Thursday, April 12, 2018

Our American Cousin

My recent trip to the Dr. Samuel A. Mudd House has reawakened my fascination with the Lincoln assassination.  I have been intrigued by the assassination and conspiracy since I was in elementary school, but while I have read numerous books on the topic and have watched all of the documentaries made since the 1990s, I realized this week that I had not given much thought to the play that Lincoln was watching when he was shot. 

Our American Cousin was a popular farce written by Tom Taylor and had premiered at Laura Keene's New York theater in 1858.  The play proved to be an immediate success.   

The play is a farce and the comedy in the play revolves around puns, clever word play, and physical comedy.  President Abraham Lincoln was an avid theatergoer and was very discerning in his choice of plays.  His love of Shakespeare is legendary.  On face value it is hard to understand why Lincoln chose to attend Ford Theatre's production of Our American Cousin.  A deeper look at the play itself reveals the play's appeal to Lincoln.

Advertisement for Our American Cousin promoting President Lincoln's attendance (Image courtesy of Playbill)

The plot revolves around the financial woes of the Trenchard family.  The Trenchard's are an aristocratic family on the verge of losing their ancestral estate in Hampshire, England.  The estate's manager, Mr. Coyle, is stealing from the Sir Edward Trenchard and has designs on marrying the lovely Florence Trenchard.  Florence has no interest in Coyle, she is in love with Harry Vernon, but they cannot marry until Vernon receives a commission in the Royal Navy.  In an attempt to get her lover a commission Florence has invited Lord Dundreary to Trenchard Manor, but Lord Dundreary is a vain, dimwitted fop.   To make matters worse, the oldest son while on a shooting trip to Vermont discovered that the family estate was left to their American cousin Asa Trenchard.  The arrival of Asa sends the house into an uproar as American and British culture clash.  Asa Trenchard is a well meaning but vulgar and his American sayings provide confusion and misunderstanding.  While bemused by her cousin, Florence develops a genuine fondness for her cousin. Asa frequently targets the clueless Lord Dundreary with his verbal salvos.  Despite Asa's lack of social graces his wealth makes him the target of the fortune hunting Mrs. Mountchessington who throws her daughter Augusta in his path.  Asa quickly uncovers Mr. Coyle's nefarious plot and with the assistance of the houses servants and Coyle's disgruntled assistant Abel Murcott sets out to expose the villain.  By the end of the play, everything has been resolved with a happy ending for all the key players. 

President Lincoln loved the play because he could recognize himself in the title character, in his youth Lincoln was viewed as boorish and uncouth by many of his contemporaries.  In the play, Asa falls in love with the heiress Mary Trenchard and Asa rises above his humble beginnings and becomes a member of the British aristocracy.  In real life, Abraham Lincoln rose from his humble origins and married Mary Todd and became president of the United States.

Lincoln also loved clever word play and puns and the dialogue of Our American Cousin is full of this type of humor.  Below is a following example of the dialogue found in the play:

"Asa [Goes hastily up to table] Wal, I don't want to out too plain, but this is an awful mean set out for a big house like this.
Florence Why, what's wrong, sir?
Asa Why, there's no mush!
Dundreary No mush?
Asa Nary slapjack
Dun Why, does he want Mary to slap Jack?
Asa No pork and beans!
Dun Pork's been here, but he's left.
Asa And where on airth's the clam chowder?
Dun Where is clam chowder?  He's never here when he's wanted." (Act 1, Scene 1)

Also the actors preforming Our American Cousin would have also been a draw.  Laura Keene was reprising her role of Florence Trenchard a role that had brought commercial and professional success since her debuted the role in 1858.  The April 14, 1865 performance was a benefit for Laura Keene and the actress received a portion of the box office revenue.  Performing alongside Keene was Harry Hawk a popular comedian who was playing Asa Trenchard.

Advertisement for Our American Cousin in the April 14, 1865 edition of the Washington Evening Star.  (Image courtesy of Wikipedia).  

After a long and bloody Civil War, the war was finally drawing to a close and after a week of celebrations President Lincoln was looking for an evening of diverting entertainment.  From the accounts of witnesses at Ford's Theatre, Lincoln appeared to be enjoying himself watching the play.  This compounds the tragedy of the assassination, in a moment of joy Lincoln's life was snatched away in an instant.

Applewood Books published a good edition of Our American Cousin.         


Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Dr. Mudd House

On Saturday, I braved the elements and visited the Dr. Mudd House in Waldorf, Maryland.  Dr. Samuel A. Mudd is a controversial figure in American history, his role in the Lincoln assassination has sparked debate for over 150 years.  He has been portrayed as everything from a simple country doctor innocently brought into the Lincoln assassination conspiracy to an arch fiend in league with John Wilkes Booth to kidnap and then murder President Abraham Lincoln.  Like most things in this world, the truth is likely somewhere in the middle.

The exterior of the house looks similar to how it appeared on April 15, 1865.

The road that John Wilkes Booth and David Herold took on the afternoon of April 15, 1865 towards Zekiah Swamp.

Dr. Mudd's bedroom widow was the bottom left. David Herold tapped on that window to wake Dr. Mudd in the early morning hours of April 15, 1865.

Dr. Mudd's first headstone erected in 1883, it has a typo, Dr. Mudd was 49 not 48. It was replaced following the death of his wife Sarah Frances "Frank" Mudd in 1911.

The original 1865 wellhouse.

The Mudd family lived in the house from 1857 until 1982. They were the houses only private owner.

The family parlor, John Wilkes Booth laid on the sofa while Dr. Mudd treated him for his broken leg.

Another view of the parlor and sofa.

The family dining room.

This sideboard belonged to the Mudd family. Sarah Frances Mudd was forced to sell the piece to pay the bills while Dr. Mudd was imprisoned.

Dr. Mudd made this desk will in prison at Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas, Florida.

Portrait of Dr. Samuel Mudd over the mantel.

The Mudd's bedroom, the crucifix was on the wall in 1865.

Painting of Dr. Mudd in the front entry hall.

The bedroom John Wilkes Booth stayed in on April 15, 1865. Dr. Mudd used this room to treat patients.

Sarah Frances Mudd drew this drawing in school. It is called "Sleeping Beauty" and was in the Booth Room in 1865.

This dresser and mirror was in the Booth Room in 1865.

The bed is not original to the room, but legend holds that staff will straighten the blankets, only to return to find an imprint of a person in bed. Is it the spirit of John Wilkes Booth?

John Wilkes Booth kept a watch for pursuing Federal authorities from this window.

Lovely 1860s dress in the Mudd children's room. The Mudds' had nine children.

The Mudd children's room. Following Dr. Mudd's arrest, Sarah Frances Mudd and her four children were placed under house arrest until John Wilkes Booth was killed.

Dr. Mudd's medical office.

Guns that belonged to Dr. Mudd and his son.

Some of Dr. Mudd's medical equipment.

Items Dr. Mudd made while in prison. Dr. Mudd was received a pardon in 1869.

I highly recommend a visit to the Dr. Samuel A. Mudd House.  I left the museum questioning my original opinion of Dr. Mudd.  

For more information please visit The Dr. Mudd House Museum.