“The Chivalrous Press"

June 2, 1877

Thomas Nast

“The Chivalrous Press"

Arts and Entertainment; Journalists/Journalism; Labor; Natural Disasters, Fire; Women, Labor;

Claxton, Kate;

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In this Harper’s Weekly cartoon, artist Thomas Nast defends Kate Claxton, a popular actress, from the rumor spread by irresponsible journalists (depicted here as asses) that her presence in a building was bad luck.  The superstitious fear arose after a Brooklyn theater where she was performing and a St. Louis hotel where she was staying were consumed in separate fires.  Some publications capitalized on the incidents by printing jokes and fabricated interviews, such as the one to which her letter in the cartoon alludes.

A few weeks after this cartoon appeared, the actress sent Nast a note expressing her heartfelt appreciation:  “I take this, the very first opportunity I have had since my return from the West, to thank you for your great and unexpected kindness to me.  You have done me, with a touch of your wonderful pencil, a service no words I am clever enough to think of can describe.  Accept, sir, the assurance of my lasting gratitude.  I thank you.  I thank you!”  The cartoon received favorable notice in much of the press, and the sinister insinuations against the actress largely subsided.

Kate Claxton was born in New Jersey in 1848 as Kate Eliza Cone, granddaughter of an actor who became a prominent Baptist minister (Spencer Houghton Cone) and daughter of a lawyer and amateur thespian (Spencer Cone).  After a brief marriage to a New York businessman (Isadore Lyon), Kate Claxton pursued a career on the stage (against her parents’ wishes), debuting in an 1869 Chicago production of Andy Blake.  For the next three years she appeared at New York’s Fifth Avenue Theater performing minor roles in plays such as Wilkie Collins’s Man and Wife and Bronson Howard’s Saratoga.  She was, however, given larger roles while on tour with the Augustin Daly acting company.  In 1873, she joined A. M. Palmer’s troupe at the Union Square Theater and first attracted public notice in Led Astray.

In December 1874, Kate Claxton began the role that would make her famous, the lead as a blind young woman, Louise, in The Two Orphans.  Her sympathetic character triumphs in the end against great odds and became a sentimental favorite with audiences.  Claxton toured with the popular production across the country, and wisely purchased exclusive rights to the script.  She acted in other plays over her long career, including Romeo and Juliet, Queen and Woman, The World Against Her, and Conscience (which was written especially for her).  It was, however, as Louise in The Two Orphans for which she would always be associated, appearing in it as late as 1903.  In the early-twentieth century, she sold film rights for the script to director D. W. Griffith, who adapted it into his final epic, Orphans of the Storm (1921), a silent film starring sisters Lillian and Dorothy Gish.

Near the end of a performance of The Two Orphans at the Brooklyn Theatre on December 5, 1876, before an audience of 900, a fire ignited.  The actors on stage (including Claxton) noticed it, but continued in character until it was evident that the flames were not being extinguished.  Attempts at smothering the fire had only dispersed the embers, while no hose was available for the hydrant and the water buckets had not been filled.  At that point, Claxton and the other actors urged the audience to leave in an orderly fashion, but a chaotic stampede for the exits ensued.  The 400 audience members in the balcony were placed in the most danger as the stairwell filled with smoke and people wedged together creating a barricade to escape.  After 20 minutes, the roof caved in, followed by the northern and eastern walls falling onto the street.  The Fire Department managed to keep the fire from spreading to nearby buildings, but over 200 people were killed and the theater completely destroyed.  It was one of the worst theatrical fires in American history.

Only a few months later, on April 11, 1877, Claxton had to flee a fire at the Southern Hotel in St. Louis where she was staying while on tour.  When the alarm sounded at 2 o’clock in the morning, the actress had the presence of mind to wrap herself in wet towels and roll downstairs to safety.  The St. Louis hotel fire claimed over forty lives and caused nearly $750,000 in property damage.  Fires were a common phenomenon in nineteenth-century America and an actress such as Claxton would be in more of the ubiquitous wooden buildings than the average person, but that did not stop certain members of the press from implying that she was bad luck.  Although Nast’s cartoon (published shortly after the St. Louis fire) helped mitigate the negative press, Harper’s Weekly reported in 1887 that she was denying gossip that she had been involved in numerous fires.

The publicity did not hurt her career; in fact, if anything, it seemed to generate more public interest and sympathy.  An astute businesswoman, she had begun her own production company in 1876 with the assistance of her brother, Spencer Cone, who acted as theatrical manager.  In 1878, she married Charles Stevenson, a British-born actor, with whom she appeared in Double Marriage.  In 1901, her husband claimed to have divorced her and married another woman, but Claxton won a lawsuit voiding the action, and then had her marriage to Stevenson annulled.  In 1904, their only surviving child, Harold Stevenson, committed suicide, and Claxton retired from acting.  She died in 1924 at her home in New York City.

Robert C. Kennedy

“The Chivalrous Press"
December 3, 2023

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