Joseph Perry Price (1824-1874)

Kendrick Price Daggett, USA


Joseph Perry Price

Wheelwright and coach-maker, as well as actor, prompter, and stage manager, my second great grandfather, Joseph Perry Price, was a man whose hands were trained to a trade but whose heart was drawn to the stage. The second of four siblings to depart Ireland for the beckoning opportunities of mid-nineteenth century America, he arrived in Boston, Massachusetts in the fall of 1847 eager to follow his dreams and pursue a new life.

Born in Dublin, Ireland on 14 August 1824, Joseph was the youngest, but one, of his parents’ eight known children. On 30 August, a little more than a fortnight after his birth, he was taken to St. Peter’s (COI) Church where, following his Christening, his name was entered into the baptismal register as “Joseph the son of James and Ann Perry.”

This raises a genealogical conundrum concerning the family’s surname. Although born in Wales sometime in the 1780s as James Price, Joseph’s father, called himself James Perry or James Price Perry while living in Ireland. James’s wife, who was born in England circa 1787, appears in discovered Irish records as Ann Perry, and their offspring also used the form Price Perry or simply Perry while residents of Dublin. However, as soon as they left Ireland for either England or America, as five of them did, the children all adopted the form Perry Price or simply Price.

While Joseph undoubtedly knew the reason his father appended the name Perry to his own, his descendants have been left with no clue. One theory is that the maiden name of James’s wife was Ann Perry, and when they married James found taking her surname to be in some way advantageous. Although James and Ann resided in Dublin from at least 1810 when their first child was born, over the years they and members of their family made repeated journeys between Ireland and the English city of Bristol. Some even resided there for periods of time.

It is possible that some now unknown family connection drew them across St. George’s Channel. In Dublin directories James Price Perry is identified as a wheelwright and coach-maker, and records show that during this period there was an extended family of prosperous coach-makers named Perry living in and around Bristol’s Stokes Croft. Perhaps the explanation lies there.

As Joseph Price Perry, Joseph grew up as a member of Dublin’s skilled Protestant working class. Evidence suggests that his earliest years were spent in the south Dublin neighborhood that comprised the Parish of St. Peter, but from at least the age of 12 his family lived north of the Liffey in St. Mary’s (COI) Parish, first on Loftus Lane and then around the corner on Ryder’s Row. As was true for all his siblings, he attended grammar school; and just as had been the case for his two elder brothers, at the appropriate age he was apprenticed to learn a trade. While his brother, John, became a tailor, Joseph, like his father and eldest brother, Thomas, entered the coach-making industry to learn the skills of a wheelwright.

The details of Joseph’s early life in Dublin have not survived except for one youthful peccadillo, the details of which appeared in Dublin’s Saunder’s News-Letter and Daily Advertiser under the heading “HENRY-STREET POLICE-OFFICE.” The newspaper story began by announcing, “Yesterday W. P. Sullivan charged Joseph Price Perry with assaulting him in the street, and endevouring to provoke him to a breach of the peace.” According to Sullivan “he was abused by the prisoner in Capel-street, and challenged by him to fight in a neighbouring back lane.”

Standing before the court, the twenty-year-old Joseph countered “that he was seeing a young woman home, when two lads, who he believed to have been the companions of [Sullivan], followed him and began to repeat in derision the conversation they overheard that was passing between him and the young woman.”

Understandably annoyed, and probably wanting to appear forceful before his young lady friend, Joseph stopped and confronted the two mocking smart-alecks, which “led to some violence between them.”

It was at this point that Sullivan injected himself into the situation, ostensibly to protect the two youths. However, Joseph testified that it was because of Sullivan’s “interfering in the matter that he spoke angrily to him.” Furthermore, “so far from challenging him [Sullivan] to fight, he [Joseph] was the challenged party.”

Unfortunately, Joseph’s version of events did not sway the court. In the opinion of the presiding magistrate, Thomas F. Kelly, L.L.D., “the prisoner had acted in an improper manner towards [Sullivan], when the latter was endeavouring to prevent his offering violence to the boys who had irritated him.” In Kelly’s opinion Joseph should apologise to [Sullivan] for his conduct.” Joseph wisely saw which way the judicial wind was blowing, and the article ends by saying, “The prisoner immediately made the required atonement and was discharged.”

Although this anecdote preserves a minor, and probably embarrassing, event, it does serve to humanize the Joseph Perry Price revealed in other, drier, documents, and adds dimension to his youthful personality. This was also not the family’s only brush with the local magistrates’ court. On the second occasion it was his father, James, who was hauled into the Henry Street Police Station and Joseph, inadvertently, was the cause.

Characterized as “a respectable looking old man” by the reporter for the 15 August 1848 issue of The Freeman’s Journal, James appeared before the magistrate to answer charges of “having an old sword and wooden model battleaxe in his house.”

James’s predicament was a direct result of a failed uprising by a group calling itself “Young Ireland.” Their poorly planned and coordinated revolt launched in July of 1848 precipitated intermittent unrest across Ireland that was met with swift and severe counter-measures by the Irish and British establishments. New laws were enacted, the right of habeas corpus was suspended, and Dublin, along with the rest of Ireland found itself under semi-martial law.

One of the ruling order’s fears was the stockpiling of weapons by the revolutionaries, and so constables, police officers, and their informers were in a heightened state of alert. Fortunately, the proceedings in the police court allowed James the opportunity to speak in his defense, and the upshot of his testimony was that “the defendant was held to bail to appear when called on, as it appeared that the articles belonged to his son, who was a performer, and at present [is] in America.” Far from being lethal weapons, what the overzealous inspector had uncovered were theatrical props, which belonged to Joseph Perry Price, who at that time had been living in Boston for almost a year.

By his own recollection Joseph arrived in Boston on 22 October 1847 having left behind a city and land in the throes of dealing with the effects of phytophthora infestans – potato blight. Successive crop failures between 1845 and 1850 produced what became known as the Great Famine and its accompanying social turmoil. The uprising initiated by “Young Ireland” (and the attendant difficulties of Joseph’s father) was but one result of the government’s inadequate response to the crisis.

As city-dwellers and tradespeople, Joseph and his family did not face the specters of eviction and imminent starvation that stalked Ireland’s rural landscape, but even in Dublin they could not help witnessing the effects of the catastrophe that swirled around them. The country folk streamed into the cities, and in Dublin an ever-increasing number of beggars wandered the streets dodging traffic in search of a handout. Indeed, the city would have been inundated if there had not been the escape valve of emigration to siphon off the excess population.

It is not hard to imagine how these circumstances may have motivated Joseph to make the decision to leave Ireland and set sail for America. Especially as his older brother, Thomas, was waiting there to greet him. Thomas Perry Price, who emigrated with his new wife to New York in 1832, had made a return visit to Dublin in 1840 undoubtedly bringing firsthand testimonials of life in the United States. Those stories, alive in Joseph’s memory, surely stood in stark contrast to the unrest and upheaval that surrounded him in 1847.

There is no record of where Joseph found lodgings after his arrival, but almost certainly it would have been with or near his brother, Thomas, in Boston’s West End. His first appearance in the Boston directory was there on Pitts Street in 1851. Originally conceived as a neighborhood for some of Boston’s wealthiest citizens, by 1850 the West End had become a growing Irish enclave for immigrants who were able to bypass the more crowded and squalid conditions of Boston’s notorious North End.

During his first years in America Joseph relied on his skills as a wheelwright for support, but as had been the case in Dublin he was also drawn to the theater. In this he once again followed in the footsteps of his brother, Thomas, who came to America calling himself a coach-maker, but who since 1843 had been in Boston performing at the National Theater. Joseph made his American acting debut 16 October 1848 on the opening night of the newly inaugurated Dramatic Museum Theater on Boston’s Beach Street playing the part of Charles the wrestler in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.”

A year later Joseph had joined the stock company of the Boston Museum Theater where he remained through 1854. During that time he filled roles that ranged from Rosencrantz and Horatio in “Hamlet” to Delve in “The Loan of a Lover,” and in 1850 alone, appeared in fifty plus plays. However, in those early years he was probably a member of what was known in theater circles as “the manual labor clique” who “shove themselves in by being stage struck, and [were] willing to come and perform in the evening after driving an express wagon, or setting type, or dressing hair all day.”

In the summer of 1851 Joseph made a return trip to Dublin in response to the illness and death of his father. While there he made the acquaintance of Eleanor (Ellen) Richards a young teacher at a Unitarian girls’ school. A romance blossomed, and Joseph proposed. When the time came for him to return to Boston Ellen, though favorably inclined, had not given an answer. Mindful of her wellbeing one of her supervisors had inquiries made in Boston as to whether Joseph was a “sober, industrious, respectable man; in short a man who would be likely to make a good & affectionate husband to a worthy woman.”

The response must have been positive, for Ellen returned to her native Liverpool, convinced her parents of Joseph’s worthiness, and in 1852 sailed on her own for America. She and Joseph were married in Boston on the day of her arrival, 8 July 1852. Their marriage lasted for twenty-two years, and they had eight children together, five of whom would survive the perils of nineteenth century childhood.

Over the years Joseph supported his family by working in the theater while falling back on his skills as a wheelwright whenever necessary. Professionally classified as a comedian and assigned to smaller and supporting roles, he branched out into other theatrical work. In 1852, in addition to acting, he became prompter at the Boston Museum where he was characterized as “a gloriously fine fellow.” Two years later the press recognized his continuing efforts by stating that he had “labored long and well to please the patrons of the Boston Museum.” From 1854 he served on the Boston Museum Dramatic Fund relief committee, serving for many years as vice president.

In 1855 he joined the stock company at the Boston Theatre where he eventually became assistant manager in 1858. When the Boston Theatre suffered financial difficulties the following year Joseph moved over to the Howard Athenaeum where once again along with acting he filled supervisory roles, sometimes as the “efficient” business manager and other times as the “excellent stage manager whose good works are always before the audience while he himself is invisible.” During these years Joseph had the opportunity to work with the era’s foremost stars such as leading man Edwin Booth.

In 1862 the Howard Athenaeum followed the Boston Theatre into financial instability, but Joseph managed to hang on to his post through the end of the season. However, given the precarious economic footing of Boston’s theater scene, it is not surprising that he began to look farther afield for opportunities and that when one appeared in Chicago, he took it.

In January of 1863 he joined McVicker’s Theater as stage manager remaining there through late 1864 after which he found employment at Colonel Wood’s Museum. However, ever since the death of one of his twin sons in September 1863, Chicago had lost its luster, and Joseph began to search for work that would bring him back to Boston. In a series of letters of application he reveals his professional self-concept offering that he can “assist in the management of the stage, both as regards directing and prompting, also to act when required,” employing skills that allowed him to “play a variety of business, low comedy, heavy – old men – Irishmen and all dialect parts, singing, &c – and if [he believed the Chicago press] very creditably.”

Joseph’s efforts eventually paid off, and the Price family returned to Boston circa 1866. By the fall of 1867 he had landed the position of assistant manager and stage director at Whitman’s Continental Theater, and by 1868 was once more engaged at the Howard Athenaeum. However, although he had rejoined Boston’s theatrical community, more change was in the offing.

Starting in 1869, city directories list Joseph as a traveling agent. He was working as the narrative “delineator” or “professor” with one of the era’s most popular entertainments, a traveling panorama where he found himself working in a very different venue than previously, and in the hierarchy of the profession most likely a less exalted one. A glimpse of his life on the road appears in the September 1871 issue of the Folio: “Mr. Joseph Perry Price has returned to Boston after a successful tour in the West, with ‘Howarth’s Exhibition of the Franco-Prussian War.”

By 1873 Joseph seems to have been unemployed and was probably already experiencing the back pain and swelling symptomatic of the fatal kidney ailment his doctor diagnosed as Bright’s Disease. He died on 10 May 1874 three months shy of his fiftieth birthday. While compared to the major Boston and national stars of the age his had been a modest career, an obituary in the Boston Daily Globe credited Joseph with being “one of the best and most reliable ‘stage men’ in the profession.” And while it was true that “he never rose to any prominence in the profession” there was no denying his reputation as “a careful and painstaking actor.” All in all a commendable coda to a life spent in pursuit of the profession he loved.

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