George Frederick Cooke’s Body as a Prop

This sixth excerpt from a magazine article in Belgravia, an Illustrated London Magazine, published in 1878, describes the history of props in Western European theatrical traditions up to the late nineteenth century. I’ve split it into several sections because it is rather long and covers a multitude of subjects, which I will be posting over the next several days.

Stage Properties by Dutton Cook, 1878

‘One man in his time plays many parts.’ Did George Frederick Cooke, the tragedian, when he personated Hamlet—he must have been a very indifferent Hamlet—ever think that his skull would be handled by a later Hamlet and appear upon the scene as the skull of Yorick? Yet this strange event came to pass. Cooke died in 1812, and was buried in the strangers’ vault of St. Paul’s Church, New York. Some ten years later Kean [Eric: The actor, Edmund Kean], fulfilling an engagement in America, resolved that due honour should be paid to the remains of the departed tragedian, whose memory he affected to hold in extraordinary veneration. With the permission of Bishop Hobart, the body was removed from the strangers’ vault to the public burial-ground of the parish, and a handsome monument was erected at Kean’s expense. Many lamenting friends and admirers attended the ceremony: ‘tears fell from Kean’s eyes in abundance,’ writes Dr. Francis, who relates the story in his ‘Old New York.’ But in the transfer of the coffin from the vault to the grave the dead actor’s body was subjected to strange mutilation. Kean possessed himself of one of the toe-bones; ‘it was a little black relic, and might have passed for a tobacco-stopper.’ Some other devotee stole the head; Dr. Francis may not have been the thief, but he became the receiver. He writes: ‘I may here perhaps invade the sanctity of burial transaction; but the occurrence to which I allude is innocent, and may be deemed curious as well as rare. A theatrical benefit had been announced at the Park, and “Hamlet” the play. A subordinate of the theatre hurried to my office at a late hour for a skull; I was compelled to loan the head of my old friend George Frederick Cooke. “Alas, poor Yorick!” It was returned in the morning, but on the ensuing evening, at a meeting of the Cooper Club, the circumstance becoming known to several of the members, and a general desire being expressed to investigate phrenologically the head of the great tragedian, the article was again released from its privacy, when Daniel Webster, Henry Wheaton, and many others who enriched the meeting of that night, applied the principles of craniological science to the interesting specimen before them. The head was pronounced capacious, the function of animality amply developed; the height of the forehead ordinary; the space between the orbits of unusual breadth, giving proofs of strong perceptive powers; the transverse basilar portion of the skull of corresponding width. Such was the phrenology of Cooke. This scientific exploration added to the variety and gratification of that memorable evening. Cooper felt as a coadjutor of Albinus, and Cooke enacted a great part that night.’

The toe-bone appropriated by Kean was not to be used as a property, but treasured as a relic of ‘the greatest creature that ever walked the earth:’ for so the dead tragedian was described by the living. His first words to his wife on his return from America were, ‘I have brought Charles [Eric: His son, actor Charles Kean] a fortune. I have brought something that the Directors of the British Museum would give ten thousand pounds for! But they sha’n't have it.’ On special occasions he compelled his friends and associates to go down upon their knees and reverently kiss the precious relic. There can be little doubt that the actor’s intellects were at this time seriously deranged. The toe-bone was placed upon the mantel-piece; Mrs. Kean and the servants were strictly enjoined not to touch it upon any pretence whatever. It remained unmolested for several months. Occasionally the actor explained its merits to an intelligent visitor, otherwise it received his sole homage. ‘His wife detested it. The servants hated it. The maids were afraid of it. …At last—it was one dull evening, when Kean had been absent from home for several days, and his wife was tired of waiting and watching for him—the detested toe-bone presented itself to her sight, a few bitter words escaped her,… she eyed the object of her husband’s adoration with the most sincere disgust. …Finally she seized it, protecting her fingers with a piece of paper, and threw it out of window! Kean, discovering his loss, was furious. His wife held her peace. It was in vain that he examined and cross-examined the servants. “Mary,” he said at length, in tones of the deepest melancholy, ‘your son has lost his fortune. He was worth 10,000l. Now he is a beggar!”‘

(Dutton Cook. “Stage Properties.” Belgravia, vol. 35. 1878: pp. 291-293.)