Laura Keene

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Laura Keene
Laura Keene - Brady-Handy.jpg
Born Mary Frances Moss
(1826-07-20)20 July 1826
Winchester, England
Died 4 November 1873(1873-11-04) (aged 47)
Montclair, New Jersey, U.S.
Cause of death
Resting place
Green-Wood Cemetery
Occupation Actress, manager
Spouse(s) John Taylor (m. 1846; died 1860)
John Lutz (m. 1860; died 1869)
Children 2

Laura Keene (20 July 1826 – 4 November 1873) was a British stage actress and manager. In her twenty-year career, she became known as the first powerful female manager in New York. She is most famous for being the lead actress in the play Our American Cousin, which was attended by President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C., on the evening of his assassination.

Early life[edit]

Born Mary Frances Moss in Winchester, England to Jane Moss and Tomas King. She was the niece of the British actress Elizabeth Yates. Around 1840, she married British Army John Taylor.[1] They had two daughters, Emma (born 1846) and Clara Marie Stella (born 1849).[2] After being discharged from the army, Taylor opened his own tavern. He was later arrested, though the nature of his crime is now unknown, convicted and was reportedly sent from England to Australia on a prison ship.[1][3] Keene later attempted to locate Taylor to divorce him but could never find his whereabouts. They remained married until Taylor's death in 1860.[3][4]

Because Taylor left his wife and her two daughters alone with no money, Moss decided to change her name to Laura Keene and pursue a career as an actress.[1]


Keene made her professional debut as Pauline in "The Lady of Lyons" in London. This was followed by performances at London's Royal Olympic Theatre and Royal Lyceum Theatre, including several months working under Madame Vestris. After less than a year performing in Britain, Keene accepted an offer from James William Wallack to go to New York City, and serve as the leading lady in the stock company at his successful theater.

Her first performance at his theatre was in The Will as Albino Mandeville. She enjoyed great popularity during her time at Wallack's Theatre (20 September 1852, through 22 November 1853). In order to have greater control over her career, she then entered into theater management with the help of John Lutz, whom she married in 1860 and was with her for the rest of her career.[5] She left Wallack's company unexpectedly one night and moved to Baltimore. Keene leased the Charles Street Theater, in Baltimore, from 24 December 1853, to 2 March 1854, where she acted as manager, director and performer. She started doing touring performances in California (6 April through 29 July 1854), in Australia (23 October 1854 through January 1855), and again in California (9 April through 4 October 1855). During the first stint in California, she was hired by Catherine Norton Sinclair to play opposite Edwin Booth. After spending a month as the manager and lessee of the Union Theatre in San Francisco (from 29 June through 29 July 1854), Keene and Booth toured to Australia. Booth's drunken behavior in Australia put an end to their relationship and their tour On her return to California, she also managed the American Theatre. She managed and performed there for a few years until a new law was passed in California banning any form of entertainment on the Sabbath. This greatly decreased the attendance of theatre performances and gave Keene reason to leave and start a new project in New York.

Upon returning to New York City, Keene leased the Metropolitan Theatre, remodeled it, renamed it Laura Keene's Varieties, and served as manager, director and star performer from 23 December William Burton, purchased the building, and moved his own operation there. (It was renamed Burton's New Theatre, and then the Winter Garden.)

The blood-stained sleeve cuff belonging to Keene on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC

At this point, she lined up investors, along with an architect who specialized in theaters, and a new theater was constructed to her specifications. Named Laura Keene's Theatre, it opened on 18 November 1856. In 1858, Our American Cousin debuted in Laura Keene's Theater. Her company was playing at Ford's Theatre, Washington, on the night of Abraham Lincoln's assassination. Keene entered the presidential box at Ford's Theatre after the President was shot by John Wilkes Booth, and cradled the wounded President's head in her lap right in front of Mary Todd Lincoln.[6]

Stage entertainment turned over quickly in that era, with few productions exceeding a dozen performances, but Keene bucked those odds. An 1857 show called The Elves ran for a record 50 performances. Moreover, 1860 was to prove itself an important year for her theater and American drama as well. On 29 March, she premiered Dion Boucicault's The Colleen Bawn, which ran for six weeks until the end of the season on 12 May; the highlight of this play was the creation of an ocean island on stage in a scene which culminated with the hero diving into the ocean to save the colleen bawn Eily O'Connor. (Betting on the play's success, Boucicault took The Colleen Bawn to London, where it opened on 10 September 1860 and ran for 230 performances, becoming the first long run in the history of English theater.) In November 1860, Keene premiered the musical The Seven Sisters, which featured extravagant sets and ran for 253 performances, an astonishing total for the time.[7]

Later years and death[edit]

By 1863, Keene was forced to give up managing due to poor health.[8] After deciding to give up her own theater, Keene continued as manager and star of a company which toured the United States for most of the next ten years. She also served as manager of the Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, from 20 September 1869, through 25 March 1870. Her final performance was on 4 July 1873, while touring in northern Pennsylvania.

Keene's second husband, John Lutz, died on 18 April 1869.[9] On 4 November 1873, Keene died of tuberculosis at the age of 47 at Montclair, New Jersey.[6] She is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.[10]



  1. ^ a b c Giblin, James (2005). Good Brother, Bad Brother: The Story of Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 36. ISBN 0-618-09642-6. 
  2. ^ Creahan, John (1897). The Life of Laura Keene: Actress, Artist, Manager and Scholar. Together with Some Interesting Reminiscences of Her Daughters. Rodgers Publishing Company. pp. 177, 254. 
  3. ^ a b Curry, Jane Kathleen (1994). Nineteenth-century American Women Theatre Managers. ABC-CLIO. p. 45. ISBN 0-313-29141-1. 
  4. ^ Barrett Litoff, Judy; McDonnell, Judith, eds. (1994). European Immigrant Women in the United States: A Biographical Dictionary. Taylor & Francis. p. 159. ISBN 0-618-09642-6. 
  5. ^ Creahan 1897 p. 169
  6. ^ a b O'Reilly, Bill; Dugard, Martin (2011). Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever. Macmillan. p. 286. ISBN 1-429-99687-0. 
  7. ^ Kenrick
  8. ^ Engle, Ron; Miller, Tice L., eds. (1993). The American Stage. Cambridge University Press. p. 38. ISBN 0-521-41238-2. 
  9. ^ Creahan 1897 p. 194
  10. ^ Mosca, Alexandra Kathryn (2008). Nineteenth-century American Women Theatre Managers. Arcadia Publishing. p. 96. ISBN 0-738-55650-5.