Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery is home to the man with violets in his lapel and the woman who performed for a president, among countless other historic figures. Walk beneath the awe-inspiring brownstone spires of the Gothic Revival gates with us as we visit a few of the most theatrical permanent residents at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
Founded in 1838 and spanning 478 acres, Green-Wood Cemetery is the oldest landscaped space in New York City. It became a popular attraction for tourists in the 1850-60s, bringing over 500,000 visitors a year, second at that time only to Niagara Falls. Not only was it the place to visit — it was the place to be buried. The list of those interred at Green-Wood is a veritable who's-who of 19th-century New York. From Boss Tweed to Louis Tiffany, the cemetery is home to many that shaped and decorated our city.
Having used Green-Wood's burial search kiosk at the front gate, we set out armed with a map, Green-Wood's mobile app and a list of performers, producers, managers, writers and composers provided by the cemetery's historian, Jeff Richman.
Very near the main gate stands a 30-feet high granite obelisk marking the mass grave of the 103 unidentified victims of the Brooklyn Theatre Fire of 1876. "The fire was discovered shortly after eleven o'clock, p.m. One thousand persons were present of whom two hundred and seventy eight were burned to death," reads one side of the base of the monument. The Brooklyn Theatre, located at what is now Camden Plaza, was Brooklyn's principle theatre and easily accessible by Manhattan and Brooklyn residents alike. The December 5, 1876, production of The Two Orphans, featuring Kate Claxton, who is also interred at Green-Wood, played to a full house the night the deadly fire broke out when a stage left scenery drop hit a border lamp and ignited. Thinking the fire would soon be extinguished, the actors continued the performance despite rising panic from the audience. Most who perished had been in the upper levels and were either caught in the stairwells or suffered from smoke inhalation from the rising fumes. Ms/ Claxton recounted the fire for the New York Times, "For an instant I stood petrified with horror. There seemed no way of escape… Suddenly, like an inspiration, there flashed upon me the recollection of a subterranean passage that led from the star dressing room to the box office in front of the house."
Shortly after Ms. Claxton's escape, she was staying at a St. Louis hotel when it also caught fire, and she again made a narrow escape, causing journalists of the time to imply that she was bad luck and should be avoided. However, the public was sympathetic and Claxton had a successful career until her 1904 retirement.
"He always wore violets in his lapel, and there are violets in the spring on the hillside where he is interred," tells Jeff Richman. He is speaking of the wildly popular mid-1800s celebrity Henry James Montague. Having an established acting career in England, Montague came to New York in 1874 at the behest of actor and theatre manager Lester Wallack, member of the theatrical Wallack family who at one time had four New York City theatres that carried their name. Within four months of his arrival, the handsome young actor was the rage of New York. He had been a founding member of The Lambs Club in London, a social club for actors, songwriters and other theatre-folk. Once in the United States, he established a branch of The Lambs in New York and became its first Shepard (president).
While onstage in San Francisco in a production of False Shame, Montague collapsed with a lung hemorrhage. He died not long after saying to those around him, "It's no use, I am going, boys; God bless you." His body was brought back east, where it was met with over 1,400 weeping mourners spilling into the streets outside the services at the Little Church Around the Corner. A procession of carriages rolled slowly down Fifth Avenue to the ferries to carry Montague across the East River to Green-Wood, where he would be laid to rest in the Wallack family plot. "I wish the world were full of just such good men," said Arthur Wallack.
On April 14, 1865, Laura Keene was onstage at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. performing in the play Our American Cousin when President Abraham Lincoln was shot. This fact, though, hardly defines the legacy left by Laura Keene.
Left alone and without income with two children by a felon husband sent away from England to Australia on prison ship, Mary Frances Moss Taylor took a position as an apprentice at her aunt's theatre and changed her name to Laure Keene, as it was then unacceptable for a woman with children and no husband to act in the theatre. Within a year of her performance career, she accepted an offer from James William Wallack to serve as leading lady in his stock company in New York City. One night in 1853, she left the company and moved to Baltimore, where she leased the Charles Street Theatre, acting as manager, director and performer. She then toured and managed theatres in California before returning to New York, where she leased a theatre and renamed it Laura Keene's Varieties. With her many successes as performer and manager, she was able to line up investors, hire an architect and build her very own theatre, Laura Keene's Theatre, which opened in November 1856 and was where Our American Cousin opened before moving to Ford's Theatre. When the fatal shots rang out, Laura rushed to the presidential box and held Lincoln's head in her lap, staining the cuff of her costume with his blood.
Due to her own poor health, Keene gave up management of her own theatre in 1863, but she continued to manage and perform in touring companies until her death in 1873. May she always be known most impressively as the first female theatre manager.
These stories are just a tiny few to be told from Green-Wood's over 600,000 residents. Stop by to pay your respects to William Wheatley, the father of musical theatre, having produced the first American musical The Black Crook; Henry Miller, actor and theatre manager; William DeWolf Hopper, renowned for his recitations of "Casey at the Bat"; Frank Morgan, who played the "Wizard of Oz"; Lola Montez, world-famous for her "Spider Dance" (and her affairs); among so many others.
In 2006, Green-Wood Cemetery was granted National Historic Landmark status, recognized for its national significance in art, architecture, landscaping and history. It is still an active and working cemetery and more recent interments include those of the much-beloved Fred Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago) and Leonard Bernstein (West Side Story, On the Town).
Green-Wood Cemetery is located at 5th Avenue and 25th Street in Brooklyn, NY and is accessible by NYC public transportation. Visit green-wood.com to learn more about its history and famous residents, or to plan your own tour, either self-guided or through one of Green-Wood's many public events throughout the year.