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The Last Days of John McCullough by Joseph Haworth

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"The Last Days Of John McCullough"
by Joseph Haworth
(First Published in Donahue's Magazine, July 29, 1894)

John McCullough-bust on pedestal-B&W-Resized.jpg (30978 bytes)

The actor can leave nothing behind him but a memory. Substantial evidences of his talent cannot remain after their author has ceased to be. What he possesses of world-inspiring genius must accompany him when be bids adieu to the footlights of earth and passes to that eternal stage where there is no shifting of scenes, no straining for effect, and where every part assigned by the omnipotent manager must be played forever.

It is in this respect, this limitation of his sphere of artistic endeavor to his own contemporaries, that the actor's calling is inferior to the other professions. The artist paints pictures which live and are admired by successive generations, until time has worn the oils from the canvas. The chiseled monuments of the sculptor's genius exist for centuries after the hand that carved them has been transformed into dust. The poet's songs, the novelist's characterizations, the playwright's productions, the minister's sermons, have no limit placed upon their existence.

But the actor's works can have no being when lie is dead save in the kindly recollections of those who witnessed his performances. After his death they enshrine him in their hearts and speak of him in words of love; but when those hearts have ceased to beat, and tongues can no longer utter loving phrases, the glory of the actor has departed and he becomes a tradition.

The place which John McCullough won for himself in the affections of his admiring countrymen was as conspicuous as it was unique. Great-hearted himself, he was naturally beloved in great-hearted America. ,Nearly nine j' ears have passed since his noble spirit freed itself from its mortal tenement, but time has only served to fan the fame of love in the souls of those who knew him.

The career of John McCullough, from the time when he was a poor friendless unlettered boy until he became one of the foremost tragedians of the age, was of so marvelous a character that it commanded respect and admiration. His hosts of admirers are so familiar with his great achievements that no word of mine is needed to refresh their memories. I have been asked to write of the shadowed phase of this wonderful man's career ; of those dread days. which led up to the end.

John McCullough was a player of tragedies, but his own life culminated in a tragedy which, though bloodless, was more awful in its character than any he portrayed, A tragedy wherein a human body is sacrificed is a horrible spectacle to contemplate. Poor McCullough's sacrifice was still more ghastly, for his was a tragedy of the mind, Insanity claimed hint as its victim, touching hint at first in so light and almost playful a fashion that it could hardly be regarded seriously, but continuing in a more assertive manner to clutch the unfortunate actor in its spectral grasp, until finally his sturdy intellect tottered and fell from its throne. It was a sight that compelled a nation to shed tears of sympathy; but to us whose fortune it was to be near this great and good man, it was an event so intensely pitiful that it will never be forgotten.

In the early part of the season of 1583, my second year with McCullough, I first detected symptoms of his mental weakness. It was in Philadelphia, while we were playing Virginius with the "Governor," as we loved to call McCullough, in the title-role. In the front scene, I, as Icilius, addressed him, and, to my surprise, he hesitated in his reply, as if his tongue was partially paralyzed. This lasted only for an instant. The audience did not notice that anything was wrong, and the occurrence was of so transitory a nature that it produced no effect upon me. The next night the same hesitancy was noticed, but even then the members of the company did not realize that there was any serious trouble.

Following the Philadelphia engagement, this hesitancy of speech manifested itself again and again in the cities we visited. There was also apparent, from time to time, a forgetfulness, which, combined with the other symptoms, forced us to the conclusion that all was not well with the "Governor." Captain Conner, his manager and warm friend, who was always solicitous for McCullough's health, became alarmed at the oft-recurring lapses of memory, and advised him to go abroad. This advice was followed at the close of the second season. McCullough visited Carlsbad and other places, but on his return to New York it was evident that no cure had been effected.

During the summer his disease continued, and when in September we met at McVicker's theatre, Chicago, to rehearse for the third and last season, it was painfully apparent to all the members of the company. Notwithstanding his condition, we started on the road, and for three weeks nothing of an unusual character occurred to mar our performances. During our stay in Milwaukee, McCullough and I were invited to the Soldiers' Home, by General Sharpe. The soldiers were all assembled in their hall to greet us, and to entertain them we gave the famous quarrel scene between Brutus and Cassius. McCullough was not in first class condition, his speech being slow and indistinct. For an encore, he recited, in simple fashion, "The Stowaway," and when this was loudly applauded, he insisted that I should read "Shamus O'Brien." I had hardly concluded, when McCullough started from his chair, took my arm, and saying, " Come, we must go," led me to the carriage. On the way I expostulated with him, and suggested that before taking our leave so unceremoniously, we ought to pay our respects to General Sharpe. The " Governor" curtly replied "No!!" flee sat in the carriage for some time without speaking, as we drove away, and then turning to me said, "Joseph, I will play for you tow-fit." The night came, the play was Virginius, and his performance was rnagnificent. Never had I seen him in better form. We all congratulated him, loping against hope that we might have been deceived regarding his mental condition.

Toward the latter part of September we reached Chicago, where we were billed for a two weeks' engagement. The first week was devoted to Virginius, and the play ran smoothly enough, owing to the vigilance of the members of the company, who were now always out the alert to bide from the audiences these evidences of mental weakening. On the Thursday night of our first week, McCullough gave a rendering of Virginius, the equal of which I never saw before, it was so rounded, finished, and beautiful. Mr. Elwyn Barron, the eminent critic of the Chicago Inter-Ocean, who was present, rendered a most complimentary verdict. Another well-known writer, Mr. McPhelim, of the Tribune, who has been termed the Willie Winter of the West, detected on the succeeding night the "Governor's" true condition, and advised in forcible Saxon his retirement, in order that the American public and his own health might be mutually benefited,

On the second Monday, Sept. 29, 188.1, came the Gladiator by Dr. Bird, with the following cast :

Spartacus - John McCullough
I'hasarius - Joseph Haworth
Crassus - John A. Lane
Bracchius - H. A. Langdon
Sentulus - J. H. Shewell
Jovius - Joseph Ransome
Crixus - Erroll Dunbar
Floras - Frank Little
Enomaus - Edward Wilson
Fighting Gaul - William Haworth
Gellius - Porter J. White
Centurion - William Ingram
Senona - Mrs. Augusta Foster
Julia - Miss
Viola Allen
Child - Master Frank Thropp

The "Governor" entered the theatre quite late, looking strangely dazed. lie was dressed about a quarter past eight o'clock, and commenced his final public performance. The piece ran without ;t blemish until the second act, where the brothers meet in the arena, Spartacus recognizing Phasarius. They embrace at a curtain cue which McCullough gave me. I rushed to him and threw my arms about his neck. To my amazement he did not respond by word or action. I looked up to see what was the matter. The tears were in his, dear old eyes. lie was trembling like a leaf from head to foot, and in accents broken by his emotion he clasped me about the neck, and said: "For God's sake, Joe, give me the line! " I did so. We finished the scene for which we were accustomed to receive five and six recalls; on this occasion we were given only two. The " Governor" turned to me as we came off, and said: "They" (referring to the audience) "are treating us gloriously to-night."

In the next act the" Governor" could not remember his speeches, and, to keep the scene up, I spoke his lines and my own. lie looked at me in a helpless sort of way for some time, then said (loud enough for the audience to hear), " My boy, you are speaking my lines."

The audience laughed, and some hissed. I paid no attention to this demonstration, and delivered the famous Crucifixion speech as follows :

I saw a sight last night which turned my brain and set my comrades mad. The Roman highway is each side lined with crosses and on each cross is nailed a gladiator. Well, 'twas night, when, with a single follower, I did creep through the trenched army to that road and saw the executed multitude uplifted on the horrid engines. Some moved and writhed in mortal agony. Some howled and prayed for death. Some turned to lunatics and laughed at horror, while some with fierce and hellish strength had torn their bleeding arms free from the beams and so had died grasping headlong at air.

With this forcible conclusion I grew hysterical and sank upon the floor at Spartacus' feet. McCullough with none of his old-time power delivered this line: "I swear for this to make Rome howl." The tears were rolling down his sunken cheek.

Later in the play Florus addressed Spartacus as follows: "General, you are best go to your tent; you are not fit for battle." The audience applauded and laughed and hissed again, thinking it a rare joke to see the great actor in his cups. They did not know the truth.

Now the climax was fast approaching. The scene was reached where Crassus, enacted by John A. Lane, stabbed Spartacus. McCullough did not fall till prompted to do so by 11r. Lane; and the auditors, perceiving only the humorous side of the situation, gave vent to their feelings in derisive laughter. McCullough awkwardly fell, gazing abstractedly at Crassus, and spore the concluding lines of the tragedy: " Set forth your sails, we shall be in Thrace anon." The words were ominous, like a prophecy, and when he had finished the curtain was lowered never to be lifted again for John McCullough.

After be was assisted to his feet by Mr. Lane and myself, be went before the curtain and said: "Ladies and gentlemen, you are the best-mannered audience I ever saw. If you had suffered to-night as I have, you would not have clone this. Good-night." These were McCullough's last words before the curtain.

At the close of this performance, Mr. Brooks, the acting manager, notified the company that the season had closed, as Mr. McVicker would not permit the theatre to be opened the following evening. It was a tearful crowd of players that left the theatre that last night of ours. Previous to his departure _McCullough instructed Mr. Vance, the stage manager, to put up a call for rehearsal for the following morning at 11 o'clock. lie himself had not been apprised of the closing of the season, Mr. Brooks thinking it best to humor him at rehearsal next day.

In the morning the " Governor," as soon as lie arrived at the theatre, called me to him and said, "Joseph, the papers did not treat us very well this morning. I'm afraid we did not cover ourselves with much glory last night. But we'll do better to-night." The Gladiator was rehearsed, and, strange as it may appear, he knew his lines almost perfectly. A sorrowful scene was enacted during the rehearsal, where Spartacus gives his wife and child to the care of his brother Phararius with the well-known words, " I entrust to you what is dearer to me than life, my wife and child. Guard them well." Mrs. Foster, as Senona replied, " Oh, husband, do not send me away; if I leave you now it will be forever." All of the company were deeply affected at hearing these significant words. This scene I do not think was ever so beautifully rendered before the public as at this rehearsal. Richelieu was then announced for rehearsal, and all went well until after the curse speech. The " Governor " would at times give flashes of his "old-time fire," but in this particular scene he really excelled every former effort. At the close of this speech the entire company applauded vigorously. He seemed pleased, but shortly after, when Baradas speaks to De Beringhem, saying "his mind and life are breaking fast "; referring to the cardinal, and the "Governor" turned to administer the rebuke, his eyes filled, his frame shook, and lie could not utter a word.

Joseph Haworth as Icilius in Virginius with ornate frame-B&W.jpg (69571 bytes)

The company retired at the close of rehearsal after seeing the "Governor" to his carriage. He was driven to the Leland Hotel, where be was informed by Mr. Brooks that Air. McVicker refused to allow him to play the next night. McCullough became furious, and walked up Michigan avenue in search of Mr. McVicker, vowing all sorts of vengeance upon him for the alleged insult to him and his mental condition. A few days passed, and having determined to go to Detroit to fulfill his next engagement, he went to the depot and sat in the waiting room, gazing about him in a dreamy sort of way. Friends endeavored to persuade him to go back to the hotel, but he was obstinate. I was sent for, and I tried to induce him to' return by telling him that I was to have a little spread at the Leland in his honor, and had invited a number of friends to meet him. Said McCullough, "I am going to Detroit," at: the same time looking absently at his hands.

" But," persisted I, "they will be very much disappointed if you don't appear. It's the first favor I ever asked of you, and I think you might comply." McCullough responded, You never asked me for a favor, eh? Didn't I make you ? " It was with great difficulty that I finally induced him to return to the hotel.

Shortly- after this sad ending of his theatrical career, McCullough took up his abode in New York, from which place he frequently made trips to Philadelphia, to see his wife. lie never remained long with her, always starting away suddenly, to fill some imaginary engagement.

About this time, I also moved to New York, where I devoted a great deal of tine to my dear friend, walking with him on Broadway, and reading with him in his room, in the Sturtevant House.

One night an incident occurred which showed, that despite his mental failing, his heart-impulses were as strong as in the days of his triumphs. We were sitting in the office of the hotel chatting, when a pale little lad entered with musical tops for sale. The groups of loungers pushed the boy rudely aside and spoke harshly to him. When the "Governor's" glance fell upon him, he said, " Come here, my little man. What are you doing out so late at night?" "I am trying to sell these tops," the boy replied. The little fellow was quite worn and wasted, like a consumptive, a fact which gave color to his statement that his mother was dying of the disease at home. I believe the boy was thoroughly honest and deserving, for at mention of that sacred name "mother," the tears filled his large blue eyes.

McCullough grew interested as the boy talked on, and asked at last ' What age are you, my little man ? "

"Eleven," replied the boy.

"And you support your mother on what you make from the sale of these tops?"

"Yes, sir; but my mother used to sew until she became ill, and now I have to do what I can to help her and the little ones along." And with these words he burst into tears.

McCullough patted the bent head, and gave the boy a bank note, saying, "Keep the change, my boy ; you need it more than I do. Be good to your mother always. You can never have but one. God bless you, my noble little fellow ; God bless you!

He was doubtless thinking of his own early years, when he, too, struggled for the comfort of his mother, to whom he was greatly devoted, and whose memory he lovingly cherished. I have often heard him say: "My mother's face was the sweetest I ever saw."

The boy stood dumfounded at the success of his appeal, and gazed at the "Governor" until he summoned up courage to say: "Thank You, Sir," and with a look of great happiness in his pale face, be turned away.

McCullough's time was now consumed in study or reading. I visited him daily at his room, where he often read to me from the " Wife of Miletus," a play by the talented Greek scholar, Timayennis, which lie admired very much. While reading, he would often stop to discourse on some passage that pleased him particularly. At such times he frequently lost his place, and read again the lines be had previously rendered, not realizing how treacherous his memory had become.

Not long afterwards it was deemed imperative to send him to an asylum, where his malady could have proper treatment. Bloomingdale was selected; and on June 27, 1885, he was placed in that institution, where be remained until Oct, 25 of the same year, when he was removed to his home in Philadelphia, at the earnest request of his true-hearted wife, who lived at 219 East Thompson street. They had been separated for many years, but McCullough's early love for her was revived as his intellect weakened. The flame of his affection had not entirely died during their separation, for I often heard him speak lovingly of her during our travels together. I remember one Christmas eve lie called me to his room and showed me a roll of black silk, saying that it was a present for Mrs. McCullough. I could not resist re. marking, " I am glad of that, Governor, for this is the season when peace and good will should be the order."

McCullough smiled sadly, remaining silent for a couple of minutes. Then he said: ,She was a good little soul, but she could not keep pace with me." He was proud, however, of her affection for him, and he told me of an incident that happened a few days previous, when he called to see her. When he left her house one of the neighbors inquired of his wife, " Is that your great husband?"

" Yes," responded Mrs. McCullough with warmth.

"Well," continued the gossip, "he has lots to do to come here and show himself after keeping away so long. I wouldn't have a husband like that."

"Ah," replied the wife of the tragedian, "I am prouder of his coat tails than you can be of your husband's whole body."

After McCullough was taken to Philadelphia from Bloomingdale, lie received the tenderest care and consideration from his wife, who administered to his slightest wants. For a short time she had the satisfaction of seeing her husband apparently grow brighter and stronger, but it was the last flicker of his life's candle which was shortly to be extinguished forever. His brave wife, who was also an invalid, being a sufferer from a cancerous disease, to which she succumbed a short time after her eminent husband's death, was constantly at his side to cheer up the sinking soul, and make bright its passage to eternity. Occasionally McCullough had sufficient strength to sit in his armchair; but he had lost the power of articulation and was as helpless as a child.

The end came on Nov. 8, 1885. There was no struggle, only a sigh for what might have been, as he gazed for the last time upon her whom he now loved so dearly. His nurse, William Nutt, first observed tile fatal change. Mrs. 'McCullough had just left the room, but was recalled to the bedside by a word from William. The dying man's face was flushed with an unhealthy glow, and it wore an expression which told too plainly that the soul had tired of its earthly habitation, and was ready to go in search of immortality, Dr. Engel was sent for. When he arrived he informed Mrs. McCullough that the end was slowly but surely drawing near. The little woman's heart was breaking,

Mrs. Wirth, a sister of the "Governor," his son James' wife, the physician, and Mrs. McCullough gathered about the bed, their muffled sobs and soft whispers playing a mournful requiem for the departing spirit. Hypodermic injections of brandy and ether were used to revive him; but the effect was only momentary. At ten o'clock on Sunday morning, while the sound of church bells fell upon the ears of L ho tearful group of persons about the bedside of the dying, tragedian. McCullough looked up and turned towards his wife. His eyes sere full of moaning and encouragement, but he could not speak. The tongue that had thrilled countless thousands was now unable to articulate a sill: Fe word, but the dumb eloquence of the master of Art was there; and his wife understood what he Pain would have spoken. A look of questioning forgiveness lit up in his fond eyes - a look that said. "Farewell. Thou good and faithful heart." and his eyelids closed. his breathing grew weaker and weaker, until the tiny clock on the mantle told the hour of one. A few minutes later and Dr. Engle pronounced - "the end."

McCullough had breathed his last. How the news flashed over the wires from Maine to California! How many joined in the sorrow of the bereaved household in Thompson Street: Who boasted so many admirers. .lie so many Wends? And they were loyal to his memory. Death did not rob him of even one, and the sighs that rent up from their hearts would, if unrestrained, have made a moan, that like a Hurricane would have swept the earth, and loudly syllabled the death of poor John McCullough.

 

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