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What we don't know (much) about EJ Phillips  (and John Nickinson)

We know a whole lot more than we used to.  With the growing availability of digital newspapers, online PhD dissertations and other sources we keep learning more.  Some things will remain unknowable, but worth some creative speculation about.  What else would be good to know -- or try to imagine?

EJ Phillips and her personal life   
Em Turner Chitty emailed Mary Glen in January 2019  “But the personal narrative aspect of it is weak because the funny thing about the letters is, of course, that she almost never wrote about her feelings about the events, and there was a whole private side to her life that as far as we know she did not share (unless there was a diary that we don't have). The big things that I would have liked to see spelled out are, how did she feel about her relationship with John Nickinson? Did he divorce? (His son said he didn't)? How did she bear the stigma of unmarried motherhood? How did she feel about her intensive traveling, apart from exhilarated by travel? Were there dark moments? How did she get through them?” 

Great questions – here’s a start on my thoughts and clues from the letters.  I do wonder if she ever regretted having chosen a more adventurous, if difficult life over staying in Canada. But she seems to have increasingly worked with better and better known theatrical colleagues after John Nickinson’s death, and while never a star, had a much more distinguished career than we originally realized. 

EJ Phillips often seems intrepid, adventurous, resilient and cheerful, but her life was not easy. A somewhat darker picture emerged when I started thinking about Em's questions.  

John Nickinson and Divorce? Was he a bigamist?
John Nickinson and his first wife 
Mary Anne Talbot legally separated in March 1855  after 20 plus years of marriage and five children because "unhappy differences have arisen and do still subsist".  He agreed to pay her an annuity of seventy-eight pounds yearly, or one pound and ten shillings weekly.  They were already living apart by this time. John Nickinson agreed "that he will not at any time hereafter by any cause or any pretence whatever, sue or prosecute any person or persons for receiving, harbouring or protecting the said Mary Anne." Mary Anne agreed that she would not "molest or disturb the said John Nickinson or his children living with him, by her presence, or her act or deed in any way whatever nor continue to live in the same city, town, or part of the country in which he or they may be living..."

Whether John Nickinson and EJ Phillips actually married (and if so, when) is unclear. .   John Nickinson often refers to himself as EJ Phillips' husband in his letters.  EJ Phillips occasionally calls herself Nickinson, though she uses Phillips much more often. (She started acting as “Miss Phillips”  and became “Mrs. Phillips” after a printer’s error.)   John Nickinson, Jr.,  son of his first marriage, wrote to the New York Clipper after his father's death that his parents had never been divorced.

“John Nickerson [sic] was stage manager at this time. He and Miss Phillips lived together as man and wife. There was a mystery about them, however, it was hinted that he had a wife and family living in Canada. [The first Mrs. Nickinson was then living in New York.] says a chapter "Samuel N. Pike and Pike’s Opera House” from Recollections of a Scene painter, E.T. Harvey, Cincinnati Ohio 1914 [via Google Books]

EJ Phillips’ 1890 autobiography for AM Palmer says “. I have been a widow for 26 years”.   The fullest obituary of EJ Phillips (New York Dramatic Mirror, August 20, 1904) makes no reference to John or Albert Nickinson, but lists Hattie and the three grandchildren.  The New York Times obituary mentions only daughter Hattie

Dolman cousin Susan Spencer, who lives in Toronto, researched Canadian marriage and divorce records, but fire seems to have destroyed public records from that time.. West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia has no gravestone for EJP but she's listed as Elizabeth J. Nickinson in cemetery records.

EJ Phillips acted with all of the Nickinson daughters in Toronto What was her relationship with them like? 
She appeared in plays at the Royal Lyceum Theatre with Charlotte, Virginia and Isabella in 1852-1857 according to PB Anthony O'Neill's thesis, A History of Theatrical Activity in Toronto, Canada, from its beginning to 1858, Louisiana State University dissertation, 1973 .  EJ Phillips told Albert she hadn't seen Eliza Nickinson Peters since her marriage in 1854.

John Nickinson was 22 years older than EJ Phillips.  Their relationship obviously dated from about the time EJ Phillips joined his stage company in 1852, for his letter of October 3, 1859 refers to "our seven years of past love".  John Nickinson and first wife Mary Anne Nickinson officially separated in March 1855.

EJ Phillips' Single parenthood
EJ Phillips was 28 when her first child, Charles Alderman Nickinson was born in Toronto (Apr. 30, 1858 - died Pittsburgh, Sept. 1859, reportedly of a fall from a high chair).  The week before this birth John Nickinson's oldest daughter Charlotte Nickinson married theatre critic Daniel Morrison  April 22, 1858 in Toronto , retired from the stage  and moved to Quebec.

Mary Shortt, in a January 1980 letter about her thesis on Toronto theatre notes that "I was unable to explain Nickinson's strange behavior in 1858, when he disappeared for an extended period from the Royal Lyceum.  The loss of Charlotte, who married and left the stage in the spring of '58 was obviously a blow, but I was unaware of the great stress created by E.J.'s pregnancy (in strait- laced  Toronto, where Nickinson had been considered a pillar of respectability!").

How did EJ Phillips care for her children while working?
How she cared for her children has always been a concern, but careful examination of her account books makes it clearer where they lived.  EJP recorded their board and pocket money from 1867-1875 while she was traveling so much. . It can’t have been easy for them or her. 

The children began boarding in Indianapolis with the Fays, whom they had known when EJ Phillips was living and working there  1867- 1868 and in  Suffern NY with the Zavistowskis starting in February 1873. EJ Phillips had known the acting and dancing Zavistowskis in Toronto and Cincinnati.  (The Zavistowskis had been in California, Australia and New Zealand 1870-1871. ) 

She paid about  $134 for the two children's board in 1870, Sept 3-Dec 7; while in New York,  Toledo and Detroit; about  $478 in 1871, while in New England Jan-May, Sept-December New Orleans, Memphis and St. Louis;  about $615  in 1872  while in Mobile, Memphis, St. Louis, New Orleans, St. Paul Minnesota, New York, Philadelphia, Louisville,  Canton and Vicksburg Mississippi, with about 19 days in Indianapolis;  $737 in 1873, with Lawrence Barrett Jan-April in the South, May in the Midwest, June to July  in New York State and New England, August to December mostly in St. Louis, with Christmas week in Indianapolis; about $848  in 1874, mostly in St. Louis, with some trips to Kansas City, Detroit, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio  and two weeks in March and two in May  in Indianapolis;  and about $376 in 1875, January-July traveling in the Northeast from late Dec- Jan. and then mostly in the South, until the three of them all moved to Philadelphia in September..

Did children Albert or Hattie ever meet any of their half siblings?
We have a mysterious April 12 1900 letter from Eliza Nickinson Peters on Sunshine of Paradise Alley letterhead, which had been attached to one from Mrs. Peters to her brother reading "Mrs. Peters who plays the widow (her creation) has asked me as a special favor, she has a brother there [where?], Nickinson, and I believe they don't speak as they pass by.  This is her way of showing him that she is still on earth."    An April 15 1900 letter from EJ Phillips mentioning her "Saw by [Middletown newspaper] Mercury that you are to have a play at the Casino [Theater] on Tuesday next in which Mrs. Charles Peters played in here [Philadelphia] at the Park a few weeks ago. Was born 1834. Guess she is with it still for the play belongs to Denman Thompson who was a member of your father's company for several years and he still is grateful for the kindnesses he received then from the "Governor" and has frequently given employment to members of the family who requested it -- since he has been a star-manager. ... Strange how things come about.  I have not seen Mrs. Peters since she was married and that was in 1854 [Sept], I think, and became a widow not later than 1866 [1870] & now you will see her after so many years.  She has a son Fred and a daughter, Maud, living, that is all I know of.  Both were on the stage.

We know a fair amount about the Nickinson daughters of the first marriage. They were all on the stage at various times, including after Charlotte, Eliza and Virginia were widowed and needed to support their families. We do have photos of each daughter, but none of John Jr.  EJ Phillips read the New York Clipper and was aware of some of their activities, and at times they were in Philadelphia or New York together in the 1870s and later.  What did they think of her? 

John Nickinson's personality?
Toronto theatre historian Mary Shortt wrote Sept. 30, 1980 "various references indicate that [John Nickinson] was quite a martinet, which supports the family tradition that he was not very kind to EJ."  Perhaps widowhood had its liberating aspects.   

A newspaper clipping I read at the Harvard Theatre Collection substantiated John Nickinson's reputation for a nasty temper in general. I found at the Harvard Theatre Collection a scrapbook that Augustin Daly made of Ireland’s Records of the New York Stage from 1750-1860 and related materials, where Victor Parton was quoted as saying of John Nickinson 

"The great comedian had some unfortunate and disagreeable peculiarities as a manager.  He was not only absolute and tyrannous but often willfully neglectful of the people employed by him.”    Victor Parton had been recommended to John Nickinson for an engagement, and JN said to him “Well sir, I will try you for a week, and if at the end of that time, you like me and I like you, the engagement may be continued”. 

Parton was hoping for something less uncertain, but “Mr. Nickinson would not recede an inch” 

 Towards the end of this week of probation I found my name in the “Cast case”  [a glass box found in green rooms with a list of who would play different roles] in several new casts for the ensuing week, and as the casts were made out in Mr. Nickinson’s handwriting, I knew he was solely responsible for them. … I said to Mr. Wm. Griffiths, the stage manager or prompter “I see my name in the cast case for next week, I don’t think I shall be here.”

“You’d better speak to Mr. Nickinson about it then.”
“I don’t know that I shall. I am engaged for one week and am under no obligation to remain.” 
“But don’t you want an engagement?” 
 “Yes, I do want an engagement, but”

 On Monday I went to the theatre for my salary and met Mr. Nickinson in the box office.  

 “What does this mean sir?  They tell me you are not going to stay” he roared.

“And I am not” I answered. 
 “But you must, you are bound to, what was our agreement?”
 “Our agreement, Mr. Nickinson, was this, that I was to play a week, and if, at the end of that time you liked me, and I liked you, I was to continue.”
 “Well sir,” blustered the old gentleman” I like you very much”. 
 “I don’t know about that Mr. Nickinson, but I don’t like you.  

We know that Hattie and her daughter Melanie was not interested in the portrait of John Nickinson because of the effect he had on her mother/grandmother. 

And was he an alcoholic?  He certainly seemed to have had drinking problem at times.

EJ Phillips “Nerves” and Aging
New York, Feb. 14, 1886 after climbing up two long stairs and finding the money order office, I discovered I had no eye glasses with me and could not see to fill the blanks properly, so in disgust I left the office and took the 4th Avenue cars home

Boston, May 30, 1886  Mr. [Louis] Massen just called to know if there was anything he could do for me.  I told him "no".  Kind of him though, wasn't it?  Said he and his wife would see me to the Depot which is only one block away, but I feel the kindness for very seldom so you find actors so thoughtful of an old lady. 

San Francisco Aug 9, 1886  I am getting old - my health will not stand the wear and tear it did 

Boston, May 27, 1888  I am awfully nervous all the time, but I suppose that is the result of my increased age. 

Philadelphia, July 1, 1888  [I would have to] wear myself out before starting for the long journey to California, and all for the benefit and convenience of A.M. P[almer].   So I may as well remain where I am.  If he can do without me, perhaps someone else will take me in the Fall. I have been his Jack at a pinch long enough.  It has made me ill and nervous, and I cannot allow him to impose upon me any longer.  

New York, Jan. 22, 1889  I was sorry to hear you [Albert] were in a fit of "the blues" or that affairs were not progressing as smoothly with you, as you and I would have them. But perhaps it is not as bad as you think. B. may have a disagreeable manner when he is thinking, but I guess he appreciates your work even if he does not gush over it.  You know I have often been accused of being cross, when I have been in the happiest of moods. And it may be the same with him. 

Philadelphia June 5, 1891 Excuse this letter Neppie dear.  I am very sleepy, and my eye glasses make my eyes ache.

Cincinnati Jan 20, 1893 I have seen a few old acquaintances here, but more that knew me than those I knew.  Have not heard from the Egans or Mrs. Bass -- all my other friends have died or gone away.  It makes me feel sad. 

New York, Sept. 29, 1893 I have come to the conclusion that a woman has no right to be on the stage after she is 50 [EJP was 63].  It has cost me $290 to dress the part, without counting my expenses of board & and all I had was $400.  So you see I am bankrupt, and if my health fails, I do not know what is to become of all of us.  Providence, Rhode Island, Feb. 1894 You have waited and I pray trust, you are now rewarded.  It will be a great consolation to me, I assure you, for I do not see much prospect before me of bettering my condition.  Managers are looking for the young and beautiful and I shall have to take a back seat.  

 Pittsburgh, May 4, 1891 I was very weak, sick and nervous in Washington.

New York, Sept. 18, 1893  I have had considerable trouble and annoyance over the matter [contract with Charles Frohman for the 1893-1894 season], and consequently am very nervous and not at all well. 

New York, Sept. 29, 1893  I have no real pain, but great nervousness.  If I can only get through Monday night all right, I hope then to improve.  The "part" would have been nothing to me in the past and I am very near perfect, but I am so afraid that I shall not get through, that it makes me fear to go through the ordeal.  ...  I have not told Hattie that I have been to Dr. Smith as I had been getting medicine from Dr. Guernsey, but I was not getting any better and thought it best to get another Dr. to brace me up.   Hattie to Neppie Oct 10/93   I found Mama looking thinner & more haggard than when she went away & from all accounts she had had a pretty close call from a thorough break-down.  The Doctor had been to see her the day before & made an examination of her.  She thought she had a cancer or that her heart was diseased, both of which he denied.  Said there was a slight irritation of the heart from the nervous strain & her system run down. Said her lungs were as sound as a drum.  Told her she fretted too much.  She denied it, but she does & always has when she is away from her children.  She worries how they may be getting on & when she is home she worries because her salary isn't coming in.  Summer vacations have never done her any good for that reason.  It is among my earliest recollections.  She is not weak in any way & doesn't feel weak.  I think it has all come from mental worriment.    

Philadelphia, Mar 24, 1894  I am as usual beginning to feel a little "blue" that my occupation is ended.  I am rested and want to go to work again -- but I shall have to wait for a long time before I shall be wanted I am afraid. 

Philadelphia, Aug. 12, 1894 I have not made any arrangements for next season, and do not as yet see any prospect of my getting anything to do. Of course, you can understand that makes me rather "blue".  It was later than this when I got the "Duchess" last year and perhaps something may yet turn up. 

Hattie to Neppie, Philadelphia, Aug 27, 1894  Mama has nothing in prospect and that makes her nervous & blue at times.  She is never perfectly happy when idle.

Philadelphia, Sept. 18, 1894  I feel "right down in the dumps".  I am still a member of the great army of the un-employed, do not think anything will be given me before Novr, if then. 

St. Louis, Oct. 16, 1894  I am not as strong as I would like to be, but if in an engagement I think I should feel better.

Hattie to Neppie, Philadelphia, Oct. 31, 1894  It was well that I could go [to New York], for she [EJP] had a wretched time of it.  Long rehearsals, running to dressmakers &c & the part was altered just enough to make it confusing & more troublesome than a new one.  And she was ill in the bargain.  The day before I arrived she had nothing to eat between 9 AM & 6 PM.  She began to feel so worn out & miserable by Saturday that she went to see Dr. Smith who thought the trouble came from nervousness. Sunday night there was a rehearsal, which was not over until 1:30 Monday morning.  Mon morning she saw the Doctor again & he then said her liver was congested.  She was a little better when I left her yesterday. 

Detroit, May 15, 1896  I am glad to hear Ted enjoyed his visit to New York.  I feel it was not a very enjoyable time for any of you for I was tired, nervous & fidgety, and did not know what to do to make it pleasant for you.  It made me very happy to have you all there and in my own happiness I fear I did not do all I might have done to make the rest of you comfortable.  The rooms were all so small.  We were crowded, yet I took the best they had.  I thank you all for coming to see me

Philadelphia Dec. 10, 1896  Since my arrival I have slept every Morning until after 10 and the rest of the day soon passes.  Yesterday left here at 12:30 and returned at 11:30 so did not get time to write.  This Morning I feel more like myself than I have since my arrival.  The nerves are more rested.

Philadelphia, Feb. 22, 1898  I have been idle for a year and so have many others in my profession, even those younger than I.  Whether I shall be able to appear again is doubtful, though I am not in bad health, but the accumulation of years has me tied down and I cannot do as I have done.  I did hope to be able to pull through for another five years at least, but it is vanity for me to think it.  "All is beauty." 

Canadian Immigration to the US during the Civil War  
What was it like for EJ Phillips and John Nickinson to move from Canada in  1862/63 to Cincinnati a border state? Was their move purely an economic decision?

Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canada_in_the_American_Civil_War    https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/american-civil-war/  Canada was officially neutral.  Many newspapers supported the South. 

The Revolution was America’s first civil war. About a third of the American colonists wanted nothing to do with what Adams, Jefferson and the others were selling. With every British military defeat, more of those loyal to the Crown left or were driven out. Some fled to Britain while others went south, but most escaped to what remained of British North America... Shortly after the U.S. Civil War began in April 1861, Britain declared itself neutral. The Canadian and Maritime governments dutifully echoed that official line and informed their citizens that it was against the law to support North or South, and for individuals to join in the fight.... Business people enjoyed more commerce with Northern than Southern industry. Canadians travelling to Britain often went by way of New York and Boston. Despite such familiarity, however, public and popular opinion of the North and South was divided, volatile and multi-dimensional. It was coloured by class, ethnicity, religion, ideology and region. ... The Toronto Leader was pro-South, while the Toronto Globe was pro-North. The Montreal Gazette was pro-South, while the Montreal Witness was pro-North. The reporting and editorial stances of 84 Canadian papers revealed themselves to be obviously pro-South, with only 33 pro-North and eight neutral. A report of the Confederate victory in the war’s first battle elicited a spontaneous cheer in Canada’s legislature. ...many young Canadians and Maritimers left home to fight. Those who did fought overwhelmingly in Union ranks.Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation, John Boyko, Knopf Canada, 2013 http://nationalpost.com/opinion/john-boyko-canadians-for-the-confederacy

Library and Archives Canada, Influence of the American Civil War https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/politics-government/canadian-confederation/Pages/influence-american-civil-war.aspx

Some colleagues such as Ben DeBar and Maggie Mitchell were Southern sympathizers.  Other such as Lawrence Barrett served in the Union Army.

Did John Nickinson ever see any of his grandchildren?  Did he go to any of his daughter’s weddings?
Charlotte Nickinson Morrison had four children two of them appeared in the 1861 Canadian census, aged 1 and 2 I think.  John Nickinson was certainly in Toronto when she married in 1858, but EJP was about to have their first child. Eliza Nickinson Peters married in 1854 in New York and had Fred Peters in 1860.  [Her daughter Maud was born in 1868] Virginia Nickinson Marlowe was married in 1857 at Niagara Falls and had Jessie Isabel Dearling Marlowe the first of her three daughters in 1861 in New York. [Virginia Eliza was born in 1865 and Ethel in 1871 and both of these died young.] Isabella Nickinson Walcott married in New York in May 1863, and had no children.  John Jr seems not to have married or had children.  So it seems possible that John Nickinson didn’t go to his daughter’s weddings and unlikely that he saw much, if anything of his grandchildren.  We know that there were some Morrison descendants living in Toronto and Edison NJ [but not apparently very interested in their ancestors according to theatre historian Mary Shortt.] Only Jessie Marlowe Voight is known to have married.  Fred Peters seems not to have married and Maud Peters married a Nicaraguan man and became Mathilde Deshon [and acted some.]  We do know that only child EP Nickinson has many descendants as do Jack Dolman and Melanie Dolman Seymour. 

Jessie Marlowe Voight has a letter in the Folger Shakespeare Library, written to William Winter after an 80th birthday tribute to him at the Century Theatre New York on March 14 1916.
The Tribute occurred on the afternoon of March 14, 1916, at the Century Theatre, NYC. Approximately 250 signatories (autographs reproduced photographically) were represented in the souvenir publication; (these included Thomas Edison and Theodore Roosevelt, among other eminent persons.) The entertainment portion of the tribute featured a "Temple Dance" by Ruth St. Denis and scenes from Shakespeare performed by leading actors, including Annie Russell, Walter Hampden, Crystal Herne, James O'Neill, Louis Calvert, James K. Hackett, Henrietta Crosman, Rose Coghlan, Jane Cowl, Blanche Bates, Viola Allen, and many others. https://www.amazon.com/William-Testimonial-Afternoon-Fourteenth-Nineteen/dp/1290982295

EJ Phillips' Shakespearean roles -- missing 4 plays and 5 roles
AM Palmer almost never produced Shakespearean plays.  Most of EJ Phillips' Shakespeare performance were with John Nickinson, some at Pike's Opera House in Cincinnati, some in Indianapolis and a number with the Varieties Theatre in New Orleans, with Pope and Ben Debar in St. Louis and with Lawrence Barrett. We have a list of 31 roles in 19 Shakespearean plays and know of 15 plays and 26 roles, and would like to figure out the remaining 4 plays and 5 roles. When and where did EJP perform the following plays by Shakespeare? As You Like It, Comedy of Errors, Coriolanus, King John, Merchant of Venice, Richard III, Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night.

When did EJP first come to New York?
Her account books indicate she performed at the Olympic Theatre in New York in Sept 1872 for two weeks.  Did she accompany John Nickinson when he was playing at Laura Keene’s in May and June of 1862 or Washington hall Harlem in August 1862? Perhaps she did because she responded to a request for her impression of Laura Keene by saying that her acquaintance with her was slight but she had seen her act.  Laura Keene died in 1873 and gave up her New York theatre in 1863 because of her poor health, but toured for much of the next ten years.  (Isabella Nickinson Walcott had been a protégé of Laura Keene’s in New York in 1862-1863.)

When exactly was EJP in James Wallack’s Rosedale?  When was she part of Augustin Daly’s company?
The book Marie Burrough’s Stage Celebrities says she was in Rosedale, as does an obituary? And the New York Times performance was reviewed in 1881. Odell? says something about only EJP and Maude Harrison dressing up to the Daly standard, but I’m unclear on when this was.

When did John Nickinson come to Canada? 
We know he was there by 1830 and had enlisted in the British Army at 15 in 1823, and was promoted to sergeant in 1825, but not much else.  We know his father was a Chelsea Pensioner [retired to the Royal Chelsea Hospital in London, where Mary Glen went as a researcher to the National Army Museum in the 1970s.  Middletown New York had Army medals from the Napoleonic and Peninsular Wars [Cape of Good Hope 1795, Talavera 1809, Fuentes Donor 1811 Salamanca 1812, Vittoria 1813, Pyrenees 1813, Nivele 1813, Orthes 1814, mainly in Spain and Portugal].  John Nickinson seems to have been an absentee father on a number of occasions – perhaps his dad was too.   

Did John Nickinson have any siblings?
His father was Richard Nickinson but haven’t found a birth or death date.  His mother was Mary but have no maiden name or dates. Haven’t found any siblings. Presumably once John came to Canada he never returned to England,  unlike EJ Phillip’s father Thomas Phillips.

Did John and Mary Ann Talbot Nickinson have any other children who died young? 
Given infant mortality in those days it seems possible that he sired more than eight children. Census records for various people record live births as well as living children.  But not everyone shows up in censuses every ten years.

What did  Mary Ann Talbot Nickinson do after she left Toronto?
Mary Ann Talbot Nickinson died in New York in 1877 at the home of her daughter Eliza Nickinson Peters.  Her death certificate lists here as a widow, but who was going to dispute that? She seems to have been born in 1806, which made her 1-2 years older than John, born in 1808. She was from Limerick Ireland, according to an interview with Eliza Nickinson Peters in Donahoe's magazine 1905 The article also says the Nickinson children were sent to a Catholic school on Mulberry St in New York but were sent home when the nuns learned their father was an actor. Eliza later converted to Catholicism and Lived in Yorkville New York. https://books.google.com/books?id=qgjZAAAAMAAJ&dq=%22sunshine+of+paradise+alley%22+peters&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Last revised August 24, 2020

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