Joseph Jefferson

Last updated

Joseph Jefferson
Joseph Jefferson - Brady-Handy.jpg
Joseph Jefferson III

(1829-02-20)February 20, 1829
DiedApril 23, 1905(1905-04-23) (aged 76)
Spouse(s)Margaret Clements Lockyer
Sarah Warren
Appletons' Jefferson Joseph signature.jpg

Joseph Jefferson III, commonly known as Joe Jefferson (February 20, 1829 – April 23, 1905), was an American actor. He was the third actor of this name in a family of actors and managers, and one of the most famous 19th century American comedians. Beginning as a young child, he continued as a performer for most of his 76 years. Jefferson was particularly well known for his adaptation and portrayal of Rip Van Winkle on the stage, reprising the role in several silent film adaptations. After 1865, he created no other major role and toured with this play for decades.


Life and career

Jefferson was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. [1] His father, Joseph Jefferson, Jr., was a scenic designer and actor and his mother an actress. He appeared onstage early in life, often being used when a play called for "a babe in arms". His first recorded appearance was at the Washington Theatre in Washington, D.C., where he appeared in a benefit performance for the minstrel Thomas D. Rice. [2]

Jefferson was married twice: at the age of 21 in 1850, to actress Margaret Clements Lockyer (1832–1861), who died young after bearing their four children. After Jefferson returned to the United States after the end of the Civil War, he married again in 1867 to Sarah Warren. She was the niece of British-American actor William Warren.[ citation needed ]

Early career

Jefferson as the young Rip Van Winkle Joseph-Jefferson-Dis-Von.jpeg
Jefferson as the young Rip Van Winkle

In 1833, at the age of four years, Jefferson was carried on stage at the Washington theatre in a bag by an actor named Thomas D. Rice. He put Jefferson alongside him in black face and dress with Rice performing his well-known character "Jim Crow" and little Joseph as Little Joe. In 1837, at age eight, Joseph performed at the Franklin theatre in New York City with his parents as a pirate. After the end of the 1837-38 season, his parents moved with Joseph, his brother Charles Burke, and his sister, Cornelia, to Chicago. [3] There they performed in the young city's first resident company, the Chicago Theater, at the rough-hewn Sauganash Hotel. Joseph sang comic songs, played bit parts, and performed the role of the Duke of York. [4]

His father died when he was 13, and young Jefferson continued acting and helping to support the family. Both Jefferson and Burke performed continuously, and the entire family toured in what was then considered the American West and South. Traveling theatre to theatre, Jefferson performed and worked everywhere in between Boston to Charleston as far as Chicago. The family led the lives of "Strolling Players", essentially itinerant actors. [5]

At one point they followed the American army from 1846-1848 during the Mexican–American War. [2] Jefferson learned to perform in a variety of space, for instance in the dining rooms of country hotels, without any stage or scenery. He put together makeshift footlights by mounting tallow candles on a strip board nailed to the floor. [6] He was one of the seven founding members of the Actors' Order of Friendship, a benevolent society founded in Philadelphia in 1849. He also served as the Order's first Secretary. [7] It was not until after he returned to New York in 1849 that he began earning critical success and financial rewards. [8]

After this experience, partly as actor, partly as manager, he won his first pronounced success in 1858 as Asa Trenchard in Tom Taylor's Our American Cousin at Laura Keene's Theatre in New York. This play was the turning-point of his career, as it would be for actor E. A. Sothern. Jefferson revealed a new spirit in comedy, at a time when actors were long used to a more artificial convention. He also portrayed pathos in the part.[ citation needed ]

Other early parts included Newman Noggs in Nicholas Nickleby , Caleb Plummer in Dot (an adaption of The Cricket on the Hearth ), Dr. Pangloss in George Colman the Younger's The Heir at Law , Salem Scudder in The Octoroon , and Bob Acres in The Rivals . The actors created this part beyond what Sheridan appears to sketch.[ citation needed ]

Jefferson as the old Rip Van Winkle, 1896 Joseph Jefferson as Ripvanwinkle by Napoleon SArony (1821-1896).jpg
Jefferson as the old Rip Van Winkle, 1896

In 1859, Jefferson made a dramatic adaptation of Washington Irving's story of "Rip Van Winkle", drawing from older plays. He acted it with success in Washington, D.C., with Sophie Gimber Kuhn playing the role of Lowenna. [9]

Moves to Australia and London

In 1861, due to his failing health and the death of his wife, he moved to San Francisco and then sailed to Australia. [10] He arrived at Sydney in the beginning of November 1861, and played a successful season. He performed in and produced Rip Van Winkle, Our American Cousin, The Octoroon, and other plays. He opened in Melbourne on March 31, 1862, and had a most successful season extending over about six months. He continued to act there and in Tasmania. In his spare time in Australia he was a painter, specialising in landscapes. [11]

After spending four years in Australia, Jefferson sailed to London. There he met Dion Boucicault, who revised Rip Van Winkle, turning it into "a pronounced success and [it] ran for one hundred and seventy nights." With opening night on September 5, 1865 at the Adelphi Theatre in London, Jefferson portrayed what would become one of the most celebrated characters of the 19th-century stage. [12]

Later years

Jefferson returned to America in August 1866. He continued acting in Rip Van Winkle for 40 years, creating no new character except for minor ones. He was known for this single character, and admired for his success in London and Australia. [13]

As John Maguire [ who? ] wrote in 1909, "It was then that America greeted the return of the wanderer, proud of the victory of an American actor in an American play in foreign lands. This fame added to the glory of his country, both at home and abroad…" [14] Returning to America, Jefferson made it his stock play, making annual tours of the states with it, and occasionally reviving The Heir at Law in which he played Dr. Pangloss, The Cricket on the Hearth (Caleb Plummer), and The Rivals (Bob Acres). He was elected to The Lambs Theatre Club as an Honorary Lifetime member in 1890, [15] and was one of the first to establish the traveling troupes who superseded the old system of local stock companies.[ citation needed ]

Jefferson also starred in a number of films as the Van Winkle character, starting in the 1896 Awakening of Rip . This is held in the U.S. National Film Registry. Jefferson's son Thomas followed in his father's footsteps and played the character in a number of early 20th-century silent films. Joseph Jefferson made several recordings, all of material from Rip Van Winkle.[ citation needed ]

Jefferson essentially created no new character after 1865, except for minor parts. He was known as a one-part actor. The public never wearied of his one masterpiece. Francis Wilson wrote in 1906, "He was Rip and Rip was he." [16] Jefferson was rewarded by the theater community with being elected lifetime president of The Players Club. [17]

In 1869, Jefferson bought a place called Orange Island in New Iberia, Louisiana. There he built a large home. [18] The site is on a peninsula on Lake Peigneur; the peninsula became known as Jefferson Island in his honor. [19]

Jefferson died from pneumonia on April 23, 1905, at his home in Palm Beach, Florida. [20]


Joseph Jefferson as Dr. Peter Pangloss by John Singer Sargent Joseph Jefferson as Doctor Panglos.jpeg
Joseph Jefferson as Dr. Peter Pangloss by John Singer Sargent

Jefferson's name continues to live on through the Joseph Jefferson Awards Committee in Chicago which offers awards in recognition of excellence of Chicago's Equity and non-Equity theaters and their productions. Jefferson Island in Mashpee, Massachusetts, which was once known as Stayonit Island, is named for him. [21]

The Joe Jefferson Players, a theatre playhouse founded in Mobile, Alabama in 1947, took their name from Jefferson. [22]

His former home on Jefferson Island, the Victorian-era Joseph Jefferson Mansion (built 1870) is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is operated via private ownership but is open to the public. Surrounding the home is the Rip van Winkle Gardens, 20 acres of gardens which was rebuilt in the 1950s through the 1980s and contains a 550 year old oak tree that Grover Cleveland once slept under. [18] [23] [24]

Jefferson's son, Thomas (1856-1932), was a noted actor. He occasionally played the Rip Van Wrinkle character, including in some silent feature films.[ citation needed ]

Writer Joseph Jefferson Farjeon, son of his daughter Margaret Jefferson (1853–1935), was named after him.

In archy and mehitabel , a tomcat tells of his grandfather, a "theatre cat" who played Joseph Jefferson's beard when his prop beard fell off during a performance. [25] This story was used in the musical archy and mehitabel , and in the adaptations of that musical into Broadway, television, and animated film.

Jefferson's birthplace at Sixth and Spruce Streets in Philadelphia is on the Pennsylvania Register of Historic Places, and a memorial plaque has been placed upon the house.

Publications about Joseph Jefferson


  1. American Art Annual, Volume 5. MacMillan Company. 1905. pp.  121.
  2. 1 2 Winter, William (1886). "Sketch of Joseph Jefferson". Harper's New Monthly Magazine (73): 394. Retrieved January 24, 2011.
  3. Winter, William. The Life and Art of Joseph Jefferson. Norwood Press.
  4. Adler, Tony (2005). "Theater". The Encyclopedia of Chicago (online  ed.). Chicago, Illinois: Chicago Historical Society and Newberry Library.
  5. Winter, William. The Life and Art of Joseph Jefferson. Norwood press.
  6. Winter, William. The Life and Art of Joseph Jefferson. Norwood Press.
  7. "Actors Have an Anniversary: The Semi Centennial of the Order of Friendship". The Times. January 13, 1899. p. 4. Retrieved December 30, 2020.
  8. Wilson, Francis (1906). Joseph Jefferson; Reminiscences of a Fellow Player. New York: C. Scribner's Sons. pp.  29–30.
  9. More Theatre M - Z, Alvin H. Maril and William T.Leonard, Scarecrow Press, 1993, p. 1021.
  10. Winter, William (1886). "Sketch of Joseph Jefferson". Harper's New Monthly Magazine (73): 395. Retrieved January 26, 2011.
  11. Smith, James (ed.), The Cyclopedia of Victoria, Vol. III, the Cyclopedia Company, Melbourne, (1905), pg. 30.
  12. Jefferson, Eugenie Paul (1909). Intimate Recollections of Joseph Jefferson. New York: Dodd & Mead. pp. 137, 148.
  13. Winter, Wilson (1894). Life and Art of Joseph Jefferson, Together with Some Account of His Ancestry and of the Jefferson Family of Actors. New York: Macmillan. p.  183.
  14. Jefferson, Eugenie Paul (1909). Intimate Recollections of Joseph Jefferson. New York: Dodd & Mead. p. 134.
  15. "The Lambs". The Lambs, Inc. (Member Roster, 'J'). Retrieved December 21, 2021.
  16. Wilson, Francis (1906). Joseph Jefferson; Reminiscences of a Fellow Player. New York: C. Scribner's Sons. p.  136.
  17. Biography; accessed September 2, 2021.
  18. 1 2 "Rip Van Winkle Gardens of Jefferson Island : City of New Iberia, Louisiana". City of New Iberia. Retrieved March 29, 2017.
  19. "Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism".
  20. (24 April 1905). Joseph Jefferson Dies At His Florida Home, The New York Times , p. 1, col. 1
  21. Green, Eugene; Sachse, William; McCaulley, Brian (2006). The Names of Cape Cod. Arcadia Press. p. 117. ISBN   978-1-933212-84-5.
  22. "About History". Joe Jefferson Players. Retrieved March 29, 2017.
  23. "Rip Van Winkle Gardens in New Iberia - Attraction". Retrieved March 29, 2017.
  24. Fodor's (December 2, 2014). "10 Behind-The-Scenes Tours Of Iconic Food Brands". Huffington Post. Retrieved March 29, 2017.
  25. Marquis, Don (1927). "xxx: the old trouper". archy and mehitabel. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. p. 125. ISBN   0-385-09478-7.

Related Research Articles

Archy and Mehitabel

Archy and Mehitabel are the names of two fictional characters created in 1916, by Don Marquis, a columnist for The Evening Sun newspaper in New York City. Archy, a cockroach, and Mehitabel, an alley cat, appeared in hundreds of humorous verses and short stories in Marquis’ daily column, "The Sun Dial". Their exploits were first collected in the 1927 book archy and mehitabel, which remains in print today, and in two later volumes, archys life of mehitabel (1933) and archy does his part (1935). Many editions are recognized by their iconic illustrations by George Herriman, the creator of Krazy Kat.

Dion Boucicault

Dionysius Lardner "Dion" Boucicault was an Irish actor and playwright famed for his melodramas. By the later part of the 19th century, Boucicault had become known on both sides of the Atlantic as one of the most successful actor-playwright-managers then in the English-speaking theatre. Although The New York Times hailed him in his obituary as "the most conspicuous English dramatist of the 19th century," he and his second wife, Agnes Robertson Boucicault, had applied for and received American citizenship in 1873.

Rip Van Winkle 1819 short story by Washington Irving

"Rip Van Winkle" is a short story by the American author Washington Irving, first published in 1819. It follows a Dutch-American villager in colonial America named Rip Van Winkle who meets mysterious Dutchmen, imbibes their liquor and falls asleep in the Catskill Mountains. He awakes 20 years later to a very changed world, having missed the American Revolution.

Don Marquis American writer

Donald Robert Perry Marquis was an American humorist, journalist, and author. He was variously a novelist, poet, newspaper columnist, and playwright. He is remembered best for creating the characters Archy and Mehitabel, supposed authors of humorous verse. During his lifetime he was equally famous for creating another fictitious character, "the Old Soak," who was the subject of two books, a hit Broadway play (1922–23), a silent movie (1926) and a talkie (1937).

Reginald De Koven

Henry Louis Reginald De Koven was an American music critic and prolific composer, particularly of comic operas.

Bob Acres is a character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Rivals.

Richard Mansfield 19th-century English actor-manager

Richard Mansfield was an English actor-manager best known for his performances in Shakespeare plays, Gilbert and Sullivan operas, and the play Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Harry Grattan

Harry Grattan was a British stage actor, singer, dancer and writer best known for his performances in musical comedies around 1900.

Francis Wilson (actor)

Francis Wilson was an American actor.

<i>Shinbone Alley</i>

Shinbone Alley is a musical with a book by Joe Darion and Mel Brooks, lyrics by Darion, and music by George Kleinsinger. Based on the album Archy and Mehitabel: A Back-Alley Opera, which in turned was based on archy and mehitabel, a series of New York Tribune columns by Don Marquis, it focuses on poetic cockroach archy, alley cat mehitabel, and her relationships with theatrical cat tyrone t. tattersal and tomcat big bill, under the watchful eye of the newspaperman, the voice-over narrator and only human being in the show.

Booth's Theatre was a theatre in New York built by actor Edwin Booth. Located on the southeast corner of 23rd Street and Sixth Avenue, Booth's Theatre opened on February 3, 1869.

Elsie Leslie American actress

Elsie Leslie was an American actress. She was America's first child star and the highest paid and most popular child actress of her era.

<i>Shinbone Alley</i> (film) 1970 American film

Shinbone Alley is a 1970 animated musical comedy film based on the Joe Darion, Mel Brooks, and George Kleinsinger musical of the same name as well as the original Archy and Mehitabel stories by Don Marquis. It was directed by John David Wilson. Eddie Bracken reprised his role from the Broadway musical; Carol Channing played the starring role originally performed by Eartha Kitt.

Bob Acres is a small unincorporated community in rural Iberia Parish, Louisiana, United States. It was established as a train station by American actor Joseph Jefferson, who owned nearby Orange Island, an inland salt dome that only appeared to be an island from a distance. Jefferson named Bob Acres after the character Bob Acres in The Rivals, one of the plays in which the actor appeared.

Cornelia Frances Jefferson

Cornelia Frances Jefferson was an early-American singer and prolific comic actress. She was known widely in her younger years as Mrs. Burke, which was the surname from her first marriage to Thomas Burke.

<i>Rip Van Winkle</i> (1903 film) 1903 American film

Rip Van Winkle is a 1903 American short black-and-white silent compilation film written and directed by William K.L. Dickson. It is adapted from the play by his friend and investor Joseph Jefferson with Dion Boucicault based on the 1819 story of the same name by Washington Irving.

<i>Rip Van Winkle</i> (1921 film) 1921 film

Rip Van Winkle is a 1921 American silent fantasy film, directed by Edward Ludwig. Starring Thomas Jefferson and Milla Davenport in the oft-filmed 1819 Washington Irving short story about Rip Van Winkle who falls asleep and wakes up 20 years later. It was made famous in the 19th century as a play by Thomas Jefferson's father, Joseph Jefferson, and Dion Boucicault. T. Jefferson had starred in a 1914 feature-length version of the story, which was re-released in 1921 just as this film was premiering. However, the two should not be confused as the same film, they are two different films starring the same actor.

<i>Rip Van Winkle</i> (1910 film) 1910 American film

Rip Van Winkle is a 1910 American silent short drama produced by the Thanhouser Company. The film is an adaptation of Washington Irving's 1819 short story "Rip Van Winkle" with some differences in the plot. The film focuses on the title character whose idle life is made difficult by his cantankerous wife. Winkle heads into the mountains and encounters spirits of Henry Hudson's men. Upon partaking of their alcohol, Winkle falls into a slumber for twenty years. He returns home and has difficulty proving his identity and must save his property from an unlawful accusation by his rival. After he proves his identity, he is reunited with his family. The title character was played by Frank H. Crane, but the production credits are largely unknown. The film was released on December 6, 1910, and met with positive reviews. The film is presumed lost.

Joseph Jefferson House United States historic place

The Joseph Jefferson House, also known as the Rip Van Winkle House and Gardens and the Bob Acres Plantation, is a historic house built in 1870 on Jefferson Island in Iberia Parish, Louisiana. The Joseph Jefferson House was built in 1870 for Joseph Jefferson, an American stage and silent film actor.

Thomas Jefferson (actor) American silent film actor

Thomas Lockyer Jefferson was an American film and stage actor in mostly silent films.