The Fall of Walter Watts

Doubtlessly, I have given you the impression that the Watts Scandal blew up and broke quickly in the spring of 1850. From the perspective of 170 years later, it seems little more than a blip in the long history of theatre. In 1846, Watts was an unknown, going into a partnership with tragedienne Mary Warner and her husband Robert to renovate the Marylebone. 1848, he had a glittering season as sole manager of that theater. 1849 saw an ambitious renovation of the Olympic theatre, but by the fall of 1850, he was gone.

Surviving contemporary accounts of the scandal from those who might have met Watts tend to be terse. For example, we have this brief mention from the diaries of William Charles Macready;

July 16th. — Read of the suicide of Watts, the forger, defaulter, and manager of Marylebone and Olympic theatres — a most extra ordinary and fearful career! “Draw the curtain close!”1

Much of the information we have on the unfolding of the Watts Scandal comes from The Era newspaper. This publication ran no less than twelve articles on the story over a five month period. Some of these took the form of transcripts of each of Watts’ court appearances printed side-by-side with the paper’s drama reviews. The Watts Scandal wasn’t just one big judicial event where the sentence was passed and then public interest moved on. Information on Watts’ double life came out in bursts over the next five months in a slow-motion, small scale, Victorian version of the O.J. trial.

Colorized Playbill header for the Marylebone Theatre 1849
Colorized Playbill header for the Marylebone Theater 1849

Some of the material on Watts may have been authored by E. L. Blanchard, the Era’s drama critic. This may explain the particularly wounded and personal tone of some of the coverage, as when after a jury in May found Watts guilty only of stealing the paper a £1400 check was written on, the Era railed;

Here we have a reckless speculator, and a wanton spendthrift, lavishing upon himself, as well as upon individuals whom we will not mention, money which he had stolen; abusing the confidence of those who trusted him, scandalizing society, and disgracing a profession which he pretended to support.

“He was liberal!” we are told. We ask to whom? And with whose money? We said that he escaped. We meant the he will not receive the punishment the law inflicts upon great offenders. What will he be when he comes from prison? …The …conscientious toiler… with “clean hands” .. and an unsullied character will be envied by WALTER WATTS, supposing him to have the means of providing for his wants, or friends ready to help him with them. The sooner he leaves this country the better; but there will accompany him that which all the broad Atlantic cannot wash away from his memory. We believe in punishments greater than those the law can inflict, and we are not sorry that WALTER WATTS has been found GUILTY of stealing nothing that can be described as more than “a piece of paper value one penny.”2

Over the course of that long spring, The Era soured on Watts, the Marylebone, and Anna Cora Mowatt. When it was time to sum up theatrical events of that year for the paper’s almanac, writers retroactively downgraded performances and productions they had previously praised. This is an understandable human reaction to feeling that one had been deceived. However, the Era’s change of heart makes evaluating Watts,’ Mowatt’s, and even Mary Warner’s artistic contributions from 1848 difficult for the historian. Many chroniclers use that paper’s post-scandal evaluations without taking their context into consideration.

The Era, of course, is not the only source available for researchers. For example, in 1882, a publication called The Musical World, that admittedly had much more distance on the events of the scandal, published a very thorough and even-handed history of the Marylebone Theater that left the positive evaluations of Watts’ and Warner’s managements and Mowatt’s performances and work as a playwright intact and confined a mention of the scandal to a footnote.3 However, it is usually The Era’s jaundiced view and a few others like it that survives in textbooks.

One of the briefest, most unhelpful, and perhaps most misleading accounts of what took place during the spring of 1850 has to come from a person who might have been able to give us a great deal of insight into Watts’ thoughts — Anna Cora Mowatt. In her autobiography, she records,

I must relate as rapidly as possible the events next in order. They are too painful to be dwelt upon. I would gladly omit them could I do so conscientiously. Against the manager of the Olympic Theatre, whose many charities, whose great liberality, and unvarying kindness had won him the respect and esteem of the whole company, were brought appalling charges. He had been, for many years, the accountant of an Assurance Association. He was accused of some species of fraud or embezzlement. I believe these were not the legal terms used it was, however, their meaning. The theatre was suddenly closed, the company scattered the manager, confident, to all appearance, of being acquitted, gave himself up for trial.
Several days previous to the occurrence of this last terrible event, I had become so seriously ill that my name was withdrawn from the bills. Miss Vining assumed the characters which I usually personated. The new shock completed what an accumulation of sorrows had begun. Immediately after the closing of the theatre, I was attacked with brain fever. The four succeeding months are a blank to me. There are no distinct records in the book of memory.4

Anna Cora Mowatt
Anna Cora Mowatt, circa 1850

To be clear, I don’t think Mrs. Mowatt is lying to us. I’m fairly certain there is a great deal she is choosing not to tell us. When Fanny Davenport, (E. L. Davenport’s wife, who is referred to here as Miss Vining) was interviewed about these events in 1878, she had a very different explanation of the nature and duration of Mowatt’s illness;

“Twice during her life, she was made temporarily insane; once by the loss of her brother who, in her sight, was drowned at sea, and again when her mother died. The third attack was brought on by bad news from America, and she became so violently insane that the physicians declared that she must be sent to an asylum. This was when we were living together, and my husband knowing how beneficial mesmeric influence had proved, asked the doctors’ consent to keeping her at home under a sustained influence, trusting that the attack would wear itself away. They consented to the experiment, and then she went into a sleep that lasted three months.”
“Not without food?”
“Oh, no; she would occasionally rouse up, eat, drink, and talk, prescribing for herself. She lay in bed or on a sofa, dressed in a pale blue wrapper, and cap of delicate white lace. She looked almost like a spirit.”5

Fanny Vinning
Fanny Vinning (Mrs. E.L. Davenport) circa 1849

Not only does Mowatt’s account not tell us that her “brain fever” was actually a nervous breakdown, there are rumors from several sources that strongly hint that she may have played an instrumental role in the events leading to Watts’ arrest.

Watts deposited a check for £1400 into his account at London and Westminster Bank on the 14th of February. On the 19th of that same month, F. J. Koan, a fellow clerk for the Globe Insurance Company, noticed an erasure in the pass-book, and that the corresponding check for £1400 was missing. His report triggered an investigation by an auditor. Watts was not the only possible perpetrator; however, he was one of the ones who suspicion fell on. His father, who was a cashier for the company, was among those brought in for questioning as well. Watts’ papers were sealed by the order of the deputy chairman.

When on March 5th he was confronted, Watts angrily denied the charges, resigned his post, and immediately left the building. The Globe turned matters over to Scotland Yard, who assigned fraud specialist, detective Daniel Forrester to the case. Despite Forrester’s fearsome reputation, it was not until Monday, March 17th that the detective brought Watts in to Mansion House to be charged. The following newspaper account of Forrester’s testimony gives this explanation for the delay;

I had a warrant to apprehend the prisoner put into my hands on Friday, and I used all diligence to apprehend him. I went to his house and was told he was not at home, and had not been there since Thursday morning… I was told he was the lessee of the Olympic Theatre. I went there with a person who inquired for the prisoner, but could not find him. The prisoner met me by appointment at the office of Mr. Wontner, his solicitor, and said that having been given to understand that I had a warrant against him, he came forward voluntarily.6

Between the time he quit his job at the Globe and the day he turned himself in at his lawyer’s office, Walter Watts had twelve days he could have used to run. He had plenty of money. Waiting a week before calling in Scotland Yard, his former employers were obviously reluctant to let the scandal go public. If Watts had been able to get out of England, who knows how far he could have gotten?

Several different versions of the Watts Scandal say that Walter Watts used these twelve days to go speak with someone whose opinion he valued and revered. When he felt he had no one else to turn to, they tell us that he sought her out. They say that she convinced him that he had done nothing wrong and had nothing to hide. These stories tell us it was love of Anna Cora Mowatt that persuaded Walter Watts to turn himself in against his own best interests.

As I said at the beginning, it is only when we look at it from a great distance that it seems that this affair took place quickly. At the time, events during that cold March in 1850 unwrapped at a pace so torturously slow that they seem to have literally driven some of those closest to the heart of the scandal to absolute madness.

The Fall of Walter Watts
Anna Cora Mowatt, Fanny Vining, and images of the Watts Scandal

1. Toynebee, William, ed. The Diaries of William Macready, Vol 2. (William Putnam Sons: New York: 1912) Page 467.
2. “The Defalcation of W. Watts.” The Era: London. May 12, 1850, Page 9, col 2.
3. “The Drama in Portman Market.” The Musical World. March 25, 1882. Page 179
4. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress, or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Field and Reed, Boston: 1854) Pages 338-339.
5. “Actors and Actresses.” Daily Inter Ocean: Chicago. December 22, 1879. Page 7.
6. “Serious Charge Against the Lessee of the Olympic Theatre.” The Era: London. March, 17, 1850. Page 12, col 2.

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