Compared to many other occupations, the acting profession may seem like a safe alternative, but at a time far less safety conscious than we are accustomed to in the modern era it had it's perils and pitfalls - as many theatrical performers of the time found to their cost. A significant source of danger to actors was the seemingly indiscriminate use of real weapons on the stage*, and among the many incidents attributable to this practice was a terrible tragedy that occured at the Novelty Theatre on 10th August, 1896. An accidental stabbing on stage in full view of the audience cost an actor lost his life, and led to much debate in the press about the perils of a life in the acting profession.
(* see Weapons on the Stage).
The occasion of the tragedy was the first night in London of Mr. Frank Harvey's melodrama Sins of the Night, a tale of greed, murder and intrigue. At the end of the play, the character of Pablo, a creole, kills Ramez, a villainous Spaniard, who earlier in the story had seduced and killed Pablo's sister, Abima. On the night in question, all went well in the play until the final revenge scene. Actor Wilfred Moritz Franks, playing the part of Pablo, then thrust a dagger at fellow actor Temple Edgecumbe Crozier, playing Ramez, the while crying "I have kept my oath - my sister is avenged - die, villain, die!" Tragically the scene became a terrible reality, the dagger used by Mr. Franks, which was a real one, penetrating the breast of Crozier and inflicting what would prove to be a fatal wound.
The incident occured just before the curtain drop prior to the final tableau, and as the curtain fell the audience were quite unaware that anything untoward had occured. Mr. Franks, who did not appear in the final tableau, released the blade after the thrust in order to let it drop to the floor as he left the stage, and made his exit without realising he had, in fact, left it embedded in the breast of his friend and colleague. Another actor, Charles Lilliford, who also appeared in the revenge scene, realised immediately that Crozier was hurt, however, and rushed to his side during the few moments that the curtain was lowered. He pulled out the dagger from Crozier's flesh and asked the injured man if he was alright - whereupon the stricken actor replied "Don't worry, old man. I'm all right". Lilliford then resumed his position for the final tableau as the curtain began to rise again. Moments later, when the curtain lowered for the last time he returned to Crozier's side in order to aid and comfort him.
Even at this point, it was not yet realised just how serious Crozier's wound was, as there was very little blood evident, and water and brandy was administered in an attempt to revive him. Medical assistance was sent for and Dr. James Bremner, of 26, Drury Lane, arrived on the scene within ten minutes of the incident. He found Crozier lying on the stage surrounded by his fellow actors who were doing their best to comfort him but it was already too late. Although there was little external evidence of bleeding, the doctor found life to have become extinct as a result of syncope caused by failure of the heart's action due to loss of blood.
The Police were then summoned, and Detective Inspector Sara of Bow Street Police-station arrived on the scene a short time later to investigate. Upon his arrival, Crozier's body was still laying upon the stage, and when D.I. Sara enquired as to how the death had occured Mr. Franks stepped forward and stated "I did it. It was an accident. It is a terrible thing." When shown the dagger he said "Yes, it was done with that. He was the villain of the piece". D.I. Sara then told Franks that he must arrest him on suspicion of manslaughter, and Franks was taken to Bow Street Police-station where he was charged accordingly.
An inquest into Crozier's death was held a few days later at the St. Giles Board of Works in Bloomsbury, conducted by Dr. Oswald.
Called upon to give evidence as to the cause of death, Dr. James Bremner, of 26, Drury Lane, who had attended the victim on the night, said that he was called to the theatre a little after midnight and was told of the accident. He found Crozier to be already dead, lying on the stage, and on examination found a puncture wound, half an inch across, between the second and third ribs, close to the right side of the breast-bone. There was very little blood. The post-mortem examination revealed that the narrow part of the right lung was pierced, as were the pericardium and aorta. The pericardium was full of blood from the wounded artery, and this internal bleeding had been the cause of death. The depth of the wound was only one and a half inches.
Giving evidence as to the weapon that had inflicted the fatal blow, and which he had taken into custody, D.I. Sara described it as a jewelled dagger, with a sharp, narrow blade about six inches long. The handle had been wrapped in cloth and there was no spring in the blade, which was firmly fixed in the the socket.
Mr. Franks then identified the weapon as his own personal property, which had he had been asked to supply for the production as the manager of the piece was unsure whether the theatre could provide a suitable 'property' weapon. In fact, prior to the performance, Franks had been offered such a piece, but had chosen not use it as it was of inferior appearance, being poorly made from tin.
When asked by the coroner if he had ever used a real dagger, like the one he used on the night in question, on the stage before, Franks replied: "That was the only time I ever used it or any one like it. I have, however, seen sharp weapons used. I account for the velvet being around the handle of the fatal dagger by the fact that it was put round it to hide the jewels. It was placed on by Miss St. Lawrence's dresser."
He went on to explain that he had not felt the use of such a weapon on stage to be especially dangerous as there is a well-rehearsed movement commonly practiced by actors in which the weapon is turned in the hand at the last moment causing it to land flat against the body whilst appearing to the viewer to inflict a stab upon the victim. He further explained that he and Crozier had rehearsed the scene repeatedly beforehand, and had carefully measured the distance between them to achieve the best effect with safety. He felt sure that he had not moved from his own 'mark' and that poor Crozier must have moved toward him at the fatal moment.
When asked if he knew he had stabbed Crozier, Franks replied "Then? No. I only thought him to be in a fit." He went on to explain that he only realised that Crozier was stabbed after the curtain had fallen.
Franks also stated that he and Crozier were good friends who shared a dressing-room, and that Crozier was planning to lodge with him while his family were away. Crozier had also borrowed the same dagger with which he was stabbed to use in his own stabbing scene, the killing of Abima, played by Miss Winifred Wood.
Other members of the company also testified to the good relations between Franks and Crozier, and also to the generally poor state of Crozier's health, some evincing the opinion that he may have feinted at the conclusion of a hard night's work and stumbled forward, thus presenting his breast to the point of the weapon at the vital moment.
On conclusion of the evidence, the coroner, in his summing up, described the occurrence as "a most melancholy tragedy," and advised the jury that from all the evidence he did not think that there was anything to justify them returning a verdict of wilful murder in the cause of Crozier's death. Accordingly, and after only a very brief absence, the jury returned a verdict of "Death from misadventure" - adding a rider expressing the opinion that dangerous weapons should not be used upon the stage.
The day after the incident, the management of the Novelty Theatre held a meeting with the cast to discuss how to proceed in the aftermath of the tragedy. Removing the play and reintroducing the piece which had preceded it was considered, but this was found to be impractical as the scenery and properties necessary for the former had already been taken on elsewhere. Consequently, it was determined that "The Sins of the Night" should be continued, but the final scene was so modified that the stabbing of the Spaniard was omitted. At the commencement of the play that evening the manager addressed the audience as to the dreadful accident which had occured, in consequence of which the part of Mr. Crozier would henceforth be played by Mr. Harold Child whilst that of Mr. Franks would be taken over by Mr. Robert Smith. He then begged the indulgence of the audience for the entire cast who were still in a state of shock over the terrible incident that had occured.
The deceased, who played under his real name, was a son of the Reverend James A. Crozier, of Coston Rectory, Melton Mowbray - a retired Army chaplain. Educated at King's College, Warwick, Crozier had then been apprenticed to a well-known firm of corn merchants at Liverpool, but, finding the work not to his taste, had left that employment and drifted for some time before he found employment with travelling shows in the county of Durham. He thereafter made some advance in his chosen profession, acheiving some success in the provinces (where he first made the acquaintance of Franks) before making his way to London. The night of his death was also the occasion of his West End debut and the opening of his most prominent role to date. He died aged just twenty-four. His body was returned to his father at Melton Mowbray to be interred next to his deceased mother in the parish churchyard.
Reproduced below are a collection of period articles prompted by this event.
(The Daily Mail [UK] - 13th August 1896)
PERILS OF AN ACTOR'S LIFE
Dangers of the Profession
The fatal accident at the Novelty Theatre the other night has vividly brought home to the public mind the numerous dangers and difficulties of the actor's profession. A well-known player, for instance, has written:-
"I dont suppose many people consider an actor's calling particularly perilous. The majority probably have never considered the question at all, and the few who may have done so, unless themselves actually in the profession, would scarcely be in a position to appreciate the dangers to which, as a matter of fact, the actor is constantly exposed.
To begin with, all actors but the very small proportion of the members of the profession who have permanent positions in London have, under the modern touring system, to make more or less lengthy railway journeys every week. Thus actors probably run a greater risk of meeting with railway accidents than members of any other profession except commercial travellers. Like all travellers, too, actors and singers are particularly liable to contract severe, even fatal, illnesses through sleeping in damp beds. Indeed, many a one, among whom the late Mr. Joseph Haas may be quoted as an example, has met an untimely end in this manner. The actor is, indeed, in every way exposed to the danger of catching cold.
For instance, there is no draughtier place than the stage of a theatre, and from the time he enters his dressing room to make up until he leaves the theatre after the performance the actor experiences more variations of temperature than any one else is called upon to brave in so short a period. Clad perhaps in one act in furs, and in the next in the lightest of summer garbs, he comes from a stifflingly hot, badly ventilated dressing-room to stand about the draughty wings. Finally he leaves the heated atmosphere of the theatre, tired out with a hard night's work (and acting is hard work), to encounter the chilly night air. Any actor or actress must possess a hardy constitution indeed to avoid constant illness.
Typhoid fever also is now to be dreaded by the touring Thespian. Readers who have formed their ideas of these mysterious sanctums from the descriptions given of them in the interviews with popular actors, will hardly credit the fact that actors dressing-rooms, for the most part, are not the luxurious apartments their fancy paints, but bare, white-washed attics; sometimes, as a matter of fact, they are cellars, badly lighted and worse ventilated, draughty and dirty, and with little or no accommodation for dressing purposes.
In many provincial theatres, aye, and good ones, too, the artists comfort is the last thing studied. Refined and delicate ladies and gentlemen have to occupy veritable dens during a performance. Expensive clothes are ruined and constitutions undermined, but to complain is frequently but to be met with insults; never to obtain redress or bring about improvement. Playgoers little know what actors suffer in this respect. Not only do theatrical artists run the gauntlet of sickness, but they are exposed to a hundred and one dangers of which the audience sees and knows very little. Fire is one of the least of these. Since the terrible calamities which have occurred on the stage, most people have a nervous dread of fire when at the theatre. They forget that the danger is far more imminent to the actor than to the spectator.
It is behind the scenes that the fire almost invariably commences. Consequently it is the actor who runs the first risk, and, whereas nowadays the safety of the audience in point of exits is carefully studied, that of the artists is comparatively but little thought of. In certain theatres I could name, were a fire to break out on the stage during a performance, escape for the actors would be well-nigh hopeless. There are few people in the theatrical profession, I think, who could not recall some occasion on which a fire has been narrowly escaped, and when the audience probably was entirely unconscious of its threatened peril. And one or two actors could tell of terrible moments that have seemed to them hours, when, quietly proceeding with their parts, they have diverted the attention of those in front from the commotion behind the scenes, where, as they well knew, every effort was being made to extinguish a blazing 'cloth' or 'border,' and avert a terrible disaster.
Has the reader ever stood upon a stage and looked up info the flies, I wonder, with its rows of cloths on heavy rollers, suspended some thirty or forty feet above him, its borders and its battens? If so, he may realise the danger of 'something breaking away.' With the constant heat from the gas, the ropes suspending rollers and battens become dry and rotten as tinder, and frequently the slightest shock will bring them down, to the, perhaps, life-long injury, or even death, of anyone beneath. An act-drop came away bodily a short time ago in a country theatre, severely hurting three members of an opera company; and only the other day a stage-manager was knocked down and stunned by a falling piece of scenery in his own theatre. Some time ago, too, a 'sky border' fell at a London theatre during the performance, considerably startling the audience, and again two players had a narrow escape.
A friend of the writer's once witnessed a terrible accident through a 'counterweight' falling. It was in a Lancashire theatre, and as stage-manager he was in the 'prompt entrance,' ready to ring down, while close beside him stood the gasman, waiting to 'raise the floats' in anticipation of a call. As the final situation of the act was developed he pulled the fly-bell and hastily stood back to avoid the heavy roller of the act drop. As he did so he heard a heavy, sickening crash. Turning round he beheld the poor gasman with his head crushed in by a heavy counterweight which had fallen some twenty feet.
Happily, fatal accidents on the stage are rare, but when playing in melodrama the actor incurs all kinds of risks. His immunity from serious harm, indeed, must be ascribed to the fact that when worked up by the situation he is oblivious to danger, and, like the somnambulist and the drunken man, performs feats which in calmer moments would be impossible. He may be shot or stabbed, and not unfrequently is, the writer himself and dozens of others having met with both fates. He may break his legs in attempting a jump of ten or a dozen feet, or fracture an arm or a rib by an elevated platform giving way; or he may fall through a trap carelessly left open, or through a hole, unnoticed in the darkness, into the cellars twenty or thirty feet below.
Horses too are frequently introduced on the stage, and are always dangerous neighbours, and more than once they have fallen through the stage, in one instance into a ladies dressing-room beneath.
Of course in a London theatre during a run the stage is specially prepared for any big sensation scene, and the details of the scene adapted to the requirements of the stage. But when the play goes on tour things have to be taken as they come, and accidents are very liable to occur. As a specimen of making believe 'it was all in the play,' I can vouch for the truth of the following:- A drama was being played in which one of the characters is placed by the villain insensible on the underground railway, to be rescued by the leading man from a passing train. But on one occasion the train did not pass; the funnel of the engine caught against the keystone of the arch, bringing down three or four huge 'flats' upon rescuer and rescued. Luckily neither was hurt, but in the next act the leading man, who was also the manager, paralysed the company by remarking to the villain, 'Scoundrel! Finding you could not kill him under the train, I believe you pulled out the centre brick and let the tunnel down on us!' An ingenious man that!"
Not all of the press agreed with the general sentiments being evinced in articles like the above - some, indeed, found the whole business to be somewhat overly histrionic. Indeed, the Westminster Budget of 21st August, 1896, had the following to say:
The unfortunate occurrence at the Novelty Theatre has, as might have been expected, brought forth a wail not only loud but long from a certain section of the dramatic profession on the dangerous nature of that calling. To listen to these lucubrations it would be imagined that soldiers on the field of battle were in absolute safety compared with the perils which surround the presumably peaceful pursuit of the player. The risks they run in railway journeys are dwelt upon with pathetic insistence, although comparatively few of them travel more frequently than once a week; and they are evidently quite unaware of the fact - as they invariably are of all facts outside the limited experience of their calling - that statistics show that if a man lived until he was killed in a railway accident he would probably outdistance even the record of Methuselah. Then the bogey of typhoid fever is presented to the listener's horrified gaze as being likely to be caught in insanitary dressing-rooms, when even the Board school child has by this time been taught that this disease can only be acquired by the swallowing of some material in which the germ is living. Fire, too, is one of the dangers, but it is not nearly so likely to hurt the actor as the audience, as a simple reference to the record of such calamities will show, while the penalty they will pay for sleeping in damp beds must be set down rather to the credit of their own stupidity and lack of elementary knowledge of hygiene than to the danger incidental to their profession. That actors are a hardly used race, no one who knows anything of the conditions to which they are frequently subjected by the managers will deny; but that a man must be a hero to face the dangers he will encounter on the stage is a proposition which anyone with an average acquaintance of the actors who are to be met under the ordinary conditions of the social life of the moment may be pardoned for smiling at.