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Laura Keene and the Bloody Dress – In Cincinnati

Posted By on March 17, 2012

Wood's Theatre, Cincinnati

In the post yesterday, there was speculation on how Laura Keene got to Cincinnati after she was released from arrest in Harrisburg.  The story of how she acted immediately after the Lincoln assassination on 14 April 1865 has been told here in a series of posts.  The goal has been to determine whether the story of the “bloody dress” was true – whether she raced to the State Box and cradled Abraham Lincoln‘s head in her lap, thus creating the most “sacred” of the “bloody relics” of the assassination.  If the story is to be accepted (and even if it isn’t), there can be little doubt that the dress she was wearing in Act III of Our American Cousin left Washington with her – despite the difficulties she must have encountered in escaping.  The dress, bloody or not, was in one of the many trunks taken off the train by officials at the Harrisburg train station when she was arrested there, and surely the trunks were put back on the train when she journeyed to Cincinnati.  Today’s post starts with the assumption that the Act III dress arrived in Cincinnati with her and was at Wood’s Theatre with her other belongings.  It then looks at reports on what happened to the dress until the time it was supposedly partitioned and distributed.

Links to the other posts in this series can be found at the foot of this post.

The first time Laura Keene‘s Act III dress was reported seen outside of Washington, D.C., was about one week after the assassination.  The report was by a “Mrs. Eldridge” who was a member of the stock company at Wood’s Theatre in Cincinnati.  However, Mrs. Eldridge supposedly reported this more than thirty years after the fact in a letter she wrote to John Creahan, the first biographer of Keene:

I was never a member of Miss Keene’s company… consequently I knew but very little about her.  I met her first in April, 1865, the week after the assassination of the lamented Lincoln., when she came to play an engagement at Wood’s Theatre, Cincinnati, where I was a member of the stock company.  She then told me the entire story of the assassination, and how she went into the box at Ford’s Theatre, Washington, and held the head of the murdered president.  She also gave me a piece of the dress she wore at the time.  I cannot now find the scrap, as it is more than thirty years since that sad event took place. (p. 135)

Both Henneke (p. 217-218) and Bryan (p. 141) reported the tale in their Keene biographies.  Neither one mentioned Louisa Eldridge by name in the text, and Henneke referred to her only as “Mrs. Eldridge” in the end notes.  Bryan neglected to indicate that the information was from Creahan (no end note).  The original of the letter upon which Creahan based the story has not been seen.

Louisa Eldridge

Mrs. Eldridge was Louisa [Harwood] Eldridge, the wife of a Philadelphia shipping merchant, David W. Eldridge, who, when things went bad for the family finances, decided to pursue an acting career.  Her first job was working for P. T. Barnum, the entertainment huckster famous for the phrase, “there’s a sucker born every minute.”  In 1865, she was a relatively new actress on the scene.  She later played with Keene in Boston at the Globe Theatre – she couldn’t remember whether it was 1868 or 1869 (Creahan, p. 135) – but then gravitated toward roles on the New York stage, where she became typecast as an old woman.  Because of these later roles, she was known as “Aunt Louisa.”  Two of Louisa Eldridge‘s children had acting careers – daughter Lillie Eldridge, and son Preston Eldridge, the latter making a name for himself in Vaudeville.

Louisa’s father, William Harwood, was a Philadelphia politician.  In a interview given in 1897, she never once mentioned Laura Keene – but instead produced a pair of “star spangled stockings” supposedly given to her by actor Edwin Booth when she was in a show with him.  She revered Edwin Booth.  She described the job she had for P.T. Barnum, working at his museum in Philadelphia, as one in which she was called upon to play all sorts of roles – including the parts of young boys.  The dozen or so names Louisa Eldridge “dropped” during the interview included many of the stars of the day who she had played with – and she named many of the cities as well – including Cincinnati and Washington.  Of the many plays she performed and roles she had described, none concerned Laura Keene.

Harry Hawk

The next report comes from Harry Hawk.  It actually preceded the Eldridge report by about four years.  In an interview he gave in 1893 around the anniversary of the Lincoln assassination and published in the Bangor Daily Whig and Courier (ME), he stated the following:

Laura Keene was the star of the night and in some way now unknown she gained access to the President”s box after the shooting.  She held his head in her lap and the gown she wore as Florence Trenchard was ensanguined by his gore.  She played her next engagement in Cincinnati and had the bad taste to hang the gown on exhibition in the lobby of the theatre, but public opinion was so adverse to this show that she was compelled to take it away.

This is the only known report that Laura Keene attempted to display the Act III dress.  Note that Harry Hawk, who was on the only actor on the stage in view of the audience when the assassination occurred, indicated that it was now [in 1893] unknown how Laura Keene gained access to the State Box.  This comment seems almost sarcastic and the indication that the “display” of the dress was in “bad taste” is the only one of its kind found; it points directly at Keene as a perpetrator of the “bloody dress” legend, or at the very least, someone who was trying to benefit from the legend.

Harry Hawk‘s reluctance to speak out prior to the 1890s, was explained in another interview he gave about a year later in 1894 which was published in the Atlanta Constitution:

 Why Hawk Has Kept Silent.

“Why have I never told this story before?  Because I loved Edwin Booth as much as I worshipped Abraham Lincoln.  Booth was very kind to me and I knew that the sorrow of his life was his brother’s awful deed.  I knew too that if I told the story he would hear of it, or some one would show him the paper and he would be grieved….”

The story he related was the whole story of what happened the night of the assassination and had little to do with Laura Keene.  It was Hawk’s reluctance to identify Booth that led to his own arrest. Everyone loved Edwin Booth.  Few people loved Laura Keene.  Remember too that in the year after the assassination, Laura Keene took Edwin Booth to court over the rights to Our American Cousin – and Laura Keene lost that legal fight.

The final connection between Harry Hawk and Laura Keene was not in the Cincinnati engagement of 1865.  A few years later in 1873, when Laura’s career had declined to the point where the only work she could get was playing in small Pennsylvania towns practically no one heard of, Laura hired Harry Hawk to be her manager as well as act in her company.  John Lutz had died several years earlier and Laura’s daughter Emma Taylor, while trying some of the managerial chores, was not able to do all the things that a male manager could do.  So, Harry Hawk had the responsibilities dropped on him, something he was not used to doing, but he was grateful for the work.  He had trouble getting jobs elsewhere and Laura had trouble getting people to work with her.  By 1873, Laura was seen as a curiosity.  She frequently cancelled performances because of her health.  Then it happened.  On 4 July 1873 while performing in Tidioute, Pennsylvania, a small community of 4000 on a out-of-the-way railroad line, Laura Keene had a massive hemorrhage on the stage of the Opera House.  Harry Hawk was there.  The performing was over for her and Emma Taylor made the arrangements to have her moved to New Jersey where she died a few months later, 4 November 1873.  Hawk was left to fend for himself.

At Wood’s Theatre in Cincinnati in the days after the assassination, the only reports of the “bloody dress” came from the two individuals named above – Louisa Eldridge and Harry Hawk – and those reports were given many years later.  But there was evidence that the public had latched onto the “bloody dress” story.  Henneke notes that Laura Keene was upset by the public’s quest for the dress, but gives no specific examples.  His report that Mark Twain described the auction of Thomas Nast‘s collections of drawings and autographs as thus:

A letter written by Lincoln, and which was laid over a piece of white silk bearing a faded red stain, sold for $38.  The attached certificate state that the silk was from the dress of Laura Keene, worn on the night of Lincoln’s assassination, and that the stain was made by his blood.  (p. 219).

Henneke gives as the source of this item, Volume 2, page 313, of the autobiography of Mark Twain [Samuel Clemens].  The end note states it was published in 1924 – well after Laura and both her daughters had died – so she couldn’t have read about it in 1924.  Did a Thomas Nast auction take place in a year close to 1865 where a piece of Laura’s dress was sold?  At this time, no specific contemporaneous reference has been found.

When it was realized that she had the dress on which the president had bled his life away, she received offers to sell it, to exhibit it, to capitalize on each browning spot.  Her refusal made no difference to some.  They simply exhibited dresses they had and claimed they were hers.  Pieces of cloth with stains on them were sold to the public and letters attesting to their authenticity were forged in Laura’s name.  (Henneke, p. 218-219).

Bryan went one step further:

In the beginning, as with the curious actress [a reference to Louisa Eldridge], Laura determined to give the quest for “the dress”  little consideration, but as time went on and these people became more persistent, each request, each offer, was like an electric shock to her sensibilities.  Even worse were those who thought she was wearing the gown and attempted to take swatches of it right off her person.  It was bad enough to have them pawing her gowns, but it was inconceivable to Laura that anyone could really think that she would wear the dress again. (p. 142).

As with Henneke‘s description, the Bryan narrative is weak on specifics.  And Bryan provides no end note giving the source of the information – and there are no reference dates for when all of this was supposed to occur.

The “final” part of this tale tells of Laura’s finally getting rid of the dress.  Again, with no dates, and short on documentation, Henneke states:

At some unspecified time the dress was placed in a closed box and left in Chicago with its creator, Jamie Bullock.  Not until he received a letter from Laura written on 11 August 1873, did he know that he had the “Lincoln dress.”  He assured Laura, “My wife says that she will not lone your Dress because it would get Destroyed but will take good care of it until you send.”

The dress was willed to Emma by Laura (Henneke, p. 219) who died 4 November 1873, not much after her near fatal collapse at Tidioute, Pennsylvania, 4 July 1873 – and not much after the supposed letter of 11 August 1873 she wrote to Jaime BullockEmma Taylor claimed to  take possession of the dress from Jaime Bullock.  Emma’s sister – Laura’s other daughter – Clara Taylor died in 1876.  About the time that Clara died, Emma Taylor married Albert Leighton Rawson, who has been described as a”confidence man“.  Emma [Taylor] Rawson and Albert had three children – Clara Rawson, who was born around 1877 and twin boys, Albert William Rawson and Alpheus Edward Rawson, born around 1878.  Then Emma [Taylor] Rawson died on 23 August 1882 – leaving the three young children with their “confidence man” father.

Henneke concludes the saga of the “bloody dress” with the statement:

Emma’s daughter, Clara Rawson, is supposed to have distributed panels of the dress to friends sometime around 1890. (p. 219).

It’s hard to believe that the so-called “bloody dress” ended up in the hands of a teenager.  But, that’s what happened according to Henneke.  As a source, he gives undated article from the Baltimore Sun which he says is probably 18 August 1896 (Henneke, p. 293).

Bryan gives a similar version of the disposition of the dress via Jaime Bullock and Chicago.  Not surprisingly, her source for the information is Henneke – except in the end note (Bryan, p. 210), which she simply restates the information from the undated Bullock letter and gives no source.

Back to Cincinnati in that week after the assassination….  There are sketchy reports of her performances in Cincinnati but Laura was too exhausted and too ill to perform through her contracts.  So, she cut out in May 1865 and went again for a period of rest.  Her biographers don’t state whether this occurred while in Cincinnati or at some other city where she was performing at the time.  The retreat and transport was arranged by John Lutz (Henneke, p. 219, Bryan, p. 142).  We don’t know if the Act III dress was shipped off to Chicago before or after she shortened the tour, so she could have taken it with her when she went into retreat in Acushnet, Massachusetts.

The Act III dress is not mentioned again, but Laura Keene as a public curiosity is mentioned in the press and by her biographers (Henneke, p. 218, Bryan, p. 142).  The end of the year 1865 was spent in legal battle with Edwin Booth and his brother-in-law John Sleeper Clarke over the rights to Our American CousinThen, despite several attempts at revival, including the starting of a magazine, Fine Arts, and a stint in managing the Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, the latter two ventures with the almost complete effort of her daughter Emma Taylor, Laura’s career continued to decline as did her health.

And thus ends the story of the “chain of custody” of the “bloody dress.”  All those who have fragments, pieces, swatches and cuffs can trace their claims back to a teen age girl around 1890 whose father was a “confidence man” who supposedly gave away pieces of the dress to her friends.  The greater part of the dress has never been located.  And all those who still hang on the story that Laura Keene entered the State Box have to now factor in Laura’s poor health, the architecture of the theatre, conflicting claims by supposed eyewitnesses made many years after the fact, the almost total lack of contemporaneous evidence, a woman who worked for P. T. Barnum, Harry Hawk‘s cynicism about her route to the State Box, and finally Laura’s undisclosed illness which strangely and metaphorically leaves the vision of her last performance and her near death hemorrhage all over her costume – right there on the stage in a small Pennsylvania town.

The “bloody dress” story, if concocted by John Lutz, didn’t save Laura Keene.  It contributed to her destruction.  The theater profession went on despite Laura Keene and despite the tragedy of 14 April 1865.  It was left to others to save theater – including Edwin Booth, Laura’s one-time lover and the assassin’s brother, who had a remarkable resurgence and end-of-career respect despite what his brother had done.  But, that’s another Pennsylvania story.

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The extensive 2 January 1897 interview with Louisa Eldridge appeared in the New York Dramatic Mirror and is available through FultonHistory.com.  The portrait of Louisa Eldridge is cropped from that feature news story.

The Harry Hawk articles are available through on-line services including Ancestry.com and the Free Library of Philadelphia.  (see Bangor Daily Whig and Courier (ME), 18 April 1893, and Atlanta Constitution (GA), 15 April 1894).

Genealogical information on Laura Keene and her daughters is available at Ancestry.com.

The biographies of Laura Keene by Creahan, Henneke and Bryan have been previously noted on this blog.

For more information on “confidence man” Albert L. Rawson, see Frauds Exposed or How the People are Deceived and Robbed and Youth Corrupted, by Anthony Comstock, in which Albert L. Rawson is exposed as a convicted bigamist and a thief.  For Albert L. Rawson, also see How the Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream, by Susan Nance, in which she exposes the “elaborate mythos” Rawson concocted around the “Oriental motif”, as well as his open disdain of orthodox Christianity while seeming to embrace Islamic ideas and culture.

As previously noted on this blog, the “bloody cuff” which is part of the collection at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, was supposedly separated from the dress on the morning after the assassination and given to John Lutz. But as shown here, the cuff would have traveled to Harrisburg and then Cincinnati with Keene and her party (including Lutz).  According to Henneke, Laura and her daughters denied that there was any partitioning of the dress prior to its inheritance by daughter Emma Taylor (p. 219).

Future posts related to stage characters from the Ford’s Theatre production of Our American Cousin will focus on William J. Ferguson, Harry Hawk, John Dyott, Jeannie Gourlay, Thomas Gourlay and others with Pennsylvania connections.  In addition, the roles of the influential Washington individuals Adam Badeau and Francis Lutz will be explored.  Much of what has heretofore been written has failed to take in account the context in which they operated and reported on what transpired.  Comments and perspectives from readers are always welcome!

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Blog Posts to Date on the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln:

(Click on post title to read article)

Bill O’Reilly Book on Lincoln Assassination

The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

Laura Keene Arrested at Harrisburg

Laura Keene and the Bloody Dress

The Architecture of Ford’s Theatre and Laura Keene

Laura Keene – Bibliography

The Journey of the Bloody Dress of Laura Keene

The Bloody Dress of Laura Keene Arrives in Baltimore

Baltimore to Harrisburg – The Bloody Dress of Laura Keene

Laura Keene and the Bloody Dress – To Cincinnati

Laura Keene and the Bloody Dress – In Cincinnati

 

 

 

 

 


Comments

One Response to “Laura Keene and the Bloody Dress – In Cincinnati”

  1. Andrea says:

    I’m a bit late to the party but I just wanted to thank you for posting this. My interest in the Lincoln assassination has begun to increase lately and it’s amazing how many “facts” have been deconstructed. I’ve found that the “supporting” players in the assassination to be as fascinating as the main players. After reading about Laura Keene cradling the dying president’s head, I couldn’t help but wonder why an actress was allowed into the box let alone allowed to cradle his head. This post confirmed my suspicions that the story sounded far too fantastical to be true. I wish more writers would take the time to find out if these historical tales are true.

    Than you again. Your hard work is still appreciated.

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