Harry Hawk

“It was John Booth. I could say it if I was on my deathbed.”

Harry Hawk

Harry Hawk
For a man who made his living in front of the public and who stood at the center of the most notorious crime of the 19th Century, it is astonishing how little is known today about Harry Hawk. A journeyman actor also listed as stage manager for the star Laura Keene’s company, he had only recently been promoted to the title role in her production of “Our American Cousin.” The great American star Joseph Jefferson had made his name and was an audience favorite in the role, but long-standing tensions between him and Miss Keene led to his departure. But audiences wouldn’t have much cared who was playing the part—they were coming for reliable farce, to get a look at the mid-level star Laura Keene, and especially for E.A. Sothern’s romp as Lord Dundreary.

There was no reason to expect anything unusual on Good Friday, April 14, 1865. The President and Mrs. Lincoln would be attending that night, but the real coup was to be a rare public appearance of General Grant, the uncontested hero of the Union. Ford’s Theatre ran ads announcing the general’s attendance, knowing the effect it would have on ticket sales. Laura Keene was presumably delighted, since it was her “benefit” night. 19th Century actors were often compensated beyond their salaries with the proceeds from a specific performance, so a sold-out Friday night in the capital would be very good news for Miss Keene.

The appearance of well-known actor and Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth at the theatre that morning wouldn’t have seemed out of place to the company, as he was known to all and frequently had mail held for him there. So when Harry Hawk stood alone on stage listening to the audience roaring at the line he had just delivered, the man he saw leap down to the stage from the President’s box holding a knife was well-known to him. Terrified by his own account, he ran upstage toward a ladder, afraid that Booth was trying to kill him for some reason. The horrific night turned even worse for him, as he was immediately viewed as a potential accomplice. He and Laura Keene, along with other company members, would be detained overnight by the War Department, and his deposition to stenographer John Tanner was viewed as key evidence against Booth.

Our American Cousin poster

Ford’s Theatre poster for “Our American Cousin”

Little is known about Hawk after that night. He continued acting for a time, but alcohol was said to be a problem, and he died in 1916 on Jersey, in the English Channel. Even his obituary identified him as “the man who was on stage when President Lincoln was shot.”

Hawk claimed to be a friend of Booth’s brother, Edwin, and out of respect to him, he waited until after his death to revisit the scene of the crime. Ford’s Theatre was closed the night of the murder, but Hawk did pay a visit to the Peterson House across the street, where Lincoln died. The description of his return so many years later was the inspiration for Reunion.

Witness to the Assassination

“I was looking up at the President’s box—the words had barely left my lips, and the shouts of laughter were ringing, when the shot sounded through the house.”

“The memory of that apparition will never leave me. It was John Booth. I could say it if I was on my deathbed.”

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