English immigrant Herbert
Mason Cawthorn* (1860-1940) played the comedic role of Irish Patsha in
Mr. Bluebeard. Since at least 1896
Herbert had been billed as the "King of Irish
Comedy." After heaping praise
upon another comedian, Eddie Foy, a snarky November 24,
1903 Chicago newspaper review of the opening night
performance described Cawthorn as "mildly amusing."
Cawthorn came to
America from Holborn, England in 1868 aboard the
City of Boston ship, landing in New York.
He was the son of Alfred and Sarah Willett Cawthorne
of London. He became a naturalized citizen in
the early days of Cawthorn's career, dating back to
1872 and the legendary theater man, Jack Haverly,
Herbert appeared with his younger brother, Joseph B. Cawthorn
(1868-1949). Joe was the better known of the
brothers. Two other brothers were also
Alfred Joseph Cawthorn was a music hall comedian and
Arthur Frederick Cawthorn was a musician.
Later Herbert and his wife, Susie Forrester (1863-1934, married in
Marinette, Wisconsin in 1889) appeared together in
successful comic sketches. Forrester was
Susie's stage name. Her maiden name may have
been Rolland. I also found some evidence that her
maiden name was Lucy Malloy. From at
least 1900 to 1910 the Cawthorns made their home in
New York City and from 1922 until at least 1934 in
Interlaken, New Jersey.
stature, just 5' 4", Herbert added impact to his
acts with costumes.
Herbert's most productive years seem to have been
1895-1909. In fact their names almost
disappear from theater news thereafter. By 1910 he worked only sixteen of
fifty-two weeks and was retired by 1930. In
age eighty and widowed for six years, Herbert lived
with a niece in Arlington, Virginia when he died by
Joseph Cawthorn's Iroquois
In the Everett disaster book it
was reported that Cawthorn helped several chorus
girls escape from the Iroquois then, still in
costume and without a coat, joined a few other cast
members in a Dearborn street store. He described his
"I was in a position to
see the origin of the fire plainly, and I feel
positive that it was an electric calcium light
that started the fire. The calcium lights were
being used to illuminate the stage in the latter
part of the second act, when the song, "In the
Pale Moonlight," was being sung. "I was standing
behind a wing on the left hand side, which would
be right hand side to the audience, when my
attention was attracted above by a peculiar
sputtering of what seemed to me to be one of the
calciums. It appears to me that one of the
calciums had flared up and the sparks ignited
the lint on the curtain. Instantly I turned my
attention toward the stage and saw that many of
the actors and actresses had not yet discovered
"Just then the fireman who
is kept behind the scenes rushed up with some
kind of a patent fire extinguisher. Instead of
the stream from the apparatus striking the
flames it went almost in the opposite direction.
While the stage fireman was working to use the
chemicals the flames suddenly swooped down and
out. Eddie Foy shouted something about the
asbestos curtain and the firemen attempted to
use it and the stage hands ran to his assistance
but the curtain refused to work.
"In my opinion the stage
fireman might have averted the whole terrible
affair if he had not become so excited. The
chorus girls and everybody to my mind, were less
excited than he.
"The stage hands and
players began to hurry from the theater. There
was at least 500 people behind the scenes when
the fire started. I assisted many of the chorus
girls to get out, and some of them were only
partly attired. Two of the young women in
particular were naked from their waists up. They
had absolutely no time to even snatch a bit of
clothing to throw over their shoulders."
There are so many discrepancies
in Cawthorn's account that I suspect a nearsighted
entertainer found an opportunity to get his name in
a book so lengthened a one-minute experience into a
ten-minute story. It is revealing that neither
the coroner or grand juries asked Cawthorn to
testify. Perhaps the coroner's office figured
out that Cawthorn was a bag of wind who scooted out
the door in the first exit wave and spent the next
half hour in a Dearborn street store front.
Unfortunately, the author of Lest We Forget /
Chicago's Awful Theatre Horror did not filter
the story so it has been out there for over a
Iroquois fireman Sallers out to be a Keystone
Sallers can be faulted for failing to aggressively
demand fire-fighting equipment for the Iroquois but
there was nothing to criticize about his performance
at the fire. I must confess that the more I've
read about Cawthorne, the more unlikable he seems.
Cawthorn has Sallers still
trying to apply Kilfyre when the fireball
entered the auditorium. By that time
Sallers had thrown away the useless Kilfyre tube
and was on the stage floor trying to free the
fire curtain from the light reflector, by which
time Cawthorn was standing outside on a corner.
What Cawthorn describes as "a
stream" from the Kilfyre extinguisher, implying
it was liquid, could only be stated by someone
who couldn't see well. Kilfyre was a dry
powder, like Ajax cleanser, and emerged from the
can in puffs, like baby powder. No streams
What Cawthorn perceived as
excited behavior was Sallers using a flinging
gesture in an effort to make the powder fly high
enough up into the air to reach a flame that was
far above his head. When he realized the
Kilfyre could not put out the fire, he climbed
down the ladder from the fly bridge, sent
someone to turn in an alarm, and ran to the
other side of the stage where the fire curtain
was hung up on the light reflector and joined
others who were trying to close the reflector.
Sallers shouted for the
asbestos curtain to be lowered long before Eddie
Foy did so from the stage, as did flyman Charles
Sweeny and stage worker John McCluskey (on his
way out the door).
The dancers were aware of the
fire almost from the first ember.
The lamp that started the
fire was a carbon arc, not a calcium.
(That's picking a nit because I've found others
who referred to all the theater lights as "calciums".)
NYC after the fire, on Jan 5, 1904, Cawthorn blamed
the disaster on the audience. If they hadn't
panicked when their hair caught afire and their
children were burning, all would have been well.
Silly women. He revealed another tidbit not
reported previously, that he escaped from the
theater wearing only a bathrobe and that his
clothing was undamaged.
Discrepancies and addendum
* Most commonly spelled "Cawthorne" in newspapers
but Herbert, or his wife, reported the spelling in
the 1900 and 1910 census as "Cawthorn" and
Cawthorn was used on his death certificate.
† Tragic that over a century later, a society
claiming to be compassionate still does not offer an
eighty year old man a more dignified choice than a
bullet to the brain when he decides his time has
come. That's editorializing in a footnote but
I'll let it stand.
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