Tragedy On The Stage

The life of an actor in Victorian times was a tough one which could, at times, also prove to be a dangerous one as well.

In a previous article, I dealt with the murder of the actor William Terriss, who was stabbed outside the stage door of the Adelphi Theatre on the 16th of December, 1897.

Whilst doing some further research into murders of Victorian actors and actresses, I came across the following story, which appeared in Croydon’s Weekly Standard on Saturday 30 September 1899:-

JULIA MORRISON SHOOTS FRANK LEIDEN

TRAGEDY ON THE STAGE

“Details concerning the killing of Frank Leiden, the leading actor in the “Plaster of Paris” Comedy Company, show (says a Chattanooga correspondent) that in the middle of the second act, while Leiden was saying his lines, Julia Morrison, the leading lady, who was also on the stage, stepped beside Leiden and pointing a revolver at his heart fired with disastrous effect.

As the actor fell Julia fired again into the body right in front of an almost panic stricken audience.

As Leiden was lying prostrate upon the stage Julia again placed the muzzle of the weapon against his cheek and fired a third shot. She then stepped back from the stage, and another actor advanced to the footlights and asked if a surgeon was present among the audience.

A sketch showing Julia Morrison shooting Frank Leiden on the stage.
From The Illustrated Police Budget, Saturday, 30th September, 1899. Copyright, The British Library Board.

THE AUDIENCE IN A PANIC

A man in the front row asked, “Is that an accident?” to which the actor replied. “No, it is murder.”

A panics then followed, in which Julia Morrison alone remained unmoved.

The actress’s husband who is also a member of the company, stood in the wings awaiting the outcome of the deed of his wife.

The police arrested Mrs. Morrison, the company at the moment demanding the arrest of the husband, charging him at the same time with having instigated his wife to the committal of the act.

WILFUL MURDER

The crowd threatened to lynch both parties, and a large force of police was required to restrain them from committing any violent action.

At the coroner’s inquest a verdict of “Wilful murder” was returned against Julia Morrison, who, in defence, declared that Leiden had persecuted and insulted her.”

SHE KILLS A MAN BEFORE 2,000 PEOPLE

The Pacific Commercial Advertiser published a more detailed account of the tragedy in its edition of Monday, October 2nd 1899:-

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn., Sept. 22.

“Julia Morrison, leading lady in the “Mr. Plaster of Paris” company, tonight shot and killed Frank Leiden, stage manager, just as the curtain went up at the Chattanooga new opera house.

The killing took place on the stage, in the presence of 2,000 people. Leiden expired instantly and Miss Morrison was arrested.

She is but 21 years of age, a noted beauty, and she lives in Kansas.

Leiden is from New Orleans.

A newspaper portrait of Julia Morrison.
Julia Morrison.

BAD BLOOD BTWEEN THEM

This afternoon, at rehearsal, Leiden reprimanded Miss Morrison for some trivial matter and she slapped him.

Tonight, when the curtain rang up, she stepped upon the stage, and, as she did so, more words passed between the two. She then stepped back into the wings and pulled from the folds of her dress a revolver. Three shots were fired, and Leiden fell face forward on the stage in the presence of the horrified audience. All three shots entered the victim’s head.

The greatest excitement prevailed, and indignation is expressed upon all sides.

UTTERLY INDIFFERENT

Leiden, in addition to his position as stage manager, played the leading role in the company.

Miss Morrison is utterly indifferent to the crime she has committed and has not shed a tear.

Her husband, J. H. James, is traveling with her and has been arrested as an accessory to the crime.

Miss Morrison said tonight that she had been insulted by Leiden until she could stand it no longer. She said that she was in the lavatory when the bell for the curtain to go up rang and that Leiden tried to break in and bring her out. She at once secured a weapon, and when Leiden appeared on the stage she shot him as he entered.

Other members of the company say that Leiden sent a woman after Miss Morrison. Miss Morrison also said that Leiden’s conduct toward her was such that she was simply crazed by it.

Her husband was arrested on information furnished by other members of the company. They claim that she was induced to kill Leiden by her husband.

PREMEDITATED MURDER

The verdict of the coroner’s jury was to the effect that the murder was premeditated. The sympathies of the entire company are with the murdered man, they claiming that the killing was unjustifiable, and that the woman is an amateur and got into the company by misrepresentation.

The company has been on the road for three weeks and has been unusually successful.”

THE JURY FOUND HER NOT GUILTY

It seemed like a cut and dried case.

After all, Julia Morrison had shot Frank Leiden dead in front of an audience of some 2,000 people.

But, at her trial, which took place in January, 1900, she was found not guilty by the jury.