 20, 1835.  While growing up in the secluded wilderness of their Tudor Hall home, Asia grew very close to her younger brother, John Wilkes.  The two would often play, with Asia acting as Wilkes’ first acting teacher by helping him run lines and practice his elocution.  Asia was described by those who knew her as, “beautiful”, “educated and mathematical”, and “strong-minded”.  She was courted for years by a family friend named John Sleeper.  He, like the Booth sons, wanted a career in the theater.  In order to avoid the connotation that a performance by him would put an audience to sleep, he changed his named to John Sleeper Clarke.  The two married in 1859.  At first, life for the two was good.  Clarke and Asia’s rising acting brother, Edwin, were close business partners and friends.  Asia and Clarke had three children by 1865, all of whom were all named after various members of the Booth family.  The eldest, Asia Dorothy, named for her mother, was nicknamed “Dollie”.  Their next child, Edwin Booth Clarke, was named for his uncle and went by the nickname “Teddy”.  Another daughter Adrienne, received her name from Asia’s youngest brother, Joseph Adrian.

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln by the hands of her favorite brother, John Wilkes, was a massive blow to Asia and her family.  John Sleeper Clarke was imprisoned for a time and pregnant Asia was put under house arrest.  Hoping to do something to redeem the family name, Asia set her sights on a long forgotten project she had once started: writing a biography about her father.  She plunged back into her work, attempting to forget the tragedy that had befallen her.  In August of 1865, she gave birth to twins, Creston and Lillian.  By December she had finished her biography of Junius Sr. and it was published under the title, Booth memorials : Passages, incidents, and anecdotes in the life of Junius Brutus Booth (the Elder) by His Daughter.

In 1867, another son, Wilfred, was born.  Despite the passage of time, Asia still felt the stigma of her brother’s crime and Clarke discovered he had strong star power on the London stage.  Asia agreed to move the family there, despite their strained relationship.  She hoped that England would give her the fresh air and foreign setting she needed to start over.  Asia and her children depart America in 1868.  Asia wrote that she expected to be gone for two or three years.  In fact, she would never see her homeland again.

Life in England lost its appeal fairly quickly to Asia and her relationship with Clarke continued to sour.  The pair had three more children in England, all of which died, furthering Asia’s grief and separating her even more from her husband.  In 1874, she began writing a biography of her misguided brother, John Wilkes.  It contained her memories of his younger days and painted a far more human picture of the man who assassinated Lincoln.  She knew, however, that this sympathetic view of her brother would never be tolerated during her lifetime and so put the biography aside to be published after her death.

In the 1880’s Asia finished a book entitled, The Elder and Younger Booth, which detailed the careers of her father, Junius, and her brother, Edwin.  By this point Clarke was making regular trips back to the States to perform with Asia being left behind in England.  She referred to Clarke as “a bachelor in all but name” and described his hatred for her and the Booth name.

Asia Booth Clarke died on May 16, 1888 at the age of 52.  Before her death she made Clarke promise to return her body to America so that she could be buried in the family plot in Baltimore.  This was done and Asia Booth now lies with her parents and siblings in Green Mount Cemetery. Clarke would later die in England and is buried there.

Two of Asia and Clarke’s children followed the family tradition and became actors.  Creston and Wilfred Clarke both had decent careers upon the American stage and vaudeville.

Asia’s secret biography of her brother was given to a family friend upon her death due to her fears that Clarke would destroy it.  It was not published until 1938, sixty years after Asia’s death.  Though more a collection of Asia’s pleasant memories of her brother than a true biography, the book provides a unique and much needed view of John Wilkes’ early life and interactions with his family.

While Asia Booth never found fame (or infamy) like her other siblings, she remains a valuable chronicler of their achievements.

The newest Picture Gallery here on BoothieBarn has to do with Asia Booth Clarke and her family.  To visit the gallery, click HERE or on Asia’s picture in the image below:

John Wilkes Booth: A Sister’s Memoir by Asia Booth Clarke edited by Terry Alford

Click for Junius Brutus Booth Click for Mary Ann Holmes Booth Click for Junius Brutus Booth, Jr. Click for Rosalie Ann Booth Click for the Booth children Click for Edwin Thomas Booth Click for John Wilkes Booth Click for Joseph Adrian Booth
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Battle of the Polkas

I’ve previously written about the long, drawn out legal battle between Laura Keene and John Sleeper Clarke over the popular play, “Our American Cousin”.  Laura Keene, the one-time lover of Edwin Booth, had to bring John Sleeper Clarke, the husband of Asia Booth, to court over her rightful ownership of the play not once, but twice.  The first suit was brought shortly after the play made its debut in Laura Keene’s New York theatre in 1858 when William Wheatley and John Sleeper Clarke began performing the play at the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia.  Everyone knew the play was a smash hit and, through some crafty means, Wheatley and Clarke managed to get themselves a copy of Tom Taylor’s original script and then poached Keene’s personal improvements.  In the legal battles, both sides would claim that they held the true ownership of the play.  Outside of the courtroom, both sides would also try to convince the American theatre goers that their version was the best.

Keene's Cousin Ad

Advertisement for Laura Keene’s Our American Cousin

Clarke Cousin Ad

Advertisement for John Sleeper Clarke’s Our American Cousin

In addition to their respective newspapers advertisements, Keene and Clarke came out swinging with battling “Our American Cousin” polkas. Keene struck first with her polka:

Keene's Cousin Polka Cover

Keene's Cousin Polka

Not to be undone by Keene, John Sleeper Clarke had his own polka composed for his theatre:


Clarke's Cousin Polka

For those of you who are musically inclined, you can download the sheet music for both polkas. Keene’s version is here and Clarke’s version is here. Oddly enough, here is a third “Our American Cousin” Polka that seems to be trying to find a compromise as it is written merely, “To the Patrons & Friends of Asa Trenchard”.

I find these battling polkas to be the perfect example of the constant one-upmanship between these two theatre rivals.  Though operating in separate cities, Keene and Clarke played out a very public dispute trying to gain control of the most popular comedy of the day.

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Our American Cousin

On this night, 147 years ago, Lincoln was assassinated.  As a blog committed to the study of Lincoln’s assassination, attention to this fact must be paid.  However, instead of writing about the events of the day or the reaction from the public about the news, I’d like to give some attention to the event that drew the Lincolns out that night.  Ford’s Theatre is not the only thing that will forever be linked with the death of Abraham Lincoln.  Such an association is also shared by the play that was performed on this night so long ago: Our American Cousin.

Our American Cousin was written by English playwright Tom Taylor in 1852.

Playwright Tom Taylor

Taylor and many other Brits at the time were fascinated with the American way of life and the unique differences that had developed between the two countries since the Revolutionary days.  Taylor picked up on new American vernacular like, “guess” instead of the British “suppose”, and slang like “skedaddle”.  While his American character, Asa Trenchard, spoke and acted in a stereotypically un-English way, the character also had a strong sense of morality that conquered these “faults”.  The play tells the story of the culture clash between the Trenchard family of England and one of their distance American relatives.  A thorough synopsis of the play can be found here.

While Taylor was known for creating popular plays – and would go one to write more than 75 during his lifetime – at first he was concerned how well this play would be performed.  After finishing the play, Taylor sold it to producer Benjamin Webster for 80 pounds.Webster was the theatrical manager and producer for the Adelphi Theatre in Westminster.  During this time the Adelphi Theatre was hosting the American actor Joshua Silsbee.

Joshua Silsbee

Known as the “Yankee” Silsbee, British audiences enjoyed watching him portray American characters.  Somehow, Silsbee got a copy of Taylor’s play and began studying the Asa character in preparation to perform it.  Both Webster and Taylor did not feel Silsbee could accurately portray the title character.  As time went on, Webster and Taylor both decided that the play was not going to work well at that theatre.  It was never produced.  In 1855, Webster traded the play and its rights back to Taylor in return for another piece.   At this point, Taylor made a few changes to the piece.  Most noticeably Taylor moved some text around to change it from a two act play to a three act play.

In autumn of 1858, Taylor was once again looking to sell his play.  He enlisted the help of a London Times correspondent posted in New York to help him sell the rights in America.  Through another intermediary, the play got into the hands of British-born actress and theatrical manager, Laura Keene.  Though relatively unimpressed with the melodrama, Keene ended up purchasing the play for $1,000 from Taylor.  She received Taylor’s new three act manuscript, taken down by his wife, in September of 1858.

Laura Keene

Keene casted the roles of the play with actors she knew well from her company.  Actor Joseph Jefferson was given the lead actor role of the American, Asa Trenchard.  Laura Keene took the lead actress role of Florence Trenchard, Asa’s kind English cousin who is the object of the villain’s affection.  Laura had to practically beg a young British actor in her troupe, Edward Askew Sothern, to take the small role of Lord Dundreary.  At first he refused the minor role with only 47 lines, but later agreed when Keene agreed he could add gags to his performance.  Even though he agreed, he still thought the role and play were pretty bad.  Together, Keene and Jefferson made many changes to Taylor’s manuscript.  Considerable dialogue was removed and edited.  In addition, they changed the hometown of Asa Trenchard from Pontiac, Michigan to Brattleboro, Vermont.

Joseph Jefferson

The debut of Our American Cousin occurred on October 15, 1858 in Laura Keene’s Theatre in New York City.  The play proved a success.  The alterations made by Jefferson and Keene, along with the ever increasing gags of E. A. Sothern, altered the play from a melodrama, to a comedy.  Instantly it became one of the most popular plays in New York and ended up running for 150 nights.

E. A. Sothern as Lord Dundreary

The success of the play, however, was not without its downside.  On November 22, 1858, the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia began performing Our American Cousin.  Just like today, theatre producers in the 1850’s could license their plays to others theatres for a price.  The ongoing success of the play allowed Laura Keene to do just so years after its debut.  These performances in Philadelphia, however, were not sanctioned by her and so she brought a suit against the two managers of the theatre, William Wheatley and John Sleeper Clarke.  John Sleeper Clarke would marry Asia Booth, John Wilkes Booth’s sister, in April of 1859.

John Sleeper Clarke

Keene filed a sanction against Clarke and Wheatley to stop them from performing her play.  But, just like it was in New York, the play was a success in Philadelphia.  Clarke and Wheatley denied any wrong doing and, to avoid having to halt performing the play during the ensuing litigation, they paid Keene a licensing fee and set aside a court fund from which to pay Keene if they lost the suit.  The case was a very drawn out affair and actually caused unique challenges to Laura Keene’s ownership of the play.  At this point and for several years after in fact, the play had not been published.  Keene’s troupe worked off of the handwritten manuscript she had received from Taylor.  Taylor, himself, had sold the rights to Keene and so never published it either.  Had Keene published the play, she would have had a case under copyright but this did not happen.  Not only that, but the play was written by a non U.S. citizen and, at the time of the suit, Laura Keene had not yet gained her own American citizenship further complicating matters.   The main problem for Keene, however, was where Clarke and Wheatley got the play.

Remember Josh Silsbee, the American actor in England?  When Silsbee returned to American, he brought Taylor’s original version of Our American Cousin with him.  This copy of the play is the one that he mysteriously got his hands on, even though both Webster and Taylor denied giving him one.  He wanted to perform it (and may even had rehearsed it a couple of times in the States) but it never happened.  Silsbee died in 1855 and his estate, along with the copy of the play went to his wife.

Somehow, after Our American Cousin became such a hit in October of 1858, Clarke and Wheatley learned of the widow Silsbee’s copy.  They entered into a deal with the widow’s new husband, a Mr. Chapman, from which they purchased the play and rights to it.  According to their side of the story, Josh Silsbee was actually given the American rights to the play when he left England by Mr. Taylor himself.  Moreover, Silsbee helped Taylor write the play based on his knowledge of “Yankee” characters.  Silsbee’s widow testified that the play and the rights to it were turned over to her late husband by Benjamin Webster as partial compensation for Silsbee’s time at the Adelphi Theatre.  Clarke and Wheatley held on to their side of the story maintaining that, while Keene did purchase the rights from Taylor, at that point in time Taylor did not have the rights to the play anymore having sold them to Webster who gave them to Silsbee.  The suit was an ordeal that lasted years.  In the end, Keene was saved by her own alterations to the play.

Clarke and Wheatley, while owning a copy of the original play, copied Keene’s performance to the letter.  The original play was in two acts, the main character was from Michigan, and the laughable gags of Lord Dundreary were nowhere to be found.  Clarke and Wheatley stole the unique features of Keene’s version (the ones that made it a success) and ending up losing the suit.  However, due to the difficulties regarding actual ownership, the judge only required Clarke and Wheatley to pay $500 to Keene for taking her specific alterations and for her court expenses.  The judge never actually decided on Keene’s ownership of the play.  This would come back to bite her later.

Keene continued to license Our American Cousin to various theatres during the Civil War and it continued to draw in patrons.  On April 3, 1865, Keene and her troupe arrived in Washington, D.C. for an engagement at Ford’s Theatre.  They put on many different shows, with the last one being scheduled as a benefit for Laura Keene.  For this April 14th benefit, Keene presented her big show, Our American Cousin.  Though a nearby theater was presenting a new play, Aladdin, Abraham Lincoln chose Ford’s Theatre instead.  On today specifically, we are all aware of the ramifications of that choice.  The play at Ford’s was halted that night, never moving beyond Asa’s lines in Act 3, Scene 2, “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.”

After the events of April 14th, you would think John Sleeper Clarke, John Wilkes Booth brother-in-law, would have wanted to avoid any connection with the assassination.  Instead, in September of 1865, he was up to his old tricks, this time producing Our American Cousin without a license in the Winter Garden Theatre in New York.  Keene, once again, filed a suit against Clarke and his new compatriot theatre owner William Stuart.  She attempted to use the verdict from the 1858 case as proof of her ownership and that Clarke was forbidden from producing Our American Cousin.  She even dropped the suit against William Stuart so that she could more effectively go after Clarke.  Again the idea of the play’s ownership came up with the stalemate occurring between Keene and Clarke’s copies of the play.  Clarke, in a desperate move, attempted to convince the judge that the $500 paid earlier gave him the right to license the play.  The judge then found in favor of Keene stating that, if that was the case, then producing the play at this different theatre in New York would have required Clarke to purchase a new license.  Clarke left for England, never to return, shortly thereafter.

Our American Cousin was both a success and a tragedy for Laura Keene.  It was a popular play that enjoyed a period of profitable longevity rare for plays of the day.  However, the popularity of it not only led Laura Keene into lawsuits, but also compelled the Lincolns to Ford’s Theatre on this night 147 years ago.  For this reason, Our American Cousin lives on.

The 1858 suit is discussed at length in the book: Cadwalader’s cases: Being decisions of the Hon. John Cadwalader, Judge of the District Court of the United States for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, between the years 1858 and 1879

There are many articles about the suits Keene raised against Clarke available through the New Times Archives.  Here are some of the ones consulted: A, B, CD, E, F

Our American Cousin: The Play that Changed History by Welford Dunaway Taylor

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