Volume 13, Issue 1
Thomas Hamblin’s House of Blood and Thunder: The Transformation of New York’s Bowery Theatre in the Early 19th Century
Robert Davis, Adjunct Assistant Professor, English Department, John Jay College (CUNY)
Thomas Hamblin (1800-1853) was arguably the most influential—and contradictory—figure in antebellum U.S. theater. An English actor and manager, he became synonymous with American working-class nativist culture. He transformed New York City’s Bowery Theatre from a failed venue for refined drama to what became known as “The House of Blood and Thunder.” Hamblin excelled at producing successful melodramas, tragedies, and farces that appealed to the city’s working classes while not alienating the elite. Despite being repeatedly mired in scandals of adultery, divorce, as well as rumors of murder, Hamblin remained an influential figure. As a man who literally traded blows with his critics, Hamblin remains a fascinating, if overlooked figure, in nineteenth-century American culture.
Hamblin came to the United States in 1825, launching his American career as Hamlet at the respectable Park Theatre. Although he became known as a fine Shakespearean actor, Hamblin stepped into management in 1830 when he took the reins of the re-opened Bowery Theatre, a house that would go on to revolutionize New York theater. A letter to the editor during his opening tour in New York shows a confident and proud, if arrogant, approach to dealing with the public that would remain a hallmark of his career.
While its rival, the Park Theatre, produced a repertory mostly of British comedy, opera, and Shakespeare, the Bowery provided a steady supply of “Blood and Thunder” melodrama. Nicknamed the “Slaughter House” for all of the onstage violence, it soon won thunderous applause from the city’s working class population. As manager, Hamblin provided a successful formula of mixing traditional drama with variety acts, melodrama, and farces, all of which might appear on a single night’s bill.
To capitalize on a rising patriotic tide in New York City following anti-British riots at the Park Theatre, Hamblin rechristened his theater, “The American Theatre, Bowery.” While he attracted a devoted following, the Bowery was one of the most unlucky theaters of the nineteenth century, having burned down seven times total (1828, 1835, 1838, 1845, 1923, 1929), three times in Hamblin’s tenure. Each time, he built it back up, often at his own expense.
As Hamblin’s professional fortunes increased, his personal life grew increasingly chaotic. After several high-profile affairs, most notably with actress Josephine Clifton, Hamblin’s wife Elizabeth divorced him in 1831. Hamblin was soon living with his mistress, seventeen-year old ingénue Naomi Vincent, who he remained with until her death in 1835. Almost immediately following Vincent’s death, Hamblin was in a relationship with his daughter’s governess, Louisa Honore de Medina, a (purportedly) Spanish expatriate who had come to New York in search of literary fame. Medina spoke Greek, Latin, Spanish, French and English. She published poems, stories, essays, and, soon after her association with Hamblin began, plays.
Medina rose in prominence to become the Bowery’s house playwright, and during her tenure, it achieved its largest success. Writing an estimated thirty-four plays, Medina turned out multiple hits for Hamblin’s theater. Many of her plays have been lost, but a few survive, including the popular Nick of the Woods, a frontier melodrama featuring romance, battles, and a daring escape in which the heroes ride a flaming canoe over a waterfall. Most notably, Medina adapted The Last Days of Pompeii from the novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The romantic melodrama was full of poetry, gladiatorial combat, witchcraft, and culminated with a volcanic eruption onstage. It ran for twenty-nine consecutive nights, making it the longest run in New York history at that point. (At that time, a play that ran for three consecutive nights was considered a success). Last Days of Pompeii was so popular that it remained in the Bowery repertoire into the 1860s.
Despite his professional success, Hamblin seemed to court controversy. In 1836, soon after Hamblin’s divorce and the second fire at his theater, Hamblin instigated a feud with James Gordon Bennett, the editor of the New York Herald. Bennett had taken Hamblin’s wife’s side of the divorce and had argued against New Yorkers attending a benefit to rebuild the Bowery. After having his supporters attack Bennett as a “moral leper” in the press, Hamblin, accompanied by a handful of men, broke into the Herald offices and physically assaulted Bennett, who was eventually rescued by the police.
Once tensions with Bennett calmed down, Hamblin quickly found himself mired in a larger scandal. Aspiring teenage actress Louisa Missouri Miller approached Hamblin hoping to become a star. The step-sister of Josephine Clifton, who warned her against associating with Hamblin, Miller soon reportedly became Hamblin’s mistress. Hamblin, realizing she was a talented performer, cast her in the starring role of Medina’s Ernest Maltravers, which turned out to be a hit in Boston and New York. Many of the Bowery’s hits are available in the digital edition of Nineteenth-Century American Drama: Popular Culture and Entertainment, 1820-1900.
Trouble increased when Miller’s mother, Adeline Miller (or Adeline Fermor) appeared and attempted to abduct her daughter. After a narrow escape, it came out that Miller’s mother was in fact an infamous brothel madam and, as a result, Hamblin was granted guardianship of Louisa Miller, who went to live with him and Medina while acting with the Bowery’s company. In May 1838, Miller died suddenly, causing some to suspect that Hamblin or Medina poisoned her. At the inquest, the cause of death was determined to be brain fever, but some even claimed that Medina had written the inquest report as part of a city-wide conspiracy to protect Hamblin.
When Medina died a few months later, Miller’s mother, charging that he had poisoned both women, started a riot that nearly tore down Hamblin’s house. A polemic appeared, published anonymously, condemning Hamblin for repeatedly ruining women and endangering public morality. The broadside pulled no punches. Labeling Hamblin “the great seducer,” it said that the Miller affair was “a disgrace to the city of New-York—nay it is a disgrace to our country.” It warned that a history of the Bowery Theatre would be “a history of dark crimes unsuited to the columns of the most depraved in the country.” The piece compares Hamblin to Satan, “the monster who has dared profane the altar of Thespis with his presence,” and his supporters to “barbarians” and “ruffians” who keep the Bowery running through violence alone. It asks “what has he done for the drama? Answer—he has damned it!”
Regardless, for all his controversy, Hamblin proved that he still maintained tremendous support from his peers and the city’s audiences. After Medina’s death, he married Bowery actress Elizabeth Shaw, and the pair had three children. With a few years out of management, Hamblin maintained the Bowery as one of the top New York theaters until his death in 1853 from “brain fever.” His funeral was well-attended and obituaries neglect his scandals to praise him for his role in producing popular American theater. The Weekly Herald noted that the funeral’s “line of procession was exceedingly long and the attendance highly respectable” with nearly fifty-six carriages.
Over the course of his career, Hamblin worked with luminaries of American theatre such as Edwin Forrest, Frank Chanfrau (famous for his character Mose, the Bowery Boy), Junius Brutus Booth (father of Edwin and John Wilkes Booth), J.R. Scott, Louisa Lane Drew (actress Drew Barrymore’s great-great-great grandmother), and Lester Wallack, as well as popular blackface performers T.D. Rice and George Washington Dixon.
For the researcher, Thomas Hamblin is a particularly elusive figure. Rarely making headlines, Hamblin was nevertheless playing a major role behind the scenes of New York City culture. His life and work are spread across publications and, unless there was a scandal, have been largely overlooked by historians combing print sources. Seeing him across a range of newspapers and broadsides allows one of the key figures in American theater come to the fore and take a well-deserved bow.