Going Backstage with Our American Cousin

I select all of my husband’s reading material.

He’s perfectly capable of choosing a book by himself, of course. It’s just that I happen to work at the Library. And after being together for 25 years, I’ve gotten incredibly good at knowing what his preferences are … um … between the covers.

In the bookish sense, that is.


Backstage at the Lincoln AssassinationOne of the books that I brought home recently for the husband’s consideration was Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination: The Untold Story of the Actors and Stagehands at Ford’s Theatre, by Thomas A. Bogar.  Which prompted my beloved to ask me – in the course of his reading and during what passes for two-plus-decades old marital conversation fodder these days  – about some ancestors who are buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery, a well-known Philadelphia resting place steeped in history.

“Your Hess relatives are there,” I answered, mentally dusting off some genealogical research I’d conducted years ago.

“Huh. Well. You won’t believe this and I’m not 100% sure, but I think two of them might have been at Ford’s Theatre the night Lincoln was shot.”

“Please don’t tell me we’re related to John Wilkes Booth, for God’s sake,” I said. “We have enough problems.”

Now, everyone knows all about the main characters who had a starring role in the first-ever presidential assassination, which occurred exactly 150 years ago. We know about the President and Mary Todd Lincoln and the infamous John Wilkes Booth. We’ve heard of Ford’s Theatre, and some of us might even know that the play being performed that fateful night was Our American Cousin.

But there haven’t been many accolades for the people who were actually onstage and those assisting with the production itself.

Until now.

In Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination, theater historian and author Thomas A. Bogar tells his reader about the 46 actors, managers and stagehands who found themselves in the spotlight during one of history’s defining moments.

And among them? Courtland V. Hess, a 25-year-old singer and actor from Philadelphia who was not feeling well on that ill-fated evening and who was scheduled to play the role of Lieutenant Vernon in Our American Cousin.  Also at the play was William Heiss, who was at the performance to see his brother Courtland (who had, apparently, thought it prudent to drop the pesky family “i” on his quest for fame and glory). William Heiss was somewhat of a Big Deal with the telegraph service; it seems that he was involved with the decision to shut down the commercial telegraphs immediately following Lincoln being shot.

(My husband, who earned a masters degree in American history, is physically cringing that I am writing this post from his memory and without double-checking the actual source for myself. I get that, but … well, I’m on deadline for this column and Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination is, as of this writing, currently checked out. To keep a modicum of nerdy peace in the family, my husband is making me promise you, dear Eleventh Stack reader, and especially Mr. Bogar, that I’ll go back and make sure I know what the hell I’m talking about.)

Regardless, this intriguing tidbit of information – along with my putzing around on the Internet and my previous findings while climbing our family tree – is more than enough to pique my curiosity about our family’s potential connection to the Lincoln assassination.

And what do you know?  Fortunately, there happens to be a place where I can find out whether Courtland Hess and William Heiss are, in fact, our very own American cousins 150 years removed.

Are you curious to learn if one of your relatives had a front-row seat to history? If so, the Pennsylvania Department of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh offers a wealth of genealogical materials, databases and classes for beginner and advanced researchers alike. Contact or visit the Pennsylvania Department at the Main Library of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh to find out more.

~ Melissa F.


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3 responses to “Going Backstage with Our American Cousin

  1. Jackie

    Bravo, Melissa :)

  2. Beth L

    One of my ancestor’s obituaries states that he was an actor and ‘associated with the Ford Theater’ where Lincoln was shot. I did contact them to see if they had the list of folks so I could verify but didn’t get too far. I’ll have to reserve this book now and see if he is mentioned! Thanks for the inspiration!

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