One Woman’s Place in History (Her Story)
by C.K. Thomas
In 1865, tickets in orchestra seating to see the play Our American Cousin, starring Laura Keene, cost $1, and box seats went for $6 to $10. Other seats ranged from 25 to 75 cents, according to a preserved play poster. Good Friday, April 14, 1865, marks the assassination of Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C.
That night, Laura Keene stepped to the front of the stage and tried to calm the audience with these words, “For God’s sakes, have presence of mind and keep your places, and all will be well.” Her words went largely unheeded as pandemonium reigned throughout the theater following the report of the derringer wielded by John Wilkes Booth. Finally, soldiers cleared and secured the theater without allowing the players to gather their possessions.
Laura Keene and two of her supporting actors left the theater to catch a train to Cincinnati for their next engagement. Some newspapers reported that the three players were arrested when changing trains in Harrisburg, supposedly for leaving the scene that night. After all, Keene would have been a primary witness to the assassination, and she also knew fellow actors, John Booth and his brother Edwin. However, no official reports of her arrest or testimony have ever been discovered.
The New York Times reported the next day that Keene had made her way from the stage to the President’s box seat and cradled the president’s head in her lap while waiting for him to be moved from the theater. Reportedly, the President’s blood from the head wound soaked her dress, and spatters were seen on her sleeve and face, as well. Whether these accounts of Keene’s presence in the box were true or false, the legend persists, and several torn pieces of the dress purportedly exist among collectors. The blood-spattered sleeve resides at the Smithsonian.
Thirty-two years later, John Creahan wrote a biography titled The Life of Laura Keene: Actress, Artist, Manager and Scholar. The entire text can be found on the Internet (click the link at the book’s title) and has largely been the source of the information related here.
During her career, Keene managed theaters and theater companies in New York, Baltimore, California, and Philadelphia. She often produced and starred in productions, as well. Originally from England, she began her career stateside in 1852 in New York City and went on to become the first woman to manage a theater. Creahan states, “No actor, actress, or manager of her time did more for dramatic art in America than Laura Keene.”
C.K. Thomas lives in Phoenix, Arizona. Before retiring, she worked for Phoenix Newspapers while
raising three children and later as communications editor for a large United Methodist Church. The Storm Women is her fourth novel and the third in the Arrowstar series about adventurous women of the desert Southwest. Follow her blog: We-Tired and Writing Blog.