The Actor Who Got Lincoln Shot
By Evan J. Albright
Every schoolboy knows that Abraham Lincoln was shot and killed by the actor John Wilkes Booth. But Lincoln would never have been shot in the first place if it hadn't been for a Cape Cod actor named Joseph Jefferson.
Jefferson wasn't anywhere near Ford's Theater when Booth shot the president in the back of the head, cried "Sic semper tyrannis!" and then jumped from the President's box to the stage.
Jefferson was born in Philadelphia in 1829, another in a long line of actors named "Joseph." He grew up on stages across the United States, accompanying his mother and father, who were both performers. For years the family moved every season to a new theater, until Jefferson's father was given an opportunity to go into business for himself.
The family moved to Springfield, Ill., where Jefferson's father, Joseph Jefferson Sr., joined with another man and built a theater, looking to capitalize upon the entertainment needs of the politicians who found themselves trapped in the town during the legislative session. Because actors in those days were considered the lowest class of people, somewhere between prostitutes and gamblers, the city fathers were less than thrilled with the prospect that a whole troupe would be living in Springfield full time. The City Council decided to dramatically boost the fee for a theater license with the idea of putting Jefferson and his partner out of business and from there, out of town.
A young lawyer in town approached Joseph Jefferson the senior. He had heard about the council's mistreatment and offered to fight to repeal the license. "The case was brought before the council," Joseph Jefferson the junior wrote in his autobiography. "The young lawyer began his harangue. He handled the subject with tact, skill, and humor, tracing the history of the drama from the time when Thespis acted in a cart to the stage of to-day. He illustrated his speech with a number of anecdotes, and kept the council in a roar of laughter; his good-humor prevailed, and the exorbitant tax was taken off."
The lawyer was, of course, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln never charged Jefferson's father a cent. Perhaps he should have, for a quarter century later his son would begin a chain of circumstances that would get him killed.
Joseph Jefferson followed in his father's footsteps, and became an actor. He appeared on stage in New York, but never Broadway for that was the domain of the "real" actors, meaning performers imported from England. He moved throughout the eastern and southern United States, acting and managing theaters while learning his craft.
In September 1857, Jefferson got his big break. An English actress who called herself "Laura Keene" had started her own acting company and opened her own theater on Broadway. Keene, whose specialty was light comedy, hired Jefferson to play the leading man in her productions. It turned out to be alternately the best and worst decision in her career. According to Jefferson, it was a career that consisted of terrible decisions.
"Laura Keene's judgment in selecting plays was singularly bad," Jefferson wrote. When he joined her company, the nation was in the midst of a serious depression, with banks closing and the very rich fleeing to Europe. To lift the spirits of the economically challenged public, Keene selected a comedy titled, "Splendid Misery." The play contained several bits of humor "which pointed so plainly to the prevailing panic that they were much enjoyed by the slim audiences that beheld them," Jefferson wrote, his pen dripping in sarcasm.
Jefferson knew what the public craved and he convinced Keene to produce a dramatic version of the Battle of Bunker Hill based on a short story by George Lippard entitled "Blanche of Brandywine." What the production lacked in taste or literary merit, it made up for in "battles, marches and counter-marches, murders, abductions, hairbreadth escapes, militia trainings, and extravagant Yankee comicalities boiled over," according to Jefferson. "Blanche" had all the qualities of a big hit, which it was.
It was during the production of "Blanche" that Laura Keene received a well worn manuscript that had been making the rounds of New York theaters. She rejected the play, a light comedy, probably without so much as reading beyond a few pages. The bound manuscript sat on her desk for weeks until the business manager of the theater stumbled upon it. Something in it appealed to him, but knowing that Keene was anything but keen on it, he took it Joseph Jefferson. "While it possessed but little literary merit, there was a fresh, breezy atmosphere about the characters and the story that attracted me very much," Jefferson wrote. "I saw, too, the chance of making a strong character of the leading part, and so I was quite selfish enough to recommend the play for production." The role was “Asa Trenchard”; the play was "Our American Cousin."
"Cousin" is the story of an American who supposedly inherits a fortune and travels to England to visit his relatives. One of them, a conniving widow, hatches a plan to marry her daughter to the American cousin. Sparks fly, complications ensue, and the result borders upon English farce.
Somehow Jefferson persuaded Keene to produce the play. As he predicted, it became a monster hit, earning him the best notices of his career. However it was neither he, nor Laura Keene, who captured the public's heart. That belonged to the character of Lord Dundreary, played by the English actor E.A. Sothern.
When Sothern first read the play, the role of Dundreary depressed him. "I am cast for that dreadful part," he lamented, and he began to look for a way to get out of it. Two weeks into the play's run, he began to add little mannerisms to the character that he hoped would distract the audience and therefore ruin the play and get him fired. "In despair he began to introduce extravagant business into his character, skipping about the stage, stammering and sneezing," Jefferson wrote. He aim had been to injure the character, but the result was the complete opposite: the audience loved him.
Although the play was a smash, behind the curtain all was not well. Laura Keene's Theater was engaged in a Civil War, and playing the parts of Grant and Lee were none other than Jefferson and Keene.
Jefferson admitted later that his ego had taken over. Keene began to resent him and so she set about undermining him on stage. During one performance, Keene rearranged a scene with Sothern but neglected to tell Jefferson. When his regular cue arrived, Jefferson walked onto the stage and smack in the middle of whatever business Keene and Sothern had concocted earlier that day.
Keene glared at Jefferson, stopping the play dead. "Go off the stage, sir, till you get your cue for entering," she said frostily (and loud enough for the entire theater to hear).
Jefferson stood there, dumbfounded, but after a moment he shot back, "It has been given, and I will not retire." The two actors scowled at each other until eventually the scene was resumed. When the curtain fell to end the act, Keene fired Jefferson. He refused to leave, but had to endure the rest of play saying his lines into Keene's back.
Keene did not fire Jefferson, but throughout the rest of the season the two actors were frequently at odds. Despite the animosity between them, the audience remained blissfully unaware and "Our American Cousin" played to capacity crowds every night.
Keene soon wearied of the play. Jefferson soon wearied of Keene and at the end of the season he announced he was leaving. He asked Keene if she would allow him to produce the play elsewhere. "The play is my property, and you shall not act it outside of this theater," she informed him.
Jefferson resigned "Laura Keene's Theater," leaving behind "Our American Cousin." Keene was not so lucky. Audiences clamored to see her in "Cousin." She eventually lost her theater, and the only way she could continue to support herself to the manner she had become accustomed was by performing "Cousin" across the country. In April 1865, she opened in Washington, D.C. The newspapers made much ado about the fact that President Abraham Lincoln would be attending that initial performance ...
On the night President Lincoln was murdered, Jefferson was at sea. He had spent most of the Civil War in Australia and New Zealand, but was now bound for South America. On board with him were two Americans, one from Massachusetts and another from South Carolina. The two were frequently at each other's throats, arguing over the politics of the war that had been raging several thousand miles away. Jefferson did not learn what had happened until his ship dropped anchor off the coast of Peru. By that time Lincoln had been dead more than a month.
A quarter century after Lincoln's demise, Jefferson moved to the village of Cotuit Narrows, what is now called Buzzards Bay. He built a magnificent home on a hill overlooking Buttermilk Bay that he called "Crow's Nest." He became close friends with the first Democrat since before Lincoln to hold the White House, Grover Cleveland. Upon his death in 1905, he was buried in nearby Sandwich.
Jefferson, in his autobiography, never mentions Lincoln's assassination or his connection with it. There is no record whether he ever spent a sleepless night, wondering how things might have been different if he had never persuaded Laura Keene to produce "Our American Cousin."
© 2001 Mystery Lane Press