William Jason Ferguson was born in Baltimore in 1845, the son of Alexander and Anna (Wilson) Ferguson, both Scottish emigrants. His father died when William was only four years old and he went to work at an early age as a “printer’s devil” for the Baltimore Clipper newspaper. A job as a “train boy” for the Baltimore and Ohio railroad soon followed, and in the course of this job (selling candy, newspapers, and various other sundries to passengers) he met Baltimore native John T. Ford, owner of several theatres, including the recently re-built and re-named Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D. C. Ford asked young Ferguson to deliver a package to his brother, Harry Ford, treasurer of Ford’s theatre in Washington on Tenth Street, and as a result of this encounter he landed a job as a “call-boy” at the theatre. Ferguson described his duties as call-boy as working at the direction of the prompter, giving the half-hour and fifteen minute calls to the actors, as well as various other duties, including copying out in longhand script pages for the actors in the play. Thus, his long career in the theatre began.
On the evening of April 14th, 1865, Ferguson was called upon to replace an ailing actor in that evening’s play, Our American Cousin, starring the actress Laura Keene. With the Civil War recently ended, word was out that President Lincoln would be attending that evening’s performance. This was not Ferguson’s first foray on the stage at Ford’s, having appeared in numerous plays at Ford’s, including The Apostate on March 18th, 1865, a play which starred John Wilkes Booth in what would be his last stage appearance. On that fateful April evening, at the very moment when Booth shot the president, Ferguson was standing near the prompter’s desk in the wings off stage right, waiting to make an entrance with Laura Keene. They both had a clear view of the presidential box, which looked out onto the stage from the opposite side of the house. Ferguson witnessed the assassination, and in making his escape Booth ran between Ferguson and Keene as he made his way to the alley door backstage. Out of deference to Edwin Booth, well-known actor and brother of the assassin, Ferguson did not write about this experience until many years later, but much mention was made of his connection to the event during the publicity for a 1915 WWI propaganda film, The Battle Cry of Peace, in which he played the role of—Abraham Lincoln!
In his written recollections Ferguson remembers, as part of his call-boy duties, delivering some script pages some months earlier to John Matthews, another member of the cast that evening, at his room across the street from the theatre. Matthews was at that time renting a room in the Petersen house, the same room to which the dying president would be carried after being shot. On this earlier occasion, Ferguson arrived with script pages in hand, and recalls Matthews having a visitor, a fellow actor who was lying on the same bed in which Abraham Lincoln would later die. That visiting actor, lying casually on the bed smoking his pipe, was none other than John Wilkes Booth.
After that auspicious introduction to the stage, Ferguson’s career blossomed. He soon found his way to New York, appearing in Mrs. Conway’s stock company in Brooklyn for two seasons. Appearing with numerous stock companies in a variety of roles, he made a reputation for himself as a fine actor. He was in the original cast of Charley’s Aunt and appeared with the famous actor Richard Mansfield a number of times. Ferguson appeared as Mansfield’s valet in Beau Brummell and years later, recounted this anecdote:
In the character of the valet it was Ferguson’s place to hand the Beau his gloves, his stick, and finally his hat. Upon the opening night he proffered the hat to Mansfield, turned the wrong way around. Had the Beau put on the hat in the way it was handed to him and strolled down Piccadilly or Bond Street, the faux pas might have created a scandal. When Ferguson discovered his error he turned pale under his make-up.
Mansfield was quick to grasp the situation, and with one of his most courtly bows gave the hat back to the valet, so that he might turn it around, which Ferguson did with pantomimic apology.
As Mansfield put on the hat and passed out of the door he whispered to Ferguson: “That’s a good piece of business; keep it in.”
From Ferguson’s New York Times obituary:
Mansfield’s tremendous success in “Beau Brummell” has been attributed by A. J. Palmer, manager of the theatre in which the play was produced, to the beautiful finesse of Ferguson in the role of Mortimer, the valet. Mr. Palmer has said that without this aid Mansfield would not have succeeded in the title role.
W. J. Ferguson, as he was most often billed, appeared on New York stages steadily until at least 1920 in addition to touring the country. After 54 performances of a Feydeau farce called The Girl from Maxim’s at the Criterion Theatre in 1899, the cast took the play on tour. While appearing in New Haven, Connecticut in February of 1900, some of the cast were ice skating on Lake Whitney when cast member Mayme Kealty fell through a hole in the ice. Ferguson came to her rescue, and news of the heroic deed make the local papers, resulting in a bit of unintended publicity for their local run!
As with other stage actors of his time, Ferguson found work in the fledgling motion picture business. Beginning around 1914, he appeared in numerous silent films, including the above-mentioned The Battle Cry of Peace in 1915. 1922 saw the release of five films featuring Ferguson, including his last film, Yosemite Trail. It was during the filming of this movie that the 77 year-old Ferguson broke his hip, and this ended his acting career.
Of William J. Ferguson’s personal life, little is known. Shortly after leaving Ford’s Theatre, he married actress Fannie Pierson, who died in 1878. In 1880 he married Catherine Ferrell. According to his New York Times obituary, he died in Pikesville, Maryland, near his native Baltimore, while resting at the home of relatives. His obituary indicates he was survived by his widow. No surviving children were mentioned. His obituary goes on to state Mr. Ferguson lived to be known as the “actor who has played enough melodrama characters to populate a town.” At his death in 1930, he was the last surviving cast member of Our American Cousin.
Born: 8 June 1845, Baltimore, MD
Married 1st: ca. 1865-1870 – Fannie Pierson (b. unknown-d. 1878)
Married 2nd: 1880 – Catherine Ferrell
Died: 3 May 1930, Pikesville, Baltimore Co., MD