Illustrated portrait of Thomas Hamblin, depicting a middle-aged man with curly hair, with his name in script font underneath.

“Instruction which she should avoid”: Reflections on 1830s Theater Manager Thomas Hamblin in the #MeToo Era

In June 1838, actress Josephine Clifton canceled an engagement in Lexington, KY and rushed back to New York “in a state of mind bordering on distraction.”1 Her sixteen-year-old sister Louisa Missouri Miller, who had recently debuted on the same New York Bowery stage where Clifton’s own career began, was dead, as the coroner later determined, of an “inflammation of the brain.”2 She had died in the arms of playwright Louisa Medina, who was also the third wife of theater manager Thomas Hamblin. By all accounts, “she died almost a maniac” under extreme psychological distress. 3 Hamblin had a known history of exploiting the debutant actresses whom he lifted from obscurity to star in his extremely successful New York theater. Clifton and her sister were both victims.

As I watched the 2018 Golden Globes, applauding the women who dressed in black in solidarity with Time’s Up, who used speeches and interviews to address sexual harassment and gender inequality in Hollywood and in industries across the nation, I was struck by the longer history of these issues. I wondered what the case of a notorious nineteenth-century theater manager could offer our current reckoning with the endemic sexual harassment of women in the entertainment industry.

Hamblin was an incredibly powerful figure in the New York theater scene. Since taking over management of the Bowery in 1830, he had transformed it into a successful rival of the longstanding Anglocentric Park Theatre, his theater associated with “American” talent and its rowdy working class audience. Nurturing “native talent” like sisters Clifton and Miller had been central to Hamblin’s rise in an expanding, competitive entertainment market, enabling him to successfully compete with theaters recruiting foreign stars.4

Clipping from Augusta, Georgia’s Chronicle and Sentinel about the death of “Miss Missouri”. (Digital Library of Georgia| Public Domain)

Much like Harvey Weinstein, Thomas Hamblin’s casual exploitation of young women seems exceptionally egregious, yet such extreme cases highlight the larger implications of gendered power structures through which women in entertainment have carved out careers. Clifton’s response to attacks on her character in the wake of her sister’s death also hints at some of the ways women have spoken to each other about harassment and have struggled, in the face of respectability politics and shifting norms of public discourse, to say #MeToo to each other and even to a broader public.

Bowery Debutant

Over the 1830s, Hamblin transformed the fortunes of the Bowery by featuring melodramas starring young women, all between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one, whom he trained and presented as ready-made stars. Clifton was Hamblin’s first Bowery debutant in 1831. Unlike the majority of actresses on American stages, she had not come from a family of thespians, trained for the stage by her parents. For Clifton, a stage career was an avenue out of poverty, an alternative to her mother’s work in the thriving urban sex trade.

Hamblin sought out socially marginal young women to develop for his theater, however their rapid rise from obscurity to starring in a leading New York playhouse did not translate into wealth or professional autonomy. Hamblin exerted extreme control over their careers, binding them with draconian three-year contracts while paying a meager salary.5

Clifton’s early career was beset by scandal and competition. In 1833, Hamblin presented a rival debutant, Naomi Vincent, on the Bowery stage. She became his mistress, dying in childbirth in 1835 at the age of twenty-one. Clifton was also rumored to have been Hamblin’s mistress. She was, after all, unmarried, with no respectable parental guardian in sight. Hamblin’s first wife, Elizabeth Blanchard Hamblin, who had come with him from England in 1825, sued for divorce in 1832 on grounds of adultery.

This was a successful bid to regain control over her career, for during their marriage Blanchard Hamblin had “no interest separate from her husband; he received their united salaries, and expended the money as he pleased.”6 Hamblin tried to use the divorce to push his first wife into retirement — without success — then extort her financially as she commenced a lucrative career as an itinerant. After Vincent’s death in 1835, Hamblin married Louisa Medina, a young woman he employed as an in-house playwright for the Bowery. She died shortly after Missouri Miller, at age twenty-five.

drawing of a woman in a draping shawl and black dress.
Josephine Clifton (nee Miller) in character. (Pendleton/University of Illinois|CC BY-SA 4.0)

Deranged Mother vs. Noble Protector

Hamblin had a storied reputation as a libertine by the time Missouri Miller sought out his instruction in 1838. Prior to her death, her legal guardian Justice Bloodgood had placed her in Hamblin’s care after she fled from her mother, a notorious prostitute. Missouri Miller had been placed in a boarding school, possibly by her mother, but was determined to become an actress and sought out Hamblin.

After her death, other men in the New York theater business, like English actor-manager James Wallack, and newspapermen in Hamblin’s pocket rallied behind Hamblin, even as public outrage was mobilized in the street. Angry crowds hounded Hamblin, threatening riot and destruction of his property. Hamblin was ultimately exonerated from suspicions of any wrongdoing.

As the theater of public opinion in the street gave way to the narratives published in the city’s penny papers and gossip rags, focus shifted away from Hamblin’s notoriety as a sexual predator and the prospect of wrongdoing, and instead entertained readers with a portrait of the deranged mother and jealous sister who urged Missouri Miller away from her professional path, driving her to the mental break that led to her death.

This narrative recast the very real possibility that Hamblin had assaulted or was in some way exploiting his new protégé as the ravings of a degenerate madwoman. Missouri Miller was the victim of her “polluted” mother’s greed, as she pressured her daughter to break her contract with Hamblin in order to seize control of the girl’s career.7 Hamblin transformed from villain to Missouri Miller’s noble protector.

Clifton Defends Her Honor

In New York, Clifton’s grief was compounded by rumors that she had tried to drive her sister from the stage out of jealousy. Clifton responded by publishing “A Card—To the Public,” in which she contended that these accounts were designed to “fix the general attention upon others as the authors of the calamity.” Clifton clearly believed that Hamblin was at fault, though she was careful not to accuse him directly. She also defended her “honor” and role in the scandal. She had not been trying to drive Missouri Miller from the stage; she had rather encouraged her. Clifton explained that she had delivered a “warning (alas unheeded) as to the…instruction which she should avoid.”8

Drawing of a heart filled with various malignancies, including guilt, covetousness, etc.
From the book of similitudes. (John Warner Barber/Flickr Commons| Public Domain)

In her “Card,” Clifton wanted the public to understand that the women of her family had no objections to the stage as a profession. Nor did she deny rumors that she and her sister were the daughters of a prostitute. She presented the stage as a legitimate path, a preferable alternative to their mother’s profession, while noting how the sisters’ social marginalization had created the context for further exploitation. “Children of misfortune from our very birth,” she explained, “it was due to our characters that we should by our own efforts protect and maintain ourselves.”9

Clifton’s emphasis on “our characters” and “our own efforts” referenced the thriving urban sex trade. The sisters had not chosen that path, but still faced attacks to their character. They were also especially vulnerable to exploitation by gatekeepers within the theater business like Hamblin.

Though Clifton did not accuse Hamblin of any willful wrongdoing, she was forthright in addressing the real power Hamblin exerted over her sister. One paper offered a defense of Clifton and her mother, explaining that the “conflict” was over whether Missouri Miller “should remain longer in the control of Hamblin,” but emphasized the threat this “professional connection” posed to “her reputation.”10 This was not simply a matter of reputation.

Struggles to make it in a narrow employment market exposed girls to the designs of unscrupulous men. With her frank discussion of the family history, Clifton made explicit the power imbalances and sexual double standards she and her sister navigated through their careers. With her reference to her “warning” that Missouri Miller “avoid” Hamblin’s “instruction,” Clifton spoke of the whispers between women that went unheard or perhaps unheeded by women anxious for autonomy and success.

As women in Hollywood during this #MeToo moment speak with forthrightness perhaps unimaginable to women like Clifton, listening carefully to the language of sex and power in Clifton’s statement points us to the historic complexity of the codes women used to talk to each other about the structural realities of their lives.

Notes

  1. Daily Picayune, July 3, 1838. Return to text.
  2. Spirit of the Times, June 23, 1838. Return to text.
  3. Faye Dudden, Women in the American Theatre: Actresses and Audiences, 1790-1870 (Yale University Press, 1997), 70. Return to text.
  4. Norman Meyers, “Josephine Clifton: ‘Manufactured’ Star,” Theatre History Studies 6 (1986), 111. Return to text.
  5. [Mary Clarke], A Concise History of the Life and Amours of Thomas S. Hamblin, Late Manager of the Bowery Theatre (Philadelphia, n.d.), 23. Return to text.
  6. [Clarke], A Concise History, 29. Return to text.
  7. Daily Picayune, June 26, 1838. Return to text.
  8. Spirit of the Times, July 7, 1838. Return to text.
  9. Spirit of the Times, July 7, 1838. Return to text.
  10. Spirit of the Times, June 23, 1838. Return to text.

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