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Maurice Barrymore: An English Actor in the Wild West

Originally published by Wild West magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Had it been up to Big Jim Currie, the fallen matinee idol would have died face down in a puddle by the back door of Harvey's eating and drinking establishment that night. But miraculously, Currie's unarmed victim had survived three shots fired point-blank and was expected to make a full recovery in time to testify to the events of March 19, 1879, near Marshall, Texas, that had left a fellow actor dead and an actress bereaved.

A troupe of prominent New York actors had left that city in January and had braved the dust and alkali of a 1,200-mile train trip to present Diplomacy, Victorien Sardou's drama of political intrigue and diplomatic treachery, in a series of exclusive engagements across the Lone Star State. Heading the cast in the role of a high-minded French bureaucrat–and co-producing the play–was one of Broadway's most sought-after leading men. The real-life drama that unfolded in March near Marshall, an east Texas town near the Louisiana border, was unlike any show Maurice Barrymore had ever been in before. It was a genuine frontier show–a Western showdown.

Herbert Arthur Chamberlayne Hunter Blyth, born in India of a respectable English family on September 21, 1849, had taken the name Maurice Barrymore from a playbill soon after disgracing the Blyths by becoming an actor in 1872. The public response to Barrymore had been one of unanimous pleasure. Amid the usual array of dandified Victorian heroes, he cut a figure of unforgettable grace, dash and masculinity. During what was to have been a brief stint in the United States in 1875, Barrymore became a hit in New York City. A year later, Broadway impresario Augustin Daly offered the actor a permanent place in his renowned stock company.

At Daly's, Maurice Barrymore found a home. There he met and married Georgiana Drew, who was of a prominent theatrical lineage. By the summer of 1877, each had prospered under their employer's meticulous grooming. Georgiana was on her way to becoming one of the era's best-loved comediennes, while Maurice had fluttered innumerable hearts as 'the handsome and treacherous lover' Raymond Lessing in the long-running Pique.

Then, in September, Daly suddenly proclaimed himself on the verge of bankruptcy. With Georgiana pregnant (Lionel would be born on April 12, 1878), Maurice began to look for alternate ways to make a living. A recent inheritance enabled him to purchase the touring rights to Diplomacy, which had enjoyed moderate success in America after debuting to rave notices in London a few years before.

The fledgling actor-manager believed that the tour could be a financial success. He took on a partner, Frederick Warde, and, calling themselves the Warde-Barrymore Combination, they booked Diplomacy on an extensive run. Warde would take one company on a series of engagements in the Northeast and upper Midwest, while Barrymore would head to the Southwest and perform in myriad Texas towns recently made accessible by the railroads. In January 1879, the partners set off with their respective companies.

By the middle of March, the Combination had good reason to be optimistic. Audiences were appreciative, if not abundant, critics were warm, and the production had held its own financially. In that relaxed and congenial atmosphere, Maurice's brother-in-law, John Drew, got up the courage to propose to the love of his life, actress Josephine Baker. She readily accepted.

Another member of Barrymore's company, Ben Porter, fell in love through the intervention of a portable coffeepot. The device, which Porter had procured while a Union volunteer in the Civil War, made him the center of off-duty attention. Late night chats over coffee with another cast member, Ellen Cummins, grew amorous. One evening after a caffeine boost, Porter nervously proposed. If the portly 39-year-old was somewhat hesitant, it was only because he was already married. Since the war, he had dutifully supported a wife from whom he had long been estranged, while also caring for his mother, as well as his widowed sister and her son.

The beleaguered Porter's luck now seemed about to change. As the train headed out of Galveston, he announced to the troupe that Ellen Cummins had consented to marry him as soon as he could obtain a divorce.

Not surprisingly, the Diplomacy performers were in high spirits when they entered Marshall in the early evening of March 19. The little town, known as the 'Gateway to Texas' because of its proximity to both Louisiana and Arkansas, prided itself on its reputation as a cultural oasis, and deservedly so. It boasted several theaters, the most distinguished being Mahone's Opera House, where the Combination would play a single performance that night. As had been the case in the cast's last few appearances, there wasn't an empty seat to be had in the Mahone. The production was flawless, with Barrymore and John Drew exceptional as the leads, Henry and Julien Beauclerc. No audience on the entire tour had showed its enthusiasm for the play so thoroughly. Under the circumstances, Barrymore had good reason to feel confident about the future of his troupe.

After leaving the theater, the company repaired to the Depot Hotel just outside of town to await a train, still some three hours away. Maurice Barrymore, Ben Porter and Ellen Cummins strolled over to Nat Harvey's Lunchroom for a cup of coffee. The establishment stood on the station platform some 30 feet away from the Depot Hotel.

As they entered through the front door, they noticed a saloon that had been set up behind a screen in the back of the large room, the front being occupied by an eating bar. There were no other customers. At the eating bar, Ben and Ellen ordered coffee and Maurice asked for a light ale. Barrymore drank the beverage and then excused himself to see to the luggage while the couple stayed on to have dinner.

While Nat Harvey took their order, a customer came in through a side door and sat down in the saloon portion of the restaurant. He was tall and heavy, with a large black mustache. He wore a white sombrero and a dark frock coat. Unmistakably drunk, he called out to the owner for a glass of ice water. Harvey strode over at once–Big Jim Currie, he knew, was not a man to be kept waiting. Even when sober, Big Jim was known for having a violent temper, and he had managed to stay out of jail only through the influence of his brother, Andy Currie, the mayor of nearby Shreveport, La. Big Jim had recently shot and killed three men under mysterious circumstances while serving as a detective for the Texas & Pacific Railroad. Over 6 feet tall and weighing 220 pounds, Currie's size was intimidating enough. But the bulky fellow also wore a pair of identical Smith & Wesson revolvers under his coat.

'I guess I better take a little budge with it,' said the big man after Harvey brought him the ice water.

'You better go slow, Jim,' Harvey suggested. 'You look like you've had enough.'

'No, I must have some,' Currie insisted. 'It's much too good a thing around here.'

Harvey complied. As Currie gulped down his liquor, he noticed Ellen Cummins' reflection in a long mirror beside the bar. 'There's a high tossed whore if I ever saw one,' he commented.

'Come on, Jim,' said the proprietor. 'You don't know if she's a lady or not. She's behaved herself, and I'd rather you didn't make no such remarks.'

'That's all right, partner,' Currie muttered, getting up to leave the bar. Big Jim walked across the room, his gaze now fixed on Ben Porter, who sat leaning back with his hands clasped behind his neck. 'You threw your hands up when I passed you,' accused Currie, repeating the gesture. 'You can't give me any guff like that.'

'My friend if you allude to me,' Porter answered calmly, 'I hadn't thought of you; I was talking to this lady here.'

'If you say that you're a damned liar.'

'I'm in company with a lady and prefer you didn't make remarks of that kind in her presence,' said the actor, 'but if you want a difficulty you can see me anywhere you like outside the house.'

'Hell of a lady she is!'

'Jim, Jim stop that!' yelled Harvey from across the room.

At that moment, Maurice Barrymore re-entered. 'Go away,' he said quietly to the seething Currie. 'There's a lady here.'

'Maybe you want to take it up, you damned whoremonger,' Currie spat.

Barrymore turned quickly to Porter. 'Get Miss Cummins out of here,' he begged. Reluctantly, Porter and his fiancé left the room by the front door.

'So you want to take it up?' repeated the bully.

'Well, I'm not particular, but I am unarmed.'

'So am I,' said Currie.

'Haven't you a pistol?'

'No.'

'Will you swear you haven't?'

'Yes.'

Barrymore removed his coat. He hadn't mentioned that as London's most talented young pugilist, he had won England's Amateur Middleweight Boxing Championship at the age of 22. Confidently, he assumed his stance. Not to be outdone, Currie drew both Smith & Wessons from beneath his coat and leveled them at his unarmed opponent. A moment later, he opened fire. The first bullet tore through Barrymore's left arm before embedding itself in his chest. Hurtling backward, the victim looked frantically for something to hurl at his assailant. The barstools were bolted down. Another shot struck Barrymore's boot, causing the actor to make a run for it the best he could. Currie gave chase. Crashing through a side door, Barrymore fell heavily into the yard as a third bullet struck a nearby wooden barrel. From the hole in the barrel, a stream of water puddled beneath the now motionless actor.

Currie turned and strode back into the room, about the same time that Ben Porter came running through the front door. 'For God's sake,' Porter shouted, 'Don't murder an unarmed man!'

'God damn you, I can kill the whole lot of you!' Currie yelled, pulling the trigger. A ball tore through Porter's stomach, coming to rest just at the point of exiting his back. Ben staggered a few feet toward the door and collapsed near the threshold.

Hearing the shot, Ellen Cummins ran to the commotion. At the sight of her fiancé sprawled in the doorway, she screamed. John Drew arrived next. He was in search of his brother-in-law, Barrymore, but instead found Big Jim, glowering with revolvers cocked. Drew froze momentarily as their eyes met. The gunman thrust him aside before passing through the front doors. Staggering about the station platform, Currie began to rail incoherently, pausing now and then to take random shots into the night.

According to one spectator, as Currie made his 'trail-blazing jaunt,' Marshallites began to gather at the scene. None attempted to disarm him until the arrival of Arch Adams, a lawman known for his courage in the presence of dangerous men. Carrying a double-barreled shotgun 'at half-mast' by his side, Adams calmly approached Currie. 'Jim, I've come to arrest you and take you to jail,' the deputy said, his gaze steady on the big man. The fight went out of Currie. 'All right Arch, I'll go with you,' he said. A moment later he was disarmed and led off to jail.

With order restored, R.W. Thompson of the Texas & Pacific Railroad sought help for the wounded men. He summoned Dr. Elon Johnson, who transformed the passenger waiting room of the Depot Hotel into a makeshift hospital. Ben Porter died, however, just a few minutes after being brought into the room. As he was being undressed, the bullet that had killed him fell out of his back.

Maurice Barrymore was seriously wounded but hanging on. Dr. Johnson noted in his examination that the ball had fractured Barrymore's scapula before coming to rest beside an artery in the actor's back. Unable to stop the bleeding, the doctor called in two local surgeons, B.F. Eads and John H. Pope, for consultation. Barrymore was taken to a first-floor room at the hotel for surgery, while the troupe's survivors sat crestfallen in the lobby awaiting the outcome. It was not until dawn that the doctors emerged with the news that the bullet had been removed and the operation a success. Upon regaining consciousness later that afternoon, March 20, the patient gazed curiously at the tiny slug that had nearly killed him.

'I'll give it to my son Lionel,' Barrymore said, according to John Drew's later recollection, 'to cut his teeth on.'

As Maurice Barrymore lay confined to his sickbed, east Texans and others tried to make sense of the shootings. The initial newspaper accounts often had conflicting information. The Denison Daily News reported that Porter and Currie had been gambling shortly before leaving for Harvey's, that the two men had argued, and that Big Jim had fired in self-defense. According to the Little Rock Daily Gazette, Porter had been shot in the right eye, the ball having gone 'though his brain, killing him instantly.' Afterward, the newspaper went on, Currie had gone on a shooting rampage and, finally, 'to show his utter lack of feeling,' had 'walked up to a dog lying on the floor and stamped its head.'

Marshallites would not learn the truth about the shootings until three days afterward, when Nat Harvey's testimony at the coroner's inquest of March 21 appeared verbatim in Marshall's Tri-Weekly Herald. When the story reached the nation, Texans were reviled in newspapers across the country. The St. Louis Democrat called the state 'a place where whiskey and pistols are too plentiful and law and order too scarce.' The New York Times, read by many theatergoers, would report on the shootings eight times during the spring of 1879.

Meanwhile, Shreveport Mayor Andy Currie arrived at Marshall to arrange for his brother's defense. At his side were the Crain brothers, noted criminal lawyers from Caddo Parrish. If Harvey's damning testimony at the inquest wasn't bad enough, Big Jim made matters worse. From jail he told a reporter that he 'had no regret at what he had done…[only] that he had not killed the entire party.' His attorneys knew they would have their work cut out for them.

On March 25, while Ben Porter's funeral was being held in New York City, what was left of the Diplomacy cast held a benefit performance in Marshall to raise money for Ben Porter's mother. Despondent Marshallites–the main focus of condemnation ever since the shootings–spared no expense in supporting the actors and making them feel welcome. Afterward, Ellen Cummins made an 'exquisite little speech of appreciative thanks.' Her career, though, was practically over. Distraught over the murder of her fiancé, she would return home to Louisville and seldom set foot in a theater again.

Maurice Barrymore proved far more resilient. Although his partnership with Frederick Warde lay on the brink of financial ruin as a result of the shootings, he remained in good spirits during his month-long convalescence–due to both the arrival of his wife, Georgiana, on the day of the inquest and the solicitude of his hosts. As soon as he could be moved, four of the city's elite carried his stretcher the mile distance from the Depot to the elegant Capitol Hotel at the center of Marshall. General W.P. Lane walked alongside the entourage with an umbrella, shielding Maurice from the afternoon sun. At the hotel, the Barrymores were given the best rooms free of charge.

Contrite Texans also went out of their way to accommodate the tour's remaining dates. Being two actors short, the company could not perform Diplomacyany longer, but two farces were hastily thrown together. Benefits were given all over the state, with citizens showing much hospitality to the dispirited company. Although the money earned might have saved the Warde-Barrymore Combination, Barrymore insisted that all $5,000 of the proceeds go to Mrs. Porter.

On July 3, 1879, the murder trial of Jim Currie began–and was quickly postponed after the defense complained that all the witnesses were not present. At the recommendation of her doctor, Ellen Cummins had been allowed to give her testimony by deposition. Nat Harvey, having sold his lunchroom to an undisclosed buyer for an unusually large sum, had mysteriously vanished. After rejoining his company's tour for its final performance in Philadelphia, Maurice Barrymore returned alone to Marshall for the trial, enthusiastic at the prospect of seeing justice meted out to the killer of Ben Porter. But when Judge A.J. Booty caved in to the defense's delaying tactic, Barrymore made no secret of his disappointment. 'This reminds me of our performances in England,' he told the court. 'We commence with a tragedy and end with a farce.'

The new trial date, June 10, 1880, would at least give the prosecution time to track down Harvey, its star witness. The former saloon owner was finally found near Fort Worth and brought back to Marshall under arrest. At the appointed time, Barrymore again returned to Texas, to be joined by Ellen Cummins a few days later. Finally, on Monday the 14th at 1:30 p.m., after a lengthy jury selection, the trial began. The three eyewitnesses recalled with unimpeachable clarity the details of the drunken assailant's rampage. Their testimony, it seemed clear, would incriminate Jim Currie beyond a reasonable doubt.

When the defendant's turn came, his counsel, now swelled to eight lawyers, attempted to show that Currie had somehow acted in self-defense. But despite the testimony of 23 witnesses they called, the evidence to support their claim remained weak and unconvincing. 'Lies!…incredible lies,' Barrymore was heard to exclaim, evoking a stern rebuke from Judge Booty.

Next, the defense argued that Currie was not guilty by reason of insanity. Dr. T.G. Ford of Shreveport was brought in to testify that the defendant was likely not in his right mind at the time of the shootings. At this, the defense rested.

Closing arguments dragged on in the packed, sweltering courtroom for the next two days. At 7 p.m. on June 18, 1880, the judge presented the case to the jury. 'With what can be characterized as indecent haste,' reported the Herald, the 12 jurymen reached their verdict in just 10 minutes. 'With unabashed pride,' the foreman stood and announced their decision: 'We the jury find the defendant not guilty by reason of insanity.'

As the courtroom erupted, Andy Currie, with his brother alongside, strode over to Maurice Barrymore. With an outstretched hand, the mayor smiled and invited the incredulous actor to supper. Barrymore answered back angrily. Big Jim Currie then lunged forward, only to find himself held fast by his brother. Without further incident, the Curries quickly departed.

'He wanted me to shake hands with his brother,' said the sickened actor to District Attorney W.W. Spivey as they turned to leave. 'I told him that blood was thicker than water…that despite the verdict of those twelve intelligent jurymen, I still consider his brother a cowardly murderer.'

'But Big Jim was standing right there,' Spivey said.

'Certainly, and he didn't open his mouth. He wouldn't have caught me unawares a second time.'

At the station platform, Maurice Barrymore ventured a few choice words for the small gathering that had come to see him off. 'A set of blackguards, the whole lot of them,' he railed, 'from that evil-looking judge downwards! They must have been squared by somebody. I guess there wasn't a man in court who wouldn't sell his soul for a whiskey sour!'

Indeed, there was little doubt that the jury had been bought. Following the trial, one of the prosecuting attorneys told a local newspaper that 'money had probably been used with the jury.' Major John M. Cass reported that one of the jurors paid for a shave with a $10 bill from 'a roll of greenbacks he took from a side pocket.' Another was quoted as saying that 'he had not been on the jury for nothing.'

Despite their success in the courtroom, the Curries had by now worn out their welcome in Marshall. Andy returned to Shreveport, but not before exiling his brother to New Mexico–where he was set up running a saloon in partnership with a mining prospector. To no one's great surprise, Big Jim shot and killed his partner a few years later. This time in court he was found guilty and sentenced to serve 20 years in the penitentiary at Santa Fe. But, in March 1891, the convicted murderer was released after serving just two years–again due to the intervention of Andy Currie.

In the end, his brother's tireless efforts were unable to save Big Jim from himself. Not too many years after his release, a Mexican bandit pulled a revolver during a brawl and shot him in the chest at close range. He was reported to have agonized on a barroom floor for several minutes before he died.

Maurice Barrymore returned to New York at the close of the trial on the night train from Marshall. He would never return to Texas. Awaiting him was Broadway stardom–and a legacy unparalleled in the annals of theater and film. His children, Lionel (1878-1954), Ethel (1879-1959) and John (1882-1942, would grow up to remake the New York stage of the 1920s in the Barrymore image and go on to screen immortality in the decades that followed. In 1982, Maurice's great-granddaughter, Drew Barrymore, made her movie debut at the age of 6 in E.T., which until recently was the highest-grossing film of all time.

It was a legacy that but for the bad aim of a drunken gunfighter would never have been.


This article was written by Terry Shulman and originally appeared in the April 1998 issue of Wild West.

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