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Bring me the Head of George Frederick Cooke

Portrait of Cooke from Dunlap’s diary.

By some accounts, George Frederick Cooke was the greatest tragedian actor of the late 18th and early 19th century; his portrayal of Shakespeare’s Richard III was second to none. Whether he was Scottish, Irish or British was debated in his time; his epitaph reads “Three kingdoms claim his birth / both hemispheres proclaim his worth.”

But all who knew him had a few things to say that weren’t quite so complimentary – his biographer, William Dunlap wrote in his diary that Cooke was “a coward, a braggart, a hypocrite, a backbiter, fearing death… yet rushing on to meet him with the frenzy of desperations, form’d by nature for the attainment of every virtue without possessing one – I fear not one!” His tales of Cooke as a problem drinker were legion.

After Cooke’s death in 1812, he was autopsied by Dr. David Hosack, a Doctor’s Mob veteran and former physician to Alexander Hamilton, and his young associate, Dr. John W. Francis, who would go on to be Edgar Allan Poe’s doctor a few decades later (note: Poe wrote a profile of Francis, and a 19th century biographer described Francis saying Poe had heart disease and would die young, though later authors who called Francis Poe’s doctor may be stretching a big).

Cooke was buried in what was known as the “stranger’s vault” (which the church currently believes was used as a generic term for an unmarked grave), but moved at the request of Francis and actor Edmund Kean in 1821 to this fine new grave, with a flame pointing towards the Park Theatre, where he performed. It would have been visible from the gravesite when it was standing.

Cooke’s grave at St. Paul’s in New York City, near the Occulus and World Trade Center.


But here’s where the story gets weird – somewhere along the line, either Hosack or Francis separated the head from the body, and Francis ended up with the skull. It became a part of theatrical lore that Cooke’s skull had once been used as Yorick during a benefit performance of Hamlet – and Francis himself said it was true – and that the next night, Daniel Webster gave a phrenological demonstration.

Francis on the cover of Harper’s Weekly, 1858

The skull is now in Philadelphia, but whether the legend was entirely true is up to debate. Francis didn’t write the story down until decades after the fact, and didn’t give QUITE enough details to verify it. Hamlet was performed as a benefit at the Park Theatre, the theatre he named, a few times (most notably by Isaac Starr Clauson in 1824, and Cooke’s old rival Charles Kemble in 1833), but I haven’t been able to confirm that Webster was in town for any of them. Even if he was, we’d still be taking Francis’ word for it, really. And according to Poe and everyone else who knew him, Francis loved to tell shocking stories. He doesn’t strike me as the type to let facts stand in the way of a good one.  But that he ended up with the skull seems beyond dispute. Oddly, no Poe bio seems to have noticed that he was friends with an actual grave robber!

Here in this episode, I examine all of the facts and sources (here’s the timeline of materials and links), then look into the mysterious “stranger’s vault” with help from Whitey Sterling, former lead singer of Stiffs, Incorporated, and with musical guests The Chuzzlewits contributing a song entitled “Bring Me the Head of George Frederick Cooke.”

More pics from the episode:

Memorial tablet in St. Paul’s to Sir John Temple, a near-victim of the Doctor’s Mob (see episode 2)
The commonly-misquoted grave of John Jones, often said to be the husband of the woman who wrote the epitaph. A close reading shows that John was 4 years old; the world is “harmless,” not “husband.” (rendered, 1700s style, as ‘Harmlefs.'”)
At Cooke’s grave on a rainy afternoon with Whitey Sterling of Stiffs Inc – the band for which I started a fan page in the 1990s! When Bokononists notice the randomness and complexity of the world, they whisper “busy busy busy.” 
Dr. Hosack’s grave is at the Uptown Trinity Cemetery (on the other side of Manhattan from Trinity Church, where his patients Alexander and Phillip Hamilton are buried).


David Johnston as David Hosack

John Piotrowski as John W. Francis

Whitey Sterling as George Frederick Cooke

M. Meenee as William Dunlap

Some sources and links