Real Stage Tragedy

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Real Stage Tragedy

Jon Short, Research Volunteer at Bow Street Police Museum, uncovers two theatrical tales of woe and misadventure. When accidents happen and Bow Street Officers investigate, how can the show go on?

By Jon Short

The Novelty Theatre 1896

In 1896 the Novelty Theatre in Great Queen Street was home to Miss V St Lawrence’s troupe of players putting on “West End theatre at East End prices”[1] with each show running for one week. Monday 10th August saw the first performance of “Sins of the Night” by Frank Harvey which ends with the villain, Ramez,  being stabbed by Pablo in revenge for the death of his sister.

Newspaper Image Daily Sketch 19 Aug 1896 © Illustrated London News/Mary Evans Picture Library

On the night Wilfred Moritz Franks playing Pablo used a real dagger rather than the stage prop and the contact with Temple Crozier playing the villain proved fatal.

Newspaper Image ©The British Library Board.
All rights reserved. With thanks to the British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)

The curtain fell and the audience departed unaware of the incident. Crozier was still conscious and reportedly able to tell a distressed Franks not to worry, but his condition deteriorated and doctors were called. A number of medics arrived on the scene but the actor had already died.

On confirmation of the death, PC Hall 22ER who had been on special duty at the venue advised Franks he would be placed in custody and left the scene to take the dagger to Bow Street. Hall handed it to Inspector Sara who made his way to The Novelty; arrested Franks on suspicion of manslaughter and brought him into the police station cells.[2]

The deceased’s body remained on the stage overnight before being taken to St Giles mortuary the next morning. Later that day, Franks appeared at the magistrate’s court before Franklin Lushington and was remanded on a surety of £100, covered by Walter Tyrell the theatre manager, pending the inquest.

At the inquest it was established that rehearsals had taken place without a weapon but in performance, a prop was to be used; due to the cheap and shoddy condition of the theatre’s prop, Franks decided to use his own dagger as it would look more effective.

Franks testified that he had informed Crozier he was using a dangerous blade but anticipated contact would be made with the hand against his chest. However, Crozier had unexpectedly moved forward resulting in the blade piercing his chest. Two other actors called as witnesses testified the same and confirmed the relationship between Franks and Crozier, who were both 24 years old, was very friendly.

Dr James Bremner, of 26 Drury Lane, one of the doctors called to the scene, reported that Crozier’s lung and aorta had been pierced but there wasn’t any evidence of severe force with the wound only 1 1/2 inches deep.  The jury consequently returned a verdict of Death by Misadventure.[3] The manslaughter charge resumed at Bow Street on Tuesday 18th August. Lushington heard the same evidence from PC Hall, Dr Bremner and the two actors as at the inquest before discharging Franks as there hadn’t been any wilful negligence[4].

Remarkably The Era newspaper’s edition of Saturday 15th August even carried a review of that fateful first night reporting “Mr T E Crozier depicted graphically the oily malevolence of Manuel Ramez” with reference to the tragedy being reported on other columns[5].

Middlesex Music Hall 1908

Clementina Dolcini was a sharpshooter who appeared on music hall bills as Madame Clementine “Queen of Firearms”. Her performance would conclude with the “William Tell” act where she would shoot a glass ball that appeared to be sitting on an assistant’s head. In reality, the object was placed on a glass shelf slightly above and behind the assistant but the stunt was still highly dangerous.

On Monday 23rd November Madame Clementine appeared as one of the turns at the Middlesex Music Hall in Drury Lane with Herbert T Lees as her sidekick, a role the 27-year-old had taken for around three months. Firing a Winchester rifle from the balcony over 50 feet away, Dolcini deliberately missed with two shots to create tension then fired the third which struck Lees above his left eye.

The curtain was lowered and, the same, Dr James Bremner summoned. Lees was taken to Kings College Hospital but passed away around 5am Tuesday morning.

A few hours later Dolcini presented herself at Bow Street where she was booked into custody by Detective Inspector Stockley, appeared before magistrate Robert Marsham charged with manslaughter and remanded for one week on £100 bail.

Dolcini broke down giving evidence at the inquest and had to be helped from the stand. The 33 year old stated she had been a performer for 18 years and had never missed before, believing “the boy”, as she referred to Lees who was 27, must have moved. The inquest jury returned a verdict of accidental death[6] but when the case returned to Bow Street on 1st December Dolcini was remanded for a further week as Detective Inspector Stockley reported that the Director of Public Prosecutions were investigating the case. Further appearances were made at Bow Street on 8th[7] and 16th December and finally on Saturday 19th December[8] when the case was committed to trial at the Central Criminal Court; Dolcini was bailed on the same terms as before.

At the opening of the January sessions at the Old Bailey on Tuesday 12th the Recorder declared that the manslaughter of Herbert Lees warranted a full trial in order that the law concerning such performances could be scrutinised, and tightened if necessary[9]. The Grand Jury however did not follow this directive and the charge was ignored[10].

Cover Page © The National Archives; Kew, London, England; HO 140 Home Office: Calendar of Prisoners; Reference: HO 140/274
Clementine Dolcici Details © The National Archives; Kew, London, England; HO 140 Home Office: Calendar of Prisoners; Reference: HO 140/274

On 1st February, Madame Clementine made her next appearance at the Middlesbrough Empire. Though the “William Tell” demonstration no longer featured,[11] the local press reported she “gave a wonderful exhibition of shooting”[12]

The Show Must Go On?

The very next night at The Novelty, Harold Child and Robert Smith replaced Crozier and Franks respectively to complete all scheduled performances of Sins in the Night, albeit with a modified final scene[13].

At the Middlesex Musical Hall in 1908, whilst the curtain was lowered and Lees was being transferred to hospital, Mr Graydon, the proprietor,  asked the audience if the show should continue and on their applause, the orchestra started and the next act on the programme took the stage[14].

In a previous blog we looked at the reaction to fatalities in the boxing ring that generated significant public outcry[15] and nearly every person concerned with the incident – the fighter, trainer, referee, venue manager et al would face the initial manslaughter charge. The softer reaction to these deaths at the hands of a fellow performer with a ready acceptance that they were just unfortunate, yet tragic, accidents is intriguing.

For more reading on theatrical deaths check out Jon’s previous blog, Murder at the Adelphi.

Or if you are looking to explore the relationship between law enforcement and the London theatre scene join us on our new and improved Stages and Cells walking tour.

Additional Notes:

  • The Novelty Theatre was demolished in 1959 and is now the site of an office block.
  • The Middlesex Musical Hall was rebuilt and refurbished a number of times and is now the Gillian Lynne Theatre.

[1]www.newspapers.com The Observer (London, Greater London, England) · Sun, Apr 5, 1896 [29 Jan 2024]

[2]www.newspapers.com  The Standard (London, Greater London, England) · Wed, Aug 12, 1896 [28 Jan 2024]

[3] www.newspapers.com Daily News (London, Greater London, England) · Fri, Aug 14, 1896 [1 Feb 2024]

[4] www.newspapers.com The Standard (London, Greater London, England) · Wed, Aug 19, 1896 [29 Jan 2024]  

[5] www.newspapers.com The Era (London, Greater London, England) · Sat, Aug 15, 1896 [30 Jan 2024]

[6] www.newspapers.com The Evening Standard and St James Gazette (London, Greater London, England) · Fri, Nov 27, 1908 [02 Feb 2024]

[7] www.newspapers.com The Daily Telegraph (London, Greater London, England) · Wed, Dec 9, 1908 [02 Feb 2024]      

[8] www.newspapers.com The Daily Telegraph (London, Greater London, England) · Mon, Dec 21, 1908 [02 Feb 2024]      

[9] www.newspapers.com The Evening Standard and St James Gazette (London, Greater London, England) · Tue, Jan 12, 1909 [02 Feb 2024]      

[10] www.newspapers.com The Guardian (London, Greater London, England) · Wed, Jan 13, 1909 [26 Jan 2024]

[11] www.newspapers.com The North-Eastern Daily Gazette (Middlesbrough, Cleveland, England) · Sat, Jan 30, 1909 [26 Jan 2024]       

[12] www.newspapers.com The North-Eastern Daily Gazette (Middlesbrough, Cleveland, England) · Tue, Feb 2, 1909 [26 Jan 2024]                     

[13] www.newspapers.com The Daily Telegraph (London, Greater London, England) · Wed, Aug 12, 1896 [29 Jan 2024]      

[14] www.newspapers.com The Nottingham Evening Post (Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, England) · Tue, Nov 24, 1908 [26 Jan 2024]     

[15] https://bowstreetpolicemuseum.org.uk/bow-street-and-boxing/


Real Stage Tragedy

Jon Short, Research Volunteer at Bow Street Police Museum, uncovers two theatrical tales of woe and misadventure. When accidents happen and Bow Street Officers investigate, how can the show go on?