Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Jefferson, Joseph
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|Edition of 1892. Written by John William Weidemeyer. See also Joseph Jefferson on Wikipedia, and our Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography disclaimer.|
JEFFERSON, Joseph, actor, b. in Plymouth, England, in 1774; d. in Harrisburg, Pa., 6 Aug., 1832. He was the son of Thomas, a comedian connected with Drury Lane theatre, London, who for some time managed the play-house in Richmond, England. Jefferson's first appearance in the United States was made at the Federal street theatre, Boston, in 1795. On 10 Feb., 1796, he joined the John street company in New York city, continuing there until 1803. Within the same year he went to Philadelphia, where he was connected with the Chestnut street theatre for twenty-seven years, except for brief visits to neighboring cities. He resigned from this post in 1832. In Philadelphia his talent for comedy was rated beyond that of any other performer. As a comedian his manner was altogether free from grimace and extravagance. Jefferson's rôles were many, and almost equally well sustained. — His son, Joseph, actor, b. in Philadelphia in 1804; d. in Mobile, Ala., 24 Nov., 1842, was trained for a scene-painter, but eventually became an actor and manager. In 1826 he married Mrs. Burke, a popular stage vocalist. From 1835 till 1837 Jefferson was connected with the Franklin and Niblo's garden theatres in New York city. He appeared at many places during his career, but attracted little notice. His best personations were old men's characters. The son resembled his father in appearance, but, besides being constitutionally timid before an audience, he inherited none of the latter's ability. He was unselfish and improvident, and engaged in constant struggles for a livelihood. —
His son, Joseph, the third of that name, b. in Philadelphia, 20 Feb., 1829, at the age of three years figured as the child in Kotzebue's drama of “Pizarro, or the Death of Rolla,” and later represented “The Living Statues” at the theatre in Washington, D. C. In 1843, after the death of his father, the lad joined a party of strolling players, who made their way through Texas, and during the war with Mexico followed the U. S. army into Mexican territory. On his return to the northern states he was engaged to play small parts at several minor theatres, and unsuccessfully undertook to conduct the dramatic performances at Peale's museum in Philadelphia. In 1849 he married Miss Lockyer, an actress, and joined the company of the Chatham street national theatre in New York city, taking a part in the farce of “Somebody Else.” Thereafter he led a strolling company through the southern states, and for brief terms managed the theatres in Savannah, Ga., and Wilmington, N. C. From 1850 until 1856 Jefferson was employed as actor and stage-manager in Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, and Washington. During the latter part of 1856 he visited Europe for his health, and on his return became stage-manager of the theatre in Richmond, Va. Up to this time Jefferson had merely attained the standing of a respectable stock-actor. In 1857 he began his connection with Laura Keene's theatre in New York city, which lasted until 1859. Here he first came prominently before the public on 18 Oct., 1858, as Asa Trenchard in “Our American Cousin.” Laura Keene's company was one of unusual strength, and under admirable management. It included besides herself William R. Blake, Edward A. Sothern, and Charles W. Couldock, and later Dion Boucicault and his wife, all of whom, in course of time, became prominent. Young Jefferson, in this and several other dramas, fairly surpassed all his fellow-actors. The ease and simplicity of his method stood widely apart from the mannerism of his surroundings, and it was noticeable how, in distinction from others who nightly rehearsed their parts with studied inflections of speech and in unvarying attitudes, his representations were controlled by passing feelings and impressions that gave variety and freshness to each performance. The play ran for more than 150 nights. Among Jefferson's other parts were Newman Noggs in “Nicholas Nickleby,” Caleb Plummer in “The Cricket on the Hearth,” Dr. Pangloss in “The Heir at Law,” Bob Acres in “The Rivals,” and Dr. Ollapod in the “Poor Gentleman.” Later he repeated these characters at the Winter garden theatre in New York city and other places as a star performer, with increasing popularity. In 1860 Jefferson visited California, where he met with little success, and soon afterward sailed for Australia, where he acted four years with reputation and profit. In September, 1865, against his inclination he made his debut in London at the Adelphi theatre in “Rip Van Winkle,” playing the part with success for more than 150 nights. He also appeared in Manchester and other large cities, returning to the United States in 1866. After the death of his first wife, Mr. Jefferson was married, in 1867, to Miss Sarah Warren. Since then his performances have included a few favorite parts, of which “Rip Van Winkle” is the principal one. For over twenty years this drama has been played in almost every city of the United States. It has yielded Dion Boucicault, the playwright, in purchase-money and royalties, about $25,000. Several dramatizations of Irving's story had been attempted at different times, and played both in this country and in England, notably that of James H. Hackett, but none of them held the stage. In 1860 Jefferson played in one of these old versions at the Winter garden theatre in New York city. While he was in London the American actor arranged with Boucicault for an entire reconstruction of the drama, selecting the best situations from all the old renderings, and coupling his own suggestions with the playwright's skill and experience. In retirement Jefferson's pastimes are those of an angler and painter. Some of his landscapes in oil bid fair to attract public attention. His summers are spent on a farm in New Jersey, his midwinters at his sugar-plantation on the Bayou Teche, La. At present (1887) he is writing an autobiography.