Posts Tagged With: Our American Cousin

Harry Hawk’s Letter to his Parents

Harry Hawk 1

Actor Harry Hawk was the only person on stage when Booth assassinated Lincoln.  When Booth jumped to the stage, brandishing a bloody knife in his hands, Hawk turned and ran from him, fearing for his life.  In the hours  following the assassination, Hawk gave a statement to Corporal Tanner who, under orders from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, was collecting evidence in the parlor of the Petersen House.  In addition to this official statement, Hawk also wrote a letter to his parents in Chicago to tell them of the events.  Here is his letter, dated April 16th, recounting the tragedy:

“Washington, April 16, 1865

My Dear Parents,

This is the first time I have had to write to you since the assassination of our dear President on Friday night, as I have been in custody nearly ever since, I was one of the principal witnesses of that sad affair, being the only one on the stage at the time of the fatal shot. I was playing Asa Trenchard, in the “American Cousin,” The “old lady” of the theatre had just gone off the stage, and I was answering her exit speech when I heard the shot fired. I turned, looked up at the President’s box, heard the man exclaim, “Sic semper tyrannis,” saw him jump from the box, seize the flag on the staff and drop to the stage; he slipped when he gained the stage, but got upon his feet in a moment, brandished a large knife, saying, “The South shall be free!” turned his face in the direction I stood, and I recognized him as John Wilkes Booth. He ran toward me, and I, seeing the knife, thought I was the one he was after, ran off the stage and up a flight of stairs. He made his escape out of a door, directly in the rear of the theatre, mounted a horse and rode off.

The above all occurred in the space of a quarter of a minute, and at the time I did not know that the President was shot; although, if I had tried to stop him, he would have stabbed me.

I am now under one thousand dollars bail to appear as a witness when Booth is tried, if caught.

All the above I have sworn to. You may imagine the excitement in the theatre, which was crowded, with cries of “Hang him!” “Who was he?” &c., from every one present.

In about fifteen minutes after the occurrence, the President was carried out and across the street. I was requested to walk down to police headquarters and give my evidence. They then put me under one thousand dollars bond to appear at 10 o’clock next morning. I then walked about for some time as the city was wild with excitement, and then I went to bed. At half-past three I was called by an aid of the President, to go the house where he was lying, to give another statement before Judge Carter, Secretary Stanton, and other high officials assembled there. I did so, and went to bed again. On Saturday I gave bail.

It was the saddest thing I ever knew. The city only the night before was illuminated, and everybody was so happy. Now it is all sadness. Everybody looks gloomy and sad.

On that night the play was going off so well. Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln enjoyed it much. She was laughing at my speech when the shot was fired. In fact it was one laugh from the time the curtain went up until it fell — and to think of such a sorrowful ending! It is an era in my life that I shall never forget. Inclosed is a piece of fringe of the flag the President was holding when shot.”

To learn more about Harry Hawk, the other actors, and employees of Ford’s Theatre that fateful night, I recommend pre-ordering Dr. Tom Bogar’s upcoming book, “Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination: The Untold Story of the Actors and Stagehands at Ford’s Theatre“. Dr. Bogar spoke at the 2013 Surratt Society Conference and has done a phenomenal job delving into the history of these forgotten souls.  The book is due to be released in November, so pre-order it from Amazon today!

Harry Hawk letter published in the Evening Star, April 24, 1865

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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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The Assassination Playbills

Earlier, I introduced you to Henry Polkinhorn, a Washington, D.C. printer.  From his building on D Street, Polkinhorn printed newspapers, books, and a plethora of other custom items.  Of all the items he printed over the years, the most sought after item today is the playbill from Ford’s Theatre for April 14th, 1865.  In this post we will explore the details of Polkinhorn’s work, in order to identify genuine playbills and later reprints.

We will be utilizing the wonderful, but rare book, The Ford Theatre Lincoln Assassination Playbills: A Study by Walter C. Brenner.  Mr. Brenner privately printed this 16 page book in 1937.  In it he sorted out the many misconceptions about the playbills and, for the first time, created a tool for identifying and authenticating genuine playbills.  In the foreword of his book, Mr. Brenner wisely stated that, when attempting to authenticate a playbill as genuine, “source and pedigree must be disregarded,” and many, “will not prefer to do so.”  The simple truth is there is an exceedingly small possibility that genuine playbills still exist outside of libraries, museums, and private collections.  In fact, many libraries, museums, and private collections themselves don’t even have genuine playbills.  The best of provenance must be ignored when faced with the facts and details of the printed playbill.  The evidence within is unbiased and is merely for the benefit and education of those interested in the drama at Ford’s.

As stated before, Henry Polkinhorn was the regular printer for Ford’s playbills.  His association with the theatre started when John T. Ford took over the Tenth Street Bapist Church and started putting on musical performances:

Ford continued using Polkinhorn’s services when he renovated the church into Ford’s Atheneum:

When a fire destroyed most of the building in December of 1862, Polkinhorn helped his customer by purchasing stock so that he could build Ford’s New Theatre.  Ford continued to use Polkinhorn for his playbills and printed materials all the way until when the theatre closed for good after the events of April 14th, 1865:

Large advertisement for Ford’s April 15th, 1865 performance of The Octoroon. The performance never occurred as the theatre was closed after Lincoln’s assassination.

Therefore, when attempting to authenticate a playbill, it is important that it has been printed by “H. Polkinhorn & Son, Printers, D street, near 7th, Washington, D.C.”.  This is the final line on the playbill right at the bottom:

Now, just because a playbill says “H. Polkinhorn” at the bottom does not mean that it is genuine.  Practically all the later forgeries and reprints include the correct printer.

To Polkinhorn, printing the playbills for April 14th was just another job like the day before.  As a printer, he kept the previous day’s playbill set up on the press until he was given orders to change it, and then he changed only as much as was necessary.  This would save time in the printing process as long as the customer did not call for a completely redesigned playbill.  The Harvard Theatre Collection has the bound volume of playbills belonging to John B. Wright, the stage manager at Ford’s.  Looking at the playbills leading up to the 14th, Polkinhorn used the identical line of lettering for Laura Keene’s name on the 10th, 11th, 13th, and the 14th.  On the 12th, he had to resize her name to make room for an illustration on the playbill, but reverted back on the 13th.  On the morning of the 14th, Polkinhorn was printing the bills.  At around 10:30 am, Mrs. Lincoln’s messenger arrived at Ford’s to reserve the box for that night.  After this announcement happened, John Wright went to Polkinhorn’s printing shop to change the playbill.  Originally, there was going to be a special musical performance on the next night, April 15th.  On the large poster above you can see on the bottom the announcement for “Honor to Our Soldiers”.  This was a song written by Ford’s orchestra director William Withers.  With the announcement that Lincoln was attending that night, it was decided that the premiere of the song should coincide with the visit of their honored guest.  Therefore, Wright went to Polkinhorn’s to change the playbill to include mention of the song.  When Wright arrived, Polkinhorn altered the press to print the new bills.  Rather than throw out the bills Polkinhorn had already printed without the song, they were also used that night.  This is the reason why there are two issued of playbills for Our American Cousin:

Ford’s Theatre Playbills from April 14th, 1865

After Lincoln was killed, the theatre was shut down never to be used by Ford again.  Polkinhorn found that one of his most consistent clients no longer needed his services.  He removed the song playbill design off of the press and carried on with his business.  As time passed, people clamored for mementoes of the fallen President and the events at Ford’s Theatre.  John Buckingham was the door keeper at Ford’s on the night of the assassination.  In 1894, he published a short, illustrated book called Reminiscences and Souvenirs of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  Before, publishing this book, however, Buckingham got into the business of reproducing playbills from that night.  When Buckingham first started printing his “souvenir” playbills is unknown.  The earliest I can confirm is by 1879, but it is likely he started much earlier than this.  One source states that the reprints were sold on the streets of Washington “a day or two after the tragedy”.  What is known is that when Buckingham decided to print his souvenirs he went right back to Polkinhorn’s printing company.  Richard Oliver Polkinhorn, Henry Polkinhorn’s nephew, is the one that helped him recreate the bills from that night.  Using Polkinhorn’s own press and type, the two printed copies and created an engraving of the first issue playbills.  Buckingham started selling the playbills as souvenirs.  At first, the reprinted bills had no markings to identify them as reprints.  Years later, Buckingham would start stamping them, “Lincoln Souvenir Engraving”, but by then countless numbers had made their way into the public and began masquerading as authentic bills.  Buckingham’s souvenir playbills look like this:

John E. Buckingham’s souvenir reprint playbill

So, there are two issues of authentic playbills printed on April 14th, 1865, and one version later printed by Ford’s doorman.  Buckingham only reprinted the first issue playbill and so the second issue, the one with “Honor to Our Soldiers”, has been saved from period forgeries.  Aside from contemporaneously forged examples, all second issue playbills that exist are most likely genuine.  For the first issue playbills, however, careful attention must be paid to identify Buckingham and other reprints.

As well as John Buckingham and Richard Polkinhorn did in recreating the first issue playbills, the devil is in the details.  As we will see, Buckingham made his own mistakes and actually corrected mistakes that were present in the original bills, when making his copies.  A close look at a genuine bill and a Buckingham copy shows the differences.

The way we know that Buckingham used Polkinhorn’s own type and press is twofold.  First, on the back of an 1891 Buckingham reprint there is a stamped note from R. O. Polkinhorn citing his involvement in creating the copies.  Second, the type itself is a match for Polkinhorn’s press.  One way to identify a bill that used Polkinhorn’s press is the particular type that is used to create the words “THE OCTOROON”.  Other period reprints from other printers, like this one housed at the University of Delaware, did not have this specific font type.  This clearly identifies it as being from another printer entirely.

On the Buckingham reprints, however, “THE OCTOROON” is in the exact same type as on the original playbills, proving that Polkinhorn’s printing shop was used for the souvenirs.

The most obvious difference between a genuine first issue playbill and a reprint is the final “E” in LAURA KEENE.  In genuine bills, the final “E” is perfect.  This “E” is consistently undamaged on the previous Ford playbills from the week leading up to the assassination.  On the Buckingham reprints, however, the final “E” is marred:

Not only is the “E” damaged, but also the final letters and numbers on many of the lines.  According to Brenner this damage was caused by the gauge pins on the press getting in the way.  However it happened, it provides the most notable difference between a real playbill and a souvenir.

While the “E” was a mistake on the part of the printer, the pair also fixed mistakes from the original bill.  In the genuine first issue bills, right above “The OCTOROON”, it states, “When will be presented BOURCICAULT’S Great Sensation Drama,”.  This is a typo.  It should read “Great Sensational Drama”.  When Buckingham created his souvenirs he corrected it and changed it to the appropriate “Sensational” (See the Octoroon examples above).

In addition, the original bill had an accidental space at the top.  Under the heading it states, “WHOLE NUMBER OF NIGHTS 49 5”.  There is a space between the 9 and 5 in “49 5”.  Buckingham corrected this unnecessary space and changed it to “495”.

In Walter Brenner’s book, he identifies 14 minute differences between Buckingham’s reprint and genuine playbills.  From missing words to the vertical alignment of letters, he provides a chart of the changes.  If a playbill has correctly passed the above criteria, this book should be consulted and the rest of the details authenticated.

In addition to Buckingham’s souvenirs, many other printers and indiviudals of the period tried their hand at creating false bills.  Any playbill that bears the announcement that, “THIS EVENING The Performance will be honored by the presence of PRESIDENT LINCOLN” is a fake.


As was mentioned earlier, the playbills were altered when it was ascertained that Lincoln and his guests were attending the night’s performance, however, they were only changed to include lines from the song “Honor to Our Soldiers” and not to announce his attendance.  Playbills containing Lincoln’s name are reprints from other printers, and not authentic.

While period fakes are common, there are also modern fakes that often trip people up.  Like Buckingham did so many years ago, museums sell reproduction playbills in their gift shops around the country.  Ford’s Theatre actually sells a reproduction of the Buckingham reprint.  It is attached to a reproduction wanted poster and costs $1.50.

The paper is browned and made to look old, too.  They are excellent reproductions but can add to the confusion when someone believes they have the genuine article.

When it comes to Ford’s Theatre playbills from April 14th, 1865, it is important to dismiss any stories of provenance until the bill is authenticated.  In Brenner’s book, he mentions a playbill with impeccable provenance.  Two signed affidavits accompany it; one written by the owner of the bill and another by John T. Ford himself.  In it he states, “I, John T. Ford on oath say that I presented Mr. A. K. Browne with a programme of the play of ‘Our American Cousin’ which I picked up near President Lincoln’s chair when he was assassinated…”  This superb provenance is a rare and valued thing for historical artifacts.  Unfortunately, the marred “E” on the playbill that accompanied these affidavits prove that it is not a genuine playbill, but instead a Buckingham reprint.  The best provenance in the world has to be ignored when faced with unbiased evidence.  Despite the affidavit to the contrary, John T. Ford was not even in D.C. when Lincoln was assassinated, and he did not arrive there until the Monday after the shooting.  Treasure seekers had cleaned out the theatre box long before he showed up.

As far as relics go, a genuine playbill is a treasured commodity.  On its face, it’s an advertisement for a night at the theatre.  In the context of history however, it exudes a sense of foreboding.  These playbills capture Lincoln’s assassination in a way that no other artifact can.  They are the last vestige of Lincoln as he lived, and the gateway to his immortality.  While reproductions have been made, only genuine playbills provide the emotional impact of that moment frozen in time.  They exist today as silent witnesses to Ford’s last great drama.

The Ford Theatre Lincoln Assassination Playbills: A Study by Walter C. Brenner
Restoration of Ford’s Theatre by George Olszewski

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H. Polkinhorn, Printer

Often, I get caught up in the little people of the assassination story.  Those who had relatively minor roles seem to fascinate me for their trivial involvement in the great drama.  The first article I wrote for the Surratt Courier was about Emerick Hansell, the state department messenger wounded by Lewis Powell at Secretary Seward’s.  We know him merely because he was at the wrong place at the wrong time and got a knife in the back for it.  Nevertheless, it is the almost trivial characters of the story that continually draw me in.  This post is further proof of that.  For the past few weeks I have been researching a very minor figure to a great degree.  I contacted Harvard University for a picture, made inquiries through Ancestry to help figure out his genealogy, and searched newspaper records for hours on end.  Even while I was doing it, I couldn’t help but think, “Why are you going to all this trouble?  Who is going to care about the minor details of this minor character?”  In truth, I may be the only one who cares about this man and his background, but the search for knowledge is enough motivation for me.  Will it change our view of the assassination? No.  But in a field where the big picture is explored so many times, sometimes it’s just fun to get lost in the little things.  The following is what I have spent my time doing – researching a man who is barely on the cusp of the assassination story merely because I enjoy the hunt. 

In the above map, the blue arrow points to 634 D Street NW in Washington, D.C., as it was in 1861.  During the Civil War era and for many years after it, this location held the prestigious and profitable printing company of Polkinhorn and Son.  Its founder was Henry Polkinhorn:

Henry Polkinhorn from the Harvard Theatre Collection

Henry Polkinhorn was born in 1813 in Baltimore.  His father, Henry, Sr., was an immigrant from England and a saddler by trade.  As a saddler in Baltimore, Henry Sr. was a very prosperous businessman himself:

A 1797 advertisement for Polkinhorn saddles

As a young man, Henry Polkinhorn, Jr relocated to D.C. and married Marianne Brown in 1839.  Together Henry and Marianne had six children.  Marianne died in 1857 and Henry married Rachel Ann Barnes less than two years later.    Differing from his father, Henry entered into the trade of a printer to support his growing family.   In his chosen occupation, Henry Polkinhorn was extremely successful.  After a few years of increasing success in his printing trade, Polkinhorn was able to erect his own building at 634 D Street NW between 6th and 7th streets.

It was a five story building in the Italianate style, which became very popular in the US after the late 1840’s.  Italianate buildings are noted for their bracket cornices and arched windows.  A newspaper article of the day described Polkinhorn’s building as having, “great height and [a] majestic appearance.”  Of the five stories, three of the floors were committed to Polkinhorn’s printing trade.  The second floor, in particular, was, “furnished with every facility for the execution for all descriptions of printing, both plain and ornamental.”  For his skills in printing and self-made success, Polkinhorn was very well respected by his peers.  The article honoring his building ended with, “We sincerely recommend the enterprising proprietor to the favorable notice of our citizens, as one, independent of his long established reputation, worthy of their highest consideration and esteem.”

As with all printers of the day, Polkinhorn ran a diversified printing company.  In each major area of his business, he printed materials connected to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865.  First, he printed newspapers.  Not only did he print them for others, he even started a couple on his own like Our Newspaper and the Constitutional Union.  Another newspaper he printed was the National Intelligencer.  The office of the Intelligencer was right across the street from Henry Polkinhorn’s printing office.  This provided steady income for Henry Polkinhorn and convenience for the Intelligencer management.  The Intelligencer also relates to the assassination of Lincoln, as it was one of the best newspapers for daily coverage of the trial of the conspirators.  Even to this day, issues of the National Intelligencer have been microfilmed by the National Archives and housed with the Lincoln assassination papers due to their relevance and content.  Polkinhorn would have even more connection with the Intelligencer after the trial was over.  By late 1868, the National Intelligencer was broke.  The owners, who had taken it over in 1865, had run it into the ground and owed thousands of dollars to many people.  The biggest debt they owed was to Henry Polkinhorn.  For his printing of their paper, they owed him over $50,000.  Fed up, he finally called to settle his tab.  With no money to pay him, the owners transferred the Intelligencer completely over to Polkinhorn.  Henry continued to make and print the Intelligencer until he himself was able to sell it off.  Shortly thereafter, the Intelligencer merged with the Washington Express and effectively died.

While newspapers provided daily work for Henry Polkinhorn, he was also well known for his book printing.  He devoted a whole floor in his five story building for Book and Job Printing.  Many famous and common citizens went to him to print their books.  An online search for “Polkinhorn printer” and alike will yield numerous nineteenth century books that were printed from his D street establishment.  On the brink of the Civil War, Polkinhorn printed, in book form, a letter by Joseph Holt explaining the dangers that were to come and his satisfaction that his own home state of Kentucky choose to stay with the Union.  Holt would later be named the Judge Advocate General, and chief prosecutor at the trial of the Lincoln conspirators.   During the trial, Polkinhorn printed many pamphlets containing the testimony of the trial pertaining to certain individuals like Dr. Mudd and Edman Spangler.  Polkinhorn also published Thomas Ewing’s argument against the jurisdiction of the military tribunal that tried the conspirators.  He also printed a plethora of other books on wide range of topics.  One book that sticks out is a doctor’s thesis about the dangers of cemeteries in populated areas.  The doctor blames many of the illnesses and sicknesses of those living in Georgetown on the nearby cemetery “Oak Hill”.  He called for the immediate closing of the cemetery and for the removal of the bodies.  When Henry Polkinhorn died in 1890, he was buried at Oak Hill.

While the newspaper and book printing jobs loosely connect him to the assassination of Lincoln, Henry Polkinhorn’s real relationship to the death of our 16th president is based on several individual pieces of paper, 18 inches long.  On top of his already multipurpose book and newspaper printing, Polkinhorn also has the honor of printing one of the most sought after relics of Lincoln’s assassination: the playbill from Our American Cousin.

A true playbill from Ford’s Theatre on April 14th, 1865.

Polkinhorn’s was the “go to” establishment for Ford’s Theatre for their playbills.  The map that started this post has a red star marking where Ford’s Theatre is.  Polkinhorn’s office was less than a half mile away, making him a perfect place for the Ford’s to do their business.  In the Harvard Theatre Collection there is a ten by twenty inch bound volume of Ford’s Theatre playbills originally belonging to John B. Wright, stage manager at Ford’s.  The volume contains 193 playbills commencing from August of 1864 until the closing of the theatre after the events of April 14th, 1865.  A look at this volume shows that “H. Polkinhorn & Son” was the regular printer of the Ford’s Theatre playbills.  The “son” in “Polkinhorn & Son” was Henry’s son Samuel Polkinhorn.  After Henry retired, Samuel would partner up with his cousin, Richard Oliver Polkinhorn, who worked in the Polkinhorn building and was a talented printer in his own right.   “S & R. O. Polkinhorn, Printers” would last about a year before Samuel decided to bow out leaving his cousin as the sole owner of “R. O. Polkinhorn, Printer”.  Richard would create “R. O. Polkinhorn & Son” with his son Joseph and the Polkinhorn printing legacy would go on.

For a detailed look at the assassination playbills read the follow up post here.  What is important to know is that the only legitimate “Our American Cousin” playbills were printed by “H. Polkinhorn & Son”.  Any playbills bearing a different printer other than Polkinhorn are reprints or souvenirs.  Also, while Polkinhorn did print two different versions of the playbill, neither of them mention anything about President Lincoln.  Another printer named Brown would later print his own, slightly similar looking playbills announcing that “this evening the performance will be honored by the attendance of President Lincoln” and many people are fooled today into thinking they are legitimate, when they are not.

After retiring from the printing game, Henry Polkinhorn’s success allowed him to purchase a couple buildings and houses that he rented out.  In 1881, his own printing building (then being run by his nephew R. O. Polkinhorn) caught fire and the was severely damaged.  The entire fifth floor burned down, and was never replaced.  The rest of the building was repaired for a cost of around $20,000.

Henry Polkinhorn died on May 29th, 1890 at the age of 76.  He was interred at Oak Hill cemetery in lot #821.  Today, he rests there with his two wives and most of his children.

The Polkinhorn building, not far from Ford’s, survived until the late 1980’s when most of the block was torn down for redevelopment.

Polkinhorn Building in March of 1987 before being demolished.

At the end of it all, Henry Polkinhorn and his family represent the American dream in the best way.  His father imigrated from England, found success as a saddler, and saw his own son become one of the most respected printers in Washington, DC.

In his long and fruitful career, Henry Polkinhorn made a name for himself and today, at the bottom of one of the most sought after relics of the tragedy at Ford’s Theatre, that name get the final billing.

I would like to thank Dale Stinchcomb at the Harvard Theatre Collection for the image of Mr. Polkinhorn, Kia Fennell for her assistance in figuring out his genealogy, and Rich Smyth for the picture of his grave.
Polkinhorn Building – Historic American Buildings Survey
The End of the National Intelligencer Article 1868-11-25
All newspaper clippings displayed above are from

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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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