June 22, 2018 10:00 AM EDT Cincinnati


Personal Archive of William J. Ferguson, Legendary Theater Actor & Silent Film Star

Lot of 100+ items related to the life and career of famed actor William J. Ferguson (1845-1930).  Ferguson was a well-known and highly esteemed performer in his time. His career spanned more than six decades as he successfully navigated the transition from traditional theater productions to silent film. Today, however, he is best known as the last surviving cast member from Our American Cousin to have witnessed the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Archive includes personal correspondence, performance contracts, play bills, broadsides, original manuscripts, publicity photos/theatrical stills, family photos, newspaper clippings, and more from Ferguson's lengthy career on stage and screen. 

Born in Baltimore, William Jason Ferguson was the son of Scottish emigrants. His father died when he was just four years old necessitating Ferguson go to work at an early age. A chance encounter on a train with Baltimore native John T. Ford, owner and manager of Ford’s Theatre, allowed a young Ferguson to secure a job at the Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC. It was here that his long association with the theater began. Variously described as a Ford’s Theatre prompter or “call boy,” Ferguson also served as the occasional on-stage player. After another actor became ill, a nineteen-year old Ferguson was belatedly assigned the small role of Lieutenant Vernon in Our American Cousin when it was performed on stage at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC, April 14, 1865. Standing directly across the stage from Lincoln's box, Ferguson witnessed first hand the assassination of President Lincoln and the flight of John Wilkes Booth.

"W. J. Ferguson," as he was most often billed, went on to a prodigious theater career and became one of the most well-known character actors of his time. He appeared in popular plays such as Charley's Aunt, The Girl from Maxim's, and Beau Brummell. In 1898, he was inducted as a member of the prestigious professional theater group known as "The Lambs," whose members have included past and present icons including Maurice Barrymore, William S. Hart, Cecil B. DeMille, John Philip Sousa, John Wayne, and Fred Astaire. By approximately 1914, Ferguson entered the fledgling motion picture film industry. He appeared in silent films including The Battle Cry of Peace (1915), Dream Street (1921), and, his last film Yosemite Trail (1922). An injury sustained while filming Yosemite Trail ended the aging actor's distinguished career.

Few details are known about the personal life of this very public man. His first wife was fellow actress Fannie Pierson, who died in 1878. In 1880 Ferguson married again. Catherine A. Ferrell and William Ferguson were married until William's death in 1930. The couple's only child, Helen A. Ferguson, married Lawrence Mazzonovich on October 15, 1910. They too had one child, Katharine “Kitty” Ferguson Mazzonovich. This archive descends through this family line.

The archive contains a wonderful array of theater and production studio stills spanning ca late nineteenth century through 1920 with a multitude of portraits of Ferguson included but also portraits of other actors. Production studio stills represented in the collection include Kitty McKay (1917), Passers By, (1920), The Deep Purple (1915 or 1920), and D.W. Griffith's 1921 film Dream Street. Rare family photos are included as well. 

Manuscript highlights include the following: typescript for Ferguson’s biographical book Talks of An Old Timer: The Stage Reminiscences of W. J. Ferguson; handwritten and typescript copy of play by Ferguson titled The Major & The Judge; handwritten and typescript copy of play by Ferguson titled Is It a Ghost or “The Butler’s Ghost” with note “as produced at the Century Theatre, New York May 1913”; broadsides for an 1874 production of "Woodcock's Little Game," as well as “A Friendly Tip” and "The Two Orphans"; play bills for performances at The Lamb’s Theatre (1916),  the Globe Theatre (1877), and the Vitagraph Theatre (ca 1915).

Provenance:Items descended directly through the Ferguson family to great granddaughter of William J. Ferguson, and were consigned by Ferguson family relative.


Various conditions. Most photographs are in in good condition. Some manuscript material, particularly pre-1900, shows wear including toning, small losses, and tears. Overall, most items in good condition.

Estimate: $400 - $600
Price Realized Including Buyer's Premium


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