Sallie Partington, the War-Time Actress
By Carter Wormeley
There died in Richmond on January 10, 1907, at 1111 Graham Street, in long retirement and utter obscurity, Sallie Partington. Miss Partington was born in London a few days before the death of Lafayette. She sailed for America during the Crimean war and here became intimately acquainted with the assassin of Abraham Lincoln. During the War Between the States she became a very conspicuous figure at Richmond where, for many years, she was a theatrical favorite and where she was billed as "The Star of the South."
When Miss Partington first appeared before Richmond footlights the old Marshall Stock Company was in full swing and Jefferson was achieving renown. These were the days of the heavy tragedians; of Forrest, of Booth and McCullough. Her advent in this city occurred in the late fifties. Her success was immediate and brilliant.
She had attained the zenith of her popularity when, in 1862, the Marshall Theater burned, and the Richmond Stock Company moved temporarily into the old Variety Theater. This building had formerly been an African church and was situated on lower Franklin Street, just below the Exchange and Ballard Hotels.
Among the salient features of Miss Partington's character none was more predominant than her love for the Confederacy. In Richmond her name was a toast; in the camp she was an idol. A notable hit was scored by her in this city while playing in "The Virginia Cavalier," a war piece written by Captain Alexander, at that time commander of Libby Prison.
It was just before the battle of Chancellorsville that she made her appearance at the old Stock Theater in a war piece entitled "The Ghost of the Dismal Swamp." Jackson was at the acme of his fame. Miss Partington stood before the footlights singing "I am a Southern Girl." Her audience was all attention. At this moment a pet pigeon, somehow loosed in the building, attracted by the stage lights flew from the galleries and lighted on Miss Partington's shoulder.
Reaching her hand to it, the bird perched upon her finger when, bowing to her audience, she said: "Pretty bird; look at him, gentlemen. See, he stands like a second 'Stonewall.' " The house went wild. The papers at once took it up and the anecdote was heralded through the land. The death of Jackson occurred shortly after.
Miss Partington was of the opinion that John Wilkes Booth was the most gifted among his family and maintained to the last her belief that he was never captured. She was not alone a friend of Booth, but also of Mrs. DeBarr, wife of Junius Brutus Booth. Mrs. DeBarr was a character actress in the old Marshall Stock Company. She and Booth later separated.
It was while Mrs. DeBarr and Miss Partington were playing at the Debarr Theater in St. Louis, shortly after the Civl War, that Mrs. DeBarr drew her friend into the green room. Hastily reaching her hand into her bosom she brought forth a letter, and, assuming a most dramatic attitude, exclaimed:
"who will now say that John Wilkes is dead? Behold the evidence of his living hand. I tell you that this letter is from him."
Miss Partington was then given the manuscript. It was postmarked Australia and purported to be from John Wilkes Booth, who wrote that he was engaged in business in his far away retreat.
Miss Partington claimed that Mrs. DeBarr was in constant communication with Booth at this time and that the latter explained to her how he effected his escape, pawned his wife's diamond ring to a sea captain and sailed in a three-masted schooner for Australia.
While Miss Partington was an eminent Shakespearean artist and supported such men as Forrest, Booth, McCullough, Florence, Jefferson and others, she realized nevertheless that her size was against her in the portrayal of the heavier roles. She at times appeared as Meg Merrilles and acted every part, from Lady Macbeth to the Duke of York, in Richard III. She was, however, better adapted to children's parts, she weighing only 110 pounds.
For the reason of her statue she put aside her ambition to become a queen of tragedy, adopting lighter roles and delighting in the child's part in Rip Van Winkle, in which she appeared frequently with Jefferson. This was shortly after Mr. Jefferson's initial production of this play in London, destined later to become the foundation of his fame. Miss Partington appeared often with Barrett, was a friend of Mrs. John Drew and possessed a special fondness for Florence.
Of Jefferson she was wont to say in after years, if any reference was made to her age: "Well, Joe Jefferson is not dead, and I will live until he dies." Upon the death of Jefferson she was sensibly effected, and, indeed, is said never to have again recovered her spirits on learning the "Old Rip" had passed forever.
It will doubtless be of interest to those who recall early drama in Richmond to revert to a few old-time favorites, such as were popular with Miss Partington.
Among these may be listed "The Wandering Boys of Switzerland," in which Miss Partington appeared with her sister, Jennie, both in the portrayal of masculine roles. The young women were so identical in appearance in this piece that, but for Sallie being slightly the taller, they could not have been distinguished, the one from the other."
Miss Partington was also noted in "The French Spy," The Broken Sward," "The Middy Shore," "The Dumb Boy" and similar casts, such as The Barrack Room, "The Little Barefoot" and "Fauchon."
But perhaps the role in which she always scored the greatest triumph was "The Little Highwayman." Here Miss Partington appeared in high, cavalry boots, spurs a yard long, riding whip, a cocked hat, and the inevitable Confederate flag. Naturally of scant statue, she appeared in this toggery like puss in boots and never failed to bring down the house.
It was during the early seventies that Barrett, passing through Richmond, was billed to appear as Hamlet. All indications pointed to a crowded house and the tragedian was desirous of measuring up to popular expectations.
Late in the afternoon of the evening of the performance Mr. Barrett was informed that a member of his company was ill and that there was none to fill the character of Osric. The actor's embarassment was intense.
Of all lines in Shakespeare it is generally conceded among stage folk that those falling to Osric are the most difficult of mastery. They are not long, but they are strenuous--the verbose utterances of this foppish Dane.
In his extremity Barrett was open to any compromise and Miss Partington volunteered her assistance. Her offer was accepted with trepidation and the curtain rose on "Hamlet."
Mr. Barrett subsequently acknowledged that the appearance of his father's ghost possessed not half the terrors for the soul of Hamlet as did the entre of Miss Partington in her character of Osric.
The outcome gloriously belied his fears, and the generous heart of the actor was so high in compliment that evening that Miss Partington was not only the toast at a banquet, but cherished ever after these words of her host:
"Miss Partington is the most finished Osric that ever trod the boards with Barrett." This incident was frequently alluded to by the late actress.
Sunshine and shadow, smiles and tears, are the inevitable portion of those who follow the stage. The career of Miss Partington proved no acception. Devoted to all pets, the actress was an especial fancier of horses. So great was her passion in this respect that by request a play was produced for her entitled "The Ride for Life," in which she appeared only once in New York. In the final scene the heroine was to enter mounted, fleeing from hot pursuit, and firing her revolver as she crossed the stage. This bold dash for liberty was accomplished by Miss Partington perched on an enormous white steed with a back as broad as a table.
Her path lay along a mountain ravine. In the excitement of the moment she was unaware that she held her revolver in her bridle hand. The first report of the weapon was disastrous. Fire from the muzzle of the pistol scorched the charger's neck. The frantic animal reared back on its haunches. In another moment the mountain in the rear had disappeared with horse and rider, the entire landscape was wrecked as by a cyclone, while the dismantled stage offered mute testimony to the escape in "The Ride for Life." The play was never again essayed by Miss Partington.
During the four years of the Civil War, when the popular actress was playing to crowded houses in Richmond, it was her custom to donate the proceeds of her benefit performances to the relief of wounded soldiers. The first Monday in each month was set aside as a benefit night and on such occasion the theater was packed.
Following the war her profession took her into many parts of the country. She achieved a decided hit in a play called "Starlight," which enjoyed a great run in New York. It was while playing in stock at the old Bowery Theater that she was married to William Whitecar, himself an actor. She subsequently separated from her husband.
Evil days befell in course of time when Miss Partington retired from the stage and the footlights became only a memory. No glittering horseshoe entwined its mystic radiance around the closing years of the sad-eyed woman, and her last days lay in the shadow of distress. Today she rests in Hollywood, where sleep the dead of bygone years. And the sacred sod is none the less hallowed by reason of the gentle presence of the little English actress.