The Celebrated Tragedian, tried for Murder at the Old Bailey in 1717, and convicted of Manslaughter
JAMES QUIN was born in the parish of St Paul, Covent Garden, in the year 1693. His father was a gentleman of some estate, which he greatly embarrassed from a neglect of prudence; but he gave his son, out of the wreck of his fortune, an excellent education, which he finished at the University of Dublin.
From college young Quin was sent to London, in order to study law, and for that purpose a set of chambers in the Temple and a library were provided for him. Here he fell into that decay which has ever been fatal to many young men on their arrival into the great metropolis —- dissipated company. Legal authorities were thrown aside and the belles lettres substituted. He was oftener seen at the theatres than in Westminster Hall. Thus did this thoughtless young man dissipate his time until the death of his father, which indeed happened not long after his arrival in London. He found his patrimony very small, and that he himself had greatly assisted in reducing it.
He had made an acquaintance with Booth, Wilkes and Ryan, the first performers of those days, and he determined on turning player. In the year 1717, when just twenty-four years of age, he was accepted by the managers of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane; but before he could prepare himself for the arduous task of an appearance before a British audience he was obliged to fly from England. It appears that he formed an acquaintance with a woollen draper in the Strand, whose wife giving him encouragement, a criminal correspondence took place; and the guilty pair being, by the ill-treated husband, traced to a house of ill-fame, Quin drew his sword and wounded him in the thigh. The husband recovered, and commenced an action of crim. con., and another for assault, against Quin; who, to avoid the consequences of such serious proceedings, privately decamped, and went back to Ireland, where he remained until the natural death of the woollen draper.
We find, great as were his abilities, that he long remained at Drury Lane, to use the words of his biographer, "a mere scene-drudge —- a faggot of the drama." In time he was entrusted with the part of Banquo, in Shakespeare's tragedy of Macbeth, and the Lieutenant of the Tower in King Richard the Third. In the absence of a principal performer, Mr Rich, manager of the Theatre Royal, Lincoln's Inn Fields, with great reluctance substituted Quin in the arduous character of Sir John Falstaff, in the comedy of The Merry Wives of Windsor. The audience, who proved better judges than the manager, received his whole performance with uncommon applause.
His fame as an actor now rapidly increased; and upon Booth's infirmities obliging him to quit the stage, Quin succeeded to many of his parts, and among the rest to that of Cato, a character which had been alone acted by his predecessor, in which he was most popular, from the first representation of that admirable tragedy. There perhaps never was a dramatic work that engaged the public interest more than Cato. The contending parties in politics, on several nights of the first season of its appearance, ranged themselves, as in the House of Commons, on each side of the theatre, alternately applauding the patriotic and loyal speeches with which it abounds.
Though Booth was gone, Cato was soon called for, and Quin prepared for this, his greatest ordeal. He requested that the bills of the performance might say that "the part of Cato would be attempted by Mr Quin," with which the manager complied. The audience, pleased with his diffidence, received him with great applause, which encouraged him to call forth his utmost exertions. When the body of Cato's dead son, who was slain in battle, was brought upon the stage, upon Quin's repeating the line,
"Thanks to the gods, my boy has done his duty," the audience were so struck with surprise at his energy, feeling and manner, that, as it were with one accord, they exclaimed: "Booth outdone! Booth outdone!" In delivering the celebrated soliloquy in the last act the audience (very unusual in tragedy) cried, "Encore! encore!" without ceasing, until he repeated it, and the curtain fell under the greatest burst of applause.
After Quin had become the favourite of the town, in performing Cato, one Williams, an inferior actor, came to him on the stage, in the character of a Roman messenger, saying, "Caesar sends health to Cato," but he unfortunately pronounced Cato "Keeto"; which so affronted Quin that, instead of giving the reply of the author, he said: "Would he had sent a better messenger." This so greatly incensed Williams that when the scene was concluded he followed Quin into the green-room and complained to him of the injury he had sustained in being made contemptible to the audience, and thereby hurt in his profession; concluding by demanding satisfaction. Quin, instead of either apologising for the affront or accepting the challenge, made himself merry with his passion —- a treatment which increased it to a degree of frenzy; so that, watching under the piazza of Covent Garden, as Quin was returning to his lodgings he drew upon him, when the assailed, in defending himself, ran the unfortunate Williams through the body, which killed him upon the spot.
Quin immediately surrendered himself to the laws of his country, and under the circumstances here described, which were proved on his trial, we must agree with the jury, which found him guilty of manslaughter only.