I love live theater: drama, comedy, musicals, variety. And I love theater ghost stories, it stands to reason. This is one of my favorites, from Victorian London. It begins with a murder.
The victim was the Victorian heartthrob William Terriss (1847-1897). Born William Lewin, he tried out any number of jobs, married, and became a father before, in his thirties, he became a star on the stages of the day. He was handsome, he had a fine speaking voice, and he performed brilliantly in a number of the melodramas so popular in the late Victorian era. In 1885, he met a young actress named Jessie Millward, who thenceforth was both his onstage leading lady and his offstage lover.
He also had an enemy: a mentally unstable minor actor named Richard Archer Prince. Over the years, Terriss had helped Prince get small parts in plays Terriss headlined, but they had a falling out over nasty comments Prince (whom his contemporaries called “Mad Archer”) made about Terriss during the run of a play called THE HARBOR LIGHTS, the end result of which was that Prince was fired from the production. Terriss, however, generously provided Prince with small sums of money to live on in times when Prince was between roles.
By December of 1897, Prince’s behavior had become so erratic that he was no longer able to get roles of any sort. Facing homelessness and starvation, Prince began to tell friends that Terriss was the cause of all his problems, and vowed revenge.
Terriss and Jessie Millward were, at the time, appearing at the Adelphi Theater in a play called SECRET SERVICE. On December 16th, Terriss and a friend took a carriage to the theater. As Terriss was opening the stage door entrance, he was attacked by Prince, who stabbed him three times. Terriss was carried into Jessie Millward’s dressing room, where he died in her arms within minutes.
Richard Archer Prince was tried for Terriss’s murder the following year. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity, but committed to Broadmoor—then, as now, a facility for the criminally insane. Prince lived out the remainder of his life there, often working in theatrical productions put on by the inmates.
As for William Terris, he was evidently too vital a spirit in life to rest peacefully. Sightings of his spirit began within weeks of his death. He has reportedly been seen in the nearby Covent Garden tube station, a handsome figure dressed in late Victorian style. He has also been sighted in the alley behind the Adelphi, approaching the stage door entrance as he did on the night of his murder. And there was a dressing room inside the theater where mysterious knocks at the door were associated with Terriss’s ghost; that room was, in the old days, Jessie Millward’s, and Terriss was in the habit of knocking on her door with his cane to let her know he had arrived to get ready for their performance. In that room also, during the 1920s, a well-known comedy actress of the day experienced poltergeist activity. She was in the habit of staying at the theater on days when she had both matinee and evening performances, often having a nap and a light meal in between. More than once, while napping, she was disturbed by her lounge chair seeming to bounce, hard enough to wake her.
Sightings of Terriss’s ghost have been reported within the last few years. He’s not ready to leave the stage—even now.