In the late 1800s, a man named William Terriss rocked the theater world in a way only rivaled by modern Hollywood actors. Terriss had it all: the acting chops, the good looks, the ladies, and the thirst for adventure. And yet, Terriss met a grisly end that shocked the world—so much so that they say his restless ghost lingers on to this day. Who was William Terriss, exactly, and what made his life and his end so special? Read on to find out.
William Terriss’s early life showed no indication of the dramatic heights he'd ascend to. Born on February 20, 1847 as William Charles James Lewin, Terriss’s dad was a lawyer, while his grandfather was the private secretary of a powerful governor-general. Young Terriss also had family ties to a man named George Grote, a famed historian. If anything, the little English boy seemed destined to be an intellectual of some sort. Fate had other plans in mind.
Even as a young boy, Terriss could never settle down. When he wasn’t ignoring his school teachers and turning his nose up at homework, Terriss liked to get into fistfights with his fellow students, play sports, or visit friends outside of school. He eventually ran away from school and failed to formally finish his education. As you can imagine, Terriss was a wild child, and he only grew wilder as he aged.
Since Terriss always seemed so restless and hungry for adventure, his family decided to get him a position as a midshipman in the merchant navy. On the surface, this seemed like the perfect career for Terriss; he got to travel, there was always something to do, and it provided structure to his life—something his mom thought he sorely needed. For William Terriss, however, this dream job quickly devolved into his worst nightmare.
For William Terriss, there was nothing worse in the world than boredom, and it turned out that life as a midshipman was unbearably dull. After a mere 14 days of traveling up and down the English Channel with his crew, Terriss decided that enough was enough. When the ship set anchor in Plymouth Harbor, Terriss put his escape plan into action.
After night fell, young William Terriss quietly snuck off the boat. After setting his feet safely back on dry land, he waved down a local boatman, whom he convinced to spirit him away in the cover of darkness. Thus ended Terriss’s stint with the merchant navy, much to the dismay of the youth’s friends and family. He managed to make his way back home, but he didn’t put an end to his trouble-making ways.
When Terriss turned 17, he inherited a sizable chunk of money from an uncle. Unsurprisingly, the adventurous and flighty Terriss did not handle his sudden windfall with much forethought. He began spending money like no tomorrow. He bought luxuries, lived it up as the town’s resident Mr. Moneybags, and started his own business (which failed). Terriss’s spending meant his wealth didn’t last for long, and when his money ran dry, he knew he was in huge trouble.
While William Terriss was reckless, he wasn’t entirely dense. When he realized that he nearly emptied his personal coffers, Terriss sold off his possessions and went abroad to his eldest brother, who worked in Assam, India. His brother then got Terriss a job with a local tea-planter, but the position yet again bored the young man to tears. After roughly four months of pretending to enjoy himself, Terriss ran off once again. This time, Terriss wasn’t feeling quite as carefree as he once did.
By this time, Terriss knew his time was running short. He needed to settle on some sort of career, and he needed to make a real, concerted effort to find one. In Calcutta, India, Terriss connected with his second brother who was a house surgeon by trade. Thanks to his brother, Terriss got a job in a hospital, where he hoped to become a surgeon…Except no one wanted Terriss to have that job for one simple reason.
While Terriss was certainly popular at the hospital—he was friendly, athletic, and remarkably smart—the students and staff at the hospital knew that Terriss was impulsive and reckless. In short, no one trusted him with cutting open patients on the operating table. Stymied once again, Terriss ran off to work as an engineer. During this time, Terriss connected with a man that finally sparked Terriss’s interest in acting.
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While Terriss himself only had a couple pennies to his name, he still had relatives with vast fortunes of their own, and many of them liked him. This ended up changing Terriss’s life in a way that he in no way expected. You see, Terriss had one particular relative who was not only rich, but he was also extremely eccentric and, most importantly, bored. So when an opportunity arose for him to gaslight an entire town, this relative brought Terriss along for one heck of a wild ride.
On April 30, 1865, William Terriss and his relative stopped in the town of Weston-super-Mare while on a pleasure cruise through the Mediterranean. Upon landing, Terriss immediately told several important townsfolk that he was of royal blood. In fact, Terriss claimed, he was His Royal Highness Prince Alfred himself! Now, it wasn’t every day that Weston-super-Mare got the opportunity to host a royal, so having “Prince Alfred” visit sent the town into a tizzy. And Terriss definitely milked his little joke for all its worth.
Terriss arrival prompted the top officials of Weston-super-Mare to scramble and put together a demonstration befitting a royal. An elaborate carriage took Terriss to the railway, where he planned to hop on a train. A local chemist gifted Terriss a hand-crafted personal perfume called “The Prince” (which Terriss kept for the rest of his life). A lady approached Terriss and gave him a bouquet while fangirling over “His Royal Highness.” Amazingly, Terris kept up his facade the entire time—and if he could do that, acting shouldn’t be too hard, right?
In 1867, William Terriss finally got his chance to step onto the stage. While in Birmingham, Terriss acquainted himself with an actor named James Rodgers, a man that was larger-than-life in more ways than one. Rodgers was the lead in a play called Arrah-na-Pogue, but due to his, err, “girth,” had issues moving around in some of the scenes. So, when Terriss expressed an interest in acting, Rodgers gave him the chance of a lifetime.
Rodgers suggested that Terris should play as his double in some of the trickier scenes that required his character to move around on the set, as long as Terris could find himself a costume. Terris agreed, and he absolutely knocked the role out of the park. Terriss did so well that he even got a personal shout-out! This moment set Terriss’s mind spinning. Could he really make it as an actor? Well, Terris never backed down from a challenge, so he set out to chase his dream of making it big on the stage. If only he knew where that path would lead.
Terriss had all the confidence in the world, but he was definitely more than a little too confident. In 1868, he got the role of Chouser in a play called The Flying Scud in Birmingham. While the role didn’t pay much, it was Terriss’s chance to get his name out there. On top of that, Terriss needed to deliver a pivotal speech as Chouser. Well, let’s just say, Terriss’s debut didn’t exactly go well.
As it turns out, even Terriss wasn’t immune to stage fright. During the play, Terriss completely botched his important speech, and only managed to remember just one of his lines before freezing on stage. When a fellow actor prompted Terriss to continue, all Terris could do was blurt out, “and the rest,” before running offstage. As you can imagine, the incident made Terriss never want to show his face in Birmingham again—but it didn’t stop him from trying his luck elsewhere.
William Terriss left Birmingham behind and set his sights on one of the most prestigious stages in the world: the West End Theatre in London. Now, this may seem like a rather big leap to you or I—after all, Terriss’s debut in Birmingham was an utter disaster—but Terriss was nothing if not bold. Using his usual charm and confidence, Terriss attempted to schedule a meeting with West End actor Squire Bancroft, but he likely didn’t expect Bancroft’s initial reaction to him.
Terriss made multiple attempts to get in touch with Bancroft in order to get his start in the West End, but to no avail. Time and time again, Bancroft (who was likely confused and amused by the young man’s persistence) rebuffed his requests for a meeting. But he didn't know just how far Terriss was willing to go. One day, Terriss barged straight into Bancroft’s home, marched past a protesting maidservant, and sat himself down in the drawing room. Terris was getting his meeting, whether Bancroft agreed to it or not.
Bancroft soon joined Terriss in the drawing room, and the veteran actor was most displeased with Terriss’s audacity. Within five minutes, however, Bancroft’s anger melted away to astonishment. Terriss’s friendly demeanor, earnest love of acting, and determination completely won Bancroft over. Bancroft gave Terriss the role of Lord Cloudwarys in Society, marking William Terriss’s first appearance in London.
It ended up being almost as disastrous as Birmingham.
When Terriss’s former colleagues found out about his London debut in 1870, they swarmed the theater in support. Their good intentions ironically almost got Terriss fired. As soon as Terriss stepped onto the stage, his colleagues erupted into inappropriately riotous cheers that rather annoyed their fellow theater-goers and the theater managers alike. Sadly, that wasn’t the end of Terriss’s bad luck.
Terriss also had the good fortune of having his brother show up to support him, but he probably soon wished he had never sent his sibling an invite. While walking home after the show, Terris asked his brother’s opinion of his acting. His response was heartbreaking. After a beat of silence, he told Terris to “Chuck it up, dear boy; you’ll never do.” But hey, at least his love life was going more smoothly…
In or around 1870, William Terriss met and fell in love with a fellow actress named Isabel Lewis. Of course, since this is a story about William Terriss, their first meeting involved quite a few shenanigans on Terriss’s part. During the initial meeting, Terriss and Lewis got along fabulously—so much so that when Lewis declared she needed to leave for a 3 o’clock train, Terriss pulled a devious plot that nearly destroyed the relationship before it got off the ground.
When Lewis had her back turned, Terriss sneakily put his watch back by a couple of hours. The next time Lewis asked for the time, Terriss “innocently” showed him his watch, deceiving her into thinking she had hours before her train arrived. As a result, Terriss got more time with his new lady love. Of course, Lewis was hopping mad when she found out she missed her train, but eventually forgave Terriss, so much so that the two eventually wed. This wasn’t enough to quell William Terriss’s urge for adventure, though.
Although Terriss finally got into the West End, the other famous actors around him constantly outshone him. Thinking that maybe acting wasn’t his calling after all, Terriss packed himself and his wife up and set out for the Falkland Islands to become, of all things, a sheep farmer. The newlyweds hopped on a boat bound for Montevideo, excited for their adventure. They nearly paid for it with their lives.
Upon arriving in Montevideo, Terriss and his wife found the city under siege. In the chaos, Terriss managed to get himself and his wife into their hotel, but the siege trapped them there for a week. Huddled together, Terris could do little more than bar the door and wait until they could leave. Finally, things in the city settled just enough for the pair to hop onto a yacht bound for the Falkland Islands, but this part of the trip was equally as harrowing.
A few days after leaving Montevideo, a storm hit Terriss's ship, sending them crashing straight into a nearby vessel. Terriss and the crew managed to not sink immediately, but the collision did just enough damage that water began to slowly fill their ship. For days, Terriss and his wife hoped for the best, but to no avail. The conversations between the pair slowly took on a dark and ominous tone.
By day five, Terriss and his wife hit rock bottom. With no hope left, the couple went full-blown Romeo and Juliet. They began planning out a suicide plot in grisly detail, so that they could remain together forever. Luckily, the plan never came to fruition. Before they could carry out the dark deed, Terriss sighted the Falkland Islands. His hope renewed, Terriss took the reins on the ship in a way that no one could’ve expected.
William Terriss immediately gathered the crew and urged them to not give up. Under Terriss’s leadership, the crew kept the boat afloat and raised a distress signal, until the inhabitants on the island noticed and rescued them. Having narrowly avoided a watery grave and now a bit of a local hero, Terriss went ahead with a sheep farming business, which, for once in Terriss’s life, was actually a profitable venture. It’s just too bad that not everyone was as happy as Terriss…
For Terris, his days in the Falkland Islands were adventurous ones. When he wasn’t sheep farming, he tamed all manner of wild animals, welcomed visitors to the island, and eventually had a daughter. His wife, however, hated her time there. The native islanders constantly showered her with attention, whether she actually wanted it or not. His wife’s ire, combined with his constant hunger for adventure, meant that Terris soon decided to move on once again.
After yet another harrowing boat journey, William Terris, his wife, and his newborn daughter returned to London in September of 1871. Once in London, Terris made another go at acting, and this time, he found the success he was looking for. He appeared in several big-name plays at the Theatre Royal, including Robin Hood and Rebecca. But these plays only played a part in rocketing him to fame. What really made Terriss famous was his next appearance.
Terriss’s next role was that of Malcolm Græme in The Lady of the Lake. This role was nothing less than a breakthrough in Terriss’s acting career. His co-stars showered Terriss with praise for his role and skillful acting, cementing his place as London’s newest and most promising up-and-coming actor. Even so, Terriss’s adventurous soul meant he didn’t stay in London for long, but this time, his adventures got him into a world of trouble.
In 1871, Terriss took his young family to Kentucky. What was in Kentucky? Horses—or, more specifically, a chance to breed and sell horses for oodles of cash. Terriss might’ve thought that his experience with sheep farming would make this venture a complete breeze. He couldn’t have been more wrong. This venture nearly brought Terriss to the brink of ruin.
Terriss spent every penny he had on his horse-breeding venture, and didn’t see a single coin from the whole affair. Completely broke, Terriss attempted to return to England and pursue acting once again. It was only thanks to a lucky turn of events that Terriss stepped foot back onto English soil at all. A local man took pity on Terriss and gave him the funds he needed to return in 1873.
This time, Terriss planned to stay for good—and he was going to make himself famous.
Over the next few years, William Terriss worked hard to build his brand, and it certainly paid off. He studied stage techniques both old and new, and developed a swashbuckling style of acting that made the ladies swoon. Described as “handsome,” and possessing a “fine voice, friendly demeanor, and gallant bearing,” Terriss quickly became one of Britain’s most liked actors, and it showed in the roles he took on.
Throughout the 1870s, Terriss earned the nickname of “Breezy Bill,” in part due to his ability to embody the hero parts in several plays. He was the charming Doricourt in The Belle’s Stratagem, Julian Peveril in Peveril of the Peak, and even acted as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. As his reputation as one of Britain’s best actors grew, Terriss’s success ballooned. It eventually got the actor into a whole new world of trouble.
As someone who played many romantic leads, Terriss worked alongside his fair share of ladies. Terriss always managed to keep his relationships professional, but this all changed in December of 1885. That year, Terriss met 24-year-old Jessie Millward while acting in Harbour Lights. The play itself was extremely successful, and ran for 513 performances.
Allegedly, during one of those 513 performances, something between Terriss and Millward changed.
William Terriss’s interpretation of David Kingsley, the handsome lead of Harbour Lights, was well-received by critics and audiences alike. According to one of the play’s authors, Terriss’s portrait “appeared in every shop window, and men and women alike spoke rapturously of him.” One of these women apparently included Millward; she and Terriss became lovers during their time working together on the play.
The rumors of their off-stage romance barely put a dent in Terriss’s reputation, however.
From the 1880s to the 1890s, William Terriss continued to find success after success. He frequently worked together with his lady love on several projects, and even toured the States with her as a part of his job. His roles in plays like Henry VIII and The Swordsman's Daughter were met with acclaim. Finally, Terriss had it all. Then it all came crashing down in the blink of an eye.
Terriss didn’t just meet Millward during his time in Harbour Lights. While acting in the play, he met someone much more sinister: An actor named Richard Archard Prince. According to Prince’s mom, Prince was never quite right in the head, but he had big dreams of becoming an actor. Terriss, who knew what it felt like to be a complete nobody in the acting world, took Prince under his wing. He would soon regret his act of kindness.
During a run of Harbour Lights in the 1890s, Terriss and Prince officially met. At the time, Prince thought of himself as an amazing but down-on-his-luck actor. Terriss, taking pity on the budding performer, tried to find acting jobs for Prince in a variety of productions. Unfortunately for Terriss, Prince was unemployable for one dark and disturbing reason.
Terriss’s unofficial protege had a terrible relationship with alcohol. His drinking grew so bad that he earned the nickname of “Mad Archer,” and he became impossible to work with on set. Eventually, Prince’s behavior caused even Terriss to turn on him; during their time together in Harbour Lights, Prince said something so offensive that Terriss fired his protege from the show.
Getting canned caused Prince to spiral, and he brought Terriss down with him.
Credit where credit’s due, Terriss didn’t just leave Prince out to dry after he fired him. After booting Prince off the set of Harbour Lights, Terriss continued to send Prince small sums of money via the Actors’ Benevolent Fund. At the same time, Terriss continued to try and find acting work for the struggling actor. The work for Prince ran dry by the end of 1897, which spelled doom for both Prince and Terriss.
On December 13, 1897, Prince attempted to gain free entry into the Vaudeville Theatre using a pass from the Adelphi Theatre. After the Vaudeville ejected him, the desperate actor stumbled over to the Adelphi Theatre, where Terriss worked. Prince then entered Terriss’s dressing room. The two men argued, before Terriss sent Prince on his way, not knowing that he had just confirmed a deep-seated paranoia held by Prince.
Prince’s belief was that Terriss was actively preventing him from finding acting work. By sending him away, Terriss “confirmed” this belief. Increasingly desperate, Prince stopped at the office of the Actors’ Benevolent Fund for some much-needed cash, but was told that he needed to wait until the following day. At this point, Prince likely felt that Terriss was the root of all his problems, and so, on December 16, 1897, he put a twisted plan into action.
On the evening of December 16, William Terriss arrived to prepare for his performance at the Adelphi Theatre. Then, disaster struck. Prince leapt out from behind a door and brutally struck Terriss multiple times with a butcher’s knife. Terriss collapsed just inside the stage door of the Adelphi, and the life of Britain’s most popular actor unceremoniously ended.
The news of what happened to Terriss swept through London like wildfire, and the aftermath outraged them all.
Prince was quickly captured, but was given a relatively light sentence due to his mental state. This outraged his fellow actors, who stated that the light sentence was due to the fact that “Terris was an actor.” Perhaps even Terriss himself thought the sentence was too light—according to legend, Terriss’s ghost haunts the Adelphi Theatre and the Covent Garden tube station to this very day.
According to some sources, Terriss’s acting was so good that he might have even changed the course of Irish history. The story goes that in 1880, Terriss was lodging in Dublin when he discovered that some members of the Irish National Invincibles—a group of assassins, no less—were staying in the same inn as him. When Terriss found out, he went from acting as a hero to actually being a hero.
Terriss approached the group huddled around a table. Allegedly, Terriss interrupted the meeting by rather dramatically declaring, “In the name of the Queen this meeting is dissolved.” After a moment of silent shock, Terriss firmly repeated his statement again. Astonishingly, this worked. The group dispersed. Unbelievable? Maybe. But the story showed just how much the public loved Terriss.
Terriss’s dedication to acting was admirable, but it got him into trouble more than once. During a dress rehearsal for Romeo and Juliet, Terriss—wanting to put his best foot forward—arrived fully armed with a sharpened Damascus blade, which he planned to use during the scene where Romeo dueled Mercutio. He was told to put the sword safely away, and his fellow actors presumably assured Terriss that his dedication was never in question.
After writing a glowing review regarding Terriss’s performance during one of his shows, a particularly starry-eyed female reporter published an article that was probably a little bit too enthusiastic, stating, “... do you think that if a highly moral American lady like myself, wife of an officer in the Civil Service…were to quietly kiss him the next time she meets him in the street, it would be considered at all peculiar?” Talk about spicy!
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