The Life and Death of William Terriss
Frederick Lane had not slept well.
The Royal Entrance to the rear of the Adelphi Theatre, then and now. © British Newspaper Archive/Google, 2015.
As the understudy to one of the leading lights of the Victorian acting world, his mind was already fraught with nerves, but the dream he’d endured the night before had shaken him badly. In this dream he had seen:
‘…Mr Terriss, lying in the landing, surrounded by a crowd, and he was raving…it was a horrible dream, and I couldn’t tell what it meant.’
Later the following day, on Friday 17th December 1897, he saw a shabby looking gentlemen intently watching the stage door of the Adelphi theatre. Lane had presumed that he was an admirer of one of the actors due to perform there later that evening and thought nothing of it.
Lane continued going about his business as one would, until a commotion suddenly erupted behind him. Turning around, the calm street scene he’d walked throughwas now a flurry of anguish. The odd-looking bloke that he’d seen earlier was being bundled away by screaming bystanders and the chap’s hands were covered in what appeared to be blood. There was something on the floor, stirring, out of view from the rabble infront of it.
Lane ran towards the private doorway of the playhouse where the group was standing and saw William Terriss on the floor, raving. ‘I am stabbed‘ . The true horror of the premonition that had visited him the night before then snapped into comprehension.
William Terriss, the greatest actor of the age, had been murdered and Lane had received a premonition of it.
© Spudgun67, via Flickr.
Originally born William Lewin; Terriss was regarded as the Chris Hemsworth of his day and just as widely admired. Women loved him, men adored him and his versatility as an actor had him known across the empire. The sensation and abruptness of his murder filled every newspaper with reports of condolence and a nation was left in mourning.
Briefly serving in the Merchant Navy, as a tea-clipper in Bengal and as an apprentice engineer, (a modern day employer would bawk at his CV) it was his love of amateur theatricals that led to his first involvement with the stage, first treading the boards in Birmingham in the 1860’s. It wasn’t until the 1870’s that he decided it was ‘an actor’s life for me’. He would take the leading roles in Ivanhoe, Romeo and Juliet and Nicholas Nickleby.
William Terriss (William Charles James Lewin) as Romeo in ‘Romeo & Juliet’ by Herbert Rose Barraud, published by David Bogue carbon print, published 1 January 1885 © National Portrait Gallery, London
William Terriss (William Charles James Lewin) as the King in ‘Henry VIII’ by Swan Electric Engraving Co, after Unknown photographer photogravure, 1892 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Affable, popular and considerate, he was well known for the support and financial aid he offered to his less experienced colleagues despite his own success.
One such actor was Richard Arthur Prince.
Born in Dundee, Prince had come to London to find his fortune. Finding no more work than bit-parts and minor roles, Terriss had begun helping him secure roles and even sent him money to subsidise his living. Prince however lacked the star quality (and frankly, talent) that ‘Breezy Bill‘ had built a career on.
Increasingly destitute and desperate, Prince began to become mentally unstable. ‘Mad Archie’ as he was known on the circuit, had lost everything; his own sister telling him that ‘she’d rather see me starve in the gutter than give me another shilling‘. Prince increasingly blamed Terriss for his hardship and sought to seek revenge by ending his life so that he would get all the leading roles his generous benefactor would have taken.
Prince stabbed Terriss three times; once in the back, once in the side and then the fatal blow, to his heart, where the knife was thrust so violently that it sliced through his forth and fifth rib. Terriss, gasping for breath, told the crowd to ‘get away, get away’, finally gulping ‘oh, my God!’ before dying in the arms of his leading lady and mistress, Jessie Millward.
Taken from Lloyds Weekly Newspaper, Saturday 19th December 1897. Price was seen to ‘continually turn and twist the ends of his dark moustache’ © British Newspaper Archive 2015.
The trial that followed was divisive as much as it was tabloid fodder. What was even more sensational was the leniency of the sentence that Prince received. Surely destined for the gallows, he was judged ‘not responsible for his actions’ and was sentenced instead to life imprisonment in Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, where he died in 1936. Sir Henry Irving, the other acting heavyweight of the era, angrily commented:
‘Terriss was an actor, so his murderer will not be executed’.
Over 10,000 people arrived at Brompton Cemetery to bear witness to his funeral; this is by far and away the biggest funeral the cemetery ever saw.
Contemporary reports tell us that he pallbearers, the coffin atop their shoulders, had to jostle amongst the crowd to navigate their way to his graveside from the gateway of the cemetery to it’s eastern wall, on a terrace not too far away from eminent Victorian engineer John Fowler. He also has a second grave – that of his wife in the central nave of the cemetery; presumably this was a better location for mourners to pay tribute and allowed his family to have his actual resting place remain a little more private.
Was this all foreseen?
Bizarrely, the prophecy that Frederick Lane experienced was a phenomenon that Terriss himself been touched by the previous week at the Green Room Club:
“What do you think? I’ve just had my fortune told and the woman says that I will die a violent death.”
Even more bizarrely, his fox-terrier, ‘Davie’, (which had been sitting on his wife’s lap at the time of the incident) began snapping and barking in such a manner it frightened everyone in the household the very minute he died – 7:22pm.
And let’s not get started on his alleged ghost…
The very knife that killed Terriss as displayed in the Crime Museum exhibition at the Museum of London in 2015. It is still stained with his blood.
My thanks to Martin Sterling in the research for this post.
References & Source Material
Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, Saturday 18th December 1897
The Era, Saturday 18th December 1897
Lloyds Weekly Newspaper, Sunday 19th December 1897
Hull Daily Mail, Friday 24th December 1897
The Crime Museum Uncovered; Jackie kelly & Julia Hoffbrand
All articles are from the British Newspaper Archive.