William Terriss (1847-1897)
The murdered matinee idol whose ghost still haunts the Adelphi Theatre.
William Terriss was one of the most popular actors of his time. However, he is probably better remembered for being stabbed to death at the stage door of the Adelphi Theatre in 1897.
Terriss, whose real name was William Charles James Lewin, was born in St. John’s Wood, London. He led a colourful and adventurous life, which began with a very short stint in the merchant navy, followed by tea planting in Assam and then working in medicine back in London. While at St Mary’s Hospital, Terriss tried and enjoyed amateur dramatics, and decided on a career in the theatre.
He acted in Birmingham and London, including for the Bancrofts, and met young actress Isabel Lewis. The couple married in 1870, and Terriss took Isabel to the Falkland Islands, where he spent a year as a sheep farmer. Their daughter was born in Port Stanley.
The family returned to London, and Terriss to the theatre (followed by a short stay in America, where he unsuccessfully tried his hand at horse-breeding!) His stage career then took off, and he worked with theatre greats Ellen Terry and Henry Irving. He flourished in swashbuckling and heroic roles, including Robin Hood and Ivanhoe, and became hugely popular.
In 1889, Terriss met another young actress, Jessie Millward. They starred together in many plays in London over the next few years, and toured America. Jessie had a terrible premonition of Terriss’s death in 1897, but was unable to save him on the evening of 16th December.
As Terriss was entering the stage door of the Adelphi Theatre, he was stabbed three times. His killer was out-of-work actor, Richard Archer Prince, an alcoholic whom Terriss had tried to help. Jessie was with him as he died, aged just 50. Prince, who had held a grudge against Terriss for years, was declared insane and sent to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum.
Terriss was buried with his mother Mary, near the cemetery’s east wall. He is also remembered on the gravestone of his wife, Isabel, who lies between the colonnades. Although Terriss is buried in Brompton, it is said that his restless spirit still haunts the Adelphi Theatre.