Edwin Forrest collection
Held at: University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts [Contact Us]3420 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6206
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
Overview and metadata sections
Edwin Forrest (1806-1872) has been called the first star of the American stage. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1806, Forrest made his theatrical debut in 1817 at the age of eleven, literally stepping from the schoolyard onto the candlelit stage of the Southwark Theatre to fill in at the last minute for a young actress who had taken ill. Recalling that first performance years later, Forrest wrote: "From that moment my destiny was sealed. I felt that I was to be an actor, and an actor I would be, come what may."
Edwin Forrest was the son of William Forrest, a Scottish immigrant, and Rebecca Lauman, whose parents had come to the Colonies from Germany in the middle of the eighteenth century, settling in Philadelphia. The two met, and married in 1795. William Forrest was in the business of banking, holding the position of runner, first for the United States Bank, later for the bank of Stephen Girard. In spite of much effort on his part to succeed, William Forrest never made a living at his career. With his death in 1819 he left a mountain of debts which remained until Edwin himself cleared them nearly ten years later.
Though most accounts state that William and Rebecca Forrest had seven children, six of whom lived to maturity, there is evidence that the couple actually had eight children. Accounts written in the hand of William Forrest in the family's midwifing manual refer to the birth of a male child in 1794, before William and Rebecca's marriage. This child, a son, died about one month after its birth. This would account for the discrepancy in biographies of Forrest, some indicating that it was the Forrest's first-born child who died in infancy, others stating that it was the child born in 1804, two years before Edwin Forrest. It seems that both accounts are true. Lorman, the eldest child, was born in 1796. He began as a tanner and currier, then later gave up working altogether in search of adventure on the high seas. In 1822 he sailed for South America and was never heard from again. Henrietta, next eldest, was born in 1798; William in 1800; Caroline in 1802; a boy who died at birth in 1804; Edwin in 1806; and finally Eleanora in 1808. Other than Edwin, none of the Forrest children ever married; William began a career on the stage, then gave it up to manage the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia. He died of a sudden illness in 1834, at the age of 34. Edwin's sisters remained at home caring for their mother and for Edwin. All three sisters and his mother preceded Edwin in death.
Edwin was a sickly child and the first ten years of his life were a fight for survival. But in this same time span Edwin became fascinated with the circus and with the muscular development the performers cultivated. He imitated their gymnastics and was soon able to climb ropes, walk on his hands, stand on his head, throw somersaults, balance, and wrestle. This attention to his body, adopted out of necessity in his youth, developed into a passion in his later years. In addition, Forrest showed an early inclination toward elocution, and his father saw fit to provide him with elocution lessons from Alexander Wilson and noted Philadelphia elocutionist Lemuel G. White. Indeed, Forrest's trademark was his powerful voice. Following Forrest's first true performance in 1820 in the part of young Norval in James Home's Douglas, one critic wrote: "Of the part of Norval we must say that we were much surprised at the excellence of his elocution, his self-possession in speech and gesture, and a voice that, without straining was of such a volume and fine tenor as to carry every tone to the remotest corner of the theatre."
After this flattering beginning, Edwin spent two years trying in vain to become a part of the Philadelphia theater. In 1822, Joshua Collins and William Jones, proprietors of theaters in Pittsburgh, Lexington, and Cincinnati, arrived in Philadelphia to recruit a company. Edwin was given an interview and, this being successful, signed on to play "without question, whatever part he was cast in, no matter how high or how low" for eight dollars per week. With that, Edwin Forrest left his family and Philadelphia on his first theatrical mission.
This first trip was a rough one for Forrest: the transportation was difficult and the theatrical houses were unresponsive. Forrest traveled to Cincinnati, Lexington and Louisville on an Ohio River flatboat. After the tour broke up early in 1823, Forrest stayed on in Cincinnati, getting a few parts in local productions and working at odd jobs. In July of that same year the Cincinnati Advertiser announced that James H. Caldwell, manager of the New Orleans Theatre, was opening the new American Theatre in New Orleans. Forrest sent a letter requesting a place in the company. He spent the summer with a theatrical troupe in Lexington and in mid-November received a favorable reply. Early in 1824 he left for New Orleans, where he opened February 4, playing Jaffier in Thomas Otway's Venice Preserved.
New Orleans added experience to Forrest's acting career, which was making steady progress, but it most greatly contributed to the social growth and development of the eighteen-year-old youth. Though Forrest was charmed in the drawing rooms of the New Orleans cultured, he preferred to seek companionship in the streets, gaming houses, and along the river. He cultivated friendships with an Indian Chief, Push-ma-ta-ha, and also with frontiersman James Bowie, inventor of the Bowie Knife. At the end of his first season, Forrest headed north with the troupe, battling a life-threatening case of malaria during the passage. He recovered and, at the end of the summer of 1824, played in Richmond, Norfolk, and Washington. The company returned to New Orleans in November. This season Forrest played to favorable reviews. But this time he also attempted to engage in a romance with leading lady Jane Placide. Jealousy soon caused strife, as James H. Caldwell, star and manager of the troupe, was also enamored of the lady. In the midst of quarreling and insults, Forrest quit the company and even challenged Caldwell to a duel. Caldwell, however, did not allow Forrest "the satisfaction of a gentleman."
Out on his own and nursing his wounds, Forrest cut off all ties to civilization to live with the tribe of his friend Chief Push-ma-ta-ha. After two months, Forrest returned to Philadelphia, restored and perhaps a bit wiser for all his experiences in the South.
Forrest's next pursuits led him to Albany, New York in 1825, where he played in company with the great tragedian Edmund Kean. Forrest had always idolized the older actor and modeled his own performances after Kean's. Forrest later stated that meeting Kean, performing with him, and listening to his advice were the most powerful influences in his life.
In 1826 after the Albany tour closed, Forrest returned to Philadelphia and again sought work in his native city. This time he was able to secure work in Venice Preserved at the new Chestnut Street Theatre. And this time he received the praise he had long striven to earn: glowing reviews and nine curtain calls.
On June 23, 1826, Forrest made his first appearance in New York at the Park Theatre, then the leading theater in America. He chose to open in the role of Othello, against all advice from the managers. The result was a triumph for the twenty-year-old. He was immediately engaged for the new Bowery Theatre, at a salary of $800 per year. Popular acclaim was enormous. In his second year at the Bowery, Forrest received $200 per night. His career was off like a rocket. Forrest approached the new season of 1827/8 as an established star.
A large portion of Edwin Forrest's success was founded on his perception of himself as the first truly American actor. His audiences appreciated this "rugged," New World style, which was created in part by his massive physique and great booming voice. In 1828 Forrest furthered this image and the American theater by offering prizes for American plays, thus becoming the first actor to encourage substantially American authorship. The first play to win a prize was Metamora, a drama of Indian life by John H. Stone; it was produced at the Park Theatre in December of 1829. In the second year Robert M. Bird's tragedy The Gladiator was awarded the prize and produced in September of 1831. Both stories were adapted to Forrest's vigorous style and both became mainstays of his repertoire. In total Forrest gave over $20,000 in prizes during the next few years. However, only two other plays from the competition succeeded with the audiences: Robert M. Bird's The Broker of Bogota, produced in 1834, and Robert T. Conrad's Jack Cade, produced in 1841.
At the age of twenty-eight Forrest had climbed to the top of his profession in America. He followed this with his first tour of Europe, spreading his success to that continent as well. In England, at the age of thirty, he met and married eighteen-year-old Catharine Norton Sinclair, whose father was a musician and connected with the theater in Europe. The couple sailed soon after for America. Catharine conceived shortly thereafter, but the Forrests' first child died at birth. Catharine bore children three more times during the Forrests' married life, but none of these survived beyond the first few weeks of life.
The strain of these deaths, coupled with Edwin's long absences, his dislike of his in-laws (who had moved to America), and Catharine's less-than-respectable lifestyle while Edwin was away led some ten years later to the couple's much-publicized divorce. On August 9, 1850, Catharine filed suit in the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia. The grounds for divorce: infidelity. Edwin Forrest quickly counter-sued. On December 16, 1851, the first act of Forrest v. Forrest was begun. The trial and subsequent appeals dragged on for years, making many headlines and much bad publicity for Forrest. Edwin Forrest lost the case, on the grounds that he was never able to prove Catharine's infidelity, while her lawyers had successfully done so in his case. Alimony was set at $3,000 per year. Forrest appealed the case in vain for over ten years. On November 30, 1864, his last appeal was denied, and the original judgment stood affirmed. Catharine still had difficulty receiving the alimony due her from Forrest, however, and this became a factor in her suit against the estate of Edwin Forrest after his death.
The divorce was just one of many difficulties endured by Forrest during his career. He was blamed by many for the Astor Place riot of May 10, 1849, in which several theater-goers were killed. The riot was a culmination of a long rivalry between Forrest and British actor William C. Macready. The two men had two completely different styles and approaches to the same roles, and each was vocally critical of the other. In 1849 Macready's American tour was particularly marked by squabbles with critics, audiences, and Forrest himself over the theatrical talents of both. The affair turned into an issue of nationalism that culminated in a New York theater packed on the night of May 10, 1849, with a mob of 1,800 theater-goers and 125 police officers, with two hundred members of the Seventh Regiment, two "troops of horse," plus a unit of hussars on standby. A scene ensued after police arrested three rowdies who were harassing Macready during his performance. Violence escalated on both sides, as the mob rushed out into the streets and gained numbers. Finally the military was given the order to fire upon the crowd, which was refusing to back down under mere threats. Thirty-one rioters were killed, forty-eight others sustained severe injuries. Macready slipped out quietly and returned to England. The Astor Place Opera House was a shambles and eventually closed down, unable to survive the reputation of "Massacre Place."
While his success was always phenomenal, lawsuits and ill-health plagued Forrest through a good portion of his career. Early on he suffered from chest pains, headaches, and attacks of fainting, associated with the stressful pace of his life. Later gout and rheumatism set in. In 1865, while playing an engagement in Washington (on the night, in fact, which had originally been chosen by John Wilkes Booth as his target-night for the assassination of President Lincoln—the President did not show up for Forrest's performance that evening, and Booth had to postpone his plans) Forrest was ravaged by an attack of sciatica. He spent his days in bed and his nights at the theater for the remainder of the engagement. Cold theaters added to his difficulty and a second attack on his sciatic nerve left him with a permanent drag in his right leg.
At the end of this run, Forrest returned to Philadelphia to recover from his illnesses. He predicted he would be well in a week; he spent that entire summer, however, in bed.
When the summer was over, rested and rejuvenated by his new-found cure, the "electrified bath," Forrest was ready to embark on what turned out to be his final major trip, a barnstorming tour that took him from the midwest to California. Instead of entrusting his supporting roles to the local talent found along the way, Forrest took his own entourage with him. Among this group was James McArdle, a failed actor who was looking for a second chance to make it in the profession. Forrest hired him to act as manager for his troupe. In addition, a nineteen-year-old newcomer, Elizabeth Swindlehurst, known by the stage name "Miss Lillie," was hired to play several leading roles. She became Forrest's protege and traveling companion for the trip.
The California trip was a financial success, though the critics were not always as kind to Forrest as the audiences were. They complained that Forrest's performances were filled with "moaning and whining." Forrest felt, however, that his time in western climates had rejuvenated both mind and limb. He returned to Philadelphia, however, to find that his body was not up to the cold eastern winter. After another confinement he took up the tour again. This became a pattern for Forrest until his death. Everywhere he went he sought new medical information, help for his aging body which, at the age of 60, had simply begun to fail him. To add to his struggle, Forrest was forced to contend against younger actors and younger tastes. The tastes of the audiences of the late 1860s had turned toward melodrama and the melodramatic thriller, plays like Augustin Daly's Under the Gaslight (1867), which included a heroine thrown into a river and a hero tied to a railroad track.
During the 1867/8 season Forrest sued the Philadelphia Dispatch for publishing a series of articles which were reported to be interviews with Forrest but, in truth, had been fictionalized and poked fun at the aging actor. This probably would not have bothered Forrest had the articles not suggested that he depended on drink to get him through his performances. The Dispatch settled out of court for and undisclosed amount and published an apology.
All was not distress for Forrest in these final years, however. It was during this time that he drew up plans in his will for a legacy that would benefit actors and actresses in the years to come: the Edwin Forrest Home, a place of retirement for stage performers. Perhaps his own ill health had shown him the need for those of his profession to be provided for after they could no longer support themselves on the stage.
Finally Forrest's legs failed him. In October of 1872, just two months before his death, Forrest gave up the painful struggle that acting had become for him and began a series of Shakespeare readings. Though they were reviewed favorably, these readings were not financially successful. In December of that year Forrest returned to his home in Philadelphia; there, within a week's time, he died. Edwin Forrest was buried in the churchyard of Philadelphia's St. Paul's Episcopal Church on December 16, 1872.
- Forrest, Edwin, 1806-1872
The Edwin Forrest Collection came to the University of Pennsylvania between 1963 and 1989. The largest portion of this material arrived in the summer of 1988, and had been housed previously at the Edwin Forrest Home. This group primarily documents Edwin Forrest's later career and financial circumstances, most of the material being related to matters of business. It appears from the contents that this main body of correspondence was preserved by Daniel Dougherty (1826-1892), a Philadelphia lawyer, friend of Forrest, and one of the executors of his estate, who was active in the early administration of the Forrest Home. Because of Dougherty's role, the collection abounds in legal documents, receipts and correspondence concerning Forrest's financial ventures, various court cases, and expenditures. With this group came a small portion of personal correspondence from Forrest's early career. It documents in a very sketchy manner Forrest's early adventures in the theater. Included also in this large deposit was a group of scrapbooks and bound playbills, which added to an earlier donation of such materials from the Forrest Home. This earlier deposit also contained some prompt copies of plays which belonged to Edwin Forrest. The University also received a portrait of Edwin Forrest, depicting the actor in his early to middle twenties, a marble bust portraying Forrest in his role of Coriolanus, and a portrait of Horace Howard Furness, Jr. (1865-1930). A portion of Forrest's books, works of art, manuscripts, memorabilia, and other material relating to the theater was given by the Board of Managers of the Edwin Forrest Home to the Free Library of Philadelphia. In addition, some items of historical significance to the city of Philadelphia were given to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Forrest requested that correspondence he had saved during his lifetime be burned after his death, and this was performed by one of his executors. Thus the collection lacks in many areas of correspondence one would expect to be associated with an actor of Forrest's stature: fan mail; reviews collected by Forrest himself; personal notes on his own performances; travel notes. However, some of this was preserved by his lawyers and, in addition, the collection contains some scrapbooks owned by Forrest; some of these books are filled with engravings and daguerreotypes of Forrest and other performers in various roles, many autographed with well-wishes to Forrest written in. A scrapbook of clippings of Forrest's reviews and news items concerning Forrest presented to the Edwin Forrest Home by James Taylor in 1900 is also housed in the collection. Still the material in the collection presents at best, a less than complete portrait of Edwin Forrest, the actor.
A recent acquisition to the collection was the purchase of correspondence from Edwin Forrest to James Lawson (1799-1880). This helped to fill in one of the least-documented periods in the holdings, from 1830-1850. Lawson, a New York actor and playwright, was a close friend of Forrest's from his earliest days in the theater and also an executor of his estate. These letters do much to give the collection insight into Forrest's personality, from his first days of success through his troubled marriage, to the end of his career and his life. Still, it should be remembered that this is correspondence to one particular person and, as such, cannot give overall perspective to the life of Edwin Forrest.
Care was taken in processing the collection not to disrupt any order already given to the papers, while at the same time making the collection as coherent as possible. Thus in sorting priority was given to the arrangement probably first established by Dougherty himself, and items not in close proximity to their logical subject were interfiled with the same. The present arrangement of the collection depends heavily on both Dougherty's and Forrest's identification of the materials, in the form of names, dates and notes written by both, usually on the back of the correspondence. Without these it is often impossible to understand the point of many items in the correspondence. The guiding principle for arranging the collection was, whenever possible, to establish a correspondent and arrange correspondents in alphabetical order under a given heading, arranging correspondence in chronological order within each correspondent's file. There are a few series, however, in which correspondent order is not the most logical grouping of materials. This pertains to files which abound in legal documents, particularly those which concern land and houses owned by Edwin Forrest. In such series correspondence concerning the property is found filed first in the series. Legal documents are filed together following these.
Those who use the Forrest collection should keep in mind that the organizing principle used was based on the original lawyer's filing, and researchers are advised to "think like a lawyer" when using the collection. A particular correspondent's letters may not be found in the general correspondence section of the collection, but letters from this person may be found filed with correspondence concerning a piece of property or a particular work of art about which he or she was corresponding. Researchers should also keep in mind that, under any given heading they are likely to find correspondence from Daniel Dougherty, James Lawson, and James Oakes; these men were close friends of Forrest, but they were also the executors of his estate, and as such had an interest in almost all areas of Forrest's life.
Gift of the Edwin Forrest Home, 1963-1989.
Gift of David Holmes: Richelieu, Act I, Scene 2.
Purchased from 19th Century Shop: Forrest/Lawson Correspondence.
- University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts
- Finding Aid Author
- Julie A. Reahard
- Finding Aid Date
- Use Restrictions
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