Oh Henry! The Long Divorce of Emiline Coleman, Part Four

Part 4: Front Seats reserved for the Ladies 

Like most actors of the time Henry Riley made the rounds. Outside of the major cities on the eastern seaboard, very few people could make a living at a single theater due to either lack of interest by the locals or their general lack of funds. So nineteenth century actors formed an itinerant comity that traveled from one cottonopolis or boomtown to the next; a living marching recitation of Shakespeare, bawdy stories, and songs about cheese. That is to say – they carried high culture on their backs from end of America to the other.

Due to the lack of radio or other recording devices these actors often aped the styles of their more famous brethren. These fifty cent theater-mongers imitated the powerhouses of London, New York, and Philadelphia; perfecting their speech patterns and timing in the hope that one day somebody else would be mimicking theirs.

Henry Riley offered “celebrated imitations” of both male and female performers – including the recently deceased Edmund Kean as Richard III, the famously fainting Sarah Siddons as Lady Randolph from the tragedy Douglas, and of course Junius Brutus Booth, the father of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, as Iago from Othello.

So when he came to town in the summer of 1836, it was kind of a big deal.

Arrangement were made to sell tickets to his performance, half a dollar apiece, at various hotels around the city. He offered a discount for children and claimed in his promotional pamphlets that he reserved the entire first row at every performance for various society ladies.

It was during this performance that he first made contact with Emiline Coleman. The young woman not only attended the event but apparently became smitten at Riley’s range and his beauty. One can only speculate that she fell madly in love with him by the first verse of “Butter and Cheese.”

The early days of the affair went well. Riley spent much time at the Theater and, fortunately enough for both involved, the Coleman’s house lay directly next to it.

Diagram p 6793
Map of Downtown Huntsville produced for this court case, 1837.

As one can see from the map, the Coleman’s outhouse lay directly next to, and probably drained into, the “Theatre Lot.” All Emiline needed to do was skip out into the garden and she might make an illicit rendezvous with Henry inside.

Although John J. Coleman eventually lost his wife to Henry Riley, the fact that he literally shit on the actor’s career every day provided some small measure of solace.

Part Five


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