Anna Cora Mowatt and The Rag-Picker of Paris

I want to start today’s entry with a complaint about standard volumes of nineteenth century theater history. By “standard volumes,” I mean those thick, imposing tomes usually done in earth tones from solemn university presses with lovely full-color illustrations and titles like “Theater in the Time of Dickens” that we force college freshmen to buy for the price of a new I-phone then buy back at the end of the semester for the price of a beer. Fact-checking is probably much better on prominent figures and major events, but once one strays off the beaten path from the superstars of the era such as the Macreadys and Keans, or looks into happenings other than shocking highlights with cross-cultural implications such as the Astor Place Riots or the Assassination of Lincoln, one needs to be aware that some of the primary sources for the information being relayed by these seemingly grave, gray-bearded authorities are actually no more reliable than TMZ’s account of Brittany Spears’ head-shaving meltdown in 2007 or a K-Pop fansite’s report on who Jungkook of BTS is currently dating.

Take, for example, how the burning of the Olympic in 1849 has come to be recorded in theater history. As I told you last week, if you look up the history of the Olympic today, sources that mention the fire will tell you that the conflagration was either “suspicious” or was “arson.” I do not have access to police reports from that time; however newspaper accounts do not mention arson. Stirling’s testimony that the gas-man was at fault seems to have satisfied everyone at first. There was newspaper coverage about victims of the fire for months afterwards, then speculation about whether or not the Olympic would be rebuilt and in what form, guesses about the possible identity of the new lessee, then coverage of the rebuilding and finally Walter Watts’ reopening of the new Royal Olympic Theatre. There was no newspaper coverage that indicated that the police had re-opened the case or questioned anyone involved, or that the insurance company had done so either. There were no arrests. The rebuild of the theater went forward rapidly as if the insurance company had paid up promptly. The suspicion of arson about the burning of the Olympic Theater in 1849 seems to have just been a rumor that grew in the theatrical community after Walter Watts’ arrest in 1850 due to the fact that Edward Stirling was in charge of the house when the theater burned and ended up seeming to benefit from it.

The Olympic Theater burns March 1849
The Olympic Theater burns March 1849

This rumor was repeated as fact by several chroniclers of theatrical happenings of the period. Note that I call them “chroniclers.” These folks were not historians in the modern sense. They were not invested in getting impartial, factually verifiable accounts of events down on paper. I mean, thank goodness we had them. It’s almost all the record we have of what went on in the theatre world of that period. However, you have to take some of the things people wrote with a grain of salt. Some of the accounts passing themselves off as purely factual histories are compiled by people who were, in fact, fans, publicists, best friends, lovers, ex-lovers, or sworn enemies of specific players, or were otherwise affiliated socially or dependent financially on specific playhouses. When you start digging into the web of who was what to whom, there’s a lot of catty, mean, and even some outright untrue stuff floating around in the flotsam and jetsam of the raw material that was sifted through and pieced together to make up nineteenth century theatrical “history.” Caveat emptor, Reader, dear.

Now, I’m saying all this, and you know good and well that last week I told you the story of the fire at the Olympic and pointed my finger in Edward Stirling’s direction. Despite the fact that the cops and the insurance company never suspected him, just like the rest of the London theatrical community in 1850, I have my doubts about old Neddie. I’m trying to be a good modern historian, though, and let you know that my suspicions are just that, suspicions. Victorian policeman and fraud investigators didn’t have the technological tools we have today, but they were professionals who knew their business. Perhaps they saw nothing suspicious about the fire because it really was an accident.

Anna Cora Mowatt may not have liked or trusted Edward Stirling. He was stage manager at the Olympic the first time she played there and had filled that position at many theaters during his already long career when she met him. The characters she created for her novels about the theatrical world, Mimic Life and Twin Roses were composites of real people she encountered during her time on the stage. For example, I’ve already discussed in a previous blog some of the inspirations for the character of Tina Trueheart in the novella “The Prompter’s Daughter” from Mimic Life. Another source that undoubtedly that went into the make-up of this character that I’ve discovered recently was child actress Clara Fisher. Fisher originated the role of Albert in the debut performance of the play “William Tell” opposite William Macready. Among her many other famous roles was a portrayal of “Prince Arthur” in Shakespeare’s “King John” opposite the great tragedian Edmund Kean. These performances are both described in detail in “The Prompter’s Daughter.” Although Fisher was only a few years older than Mowatt, she had made her fortune and retired for the first time in 1844. This was just when Mowatt’s career was taking off. Bad investments forced Fisher, who had emigrated to the U.S. in 1827, to attempt a comeback tour in the 1850s. It is altogether likely she and Mowatt met at this time. The U.S. theatre community was a small, close-knit family. If they did not have a face-to-face acquaintance, Mowatt would definitively have heard countless stories of Fisher from mutual acquaintances.

Child Actress, Clara Fisher
Child Actress, Clara Fisher

Likewise, the venal theatre manager in “Prompter’s Daughter” is probably at least in part a pen portrait of Alfred Bunn, Drury Lane’s most controversial manager of this period. And by controversial, I mean that he thought very highly of himself and lots of other people hated him. Sterling worked with Bunn, and displays some of the obsequious attitude towards him when profiling Bunn in his autobiography that Mowatt bestows on her fictional, two-faced stage manager. However, I think Stirling was actually stage manager at Drury Lane under a different boss. For the purposes of fiction, though, a little time dilation and personnel shuffling wouldn’t matter much.

Controversial Manager of the Drury Lane Theater, Mr. Bunn
Controversial Manager of the Drury Lane Theater, Mr. Bunn

Another character who was based on some veteran actor Mowatt encountered was Twin Roses thoroughly dis-likable antagonist Mr. Hawkwood. Here the author compares this sour thespian to the kind-hearted but gullible father of her male romantic lead:

There was a striking dissimilarity between the two old men. The benign face, smooth, ample brow, and simple manners of the country gentleman became impressive in their calm dignity when thrown in contrast with the speculative eyes, the sneering, thin-lipped mouth of the player.
Mr. Hawkwood was a man impervious to all kind feeling, and to all sentiment; a being who distrusted the motives of the whole world – who looked for guile under the fairest forms. In one thing was he thoroughly honest – his disbelief of honesty itself, unallied with policy. 1

I have a vague memory of having read a piece of correspondence in which Mowatt expressed a certain distrust of Stirling. At the time of this writing, I have not been able to re-locate this quote, though, so for the moment, I’m going to leave these connections nebulous and unsupported. Even more ambiguous and tenuous is the last piece of writing I want to present to you. It is a short article that appeared in the Boston Evening Transcript on August 3, 1850:

A private letter dated London, July 19th, says: “You will see by the newspapers, that Walter Watts, late lessee of the Marylebone and Olympic theatres, committed suicide, July 13th, in jail of Newgate, whither he had been sent, convicted of stealing a piece of paper, a cancelled checque, valued at one penny. He was sentenced to transportation for ten years. Public opinion was much divided as to Watts’ guilt and the justice of his sentence. No proof was produced on the trial that he had embezzled money; and that charge was withdrawn from the indictment. He is supposed to have been the victim of sharpers, who malpractices he was made to shoulder, although he had been innocent of all connivance.”2

Mowatt’s friend and protector, Epes Sargent was an editor for this paper. I am going to leap boldly to the conclusion that the private letter referred to came from Mowatt or someone close to her and that this piece was filtered through Sargent. The opinions expressed were not echoed in any other newspaper accounts I could find. They were written by someone extremely sympathetic – perhaps even a little blindly sympathetic – to Watts.

Mowatt liked Watts and I think she strongly wanted to believe in his innocence. She may have disliked Stirling. Like the rest of the theatrical community, the fire at the Olympic may have raised her suspicions about this shrewd old pro. She may have actively been looking for someone – anyone — to blame for Watts’ death. This need might have been particularly acute since rumors about a locket supposedly containing her portrait were encouraging talk that she was somehow to blame for the manager’s suicide.

On the other hand, as I told you when I began my discussion of Edward Stirling, he is a figure that brings out the conspiracy theorist in me. I sometimes feel that I am not seeing the whole picture. Perhaps the Watts Scandal was more than one clerk somehow being able to embezzle an incredible amount of money from an international corporation completely unaided for well over a decade and invest it in theaters without anyone noticing. Perhaps the burning of the Olympic in ’49 wasn’t an accident. Perhaps Watts picking Stirling to manage the Marylebone was meant to be the beginning of a franchise of theaters meant to benefit…? I don’t know. Sometimes if feels as though there are figures standing in the wings of this drama — just out of sight. I do know that there were rich and powerful stakeholders in this story who the press accounts don’t usually mention – the sort of people who actually owned the buildings, like the Cavills who owned the Olympic, or members of the Lord Chamberlain’s committee whose palms might have to be greased to get a play licensed, or members of Parliament likelike Mowatt’s friend, Mr. W. J. Fox or Macready’s champion, Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who might need to be wooed to make sure favorable ordinances for conducting business were passed. There were also the men who one publication called the “greenroom loungers,” members of the highest echelons of the upper class –including members of the Royal family – who liked to linger backstage and pick up pretty girls. Where they truly as uninvolved in the scandal as the accounts that have come down to us through the accepted versions would make it seem?

The versions printed in newspapers and books of Watts’ crime that began to circulate after his death cast him as a bungling outsider to the theatrical world – an embezzling clerk who fancied himself a theatrical impresario. During Watts’ life, though, he behaved like a theatrical insider. He struck up lucrative partnerships with long-time veterans like Mary Warner and Edward Stirling who don’t seem the type to be taken in by greenhorn with nothing but a bag of cash. He successfully negotiated and followed through with bookings for headliners of the day like Robert and Mary Anne Keely, James Hudson, and even the notoriously meticulous and finicky William Macready without incident. Watts was even able to get more days work out of the notoriously capricious G.V. Brooke than any other London manager. There was evidence he had good relationships with many members of the press. He seemed be positively beloved by playwrights like Henry Spicer, John Oxenford, and G.H. Lewes, some of whom doubled as the most elite drama critics of their day and who included fond thank-you notes to Watts and his company in the forwards to the published versions of their plays. At the end of his run as manager of the Marylebone, his company presented him with a silver plate celebrating his achievements and his audience called him on stage for a standing ovation.

It is not likely that this kind of record of accomplishments could have been purely purchased. Skill had to have been at play, not just beginner’s luck.

It would be helpful to my understanding of what was at the root of the Watts Scandal if Walter Watts’ close associates in business and friends – people like Mary Warner, E. L. Davenport, Anna Cora Mowatt, Edward Stirling, G.V. Brooke, and Henry Spicer – had gone on record and left a frank report of what occurred during that last year of his life. However, all that seems to have come down in the historical record are a few anonymous letters to editors and memoirs with Watts’ name carefully expunged.

Of course, one can understand why Stirling probably left Watts’ out of his autobiography. The fire at the Olympic in ’49 has gone down in theatre history as being suspicious, but it does not specifically have Stirling’s name attached to it. If Stirling brought up Watts, he risked reminding people of his tie to the fire.

To go with an even darker interpretation, the anonymous letter in the Boston Transcript implies that whatever Walter Watts was mixed up in got him into a circumstance where he was made the fall guy for some larger scheme and perhaps put in a situation where suicide was his only choice. To end on as melodramatic a note with Stirling as I began, it’s possible he was silent because he feared for his life.

So how did Edward Stirling feel about Walter Watts? We don’t know. He wouldn’t tell us. There is this, though. One of the many plays out of his extensive file of creations Stirling chose to stage during the year that he was able to hold on to the manager’s position at the Marylebone was “The Rag-Picker of Paris.” The play is one of his many melodramas. It wasn’t a new play. He’d written it in 1847, but it seemed to be a favorite of his. There’s a portrait of him in the character of the old man, Jean. “The Rag-Picker of Paris” would have, however, been a little tone-deaf to bring out of mothballs to play at the Marylebone, since the prologue starts with one man trying to talk another out of committing suicide. Here is an excerpt:

Jean: Sorrow is not to be stifled, it must be drowned. I, like you, was born to run through a fortune, to despair and die. But I took to drinking and was saved. A state of wine is a state of bliss. Everything in it is bright and beautiful. My rags become velvet – the bones I pick up are ivory – the brass is gold – and my canvas bag an osier basket… Do as I do – drink away your money, drink upon credit, drink how you can, but drink and drive dull care to the devil!
Garousse: Everyone to his taste. That’s your mode of self-destruction, I prefer my own.3

Edward Stirling and Fanny Vining in "Rag Picker of Paris" 1847
Edward Stirling and Fanny Vining in “Rag Picker of Paris” 1847

Then again, Victorians had a much stronger stomach for this sort of thing than we do today. Because Stirling did not acknowledge anything other than an impersonal business relationship between Watts and himself, producing a play that mentioned suicide in an entirely different context might not have been regarded as being in poor taste… or as a type of farewell.

Anna Cora Mowatt and a montage of images of Edward Stirling
Anna Cora Mowatt and a montage of images of Edward Stirling

1. Ritchie, Anna Cora. Twin Roses, Ticknor and Fields: Boston, 1857. Page 40
2. Boston Evening Transcript. August 3, 1850, page 2
3. Stirling, Edward. The Rag-Picker of Paris and the Dress-Maker of St. Antoine; A Drama in Three Acts and a Prologue. Samuel French: New York 1847. page 5.

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