The Life and Death of William Terriss


The Royal Entrance to the rear of the Adelphi Theatre, then and now. © British Newspaper Archive/Google, 2015.

Frederick Lane had not slept well. As the understudy to one of the leading lights of the Victorian acting world, his mind was already jittered with nerves but this dream had shaken him badly. On Thursday 16th December 1897; his mind had been haunted by a terrible dream he’d experienced the night before. In this dream he had seen:

‘…Mr Terriss, lying in the landing, surrounded by a crowd, and he was raving…it was a horrible dream, and I couldn’t tell what it meant.’

Later the following day, he saw a shabby looking gentlemen watching the private entrance of the theatre. Lane presumed he was an admirer and thought nothing more about him, despite his odd appearance.

Pressing on, Lane continues with his business until a commotion erupts behind him. Turning around, the calm street scene is now a flurry of anguish. The odd gentleman is bundled away by bystanders and his hands are covered in blood. Lane runs to the private doorway of the theatre and sees William Terriss on the floor, surrounded by a crowd, raving. ‘I am stabbed‘ he winces and the true horror of the premonition that had visited Lane the night before begins to dawn.

William Terriss, the greatest actor of the age, had been murdered.


© Spudgun67, via Flickr.

Originally born William Lewin; he was easily the Johnny Depp of his day and just as admired. Women loved him, Men adored him and his versatility as an actor had him known in every home throughout the empire. The sensation and abruptness of his murder filled every newspaper with reports of condolence and a nation was left reeling.

Briefly serving in the Merchant Navy, as a tea-clipper in Bengal and as an apprentice engineer, it was his love of amateur theatricals that led to his first involvement with the Stage, first treading the boards in Birmingham in the 1860’s. It wasn’t until the 1870’s that he decided it was ‘an actor’s life for me‘. He would take the leading roles in Ivanhoe, Romeo and Juliet and Nicholas Nickleby.

NPG Ax29197; William Terriss (William Charles James Lewin) as Romeo in 'Romeo & Juliet' by Herbert Rose Barraud, published by  David Bogue
William Terriss (William Charles James Lewin) as Romeo in ‘Romeo & Juliet’ by Herbert Rose Barraud, published by David Bogue carbon print, published 1 January 1885 © National Portrait Gallery, London
NPG x13223; William Terriss (William Charles James Lewin) as the King in 'Henry VIII' by Swan Electric Engraving Co, after  Unknown photographer
William Terriss (William Charles James Lewin) as the King in ‘Henry VIII’ by Swan Electric Engraving Co, after Unknown photographer photogravure, 1892 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Affable, popular and considerate, he was well known for the support and financial aid he offered to his less experienced colleagues. One such actor was Richard Arthur Prince.

Born in Dundee, Prince had come to London to find his fortune. Finding no more work than bit-parts and minor roles, Terriss had begun helping him secure roles and even sent him money to subsidise his living. Prince however didn’t have the star quality or talent that ‘Breezy Bill’ had built a career on.

Increasingly destitute and desperate, Prince began to become mentally unstable. ‘Mad Archie’ as he was known on the circuit, had lost everything; his own sister telling him that ‘she’d rather see me starve in the gutter than give me another shilling‘. Prince increasingly blamed Terriss for his hardship and sought to seek revenge by ending his life so that he would get all the leading roles.

Prince stabbed Terriss three times; once in the back, once in the side and then the fatal blow, to his heart, where the knife was thrust so violently that it sliced through his forth and fifth rib. A dead man, Terriss, gasping for breath, told the crowd to ‘get away, get away’, finally gulping ‘oh, my God!’ before dying in the arms of his leading lady and mistress, Jessie Millward.

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 00.47.33
From Lloyds Weekly Newspaper, Saturday 19th December 1897. Price was seen to ‘continually turn and twist the ends of his dark moustache’ © British Newspaper Archive 2015.

The trial that followed was divisive in the leniency of the sentence Prince received. Surely destined for the gallows, he was judged ‘not responsible for his actions’ and  was sentenced to life imprisonment in Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, where he died in 1936. Sir Henry Irving, the other acting heavyweight of the era, angrily commented:

‘Terriss was an actor, so his murderer will not be executed’.

Over 10,000 people arrived at Brompton Cemetery to bear witness to his funeral; this is by far and away the biggest funeral the cemetery ever saw. The pallbearers, the coffin atop their shoulders, had to jostle amongst the crowd to navigate their way to his graveside.

Bizarrely, the prophecy that Frederick Lane experienced was a phenomenon that Terriss himself been touched by the previous week at the Green Room Club…

“What do you think? I’ve just had my fortune told and the woman says that I will die a violent death.”

Even more bizarrely, his fox-terrier ‘Davie’, which had been sitting on his wife’s lap began snapping and barking in such a manner it frightened everyone in the household the very minute he died – 7:22pm.

And let’s not get started on his ghost…



The very knife that killed Terriss was on currently on display in the Crime Museum at the Museum of London. It is still stained with his blood. 

My thanks to Martin Sterling in the research for this post. 

References & Source Material

  • Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, Saturday 18th December 1897
  • The Era, Saturday 18th December 1897
  • Lloyds Weekly Newspaper, Sunday 19th December 1897
  • Hull Daily Mail, Friday 24th December 1897
  • The Crime Museum Uncovered; Jackie kelly & Julia Hoffbrand

All articles are from the British Newspaper Archive.


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