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Murder Onstage: An Early 20th Century Actress Kills Her Stage Manager Before an Audience

Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier • Stage Management History • February 7, 2018
Julia Morrison posed in her cell with a cross that she made. “The Strangely Dramatic Trial of Julia Morrison, Actress” New York Journal, December 1899

Julia Morrison posed in her cell with a cross that she made. “The Strangely Dramatic Trial of Julia Morrison, Actress” New York Journal, December 1899

During a performance at the Chattanooga Opera House on Friday, September 22nd, 1899, Julia Morrison, the leading actress of the traveling show, Mr. Plaster of Paris, exited the stage in the middle of her Act II scene with Frank Leiden, leading man and stage manager.[1]  She seized the loaded revolver she kept between her breasts, reentered the scene, and shot Leiden three times, killing him. Fifteen hundred audience members looked on in shock until a call for a surgeon roused them. Morrison was immediately taken under custody by the local police and sent to the nearby jail to await the outcome of the coroner’s inquest. A few weeks later, the grand jury indicted her, and her trial was set for January 1900. By the beginning of her trial, Julia Morrison had become a household name and the event was covered across the nation, making headlines.

Many of the newspapers attributed the murder to the tumultuous relationship between Morrison and Leiden, especially because, earlier in the day, Leiden had informed Morrison that she would be replaced once the company arrived in Atlanta. Naturally, they had a screaming match amidst the cast during that day’s rehearsal, culminating in Morrison slapping Leiden across the face and walking out.

Rather unfortunately, the only surviving records for this event are limited to historical newspapers, all of which were extremely biased in one way or another, in some cases making Morrison out to be a manipulating woman, motivated by news of her replacement. They argued that she was clearly guilty, her reasoning unjustified, and she deserved punishment. While another set of articles argued the justification for her act, implying improper advances on Leiden’s part, including one journalist who described outright sexual assault, wherein Leiden, during an off-stage moment before the shooting, felt under her dress, up to her knees. The latter faction of authors called on the women of Chattanooga to rally behind Morrison to help her get acquitted.

To make matters worse, the prosecutor for the case was none other than Leiden’s brother-in-law, Mr. George Antz. Leiden’s sister, the prosecutor’s wife, sat beside him at the trial causing quite a stir with her occasional tearful outbursts. These newspaper articles dispensed equal amounts of gossip and judgement regarding the major players. During the trial, several newspapers reported that two of the jurors were previously charged with murder, and in one case the charges were dropped. In the other case, Ben Magill was acquitted after beating a fellow student/teammate with a baseball bat during the Grant University match game against the city team on campus several years before Morrison’s trial. The newspapers offered hope for a mistrial, or at the least the removal of Magill as a juror, however Judge Estill refused the request and the trial continued. The newspapers later inferred that these two gentlemen purposefully influenced the rest of the jury members to provide Morrison with an acquittal. 

In the end, Morrison was acquitted of all charges. After hearing the verdict, Morrison stood and gave a passionate speech to the courtroom, one that backfired, as shortly after her release, the same local papers that had clamored for her release were questioning her condescension. According to one article, a letter was written by Mrs. Antz to a friend in the city and subsequently published in a local newspaper. Morrison, upon reading the victim’s sister’s letter, replied in kind, which appeared in several newspapers, wrote, “I wish to say, while I fully appreciated Mrs. Antz’s deep sorrow for her unfortunate brother, which is but natural, I think, with every fair-minded individual, that in her criticism of me, a woman, and of her sex, she stepped beyond the bounds of sisterly sorrow. Home in justice to myself and the honor of American womanhood I herein voice my sentiments.[2]  In response, there was a flurry of opinionated articles and letters to the editor that were published with an array of reactions regarding the murder, the trial and Morrison’s behavior.

About a month after the trial, Julia began a touring lecture, The Other Side of Stage Life, warning young ladies of the perils and dangers of acting, arguing that “few women pass through their stage career with morals untarnished…. In speaking of stage managers, she referred to them as ‘Conscienceless Czars who have no use for those whom they cannot dominate and influence to satisfy their base passions.[3]

In December 1900, the newspapers reported that despite the romantic start of Morrison’s relationship with her husband Fred H. James, the bond between them had grown contentious, as she adamantly wished to return to the stage and he unwaveringly objected. As a result, on December 30th, Morrison filed for a divorce. Six months later, Morrison was, yet again, in the headlines. On June 30th, 1901, Morrison went to a candlelit dinner with a hypnotist professor, whose wife appeared shortly after the food, with a horse whip in one hand and their son in the other. Professor Silver was facing away from the door, and thus did not see his wife, until he felt the whip upon his back. Mrs. Silver proceeded to whip her husband in front of the other dining patrons until he escaped from the restaurant. Morrison later remarked that she had no idea that the man was married and was unnerved by the scene.

Morrison gained much notoriety as the “slayer of her stage manager,” but after 1901, there is little mention of her in newspaper records. She slowly disappeared into the archives, where she has remained until today. In her time, she had become a household name, but history has since forgotten her, though her dramatic and theatrical story could rival any of our reality TV shows today.

©Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier. All Rights Reserved.

[1] Reminder, this story takes place during the prompter/stage manager turnover! At the time, stage managers still acted in the shows they managed, assisting with start of Act cues, but leaving most of the backstage show responsibilities to the prompter.

[2] Bible Quoted: By Miss Morrison in a Letter Addressed to Leiden’s Sister.” Cincinnati Enquirer. Jan 18, 1900. Pg. 7

[3] Tights Mark a Turning Point: In the Lives of Actresses, Declared Julia Morrison – Warns the Innocent Girls.” Cincinnati Enquirer. Feb 17, 1900. Pg. 2

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