A Touch of Scandal:
The Sad Case of Walter Watts
Other than her norm-breaking choice of career, Anna Cora Mowatt was very careful of her reputation and did nothing to endanger her social standing. Her life and career was scrupulously scandal-free… with one exception.
The Olympic Theatre, located off Drury Lane in London’s theatre district had a reputation as what the The Cambridge Guide to Theatre termed “a genteel home of tastefully presented light entertainment.”1 The theater was in the late 1840’s experiencing a boom in popularity under the management of Walter Watts. He was bringing in new plays from the Continent and new actors from America as well as spending lavishly to improve the playhouse itself and provide the audience with thrilling spectacle.
Mowatt describes the heart-stopping effect of a scene in a production of Corneille’s classic tragedy Ariadne at the Olympic in which the title character dives off a cliff seemingly to her death before the astonished audience’s eyes. The secret, Mowatt reveals, is that there were actually three identically costumed Ariadnes. Mowatt herself mounted the first stage of a monumental set piece deemed too precarious to risk the star of the show climbing every night. The journey to the top was completed by an identically clad girl from the chorus. While Mowatt shrieked her final lines from offstage, a spring-loaded device jettisoned a dummy in the Ariadne costume from the top of the cliff in a swan-dive pose. The effect, the actress reports, was remarkably convincing:
The illusion was so perfect, that on the first night of the representation, when Ariadne leaped the rock, a man started up in the pit, exclaiming, in a tone of genuine horror, “Good God! She is killed!”2
These halcyon days for the Olympic came to a sudden, screeching halt with the sudden, unexpected arrest of Walter Watts. To the complete surprise of London’s theatrical community, it was revealed that Watts was actually a clerk at an insurance company. He’d been embezzling funds to finance his lavish innovations at the Olympic as well as a smaller theatre, the Marlybone.
Watts was personable and well-liked. His productions were popular and well-received. Therefore the news of his fraud was a bitter disappointment to the theatrical community. His trial was covered by popular newspapers of the day. The affair is mentioned briefly in chronicles of theatre histories of the time. Diarists connected to the London theatre scene took note of Watts’ fall from grace. This account by Clement Scott eloquently summarizes the scandal:
Nothing could excel the magnificence and liberality of the Olympic management. It seemed to make little difference, or none whatever to Mr. Watts that the public rendered but poor support to the enterprise. On he went, as I have said, swimmingly. Who was Mr. Watts? The question is pertinently answered by Mr. Edmund Yates, in his pleasantly and faithfully narrated “Recollections and Experiences.” Who was Mr. Watts? “Personally, a cheery, light-hearted, pleasant little man, of convivial and champagne-supper-giving tendencies. What was he? Actors in those days were, as a rule, not very clear about business matters; they knew he was not an actor, they thought he was ‘something in the City.’ Something in the City must be, it was opined, a good berth. The position which Walter Watts really occupied in the City was that of a clerk at a comparatively small salary in an insurance office, and the money on which he had lived in luxury and carried out his theatrical speculations was obtained by fraud. By ingenious alterations in the pass-books and ledgers, aided, one would imagine, by gross carelessness of responsible officials” – you see it all now. The gross careless ness and the ingenious alterations of pass-books and ledgers have something like a chemical affinity, producing, so to speak, oscitatiate of fraud.
The bubble burst. The Ides of March had come for Mr. Walter Watts, and all but gone. He had carried on his game at the insurance office to the tune of seventy thousand pounds before the trick was “blown.” Then was Mr. Watts endowed very suddenly by a plain-clothes constable with iron bracelets. The Olympic closed its doors just when Douglas Jerrold had a five-act play in rehearsal – there was quite a Jerroldmania at that time – while an historical tragedy by Westland Marston had been accepted; and poor, knavish, light-whiskered, light-hearted, convivial Mr. Watts was called upon to appear on another scene, and to be the central actor in another tragedy.3
On March 6, 1850, Walter Watts was arrested. The Olympic and Marylebone theatres were closed and their companies dispersed. Watts’ case was heard on May 6, 1850. In a somewhat convoluted turn of justice, he was found guilty not of embezzlement outright, but of theft of paper – specifically the checks he used to steal money from the insurance company. He was sentenced to ten years transportation. Rather than serve this sentence, he committed suicide in his prison cell.
It was a rather unhappy turn of events for all involved. Many contemporary commenters directly connected the names of the American performers championed by Watts to the embezzler’s downfall. The most ominous example of this linkage comes from the diary of the great William Macready:
Why was Anna Cora Mowatt’s name linked with Walter Watts’? Was there any basis to such a connection? Was the famous lady actress, despite her best efforts to maintain her reputation, touched by scandal? I will attempt to answer these questions by looking at five possible points of connection:
We have to back up a year to March of 1849. The actress is 26 years old. Her husband is 43 and in failing health. The manager of the Marylebone and Olympic Theaters is 32 years old.
The first of Walter Watt’s lavish gifts to Anna Cora Mowatt was a gorgeous silver vase weighing 120 ounces. It was lined with gold and surmounted with a statuette of Shakespeare. The cost was estimated at 100 pounds. On side displayed the following inscription:
Presented to Anna Cora Mowatt of
On the other side was a quote from “Measure for Measure”
In her youth
Watts had announced a special performance of Mowatt’s play Armand. He had calculated the projected ticket receipts for that night and used that money to buy the vase in advance and present it to Mowatt at the curtain call of the special performance of the play that she both authored and took a starring role.
This gesture was unusual and extravagant enough for The Times to note:
We hope the partisans of Mr. Forrest will hear of the very handsome manner in which Mrs. Mowatt, the American authoress and actress, has been received in his country. Mr. Watts, the lessee of the Marylebone Theatre, without any stipulation at all as to a benefit gave her the whole receipts of his house on Thursday, paying the expenses himself.7
comment clearly intended as an incitement to the fans of the actor
Edwin Forrest who they felt had been slighted by English audiences. The
deadly Astor Place Riots would take place between fans of Forrest and
the Englishman, Macready on May 10 of 1849.
Anna Cora Mowatt was engaged by Walter Watts for a full-year contract. James Mowatt negotiated an arrangement whereby she was to appear at the Marylebone from September until December and then open the new Olympic Theatre -which was newly rebuilt after a recent fire- and continue on through the close of the season.8 This sort of contract was also highly unusual. At that time, even “stars” were hired show by show.
Eric Barnes reports that James Mowatt sometime during the summer of 1849 entered into a private partnership with Watts in the ownership and renovation of the Olympic Theatre and placed all Anna Cora’s accumulated savings into the venture.9
The Dressing Room
Mowatt reports that when she arrived at her new quarters at the freshly re-furbished Olympic, there was a special surprise awaiting her:
While Mr. Mowatt was discussing with the manager the terms of the engagement, I expressed my surprise at the total disregard of all managers for the private comfort of the unfortunate beings except “stars.” I fancy I made some rather satirical comments upon the style of dressing rooms in which I had spent the larger portion of so many evenings for the last few years. ..
The manager [
Watts was as good as his word. At the beginning of the next season, Mowatt found herself in possession of a dressing room that was the envy of all London, as this excerpt from an 1861 article in The Banker’s Magazine and Statistical Register titled “The Great Frauds of Late Years in England” states:
During the season of
1848 and 1849, Mrs. Mowatt and Mr. Davenport, two American artists, played at
Mowatt herself describes the dressing-room in this fashion:
The apartment to which I was conducted on reaching the theatre had undergone a transformation worthy of Aladdin’s lamp. The carpet was of roses on a bed of moss – the paper on the walls represented panels formed of the loveliest bouquets – a wreath of flowers to match surrounded the ceiling – the gaslights streamed through ornaments shaped like lilies – a most lifelike group of water lilies, executed by Valentine Bartholomew, flower painter to majesty, hung upon the wall – and four mirrors reflected the furniture of pale-blue satin and gold.12
In the forebodingly titled “Facts, Failures, and Frauds: Revelations, Financial, Mercantile, Criminal” author David Morier Evans points out that Watts purpose for Mowatt’s lavish dressing room beyond his star’s comfort and amusement:
However, it was not so much by her exhibition on the stage, as by the combination of her professional with her social position, which Mrs. Mowatt gained her chief celebrity. Walter Watts, as manager of the Marylebone Theatre, did all he could to encourage the young and beautiful “star,” who brought to his house a class of persons such as had never before assembled in the neighborhood of Portman Market. Her dressing-room was fitted up with such exquisite taste, that, situated as it was below the stage, it resembled rather a fairy grotto, than a closet in a minor theatre. There the queen of the evening, at the conclusion of some successful performance, would receive visits from ladies and gentlemen of high rank in literature and arts; there also little suppers, in the most elegant and expensive style, were given to a select few.13
Offstage and on Watts was using access to Mowatt as a draw to bolster attendance at his theatres. The unprecedented amount of money he was spending on her was drawing attention on both sides of the Atlantic. Some were beginning to speculate that his generosity might be inspired by personal obsession with the young, beautiful actress. Others were embittered that they had not received similar treatment. Most importantly, there were those who starting to wonder where all the money was coming from.
The Brain Fever
On the day Watts was arrested, Mowatt was struck by what she called a “brain fever.” She had no memory of anything that transpired for the next four months until she was awakened by a doctor who she identifies as Dr. W-----tt.
Before her collapse, Mowatt complained of increasing memory problems. These were so great that she had to be withdrawn from the bill of several performances – At least, this was the official reason given for her withdrawal.James Mowatt had become severely ill. At his doctor’s recommendation, he was sent to Jamaica to convalesce. His absence left Anna Cora alone in London. She lived in a house with her newly married acting partner E.L. Davenport and his pregnant wife Fanny.
In her Mowatt biography, An Actress In Spite of Herself, Mildred Butler gives the tidy translation that this brain fever was actually a case of meningitis. It could have been, but doubt is cast by the rather more exotic account of Mowatt’s illness relayed by her housemate Fanny Davenport in Epes Sargent’s Scientific Basis of Spiritualism:
In the Chicago
Inter-Ocean for January, 1880, appears an account by an “interviewer” of
the information imparted by the widow of my old friend
“Throughout she called herself “Gypsy,” She referred to her former self as ‘Simpleton,” or more frequently as ‘Simpy” and her voice acquired a peculiarly wide-awake tone. She never opened her eyes, but could write equally well, and by placing a sealed letter on her forehead, would reveal the contents. Of course this event, in spite of our efforts, became noised about, and attracted much comment, especially from the medical profession.
“Did any eminent physicians visit her?”
“Yes; it happed that during this time my daughter Fanny was born, and the well-known Dr. Westmacott, a nephew of the famous sculptor, was in attendance upon me. One day he jokingly inquired, “What is all this I hear about your clairvoyant patient?” I told him the truth, and, of course, as he believed nothing of the kind and pooh-poohed.14
As is clear from this interview, Dr. Westmacott was actually Fanny Davenport’s doctor. He was not treating Mowatt for meningitis. He was present because of Mrs. Davenport’s pregnancy. The Davenports were using mesmerism to help Mowatt recover from whatever was wrong with her. (For more information on Mowatt and her prior experiments with mesmerism, see The Lady Actress.)
It seems more plausible to modern eyes that the actress had suffered a nervous breakdown or other stress-related illness. She seemed to be in a dissociative state with feelings of violence and anger towards herself made manifest by calling herself “Simpleton” and cutting off her hair with scissors when left momentarily unattended.
I have no simple explanation for what caused her to seem to have telepathic and other supernatural powers other than her obvious high intelligence and perhaps a readiness on the part of the observers to apply such labels to behaviors she might have been exhibiting during an emotionally abnormal state.
It is also possible that the Davenports and Mowatt were not being truthful about events that transpired during this unsettled four month period after Watts’ arrest. Although not recipients of lavish gifts like the silver vase Mowatt received or the beautiful dressing room, the Davenports were also the beneficiaries of Watts’ largess. They too received sneering mentions in the diaries of theatrical folk for the boost their careers received at his hand. They too would end up as footnotes in the accounts that were written of his fraud.
During James Mowatt’s absence, E. L. Davenport and his wife served as Anna Cora Mowatt’s chaperons in London. However, Walter Watts’ champagne parties continued. How much pressure was placed on Mowatt to continue to draw in admirers? How comfortable was she with this?
Also, although Watts’ arrest was sudden, there were rumors of trouble long before the constables arrived. The manager’s spending exceeded receipts. There were nervous rumors of insolvency months before the theater’s actual collapse. With all of her savings invested in the Olympic, were these rumors reaching Mowatt’s ears? How much did her housemates know? How much could they shield her?
James Mowatt, though desperately ill, returned from
Jamaica. Although in her autobiography, she says that the stress and memory problems
leading up to her collapse were caused by concern for her husband’s health, for
the duration of the four month “fever,” the actress would not see him. The Davenports aided in this request.
Finally the timing of the end of the Mowatt’s brain fever suggests a tie to Watts. Mowatt’s illness began on the day of Watts’ arrest in March. The manager’s trial was not held until May 6. Watts was confident of his release. He had arranged things skillfully. Although he had embezzled what would amount to well over a million dollars in today’s money, he was careful to always maintain at least partial ownership in all the companies he was withdrawing funds from so that he could claim that he was legitimately borrowing it. When the prosecution came up with the innovative strategy of charging him with the theft of the paper he’d used to write the fraudulent checks, Watts confidently assumed he was going to be let off with nothing more than a slap on the wrist. He was stunned when the judge returned a verdict of ten years.
Watts committed suicide on July 13, 1848 – four months after his arrest.
The Locket and the Silk Scarf
One of the eyewitnesses in Newgate prison testified that Watts hanged himself with rope held together “with a silk handkerchief” and was wearing “a locket suspended from his neck.”15 I have seen no contemporary source positively identify either of those items as having any connection to Mowatt. However Eric Barnes makes the connection bluntly in his biography:
He was hanging quite perpendicularly with his back to the wall. He was in his shirt with a napkin across his chest. Under the napkin was a locket with the miniature of a woman, young and beautiful with long curls falling about her shoulders. He had hanged himself with a woman’s silk scarf.
How many of these details [Mowatt] learned from Dr. Westmacott, or indeed ever learned, is not known. She could not have been ignorant of the miniature for everybody in
Barnes is vague in his notes about where he obtained this identification of the portrait in the locket. Mildred Butler, who is usually Mowatt’s kindest and most sympathetic biographer, repeats Barnes’ assertion that Anna Cora was the girl in Watts’ locket. Marius Blesi, whose “Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt” is the most scrupulously documented of all the 20th century Mowatt biographies, does not mention locket or scarf at all.
After Watts’ death, the Mowatts would reunite and attempt to recover what was left of their finances, health, and sanity. With a dying James’ blessing, Anna Cora went on to a triumphant tour of Ireland. She went on to further successes in the provinces. James Mowatt died February 15, 1851. His passing put a natural punctuation mark on her European adventure and the actress returned to the U.S in July of that same year.
She would never again achieve the height of success of her days at the Olympia and the Marylebone. Many of her literary friends cooled towards her and were never again as passionate in their praise of her achievements.
In 1859, the author of “Facts, Failures, and Frauds” felt Mowatt was still shouldering too much of the blame for Watts’ misdeeds:
Before quitting this remarkable but chief episode in the career of this “high-art criminal,” attention should be called to one fact, the ignorance of which has furnished occasion to much calumny and injustice. Many persons have supposed that the theatrical speculations of Mr. Watts were the cause of his crimes, and on this account the position of Mrs. Mowatt has been fearfully misconstrued, especially by her own countrymen. Now, it is perfectly certain that Walter Watts was deeply involved in crime long before his managerial frauds began, and long, indeed before the American artists, who acquired so much celebrity at his theatres, had quitted their native land. When they came to England, they found Watts an established director of a London theatre, at which the most respectable members of the theatrical profession had “starred;” and if his outlays were more than ordinarily profuse, Americans, whose personal style of living is described as elaborate, and even more than Parisian, had no right to be suspicious, when Englishmen, who had much better opportunities for forming a correct judgement, looked on without mistrust. As for the costly presents to Mrs. Mowatt, and the splendid appointments of her dressing-room, they could scarcely astonish a lady fresh from a country where the adulation of talent is carried to an extent that seems ridiculous in Europe; and certainly if any presents at all are within the limits of propriety, they are those that are made by a manager to his chief artist.17
Echoes of the scandal may have lingered for a long time, though. Her name was still linked to Watts’ when accounts of his fraud were being written ten years later. When Mowatt returned to England in 1865 after marriage to William Foushee Ritchie had dissolved, she could not find work as an actress or drama coach. She was only forty-six years old at this time – no longer a very young woman but hardly too old for the stage. All her old theatrical connections had completely dried up. She died in Twickham in 1870 as an invalid with few friends by her side.
Her mention of the Walter Watts affair in her autobiography is very circumspect. She rarely mentions him by name. How much she knew about his financial misdeeds and exactly when she knew it are a matter of conjecture. Unlike the secret of the three Ariadnes that Watts and his designers devised to bedazzle the audiences of the Olympic that Mowatt revealed in her autobiography, if she knew anything about the identity of the woman’s portrait in the locket around Watts’ neck and why he chose to hang himself with a silk scarf, she carried that secret to her grave.
1. Banham, Martin and James R. Brandon (eds.) The
Cambridge Guide to Theatre. Cambridge University Press: London, 1998. page 819
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