Here’s my timeline of the story about Cooke’s skull, finger, and tooth being stolen and used in Hamlet:
1811-12 George Frederick Cooke tours America; he’s friendly with author and dramatist William Dunlap, who records several stories of Cooke being terribly drunk in his diary.
Sept 26, 1812: Cooke’s death is announced in the press, though few details are given. Later accounts state that the burial took place the next day.
1813 – Dunlap publishes a biography of Cooke, which includes a lengthy March, 1813 letter by Dr. David Hossack describing Cooke’s death and autopsy by himself and Dr. John W. Francis. Dunlap notes that Dr. McLean was also present. Notes that on Sept 27, 1812, the remains were “deposited in the burying ground” at St. Paul’s, at a ceremony attended by several prominent citizens.
1821 – The body is moved to its current location and a monument is erected by Edmund Kean and John W. Francis, who obtains permission from Bishop Hobart.
June 18, 1824 – There is a benefit performance of Hamlet at the Park Theatre starring Isaac Starr Clason, for the benefit of Mr. Foote. This is one of the two most likely times that the skull of Cooke would have been Hamlet.
1832 – Dunlap’s HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN THEATRE contains more anecdotes of Cooke and states that in June 1821, “the body was removed from the strangers vault… to a most eligible spot in the center of that expansive burial ground,” and notes that a monument commissioned by Edmund Kean and Dr. Francis was made by The Frazees. Notes that the flame pointed toward Park Theatre. Francis dictated the epitaph and “superintended the removal of the remains.” He also notes that Kean had the right forefinger and the surgeon had the “scull” (sic), but the REMAINS were buried in St. Paul’s.
Oct 13, 1833 – Charles Kemble performs a benefit of Hamlet at Park Theatre, with his daughter as Ophelia.
1835 – A biography of the recently-deceased Edmund Kean gives a lengthy account of his returning from the States in 1821 in possession of Cooke’s toe bone, which he treated as a holy relic until his wife threw it into a dry well at the Duke of Portland’s house, which was next door to Kean’s.
1836 – The NEW YORK MIRROR article tells the story of how, a few years since, when Kemble was playing Hamlet, recent “depredations” had left the theater without a skull (except an exploding one used in Der Freyshutz), and a doctor supplied Cooke’s. The precise date is not known; the article was reprinted throughout the 1830s.
1837 – Dunlap’s own memoir, MEMOIR OF A WATER DRINKER, has a chapter on the death of Cooke, includes an anecdote about Cooke on his deathbed saying he’s played every speaking part in Hamlet, so now he’ll have to play the skull. A footnote says “the remains were buried at St. Paul’s churchyard (after certain portions were abstracted) and a monument was some years afterwards placed over them…” Notes that Edmund Kean exceeded Cooke in depravity, if not necessarily in skill, and corrects the recent biography by saying that Kean had Cooke’s finger, not his toe. The book further includes a note on the cause of death by Dr. Francis.
July, 1846, article in THE KNICKERBOCKER on the Cooke Monument states that the body was taken from the Stranger’s Vault in 1821, detailing talks between Bishop Hobart and John W. Francis. The bishop objected to having a memorial within the church, but was fine with a monument anywhere in the burial grounds. The author then mocks the “ridiculous” stories of Kean and the toe, but quotes Dunlap’s 1837 memoir stating Kean had the finger and the surgeon had the skull.
1846 – Edgar Allan Poe writes a profile of Dr. Francis.
1858 – John W. Francis writes MEMORIES OF OLD NEW YORK, including a story of he and Kean meeting with Bishop Hobart and convincing him they wanted a monument in the graveyard, not in the church. Says they told the Bishop they wanted to remove him from the stranger’s vault to his own space. Also tells that some years later, when a benefit of Hamlet was announced at the Park Theatre, he loaned Cooke’s skull for use, and the next night, after rumors got around, Daniel Webster gave a phrenological demo at the Bread and Cheese club. The club existed from roughly 1823-31, breaking up before Kemble could have played Hamlet, though records are vague and a reunion meeting could have been arranged.
1885 – Francis’s son, Dr. V.M. Francis, presents the skull to Dr. George Mclellan, who’d attended him, though he sends a tooth that falls out to Edwin Booth. McClellan asked for any autograph letter that Booth sent in receipt.
Sept 1885 – Booth, in Greenwich CT, writes a letter to Dr. V. Francis thanking him for the “relic,’ saying that it was forwarded from his Newport Residence.
Early 1900s – Dr. McClellan begins giving lectures on the skull, THE STROLLING OF A PLAYERS HEAD, preserved in typescript at Thomas Jefferson University, which still has the skull. In the typescript he states that Booth’s only response was a telegram stating “thanks for Cooke’s tooth – deposited in Players’ Club, NY.” He may have been unaware of the letter. He also states that Dr. Francis’s OLD NEW YORK says that the skull was used by Edmund Kean at the Bowery Theatre, two details that Francis’s work doesn’t say at all. McClellan also notes that one time someone broke into his office and stole all the skulls EXCEPT Cooke’s, which sounds a bit fishy.