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5 Non-Lincoln Facts About Our American Cousin

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It’s a show that lives in infamy. The once-beloved comedy Our American Cousin was suddenly transformed into the most notorious play ever written on April 14, 1865. That night, John Wilkes Booth didn’t just assassinate Abraham Lincoln. He also permanently scarred one of the era’s most successful stage productions. Let’s take a brief behind-the-scenes look at Our American Cousin and its enduring legacy.

1. One of Its Characters Became a 19th-Century Meme.

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Bumbling through Our American Cousin is lovable dolt Lord Dundreary. Though his lines are few, seasoned actor Edward Askew Sothern’s strange hairdo and flair for physical comedy helped make the character wildly popular. Drundreary also had a tendency to get his proverbs mixed up—he’d often shout nonsensical adages like “Birds of a feather gather no moss.” For several years afterwards, similarly-confused statements were colloquially known as “Drundrearyisms.” 

2. It Inspired Numerous Sequels & Spin-Offs.

Playwright Tom Taylor penned Our American Cousin in 1858, but had no involvement in the barrage of sequels that hoped to cash in on its success. Our Female American Cousin, a hasty knock-off, was released by Charles Gayler the very next year. Also written were Our American Cousin at Home and Dundreary Married and Done For.

3. The Public Loved It Despite Mixed Reviews.

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Our American Cousin wasn’t exactly met with universal acclaim. Sothern’s performance was singled out as “the funniest thing in the world” by a British newspaper critic, but the show itself was often accused of lacking substance, and lead actor Joseph Jefferson once damningly conceded that it had “little literary merit." Despite this, Our American Cousin struck a chord with everyday citizens. After running for a then-impressive five consecutive months in New York, the production enjoyed a lengthy stint abroad at London’s Theatre Royal Haymarket

4. It Starred the First Great Female Stage Manager In U.S. History.

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Before Laura Keene (1826-1873) came along, American show business was effectively a boy’s club. An actress-turned-manager, Keene changed all that for good and became the first woman to achieve lasting success in the industry. She even had a theater named for her: Laura Keene’s New Theatre was built in Manhattan in 1856. Her assorted duties included overseeing the facility, directing her actors, and editing scripts. It was here that Our American Cousin debuted two years later. Under Keene’s leadership, the show became a smash hit.  

She even took the stage herself for several performances, assuming the prominent role of Florence Trenchard, a young aristocrat. Keene was on stage the night Lincoln was murdered at Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C. Legend has it that, after the shooting, Keene rushed to his box and cradled the dying president’s head in her lap (though this story remains unconfirmed). 

5. Our American Cousin Was Adapted Into an Opera in 2008.

Written by composer Eric Sawyer, this opera chronicles Lincoln’s death as seen through the eyes of various onstage cast and crew members involved with the original play.

BONUS: It Was Used As the Punchline of a Cruel “Family Guy” Cutaway Gag.

In the season 5 episode “Whistle While Your Wife Works,” Brian moans that breaking up with his new girlfriend is “gonna be tougher than the reviews for ‘Our American Cousin.’” We then see the ensemble nonchalantly searching for any mention of their performances in one of Lincoln’s obituaries.

The joke was a clear reference to the commonly used one-liner, “Apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?”

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Pop Culture
The Cult of Prince Philip
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images

For seven decades, Prince Philip has been one of the more colorful figures in Britain's Royal Family, prone to jarring remarks and quips about women, the deaf, and overweight children.

"You're too fat to be an astronaut," he once told a boy sharing his dream of space travel.

British media who delighted in quoting him are still lamenting the 96-year-old's recent retirement from public duties. But the people of the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu are likely to be optimistic he'll now have the time to join them: They worship him as a god and have based a religion on him.

Followers of the Prince Philip Movement, which started in the 1960s, believe that the prince was born to fulfill an ancient prophecy: that the son of an ancient mountain spirit would one day take the form of a pale-skinned man, travel abroad, marry a powerful lady, and eventually return to the island. When villagers saw the prince’s portrait, they felt the spirit in it, and when he visited Vanuatu in 1974, they were convinced.

Chief Jack Naiva, a respected warrior in the culture, greeted the royal yacht and caught sight of Philip on board. "I saw him standing on the deck in his white uniform," Naiva once said. "I knew then that he was the true messiah."

True believers assign large world movements to the machinations of Philip. They once claimed his powers had enabled a black man to become president of the United States and that his "magic" had assisted in helping locate Osama bin Laden. The community has corresponded with Buckingham Palace and even sent Philip a nal-nal, a traditional club for killing pigs, as a token of its appreciation. In return, he sent a portrait in which he’s holding the gift.

Sikor Natuan, the son of the local chief, holds two official portraits of Britain's Prince Philip in front of the chief's hut in the remote village of Yaohnanen on Tanna in Vanuatu.
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The picture is now part of a shrine set up in Yaohnanen in Vanuatu that includes other photos and a Union flag. In May 2017, shortly after the Prince announced his retirement, a cyclone threatened the island—and its shrine. But according to Matthew Baylis, an author who has lived with the tribe, the natives didn't see this so much as a cause for concern as they did a harbinger of the prince's arrival so he can bask in their worship.

To date, Prince Philip has not announced any plans to relocate.

A version of this story ran in a 2012 issue of Mental Floss magazine.

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History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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