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  • Gavin Whitehead

Laura Keene and the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (S2BE1)

Updated: Sep 13


In 1858, actor-manager Laura Keene bought exclusive rights to Tom Taylor's comedy, Our America Cousin, which became the smash hit of the decade. On April 14, 1865, Keene was performing the play at Ford's Theatre when John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln. As the assassin fled and the playhouse descended into pandemonium, Keene endeavored to manage the crisis. Show notes and full transcript below.



Above: Photograph of Laura Keene (ca. 1855). Sixteenth-plate daguerreotype. Washington DC: National Portrait Gallery. (Catalogue # NPG 2013.105)

 

SHOW NOTES


1856 depiction of the interior of Laura Keene’s New Theater, a state-of-the-art, purpose-built playhouse where Keene served as actor-manager. Washington DC: Library of Congress.


In this stereoscopic photograph, taken by George Stacy circa 1858, two couples attend a performance of Our American Cousin at Keene's New Theatre. The woman on the right may be Keene herself, though it's uncertain. Washington, DC: Library of Congress (Catalogue # LOT 14166, no. 40).


Thomas Baker, Sheet music for "Our American Cousin Polka" (1859). Keene’s production of Our American Cousin was so successful that it spawned merch. Keene played a role in commissioning this sheet music, which depicts her (center bottom) and the rest of the original cast of Tom Taylor’s play. Baylor, TX: Frances S. Spencer Collection of American Popular Music, Baylor University.


This collage features medallion photographs of the key performers who took the stage the night of Lincoln's assassination as well as an authentic playbill for that performance. Held by the Harvard Theatre Collection. Cambridge, MA: Theater Collection, Harvard University (Catalogue # MS THR 888). You can see the whole collage here: https://iiif.lib.harvard.edu/manifests/view/drs:44672374$1i.


 

SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY


---Bryan, Vernanne. Laura Keene: A British Actress on the American Stage. Jefferson, North Carolina: MacFarland & Co, 1997.

---Creahan, John. The Life of Laura Keene. Philadelphia: Rodgers Pub. Company, 1897.

---Henneke, Ben Graf. Laura Keene: Actress, Innovator, Impresario. Tulsa, Oklahoma: Council Oak Books, 1990.


 

TRANSCRIPT


Laura Keene had worked in theater long enough to know that something almost invariably went wrong. No matter how much a troupe rehearses, a wig might go missing before a performance, a piece of scenery might crash to the floor right in the middle of it, or a performer might call in sick without an understudy. This third eventuality was precisely the predicament Keene was facing. It was Good Friday, 1865, and she was starring in the rollicking comedy, Our American Cousin, the final performance of a two-week engagement at Ford’s Theatre in Washington. The actor cast as a minor character, Lieutenant Vernon, had fallen ill, and it was decided that morning that callboy W.J. Ferguson would go on instead. Ferguson had never played the soldier, and he had just a few hours to learn his dialogue and blocking by heart. This stroke of misfortune fell on the highest-pressure performance of the entire D.C. series: Abraham Lincoln would be in the audience that night. Lucky for Keene, she was adept at resolving problems large and small. Aided by her co-star, Harry Hawk, she would make it seem like green-gilled Ferguson was born to play Lieutenant Vernon before showtime.


By the time Act III, scene 2 rolled around, Ferguson had hit all his marks and recited his lines admirably. From now until curtain-fall, he only had to make it through a handful of speeches and a flourish of physical comedy—Lieutenant Vernon was supposed to hitch up his breeches like a saloon-hopping sailor as he made his final exit, a parting gesture that could win Ferguson a laugh if he timed it right. Spotting him backstage, Keene took him aside next to the prompter’s desk. (Similar to a modern-day stage manager, the prompter camped out in the wings throughout the performance, ensuring that the lights went up and down at the appropriate moment and that cast members made their entrances on time, among other duties.) The desk stood unoccupied at the moment, the prompter away wrangling performers for a fast-approaching scene. With hushed voices, Keene and Ferguson ran their lines, hoping that last-minute practice would make perfect. As they did so, they heard the audience guffaw as the woodsy American, Asa, played by Hawk, called another character a “sockadologizing old man trap.” Keene and Ferguson were pressing on with their down-to-the-wire backstage rehearsal when they heard a loud pop, followed by a bemused silence. Then, the agonized cry of a man as he fell, hard, onto the stage. Keene and Ferguson stood there, dumbstruck, until a figure came into view, limping as fast as he possibly could and wielding a bowie knife. “His lips were drawn against his teeth, and he was panting,” young Ferguson remembered. Never slowing, he charged between Keene and the youth, pushing Keene against the wall and hurting her shoulder. With tears of pain in her eyes, she watched him hurry off. Keene had no inkling of what had just happened, but she knew who had flung her out of his way: fellow performer John Wilkes Booth.


Even before that fateful day in April, 1865, Keene had secured her place in the annals of U.S. theater history. She skyrocketed to international acclaim after starring in the world premiere of Our American Cousin. Yet Keene did not just play the female lead in the show—she ran it. A few years before the comedy’s debut, she had become an actor-manager, a powerful position predominately held by men at the time. Today, we’ll hear the story of how Keene went from comic actor to actor-manager, turned the unpromising Our American Cousin into a moneymaker, and movingly endeavored to manage a crisis that nobody could manage as the president’s assassin fled. This is The Art of Crime, and I’m your host, Gavin Whitehead. Welcome to bonus episode 1 of Assassins . . .


Laura Keene and the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln


Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman


Laura Keene was not always “Laura Keene.” Born Mary Frances Moss, she drew her first breath on July 20, 1826. She joined a family of five living in London, with two older brothers and an older sister. Her father made his living as a builder, while her mother oversaw the education of the children.


In girlhood, Mary Frances cultivated a love of the visual and dramatic arts. She haunted the studio of her favorite uncle, a painter, watching him cover his canvases in oil for hours at a time. At home, the family library housed untold treasures, including the plays of Shakespeare. On many an idle day, Mary Frances read aloud from comedies that would one day cement her fame, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing. She performed for a tough yet loving critic, her mother, who corrected her daughter’s errant pronunciation and elucidated archaic turns of phrase. As an adolescent, Mary Frances frequented art galleries and lost herself amid the vast meadows, seascapes, and skies of landscape painter J.M.W. Turner.


The carefree days of childhood and early adolescence would not last forever. In 1841, Mary Francis’s father passed away, stretching the Mosses’ finances thin. To support herself as well as her mother, a fifteen-year-old Mary Frances took a humdrum job as a pub waitress. It was while shlepping glasses to and from the kitchen that she met and fell in love with Henry Taylor. On April 18, 1844, she took his hand in marriage at the church of St.Martin-in-the-Fields. Over the next few years, Mary Frances gave birth to two daughters, Emma and Eliza. Then, the Fates turned her life upside-down yet again. The marriage fractured. Details are scant, partly because Mary Frances remained reticent on this episode for the rest of her life, but her husband appears to have committed a felony. As punishment, the state transported him to Australia, Britain’s overseas penal colony.


This ill luck led to Mary Frances’s big break. Destitute without her spouse, she moved in with her aunt, Elizabeth, a retired actress. Elizabeth soon realized that her niece had inherited her theatrical charms. Mary Francis was a natural. You could cast her as Puck in Midsummer tomorrow, and London would be tripping all over itself for tickets. Much like today, moreover, a family connection could shorten the path to superstardom. After Aunt Elizabeth pulled some strings, Mary Francis made her London debut at the Lyceum Theatre, adopting the stage name Laura Keane, and emerged as the West End’s brightest new starlet. While visiting the British capital, American impresario James William Wallack watched Keane perform and saw dollar signs. Soon thereafter, he cajoled her into joining his New York company, and Keane packed up and sailed for the U.S.


From Plain, Old Actor to Actor-Manager


Keene commenced her North American career as the irresistible ingenue of Wallack’s Theatre in New York, one of the highest-profile playhouses in the country. In a few short years, she mastered two dozen leading roles and won plaudits from the press as well as the public. Her beauty played no small part in her warm reception. Keene had auburn hair and chestnut eyes, a pearly complexion, and a dignified carriage. Yet it was her subtlety as a performer that truly set her apart. She was blessed with what one critic called the “the water-color touch,” a more suggestive though no less beguiling approach to character and action. Tragedy was never Keene’s forte, but she could serve up comedy and spectacular melodrama like few others could. She remained grounded in these genres throughout the rest of her career.


Despite her blink-of-an-eye rise to the top, Keene felt constricted as an actor. She envisioned herself in a more powerful—and demanding—role within the theatrical universe, that of actor-manager. Men and women in this position called more shots than anyone else within a given company and thus did the work of about a dozen people. They selected the plays their troupes performed, starred in those dramas, and in many cases staged them much as a modern-day director would. In addition, they oversaw scenic, lighting, and costume design. Oftentimes, one theater served as their homebase, and they supervised the decoration and upkeep of the venue. The most adept actor-managers also kept a watchful eye on finances, collaborating with a business manager to monitor ticket sales, minimize debt, and coordinate travel plans when it came time for the head honcho to leave headquarters and perform abroad, as was customary in nineteenth-century American playmaking. Some actor-managers further attended to publicity, drawing up advertisements to run in newspapers. In short, the most accomplished actor-managers could lay claim to an uncommon—and even improbable—knack for both creative and corporate thinking. It would be an overstatement to say the prosperity of a playhouse rested entirely on the shoulders of the resident actor-manager—making theater is collaborative in nature and relies on indispensable input from many hands and minds. However, the actor-manager carried more weight than anyone else, and if she buckled, the entire enterprise collapsed with her.


There was glory to be won and money to be made. (In fact, as an actor-manager, Keene stood to receive a significant pay-bump. She desperately wanted one so that she could afford to move her mother and two daughters to New York from London.) Because stakes were so high, competition among managers could be ferocious, and Keene would face additional adversity as a woman entering a male-dominated arena. She is often cited as the first female theater manager in the U.S. In fact, at least fourteen are known to have blazed that trail before her, some of them as early as the 1700s. While Keene was not the first of her gender to become a theatrical boss-lady, what some period commentators called a “manageress,” she would become the first to rival her most famous male counterparts.


In 1855, she learned how cutthroat the industry could be. By this time, she had bid farewell to Wallack’s and crisscrossed the nation, working for brief periods as an actor-manager, from Baltimore to San Francisco. Missing life in the big city, she returned to New York, where she leased the Metropolitan Theatre on Broadway and Bond Street, rechristening the venue Laura Keene’s Varieties. It would open for business on Christmas Eve, one of the biggest days on the theatrical calendar. In preparation for her New York managerial debut, Keene aimed no lower than absolute perfection. She programmed family-friendly plays that would delight patrons of all ages while also showcasing the Varieties’ eye-popping production values. The double bill paired Two Can Play at That Game, a comedy, with Prince Charming, a fairytale extravaganza. Keene recruited a small army of actors, luring some away from competitors, and rehearsed each play with drill-sergeant precision. She superintended every phase of the monthslong design process, which yielded, among other wonders, a set of breathtaking scenic backdrops, hand-painted by some of the industry’s finest artists. Keene renovated the theater and placed advertisements about the premiere, setting the media abuzz. On December 23, she left the Varieties with every costume folded, every light hung, and every seat dusted. As per usual, she unlocked the theater early the next morning—she was often the first to arrive—and headed backstage to quintuple-check the scene. What awaited was a waking nightmare. In the middle of the night, an intruder had stolen into the Varieties, taken out a knife, and slashed the Prince Charming scenery to pieces. In a matter of minutes, the vandal had destroyed everything that Keene had funneled her soul into for months on end. According to an eyewitness, she fell to the floor, weeping.


Humiliated and heartbroken, Keene arranged a notice in the newspaper announcing the postponement of the Varieties’ debut. It hurt too much to tell the truth, so she lied that she had taken ill. Within hours, however, Keene changed tack. Never much suited to the part of powerless victim, she regrouped and went after the saboteur. Assisted by her financial manager, she paid for another notice retracting her original statement, revealing the midnight vandalism, and offering a $500 reward for the capture and prosecution of the culprit. This revelation would not bring about the perpetrator’s arrest, though many strongly suspected that a competitor presenting King Charming across town had orchestrated the sabotage. Nevertheless, the news item redounded to Keene’s advantage. The crime unleashed a tide of outrage among the public—the Grinch himself would have sneered at such cruelty on Christmas Eve—and Keene rebounded. The fledgling actor-manager had won over New York before she had even taken wing. Artists painted new scenery at top speed, and the playhouse opened four days behind schedule, on December 28, to largely favorable reviews. Though faltering at first, Keene had capably handled the calamity.


After enjoying moderate success at the Varieties, Keene migrated to a freshly constructed, purpose-built establishment, Keene’s New Theatre at 624 Broadway, where she became one of the city’s highest-flying managers. This state-of-the-art playhouse featured a splendid auditorium, its walls painted vibrant white and gold. At the New Theatre, Keene solidified her reputation as a master of scenography and special effects. The mid-nineteenth century witnessed a vogue for archaeological accuracy in scenic design. Following this trend, Keene consulted a Harvard antiquarian for her production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a comedy set in classical Athens. The scholar advised her team on ancient Greek architecture to ensure the historical fidelity of the scenery. In her well-received production of The Sea of Ice, a French melodrama, Keene recreated an arctic shipwreck onstage, to an astonished audience.


At the New Theatre, Keene came up against the sort of eleventh-hour snafus that plague even the tightest-run theatrical operations, putting her problem-solving skills to the test. Her quick thinking served her well during a production of Shakespeare’s comedy, Much Ado About Nothing. It was opening night, and Keene should have been getting into character as the beelike Beatrice, the love-averse heroine with a stinger for a tongue. But then, with less than an hour to go before curtain, it came to her attention that a set of costumes—military uniforms to be worn by a group of supernumeraries—remained unfinished. Keeping a cool head, Keene marshaled the women who were not in the cast to repair this unlooked-for wardrobe malfunction. In the words of Kate Reginolds, an actress who worked under Keene’s direction, her employer “sent to the paint room for a pot and a brush and finished the borders of their jackets and trunks in black paint.” The show went on as planned thanks to Keene’s sartorial quick fix.


Our American Cousin


In 1859, Keene was just trying to program a season when she made a decision that would alter the course of her professional life. She needed a play that could fill a few weeks before her rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Any passable comedy would do. Weighing her options, she hit upon a script by English playwright Tom Taylor, as yet untitled. As she leafed through the pages, Keene pursed her lips at this charmless concoction of the random and the bland. Yet where Keene saw what might be called a blandom bomb, her financial manager and second husband, John Lutz, discerned box office dynamite. Trusting his judgment despite her own doubts, Keene ponied up $1,000 for exclusive rights to perform Taylor’s script in the United States. It was up to Keene and her castmates to convert this laugh vacuum into a side-splitter. To this end, they seasoned Taylor’s insipid script with slapstick and zingers of their own invention. Then there was the problem of the missing title. Unimpressed by Taylor’s suggestion, Our Cousin From the Backwoods, the team instead went with Our American Cousin.


Our American Cousin opened on October 8, 1859, and became the smash hit of the decade. The success owed almost entirely to the acting. Leading man Harry Hawk went whole-hog as Asa Trenchard, the loogy-hocking, axe-brandishing backwoodsman of the comedy’s title. Edward Askew Sothern garnered international fame as Lord Dundreary, the blockheaded aristocrat. Thanks to Sothern’s inane prancing about and uncontrollable sneezing fits, his peripheral character became central to the action. Meanwhile, Keene was saddled with the thankless role of Florence Trenchard, the good-natured heroine who sees her indebted father out of dire financial straits. Still, Keene was crying all the way to the bank. At the New Theatre, Our American Cousin played to packed houses for 140 nights during its first run. The key performers traveled the U.S. and even crossed the Atlantic to reprise their roles. The comedy further spawned a new subgenre about kooky relatives from other countries, including Our English Cousin, Our Irish Cousin, and (who could forget?) Our Female American Cousin.


The craze for Our American Cousin caused legal woes for Keene. Theater managers across the States would have given a kidney to stage Taylor’s comedy, yet she had purchased exclusive rights to the script. While considerable, this obstacle proved less than insurmountable. Pirates flocked to Keene’s New Theatre disguised as paying customers. Commissioned by the actor-manager’s competitors, professional stenographers watched the comedy and scribbled down the dialogue as actors delivered it. Keene litigated like mad, challenging foes who made use of this and other underhand tactics, to little avail. They plundered her handiwork faster than she could possibly file lawsuits. Before long, companies across the country were bringing out bootlegs of Our American Cousin and reaping riches. In the words of Keene’s biographer, Ben Graf Henneke, “Virtually every actor in America had played in some version of the show; virtually every stagehand had worked it. The property man could recite, ‘In the third act of the “American Cousin” there are seven scenes, the way Miss Keene plays it.’” We’ll hear about the performance on Good Friday of 1865 after a quick break.


The Good Friday Crisis


By 1865, Our American Cousin was as popular as ever. On April 14, Keene prepared to perform the comedy for President Lincoln. She would give a benefit performance that night, meaning the proceeds would go to her. Indeed, the Lincolns apparently decided to attend Our American Cousin partly to show their support for Keene.


The actor-manager arrived at Ford’s at 6 o’clock, as per usual, casting a glance in her dressing-room. Everything was in its proper place—stagehands had filled her ewer with water and left a towel so that she could freshen up. Her costumes hung neatly on a rack. Included was a light gray silk noiré, decorated with clusters of roses and detachable cuffs. Keene would slip into this resplendent gown between Acts II and III.


Two hours later, it was go-time. The play began without the Lincolns. The management held curtain for as long as they could but eventually got on with it for fear of overstraining the audience’s patience. The Lincolns and their friends, Clara Harris and Major Henry Rathbone, arrived at 8:25, at which point Keene just so happened to be onstage. Her character, Florence, was bantering with Lord Dundreary. Their give-and-take played on the multiple meanings of the word, “draft.” The aristocrat sputters, “You see, I gave her a draught [that is, medicine] that cured the effect of the draught [cold air], and that draught [that medicine] was a draft [a check] that didn’t pay the doctor’s bill.” Florence responds, “Good gracious! What a number of draughts You have almost a game of draughts [that is, “checkers” in British English].” Dundreary cackles like a witch on shrooms, to which Florence replies, “What is the matter?” “That wath a joke. That wath,” the nobleman retorts. It was at this moment that spectators seated in the second-story dress circle saw the president and began to applaud. Noting the honored latecomer, Keene cued her castmates to pause the performance, turned to the audience, and beckoned them all to clap their hands as Lincoln made his way toward the State Box. As the ovation died down, Keene resumed the scene and adlibbed a quip about current events that riffed on Dundreary’s ravings about “drafts.” The day before, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had stopped the enlisted men’s draft in response to the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. “The draft has been suspended,” Keene declared. “I don’t see the joke,” was Dundreary’s reply. “Well,” Keene answered, with impeccable comic timing, “Anyone can see that!” She pointed toward Lincoln, the man largely responsible for ending the war and by extension the draft. The audience roared—she had re-erected the fourth wall only to demolish it with the wave of her hand. Asif on cue, the orchestra conductor struck up “Hail to the Chief,” eliciting another burst of applause.


Everybody enjoyed themselves until almost exactly two hours later, when Booth fired his derringer and ran for his life. Confusion reigned in the minute or two after the report of the gunshot. Like virtually everybody else at Ford’s, Keene was clueless as to why somebody—why John Wilkes Booth—had just made a beeline out of the theater. For whatever reason, a woman in the State Box—Clara Harris—was calling out for water. Then, a well-built soldier named Major Joseph B. Stewart rose from his front-row seat and leapt onto the stage. “Stop that man!” the serviceman bellowed. The audience sat, stupefied, some of them uncertain whether what was unfolding was part of the performance. Still in the wings and smarting from the pain of being pushed against the wall, Keene knew better yet still little more than most of the crowd. Major Stewart broke into sprint, running past Keene toward the back alley where the assassin had tethered his horse. A moment or two later, Keene emerged from the wings and made her way to the lip of the stage. Audience members were buzzing with bewilderment, and the actor-manager later likened the atmosphere to that of an agitated beehive. And there was that woman again, calling out for water. Keene followed the sound of her voice upward and recoiled at what she saw: a man soaked in blood. She could not have known it, but this was Major Rathbone, knifed by Booth as he made his getaway. A shriek lacerated the air, and a number of audience members sprang to their feet. The scream had come from Mary Todd Lincoln. Keene was just beginning to comprehend when a shout from the box confirmed her worst fears: “He has shot the president!”


In a heartbeat, the theater was teetering on the verge of pandemonium. Women sobbed. Men shouted. Spectators rose and milled about, dazed. Some customers in the upper-level dress circle tried to exit while others on the ground floor wanted to investigate the shooting. The stairwell became clogged as patrons pushed their way up and down. Still others crawled onto the boards to get a better view of the theater. Cast and crew members abandoned their stations backstage and congregated in the footlights.


If at all possible, order needed to be preserved. Centering herself, Keene strode to the middle of the stage, planted her feet, and lifted her arms. “For God’s sake,” she called in a loud, clear voice, “Have presence of mind and keep your places, and all will be well.” Shortly after, she instructed a stagehand to have the gasman bring up the lights, which typically indicated the end of a performance. The auditorium filled with gaslight. Looking out into the crowd, Keene saw that consternation was breeding anger. Men swore at each other and shoved others out of their way. Nobody was heeding Keene’s plea for equanimity.


Previously wobbling on the precipice, Ford’s plunged headlong into chaos. Men and women rushed out of the theater only to spread the horrible news in the streets, prompting a deluge of rubberneckers to stream toward Ford’s and flood the auditorium. The president required medical attention, but it had become next to impossible to reach the State Box via the stairs due to the overcrowding. For this reason, a group of men gathered beneath it onstage, lifting a physician up and over the balustrade. Keene apparently assisted their efforts. Soon, paranoia coursed through the mob. “An actor named Booth did it!” they shouted. “The management must have been in on the plot!” “Burn the damn theatere!” “Yes, burn it!” “Burn it now!” Actors and crew members took flight, afraid for their lives, as the rabble grew violent.


Keene was not among them. Her precise movements are difficult to reconstruct, but eventually she fetched a pitcher of water and made it from the stage to the scene of the crime, perhaps by way of a passage known only to members of the company. Inside, she discovered Dr. Charles Leale, an assistant surgeon of the United States Volunteers who had attended the performance. The smell of gunpowder hung in the air. The president lay on his back on the floor, his walnut rocking chair pushed to one side, his shirt and overcoat unbuttoned, and his chest exposed. Dr. Leale had undone these garments while searching for the wound, initially unaware that Booth had shot his victim in the head. (Leale was the first medical professional to arrive in the box, though two others joined later.) At a glance, Lincoln appeared to be asleep. But a pool of crimson seeping from his head belied this impression. Moaning with a sorrow that transcends spoken language, the first lady sat on a sofa against a wall, unable fully to understand the proceedings. Clara Harris was in tears, too. Shortly after Keene’s arrival, Dr. Leale made his prognosis: “His wound is mortal; it is impossible for him to recover.”


There was nothing to be done, then. A stifling air of helplessness descended. Part of Keene knew that despite her savvy, despite her experience, and despite her resolve, she lacked the power to correct this catastrophe. Yet even in this hour of unalterable hopelessness, Keene could not bring herself to do nothing at all. She would do what she could. And so she asked Leale if she might hold the president. He granted her permission. The actor-manager knelt beside Lincoln and gently cradled his head in her lap. Taking up a towel, she dipped it in the water she had brought from below. Then, without a word, she rubbed the dying president’s temples—the only comfort she had to offer.


Sometime later (who can say when?), a small battalion of soldiers assembled outside the box, some of them spectators, others pedestrians who had come from the street, prepared to serve their commander in chief in whatever way possible. Wishing to grant Lincoln the dignity of dying in a bed rather than on the floor of a playhouse, the physicians gathered a party of fit men to move the president’s body. The servicemen cleared a path out of Ford’s, after which the carriers conveyed the head of state outside and across the street to the Petersen boarding house. Seven or eight hours later, Abraham Lincoln slipped into oblivion.


Throughout this period, Keene drops out of—and suddenly reenters—accounts of the ordeal. It’s unclear how long she remained in the State Box, but eyewitness testimony places her in Ford’s after she left the crime scene. Washington attorney Seaton Monroe spotted the actor-manager coming down the stairs, bearing telltale traces of the care she had ministered up above. Horrified, he begged her to tell him if Lincoln were still alive. “‘God only knows!’ she gasped, stopping for a moment’s rest. “The memory of that apparition will never leave me. Attired as I had so often seen her in the costume of her part in ‘Our American Cousin,’ her hair and dress were in disorder, and not only was the gown soaked in Lincoln’s blood, but her hands and even her cheeks where her fingers had strayed were bedaubed with the sorry stains!” In Laura Keene: A British Actress on the American Stage, Vernanne Bryan maintains that Keene escorted Mary Todd out of the box and to the Petersen House, providing emotional support her there until Lincoln’s death. I haven’t come across this claim in any other source, and I consulted quite a few, so it may be apocryphal.


What seems certain is that Keene at some point returned to her dressing room. Inside, she washed the blood from her hands, her cheeks, and her hair. There was no hope for the dress—those rusty spots would never come out. Many years later, the National Museum of American History acquired a stained cuff from the garment. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois also holds a scrap of Keene’s costume.


Nobody knows how Keene made it home. The next clear picture of her comes from her daughter, Emma, who met her mother the following morning. Emma was staying with her sister, Eliza, at a convent school in Georgetown while Keene fulfilled her contractual obligations at Ford’s. Distraught by how she found her mother, Emma described Keene as a shadow of her former self: “As I extended my arms to embrace her, she shook all over like a leaf. I tried to give her courage by saying, ‘Where is your old-time courage?’ but the frightful calamity of the night before was too much, and it seemed as if grief was breaking her heart.”


A Flourishing, Not a Withering


According to other theater professionals, Keene suffered more than a broken heart on account of Lincoln’s assassination. Ill health plagued her until she passed away on November 4, 1873, aged forty-seven. In the years that followed, it became common for collaborators and acquaintances to claim that the shock of the Good Friday homicide had killed her by degrees. Some made it sound as if she had dropped dead the day after. It’s beyond question that Keene spent much of the intervening years in a sickbed, and Lincoln’s demise haunted her, as it would others it had touched so directly. Yet a narrative of steady decay until death distorts the truth of Keene’s twilight years. In fact, she flourished, even reaching new career highs.


Keene ventured beyond the realm of theatrical production, striking out on a new path as a public intellectual. She toured as a lecturer, discoursing on drama and related art forms, and also co-founded and co-edited a journal entitled The Fine Arts, decorated with first-rate illustrations and filled with critical essays on everything from literature to painting to theater. Keene herself contributed her own writing, showing expert insight into the craft of acting, among other facets of playmaking. One essay even praised Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes, for his turns as Brutus, Cassius, and Mark Anthony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. She writes, “He sways his audience less by the violence of his emotions than by the repression of his feelings. This moderation and natural repose harmonize with the character of Brutus. When he played that part it seemed as though nothing could be added nor taken away.” (Her estimation of Edwin’s talent had increased with time. Keene met him years before the assassination and blamed his “bad acting” for the financial disaster of an Australian tour they had undertaken together.) Unfortunately, The Fine Arts failed about a year into its existence, too expensive to survive, even though the actor-manager invested enormous sums of her own money in the project.


While branching out into the worlds of lecturing and publishing, Keene added to her accomplishments as an actor-manager as well. In the 1869-70 season, just three years before her death, Keene won perhaps the highest praise of her career. That year, she assumed management of the Chestnut Theatre in Philadelphia. Before her tenure, the Chestnut was a rundown rubbish heap. In a few short months, Keene transformed it into a jewel of the city’s theater scene. Gone were the fumes emanating from basement kitchens, as were the stiff seats that sent you straight to the chiropractor. Patrons marveled at the refurbished interior, with its cushioned chairs, crystal chandeliers, and floral arrangements. They also loved what they saw onstage. Despite its link to Lincoln’s assassination plus the splitting legal headaches it still induced, Our American Cousin remained in Keene’s repertoire, and she and her company played Taylor’s comedy during their Philadelphian stint. If you asked the average theater critic in town, the glories of Keene’s tenure at the Chestnut entitled her to a pedestal in the pantheon of great actor-managers. In the October 19, 1869, edition of the Philadelphia Press, one journalist waxed rhapsodic, “Laura Keene is part of the dramatic history of America. [… .] Who is her superior? Let her go where she will and the drama springs up like magic under her wand. [….] Her genius marks every detail of the boards, and creates a unity, a completeness about her renditions which is almost inimitable. [… .] Her earnestness and conscientious devotion to art rank her name among the permanent ones of the stage, and it is not too much to say that her record must be remembered with pride and respect while our stage has a tradition.” However poor her health had become, however much harm the Good Friday trauma had done, Keene had lost none of her artistic vitality.


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