Kate Claxton (Kate Elizabeth Cone, 1848-1924) is best remembered today as the star who was onstage during the Brooklyn Theatre Fire in 1876 (much as Eddie Foy is associated with the conflagration at the Iroquois). A year later she was present at yet another theatre fire in St. Louis, at which point she acquired a popular reputation as a Jonah, although she eventually lived it down, with the help of cartoonist Thomas Nast, who ridiculed the brief trend.
Claxton was from Somerville, New Jersey. Her grandfather, Spencer Houghton Cone, was an actor-turned-Baptist clergyman. Her father, Spencer Wallace Cone was a lawyer who wrote plays and acted in amateur theatricals. After an unfortunate marriage to a New York merchant, Claxton made her professional debut in Boucicault’s Andy Blake in Chicago in 1869, followed by several roles with Lotta Crabtree. In 1870 she joined Augustin Daly’s company at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York, acting in such things as Bronson Howard’s Saratoga and Wilkie Collins’ Man and Wife. In 1873 she joined A.M. Palmer’s company at the Union Square Theatre. (Both of these venues would later figure in the vaudeville story. The Fifth Avenue became a vaudeville house under F.F. Proctor; the Union Square became B.F. Keith’s early New York flagship)
In 1874 Claxton made a huge hit in the play Two Orphans, which elevated her to star status. She would tour with the play (along with other vehicles) nearly to the end of her career. She was acting in Two Orphans on the night of the Brooklyn fire. Starting in 1876 she began touring nationwide with her own companies, under the management of her brother. So widely was she loved that there is even a town in Georgia named after her.
In 1878 Claxton married actor Charles A. Stevenson, with whom she co-starred in many productions, although they had separated by 1901. In 1904 their 21 year old son Harold Stevenson took his own life. Claxton retired from the theatre that year at the age of 56. She died 20 years later and was laid to rest at Green-wood Cemetery in Brooklyn:
For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.