The Headless Ghost of George Frederick Cooke!

I would likely have done a post on English actor George Frederick Cooke (1756-1812) anyhow, but the lore surrounding his death, posthumous dismemberment, and the permanent residency of his remains in two U.S. cities seals the deal. There is a sense in which the man can be said to be STILL performing.

In terms of acting style, Cooke was regarded as a transitional figure between the naturalistic methods of David Garrick and Charles Macklin on the one hand, and the romanticism of Edmund Keane. He was often contrasted with his rival John Philip Kemble, whose style was more realistic. Cooke was noted for playing villains and hypocrites, excelling at roles like Richard III, Iago, and Shylock, and schemers in Restoration comedies. He was also notorious for being a massive alcoholic on the scale of later guys like Richard Burton or George C. Scott — a black-out drunk who would be out of commission for weeks while he went on benders.

Having made his professional debut in 1776, Cooke embarked on a U.S. tour in 1810, playing cities like New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston and Providence before becoming trapped here when the War of 1812 broke out. He died in New York of cirrhosis of the liver during the early months of the war.

And that’s when the tale gets really interesting. For it seems that Cooke’s bones are all over the place. Most of his body is ensconced at St. Paul’s Churchyard in Lower Manhattan, a stone’s throw from the World Trade Center, under a beautiful monument donated by Keane in 1821. However, his HEAD was removed from the body during the autopsy, and today belongs to Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. In a perfect world the skull would be on display at the Mütter Museum, but nay it is in protective storage at the nearby university co-founded by George McClellan (grandfather of the Civil War general), where Mutter also taught. Thus, the lore…that the skull itself was once used as Yoric’s in a private production of Hamlet, and that Cooke’s headless ghost roams the streets of Lower Manhattan near the sites of theatres where the actor used to perform. ALSO, it is said that Keane kept the bones of one Cooke’s digits, either a finger or a toe. Actors, you know you’ll have done something right if people collect your bones as relics.

Unsurprisingly the story of George Frederick Cooke, in both and life and death, is well-trodden internet ground, so there’s much more to explore, if you are so inclined. There’s:

This terrific article and podcast on Cemetery Mixtape

This terrific article on Adventures in Theater History, which is particularly good on the subject of Thomas Sully’s portraits of Cooke, said to have been among the painter’s best likenesses

This scholarly article about the skull by folks at Thomas Jefferson University

And Google “ghosts” and/or “hauntings” and “George Frederick Cooke” and you will find more references and sites than I can possible link to, mostly in tourist listicles and the like.

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