Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Who was James McVicker and does he deserve a street name?

A number of streets in Chicago are named for Scots. McVicker Avenue is located at 6032 West and 7347 North to 6258 South. Those familiar with street numbering in Chicago will understand this designation. Who was James McVicker and does he deserve a street name?

James Hubert McVicker was born in New York City on February 14, 1822. His parents were Ulster-Scots but I don’t know their story. His father died the year he was born and the family lived in very moderate circumstances. He had little schooling. At the age of ten he was working as a printer’s apprentice and for the next five years worked in New York City. Then he moved west to St. Louis where he found work as a journeyman printer. At night he studied because his ambition was to become an actor.

In 1840, he was acting in New Orleans. He had small parts in the beginning but gradually increased his roles. By 1848, he was in Chicago at “Rice’s Theater” on Randolph Street, a small frame building. He was married now and his wife was acting on the same stage but in a different play. (His wife had been married previously) They soon leave for a tour of Europe and “find fame and fortune.” Upon returning to this country, they managed a theater in St. Louis but in 1857 moved permanently to Chicago.

In Chicago, he built the first McVicker’s Theater which was the biggest and best playhouse the city had seen. It cost $85,000 and his backers were Potter Palmer, Marshall Field and W. W. Kimball. He and his wife continued acting but his greatest service was bringing to his theater the brightest stars of the day. I could list the names but they mean very little to us now. This first playhouse was destroyed in the fire of 1871.

After the fire, he spent $200,000 to build another theater. Sarah Bernhardt on her first American tour appeared at McVicker's Theater. In 1862, John Wilkes Booth appeared in Richard III. That theater stood until 1922 when it was replaced by a structure seating 1,921. Many of you will remember that last theater. It was destroyed in 1984 when Citicorp Savings of Illinois bought the property.

The McVickers had two children, a beautiful girl named Mary and a son, Horace

They were the children of Mrs. McVicker whose married name was Mary Frances Runyan. In 1867, the General Assembly of the State of Illinois, granted a request to have the children’s name changed from Runyan to McVicker. That resolution can be found on the Internet. Harry followed in his father’s footsteps as a theater manager but in New York City.

The youngest child, Mary McVicker, became an actress at the age of ten and was very popular with the people of Chicago. When she was 18, she married Edwin Booth, the brother of the assassin. The date was June 2, 1869, four years after the death of Mr. Lincoln. I don’t know how the marriage worked out but it appears to have been one of controversy. Edwin was afflicted with Melancholia as was Robert Burns and Abraham Lincoln.

Mary McVicker Booth died November 13, 1881, of consumption at her father’s New York City residence, 13 West Fifty-third street. She had accompanied her husband as he toured Scotland, Ireland and England. Her health and mental status deteriorated and finally her parents went to Europe and brought her back to New York. The Chicago funeral was held in St. Paul’s Universalist Church on Michigan Avenue. Professor David Swing assisted in the service. Mary was a regular attendant at the Westminster Presbyterian Church. She is buried at Rosehill. (Some have written that Mary refused to be buried with members of the Booth family but I don’t know if this is true.)

James H. McVicker died March 10, 1896, and the funeral service was held at the residence, 1842 Michigan avenue. The Rev. H. W. Thomas, pastor of the People’s Church, conducted the service. (McVicker was also a great admirer of Prof. Swing and attended his Central Church for several years.) Burial was at Rosehill. His estate was valued at more than $850,000.

Mrs. McVicker appears to have died in Pasadena, California on August 25, 1904 at the age of 81. She is also buried at Rosehill. There were several attempts to break her will, estimated at $350,000, which also included a statement “that no other burial shall be made in the McVicker lot after that of the testatrix.” I assume this may have been her attempt to keep members of the Booth family from being buried in their family plot.

The McVicker plot is located on the west side of section B, Rosehill Cemetary, Chicago, Illinois. It is marked by a large, polished granite stone with the engraved name, McVicker. I visit at least four times a year and Gus Noble often visits on his walks through the cemetery.

James H. McVicker was an active and popular member of the Illinois Saint Andrew Society. He was one of the 100 chosen to accompany the body of Abraham Lincoln from Chicago to Springfield for burial. He deserves having a street named in his honor.

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois St. Andrew’s Society

June 1, 2013 - Next History Club meeting. Watch for further announcements.

June 14-15, 2003 - Highland Games, Itasca, IL

July 20, 2013 - Summer History Tour.

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