Today, 16 December, is the 120th anniversary of a murder that shocked the theatre-going world of Victorian Britain, and the general public. It was on this day that the eminent and popular actor William Terriss was killed, just outside the stage door of the Adelphi Theatre on London’s Strand.
Terriss was murdered by a less successful actor, Richard Archer Prince, who had fixated on the idea that Terriss was responsible for his lack of success.
The 50-year-old actor had been about to enter the theatre on the evening of 16 December, using the stage door at the rear of the theatre, which opens out onto Maiden Lane, parallel to the Strand. He was due on stage that night, appearing in the play Secret Service. Before he could get into the theatre, however, he was accosted by the younger Richard Prince, who had been waiting for him, and was stabbed to death.
Prince was not unknown to his victim. The two men had previously been in a production together – Prince in a minor role – and Terriss had, on one occasion, been so offended by something the struggling actor had said to him that he was said to have had him dismissed. This was said to have caused lasting resentment to Prince; although Terriss had subsequently tried to find him work, and had ensured he was sent small sums of money via the Actors’ Benevolent Fund, Prince had been unable to find any security in his chosen profession.
The case, understandably, caused pages and pages of sensationalised press coverage; the theatrical newspaper The Era described the murder in the following terms:
“A great blow has fallen upon the dramatic profession and the playgoing public – a blow so sudden and so terrible that even after the lapse of two nights and a day they have scarcely recovered from the stunning, overpowering, effect of the awful news.” (The Era, 18 December 1897)
The murder was newsworthy for several reasons. It was an incredibly rare offence – no English actor had been murdered in the country by one of his profession before, certainly not during the Victorian era.
The offence had taken place in the heart of London’s theatre land. It had been witnessed by others; and the victim was both well-known and well-loved (The Era noted that Terriss was liked by all classes, from those in the ‘mansions of the West End’ to the residents of the ‘slums of the East’). It was also, though, the culmination of the increasingly obsessive behaviour evinced by individuals towards successful actors and actresses.
There had been spates of what we today call stalking throughout the Victorian era, with both men and women being targeted by ‘fans’, who would send love letters, demand to see the actors after their performances, or follow them. The press had reported instances of actresses being followed home from performances and assaulted, and of one actress being sent a bullet by an obsessed man who decided he would kill her if she wouldn’t have a relationship with him.
In these instances, though, the stalkers involved did not kill their obsessions, although they may have threatened to, or have injured them. Part of the huge reaction to Terriss’s murder, then, was due to its rarity: perhaps it foretold of a more dangerous age to come, when stalking, and deaths as the result of them, would cease to be so unusual.
The murder was also significant because of the focus on Prince’s mental health. He clearly had issues, as evinced in his desire to blame Terriss for his employment and financial difficulties – and he had previously turned up at the Adelphi to argue his case with Terriss.
He was found guilty but insane at his subsequent trial, but his punishment caused debate about the status of actors in British society, and whether the murder of an actor was perceived as a lesser offence than anyone else’s murder. This was because of the insanity judgement; rather than being sent to prison, or even hanged, Prince was ordered to be sent to Broadmoor, where he lived a long life (and a more comfortable than in a Victorian prison), dying there in 1936.
For more on the death of William Terriss, and the incidences of stalking involving actors and actresses in Victorian Britain, read my book, Life On The Victorian Stage (Pen & Sword, 2017).